When Philip Pullman published The Amber Spyglass in 2000, it was hailed as a landmark of children’s literature. The 500-page tome was the first novel for children to be longlisted for the Booker prize; a remarkable recognition of what the author had achieved with the His Dark Materials trilogy, which ended with that book. Now it arrives on screens as the third and final part of the BBC’s adaptation of the series, complete with metaphysical musings on life and death, heaven and hell.
As the story resumes, Will (Amir Wilson) is searching for Lyra (Dafne Keen), unaware that her tricksy mother, Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson), has her drugged and imprisoned. Mary Malone (Simone Kirby) is on the run through the dimensions, eventually rocking up in the land of the mulefa (strange wheeled beasts that the production designers clearly had great fun rendering). Meanwhile, James McAvoy’s Lord Asriel is going full megalomaniac in his fight to depose the Authority and its regent, Metatron. And, finally, after the deaths of John Parry and Lee Scoresby in the last series, it’s left to witch queen Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas) and armoured bear Iorek (Joe Tandberg) to rep for the fine supporting characters.
From its origins in Oxford to the ghostly streets of Cittàgazze, the story has been marching towards this conclusion. Now Lyra, Will and Mary find themselves on separate journeys, moving through different worlds, intersecting at times and then pulling apart. The problem here is that not all the threads of this story are equally entertaining: the sequences featuring sinister President MacPhail (Will Keen, father of Dafne, perhaps the first “nepo daddy”), vicious Father Gomez (Jamie Ward), and the rest of the Magisterium, are particularly listless. The plot moves most propulsively when Lyra and Will are together – even in the gloomy Land of the Dead – though neither Wilson nor Keen seems especially comfortable wrapping their heads around the fairly impenetrable material.
However acclaimed, Pullman’s work can devolve into excessive complexity. Molecular physics, theological discussions and high fantasy merge, at times, into word salad. The constant sentences involving “the Authority” and “the Regent”, “Eve” and “Metatron” become increasingly hard to follow (“Hokum, religious hokum!”, in the words of Lord Asriel). Simpler, and more effective, are the parental dynamics of Mrs Coulter and Lyra, or the struggles of Lyra to come to terms with her childhood grief.
“She’s not Eve, she’s a little girl,” says Asriel. “She has very little, other than a nose for trouble.” But as the narrative drives forward, it is her relationship to the Bible’s first lady that will be more important than her ordinary girlishness. And that nose for trouble – once indulged in gleeful leaps and bounds across the rooftops of steampunk Oxford – is now engaged in the somewhat burdensome task of saving the world. The result is a scope and ambition that feels a touch stifling.
So, while Jack Thorne’s adaptation is faithful to a fault, well-acted and exquisitely designed, it’s also rather plodding and humourless. “I’m trying to decide if you’re a madman or a genius,” Commander Ogunwe (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) says, at one point, to Asriel. “I rather hoped the two could co-exist,” comes the warrior’s reply. Sadly, there is neither genius nor madness in this small-screen version. The dazzling intelligence of the books becomes blandly expository in the actors’ mouths, while that spark of madness – the shimmering aurora – fades as the story reaches its final notes. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.