Ever since May, there’s been a Game of Thrones-shaped hole in our hearts — and in HBO’s original programming schedule. The adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series had a magic that managed to ensnare more than 19 million viewers… and then was gone. HBO has since selected another epic fantasy series to fill its place: His Dark Materials, based on Philip Pullman’s acclaimed book trilogy, and people are scrambling to hail the show as a new Game of Thrones.
They are wrong, and thank goodness for that.
I don’t say this as a searing-hot counter-take. I also don’t mean that Game of Thrones was some perfect masterpiece that could never be replicated because it’s not (also, the countless fans who pitifully believe they’re still somehow owed a remake of the show’s troubled final season would rend me limb from limb). I mean that while these two series might seem similar at first glance, His Dark Materials is vastly different from Game of Thrones, and perhaps most importantly (to HBO, anyway), isn’t likely to achieve anything close to the same level of success.
Yes, His Dark Materials and Game of Thrones are both epic fantasy tales based on best-selling fantasy books. Both have strong, compelling characters, a fully-realized setting with memorable magic and monsters, and a legion of prefabricated fans who are/were quivering in anticipation for their beloved tales to get the authentic, big-budget, live-action adaptations that HBO makes. While Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels (of which Game of Thrones is the first) were New York Times bestsellers even before the TV adaptation came out, Pullman’s trilogy has already inspired several adaptations including a theatrical play, a radio play and an (admittedly lackluster) PG-13-rated Hollywood movie of the series’ first book, The Golden Compass, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, with an accompanying all-ages video game, in 2007.
“PG-13” and “all-ages” should be the first clue that one of these things isn’t like the other, because no one has ever accused Game of Thrones or the novels that inspired it as intended for young adults. It remains to be seen exactly how HBO adapts Pullman’s trilogy, although since the show is rated TV-14 it seems unlikely to add Thrones-style graphic beheadings and soft-core sex scenes to the narrative.
Even if the network were turning the material of His Dark Materials into MA-rated fair, that doesn’t change the fact that the protagonist of His Dark Materials is Lyra, played by Logan’s Dafne Keen, who undergoes her harrowing adventures as a preteen. Of course, a great deal of Game of Thrones also focused on children — namely the Stark children — but audiences began caring about them because they cared about the Stark family as a whole, anchored early on by its weary patriarch Ned (Sean Bean) and the maternally anguished Catelyn (Michelle Fairley). Imagine Thrones if it was almost entirely about Arya, only an Arya who never grew up to be a pint-sized, face-changing adult assassin. That’s His Dark Materials.
To be fair, Arya was pretty awesome, and Lyra is an equally endearing (if significantly less deadly) hero. Both characters’ stories are also compelling because they’re set in realistically harsh realities, rather than ones where the narrative keeps kids out of mortal danger simply because of their age. A large part of His Dark Materials’ charm with young adults is how it refuses to “safety-proof” its story or talk down to them. There’s none of Game of Thrones’ sexual assault, thank goodness, but adults do horrible things, children are killed as a result and there’s rarely anything approaching a completely happy ending.
While His Dark Materials shares that narrative tone with Game of Thrones, the settings are quite different, and could be equally off-putting to Thrones’ adult audience. Materials has the more fantastic world, and I mean this in the most literal way possible: It’s much closer to, say, Dorothy’s Oz than Westeros, the grittiness of which was key to Thrones’ success with mass audiences.
Game of Thrones had what I personally call the “mom” factor. This is to say, my mother — who couldn’t have given less of a shit about any traditional fantasy fiction for her entire life — was still a huge fan of the show. One of the reasons this was possible is because while Thrones was set in a make-believe medieval world, it was grounded by primarily being a political and family drama. Minus the brief appearance of a creepy little girl with preternaturally blue eyes in the premiere, Game of Thrones was practically a historical drama for the bulk of its first season, with little to tax a traditional fantasy-hater’s suspension of disbelief.
Wisely, the show didn’t truly start revealing the magic in the world of Westeros until the Season One finale, when Daenerys stepped out of that funeral pyre unscathed with three baby dragons in tow. By then, mass audiences — my mother included — were already invested in the show, hooked by its empathetic characters and compelling power politics.
His Dark Materials couldn’t be more different. It tosses you into its fantastical setting immediately, which is set on a steampunk-ish Earth where everyone has a “daemon,” i.e., a talking animal companion. These are much more than friendly pets: Daemons appear at a person’s birth and disappear upon their death; they feel each other’s pain and must stay close at all times. The connection between the two is so utterly intrinsic that it’s like they’re parts of the same soul, regardless of the fact they each have a consciousness. Materials also takes place in a universe full of parallel Earths, each full of mysterious, invisible particles called Dust, which the dominant church of Lyra’s Earth is pretty sure is original sin made manifest.
Those are three wild premises to hit audiences with from the get-go, especially if they’re expecting to see Game of Thrones 2.0 (thank goodness the story’s most iconic fantastic element — the Nordic, armored, talking polar bears (who are not daemons) — don’t appear until the second half of the first book). Even if people aren’t turned off by all the weirdness of the first season, Season Two — which will presumably cover the events of the series’ second book, The Subtle Knife — will be massively disorienting. It’s likely to seem as if it’s practically a different show altogether, with an almost entirely different plot — in terms of fantasy it makes Game of Thrones look as mundane as The Marvelous Ms. Maisel.
Ironically, His Dark Materials’ most controversial aspect may end up being its least problematic: namely that it’s blatantly and thoroughly against organized religion. The church in Pullman’s novels is oppressive and cruel, determined to keep its power by any means necessary, justifying heinous acts in the process; one character, Lord Asriel (played by James McAvoy in the show) actively wants to kill the Authority, the series’ equivalent of the Judeo-Christian deity (a main character, in other words, would like to assassinate God). Again, to say much more would spoil the story, but Pullman himself saucily told The Washington Post, “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian beliefs.”
Unsurprisingly, the novels did engender a fair amount of criticism and outrage from Christian groups, with some proclaiming the books should be burned. The controversy reached its peak in 2007 with the film adaptation of The Golden Compass, even though the movie carefully neutered this aspect of the original story, to, many believe, its detriment. While the prestige of the show will likely rile up the devout once again, I sincerely doubt anyone who wants to burn the books watches a lot primetime HBO series anyways, which are very seldom deemed Good Christian Fun.
So while potential controversy is another thing the two series have in common, it’s all these differences that make His Dark Materials so unique and ultimately so compelling. No, there’s almost certainly no way the series will reach the pop culture permeation of Game of Thrones or its astounding ratings, because it’s a wildly different epic entirely — more fantastical, less sprawling and non-MA-rated — and that’s a very good thing indeed. The world doesn’t need another Game of Thrones (although we’re getting one anyway). We should get a new show that will end up leaving a new hole in our hearts after its season finale — one shaped like a talking polar bear.