How faithful is the BBC’s His Dark Materials series to the books?

We've managed to spot a few differences between the books and the show so far...

James McAvoy's Lord Asriel with his dæmon Stelmaria (Helen McCrory) (BBC)

When His Dark Materials opening instalment Northern Lights was first adapted for the screen back in 2007, many viewers were unhappy with changes that had been made from Philip Pullman’s novel, feeling that important plot points and the book’s religious commentary had been thrown by the wayside to create a disappointing, sanitised version of the story.

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So, fans will be pleased to hear that the new BBC1 series is far more faithful to Pullman’s vision, barely straying from the plot and expertly capturing the sense of wonder that is such a huge part of the novels.

Speaking to RadioTimes.com, James McAvoy, who plays Lord Asriel in the series and is a self-confessed fan of the books, said, “I don’t think there’s that much that’s different, I really don’t. I think it’s a pretty faithful and loving adaptation. I think the people who decided to adapt it and to make it were massive fans of it, they weren’t just looking to exploit it as ‘oh here’s another fantasy world that we can use to help replace Westeros.’

“There’s a true love and affection for the material, so I think it has actually been pretty lovingly and meticulously translated into television. Is there anything really, really different? I don’t think so.”

And although McAvoy might be correct to say that nothing is really different we have managed to spot a few changes in the series so far – starting with the most recent episode.


Episode 3

The Search for Lyra

His Dark Materials – Lyra (Dafne Keen)
BBC/Bad Wolf/HBO
 

A small change was made here – while in the books it was very clear that a large search, involving Mrs Coulter and various authorities, was underway to locate Lyra, we get a much closer look at this manhunt on the show.

Near the beginning of the episode we see Mrs Coulter, Lord Boreal and assorted other figures carry out quite a nasty raid on Jordan College, and Mrs Coulter even has a verbal confrontation with The Master about Lyra’s whereabouts – of which he is unaware. These scenes are an addition for the show.

We also see authority figures actually come onto the Gyptian boat where Lyra was hiding – in the books they don’t get so close in their search.


Lord Boreal – Again! 

In what has become one of the running themes of the show, this week we continued to follow Lord Boreal as he gets up to all sorts in a world that looks much like our own. This week we see him have a discussion with Thomas – the same character he met in episode two – where they talk about a man named John Parry, whose photo appears on a computer screen, played by none other than Fleabag star Andrew Scott.

Now John Parry is a character who will become exceptionally important in future series – they were hardly going to get Andrew Scott to portray a nobody – but as with most aspects of Lord Boreal’s storyline in the series so far, he doesn’t actually come into play until the second book. Fleshing out the story to incorporate these scenes has been an interesting strategy – and it’s fair to say that it’s split opinion so far.


Benjamin De Ruyter and Mrs Coulter

Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials (BBC)
Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials (BBC)

Another area where Jack Thorne and the team have taken a bit of artistic license with Pullman’s original novel concerns the storyline involving Gyptian Benjamin De Ruyter. This story was a pivotal part of episode 3, as Benjamin joins forces with Tony Costa to break into Mrs Coulter’s home. While there, the pair obtain information pertaining to where The Gobblers are taking the missing children, before they are confronted by Mrs Coulter’s monkey daemon.

Although Tony mounts a successful escape, Benjamin comes face to face with a gun-wielding Mrs Coulter, eventually being thrown down an elevator shaft to his death – which had been predicted by Lyra with help from the alethiometer.

Now, most of this did not happen in the book – at least not in this way. Yes, Benjamin’s death was the first prediction made using the alethiometer, but the circumstances were different. Benjamin did not enter Mrs Coulter’s property– he obtained the information about the whereabouts of the children after catching three Gobblers in Clerkenwell and he died falling from a staircase while on the run from figures at the Ministry of Theology at White Hall – where he and fellow Gyptians were spying on Boreal. We don’t see the action happen in the book either – it’s merely described to Lyra after the fact by another Gyptian who had survived the ordeal, Jacob Huisman.

We also see a few extra scenes involving Mrs Coulter in this episode – including one where she daringly walks along a wall, and toys with the spy-fly – a mysterious buzzing device she sends to spy on Lyra. The scene in which Lyra and Farder Coram spot the spy-fly once it has been set on them happens the same in the show as it does in the book.


Pantalaimon

Pan and the alethiometer (BBC)
Pan and the alethiometer (BBC)

A minor quibble, perhaps, but while in the books Lyra’s daemon Pan regularly changes into his various forms, for the vast majority of the series so far, he has stayed as an ermine. It’s not the end of the world, and we can understand why the show has opted for this approach – but it would be nice to see him embody a few different animals soon!


Episode 2

Gyptians

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Continuing on from last week’s episode, we’re getting much more exposure to the Gyptians than we did at this stage of Pullman’s novel. In this episode, we see them holding discussions and attempting a rescue mission as they aim to free the children from the Gobblers.

This isn’t necessarily an invention for the series – it is suggested that the Gyptians are attempting to find the children while Lyra is in London in the books as well. Only, this happened in the background there – we’re getting a much closer look in the show.

We also see some more of Billy Costa – who we reckon has been merged with book character Tony Makarios – as he comes to terms with his situation alongside his fellow captives. Here we see Billy encounter Lyra’s friend Roger, a meeting that we did not see at this stage of the novels.

Speaking of Roger, the show has continued to give him more of a backstory than he had in the books. After announcing last week that he was an orphan, he mentions in this week’s episode that he was brought to Jordan College by his aunt – something that is never mentioned in Northern Lights. We also see him draft a letter to Lyra, which is another new addition for the show.


Mrs Coulter, her monkey and Father McPhail

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There are several minor changes made to storylines involving Lyra’s stay in London with Mrs Coulter. One of these is that Pan, Lyra’s dæmon, frequently hears noises coming from the walls during the night, later revealed to be Mrs Coulter’s monkey dæmon spying on them and travelling via secret passages.

While Lyra and Pan do become suspicious of Mrs Coulter and her dæmon in the books as well, these secret passages are new for the show.

Will Keen and Dafne Keen in His Dark Materials (BBC)
Will Keen and Dafne Keen in His Dark Materials (BBC)

We also see Mrs Coulter payed a visit by sinister magisterium official Father McPhail (Will Keen) – a character who doesn’t appear in the first novel at all – as he continues his expanded role in the series.

Perhaps the biggest revelation we get from Mrs Coulter this week, though, is an announcement she makes to Lyra: that Asriel is not her uncle, as she had always thought, but is actually her father. Of course, this is the case in the books as well – but Lyra does not discover it until much later on, and when she does, the information doesn’t come from Mrs Coulter.


Lord Boreal

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Lord Boreal is a key figure in the His Dark Materials trilogy, but, as we mentioned last week, his role in the first book is relatively limited. We’re definitely not against him being given a more expanded role, though, and that continued this week.

In episode two, we see Boreal pay a visit to a world that looks a lot more like our own than the one Lyra inhabits. We see him typing a message on a smartphone, before he meets Thomas, a character played by Robert Emms, in a modern coffee shop.

This is a bit of a tease as to what to expect in later series – we don’t visit our own world until the second book of Pullman’s trilogy.

Ariyon Bakare, who plays Lord Boreal on the show, spoke to RadioTimes.com about the increased role his character plays in series 1.

He said, “We see more of Lord Boreal. You see his journey and you see the beginnings of what he wants in book one.

“But you kind of understand. With the book, you don’t understand the relationship between him and Mrs Coulter, so what they’ve done this time is decided ‘why don’t we explore that relationship? Why don’t we see the beginnings of that relationship?’ which is great.

Ariyon Bakare in His Dark Materials (BBC)
Ariyon Bakare in His Dark Materials (BBC)

“You have to do that for film and TV, otherwise you won’t be invested. So I think they invested a lot into Boreal. He is the male villain of the piece.”

At the end of the episode we also see Boreal kill journalist Adele Stairmaster by suffocating her dæmon – which was a pretty neat scene, but another addition from the books.

And Bakare says that this scene was actually one of his favourite from the series.

He told RadioTimes.com, “There was a scene with Georgina Campbell – that was an amazing scene. That was one of the best scenes I’ve done. I think the two scenes …when Boreal can be as mean, and as evil as he can be, then it really works.

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“And when we’re working in tandem together, and we’ve both got our plans, and you know you want to do that ‘hahahahaha’ laugh at the end of it.”