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.
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. Let’s start with the most recent episode.
Will’s back again
Although we didn’t get to see quite as much of Will Parry this week as last, he did crop up for another brief cameo. This time round we saw him watching a laptop screen, on which none other than Andrew Scott was being interviewed, with the name John Parry. Given the surname, it doesn’t exactly take a book reader to imagine what the connection between the two characters might be. Of course, this is the second time Scott has been seen so far after an even shorter appearance in episode 3, and we look into this a bit further here.
Bolvangar and Lyra’s escape
Given that Bolvangar was all condensed into one episode, there were naturally some discussions and conversations that didn’t make it from the page to the screen. In the books, for example, Lyra forms a friendship group of sorts with some girls called Martha, Annie and Bella, with whom she discusses a little about Dust and intercision, but we don’t see much of this in the series.
In the series, Lyra ensures that the intercision process is put to a stop when she yells “Mum!” as Mrs Coulter enters the room. This is similar but slightly different to what happens in the book – when Mrs Coulter herself puts a stop to the process without the need for Lyra to call out to her.
The escape from Bolvangar also plays out slightly differently in the TV show. It starts similarly enough, with Lyra unleashing the spy fly on Mrs Coulter before setting off the fire alarm. The changes begin with Roger, who delivers a stirring speech to the other children in an attempt to encourage the other children to run – he does speak to some other children in the book as well after being instructed to do so by Lyra, but this has been embellished slightly for the show. In the books, Lyra has also already agreed that the fire alarm will be the signal for the captive children to make their exit.
Meanwhile Ma Costa and Lee Scoresby also have increased roles in the rescue, especially Ma Costa – who wasn’t even in Bolvangar in the books. Lee also gets to fire a gun in the TV show, which is another new addition.
Finally, during the escape, we see all the children who have already had their daemons cut away from them, as they escape and John Faa and the Gyptians aim to return them all to their parents – this did not happen in the books.
We got another look at Serafina Pekkala this week, with the witch arriving to help play a part in the rescue mission at Bolvangar. Had the show been completely accurate to the books we’d have been seeing a lot more witches in this episode – as in Northern Lights her whole clan comes to help before towing Lee Scoresby’s balloon. Hopefully we’ll get to see a few more witches in future episodes!
We’ve already had expanded roles for a couple of characters from book two in the series so far – notably Lord Boreal and Father McPhail – but this might just be the biggest one yet.
Will is undoubtedly a hugely influential character in Pullmans trilogy, and is the main protagonist alongside Lyra in both The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, but to see him this early is a surprise, given that neither he nor the world he inhabits (our own one) appear in any form in Northern Lights.
In this episode we see Will at school, in boxing class, and dealing with his clearly distressed mother Elaine, in addition to scenes depicting Lord Boreal staking out his house, confronting Elaine, and discussing John Parry with Thomas. This is all interesting background information and we’re not necessarily arguing against its inclusion – it’s just not background information that was included in the books.
That said, this isn’t actually changing anything that happened in the novels as such, simply fleshing out the series a little – it’s perfectly plausible that these events would have been playing out simultaneously with Lyra’s trip North in the books as well, we just don’t get a glimpse of it. In other words, these segments of the show are complementing the book’s narrative rather than contradicting it.
One scene that does represent a change from the novel is that in which we see Elaine hand a box of letters to Will explaining his father’s disappearance. Although Will does get his hands on this material at the beginning of The Subtle Knife, he tries to find them himself -eventually managing during a raid on the house by a group of government agents. There’s also a change to the location in which Will lives – in the books he stays in Winchester, not Oxford.
Tony Makarios, Billy Costa and Ma Costa
Ma Costa (Anne-Marie Duff) and Lyra (Dafne Keen) in His Dark Materials (BBC)
This change is one we had predicted from episode one, and we were proved correct this week. As we suspected, Billy Costa has been combined with another character from the books – Tony Makarios. In Northern Lights it is Tony who Lyra finds separated from his daemon, not Billy, whom she is reunited with in Bolvangar along with the other captive children, including Roger.
In the book, after being helped out by some villagers, Lyra finds Tony clutching desperately to a dried fish – the closest thing he can find to a daemon, before he dies shortly after. Some viewers thought that the omission of the dried fish scene was a major error on the part of the series – with Nick Lake the publishing director for fiction at HarperCollins Children’s Books UK, composing a Twitter thread outlining the issue. Interestingly Philip Pullman replied to one of the tweets with a thank you, although that could have been simply in response to Lake’s praise of his work rather than a pointed jab at the series.
The decision to merge Tony and Billy explains the reasons for another change from the books – why Ma Costa ventured North with the travelling party rather than staying behind. We see some interesting conversations between Ma and Lyra this week, followed by the heart-breaking mourning scenes towards the end of the episode, including one in which she softly sings to the dying Billy. The funeral scene, which sees the Gyptians sing a hymn for the departed Billy, was very evocative – they do hold a funeral for Tony in the books, but the fact that they are mourning one of their own in the series arguably makes it even more moving.
The episode ends with a terrified Lyra – pretending her name is Lizzie – being captured and taken to the much feared Bolvangar. Of course, she gets taken captive in the books as well, albeit she is taken by some Samoyed hunters after an attack on the travelling party during which they are submerged in a thick mist of fog, whereas in the series she is taken in her sleep.
Farder Coram and Serafina
This episode saw the introduction of witches to the series – or rather witch singular, as we only meet Serafina Pekkala (whose daemon Kasia entered the fray last week, albeit as a gyrfalcon rather than a snow goose). We see Serafina enjoy a late-night discussion – and a kiss – with Farder Coram, her former lover. This conversation does not happen in the books – we don’t see Serafina until a little later.
In this episode we were finally introduced to Lee Scoresby, one of the trilogy’s most beloved characters who is being played in the show by modern-day Broadway legend Lin-Manuel Miranda. Lee’s given a slightly more ostentatious introduction in the show than he does in the books, singing his way onto our screens at the start of the episode – but when you’ve got Lin-Manuel Miranda portraying him, why wouldn’t you take this approach? We also see Scoresby take part in a rather entertaining bar fight scene, which is a new invention for the series, as is Lee’s breakfast meeting with Lyra.
This material – as well as Lee’s desire to play cards – is taken from Philip Pullman’s short story Once Upon a Time in the North, which is set some years before the events of the main story in Lee’s younger days.
“Some of that flavour has already been baked into the way I enter the world,” Miranda told RadioTimes.com.
“Like the notion of coming into the saloon, and playing cards…all that stuff that’s so good about Once Upon a Time in the North kind of happens in our version of season one.”
There’s a slight difference in Lee’s motive for joining Lyra and the Gyptians on screen compared to on the page. In the series, Lee states that he’s in Trollesund specifically to look for Iorek Byrnison, but this isn’t the case in the book- he’s simply stranded after his previous expedition had failed due to a lack of funds. Yes – he did know Iorek prior to this meeting and had worked with him in the past, but he had no specific plans to be reunited with him at this point.
Mrs Coulter and Father McPhail
Although we didn’t get any extra shots of Lord Boreal making his way through our world in this week’s episode, we did continue the Magisterium backstory which has been weaving its way through the series so far. As has been the case in previous episodes, none of these scenes happened in the books – but have been added in for the series to portray what these characters were likely to have been doing for the duration of Northern Lights.
This week, we see a row between Father McPhail and Mrs Coulter, with former giving a stern telling off to the latter for raiding Jordan College before Cardinal Sturrock – another character who doesn’t appear until book two – threatening to remove her as head of the General Oblation Board and pass the duties on to Father McPhail.
Only Mrs Coulter’s announcement that she has Lord Asriel in a jail, guarded by armoured bears, prevents her from being stripped of her duties. This revelation, about Asriel’s captivity, doesn’t come until much later in the book.
The same goes for the question Mrs Coulter asks Fra Pavel the alethiometrist, which doesn’t occur until later in the second of Pullman’s books following Coulter’s encounter with the witches.
The episode ends with another scene which doesn’t appear in Pullman’s novels – Mrs Coulter in dialogue with another armoured bear – Iofur Raknison, the king of Svalbard and enemy of Iorek Byrnison.
We also see a row between Boreal and alethiometer reader Fra Pavel, where he threateningly presses for more information about the discoveries made by Stanislus Grumman, implying he knows secrets about Pavel’s life. This, again, is a new invention.
The episode features a scene in which the daemon of Serafina Pekkala, a witch who is close with Farder Coram, confides in John Faa and Farder Coram – but a couple of changes have been made here. First, in the books Serafina’s daemon Kaisa is a snow goose – but that is not the case here, with Kaisa now represented by a gyrfalcon.
In the book Lyra is present during this exchange, but that is also not the case in the series.
There are also some minor differences in Lyra’s meeting with witches’ counsel Martin Lanselius, who in the series notes that children from Trollesund have also gone missing – which he never notes in the book – and also adds a slightly different background to his test for Lyra, where she’s asked to pick out a sprig of cloud-pine.
In the books, she departs to do this alone and is not given the background that the sprigs can be used to summon witches, which we imagine will have a part to play in future episodes…
The Search for Lyra
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)
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.
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!
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
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)
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 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)
“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.
“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.”