The process of adapting any book to screen is a tricky one, with fans as likely to censure you for not adding anything interesting to the original as they are to bemoan major changes made to the source story. And when the novel in question comes from Philip Pullman’s beloved His Dark Materials series, the pressure must be all the greater.
Still, when creating the BBC/HBO adaptation of His Dark Materials, lead writer Jack Thorne and his team have tried to walk that line, introducing new storylines and bringing back departed characters in an attempt to add to, not alter Pullman’s world. Now, in the third episode of His Dark Materials’ second season, that ethos was displayed at its best when two crucial characters came face to face for the first time in a brilliant surprise meeting.
Spoiler alert – it’s changing canon, but we still loved it.
“I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Lee Scoresby tells Ruth Wilson’s Mrs Coulter as she strides into his cell, with a line delivery that can be read on many levels. You see, in Pullman’s original novels the Texan Aeronaut and Lyra’s villainous mother never actually cross paths despite storylines that often ran parallel throughout the three-book sequence – and despite the fact that, as this new scene makes clear, they have a surprising amount in common.
While Scoresby is a rough-and-tumble, avuncular figure in Lyra’s life on the side of the angels and Coulter is famously described as “a cesspit of moral filth,” both of them feel deep parental instincts for the young girl (played by Dafne Keen in the series). For once, both hero and villain’s motives are fairly pure – though as Scoresby points out, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re united in what that means for Lyra.
“It’s not enough though, is it? Love,” he says. “It doesn’t mean you won’t hurt her. It doesn’t mean she’s safe with you. It doesn’t work that way.”
Like scenes in the first season of Game of Thrones that saw King Robert (Mark Addy) and Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) in conversation in a change from the source text, this Coulter/Scoresby crossover is such a highlight because it tells us more about characters we already knew and (sort of) loved, adding layers and new perspectives on people we as an audience may not have thought about.
Again, Lee and Mrs Coulter are different – but as Lee points out, they’ve both come to where they are from similar, and abusive backgrounds. While both responded to that hardship in different ways, in some strange way their affection for Lyra has pulled them closer together again. Because of that, they’re two of a kind – despite being about as different as any two characters in the series (maybe excluding the bear-King Iorek, who also makes an appearance in this episode that’s not in the book).
“It wouldn’t break me, and you know it won’t… because it wouldn’t break you either,” Lee notes when Mrs Coulter threatens him with torture.
“I know what it’s like to feel hurt like yours,” he also adds – and eventually he even convinces her, with Coulter springing Lee from his cell despite his refusal to help her.
“I’m searching for Lyra myself, but if you find her… please… keep her safe,” Coulter tells him.
“I will. I promise,” Lee replies.
“Our thing is always ‘How can we tell Philip’s story best?’” screenwriter Jack Thorne said shortly before this new season aired when asked about altering the source material.
“We are not trying to do something different from the books. We are only ever trying to feed the language of TV into these books.
“And so sometimes we do step away and do different things – but always we’re going back to the text and saying, ‘How does this help us tell his story best?’.”
I’m not always a huge fan of the changes to His Dark Materials – the extended Gyptian, Magisterium and Witch-Clan in-fighting leaves me fairly cold – but just like adding Amir Wilson’s Will earlier to the narrative in season one, the combination of previously separate characters like Lee and Mrs Coulter shows exactly what can be gained by book-to-screen adaptation.
Just think of it as an extra chapter we never saw on the page. It can only make the scale of Pullman’s work a little broader.
Read more about the His Dark Materials cast, the His Dark Materials release schedule, the His Dark Materials books and the His Dark Materials age rating, plus find out where His Dark Materials is filmed, including the scenes set in Cittàgazze.
His Dark Materials continues on BBC One on Sunday 15th November at 8:10pm. While you’re waiting, visit our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight, or check out our guide to new TV shows 2020 to find out what’s airing this autumn and beyond.