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 – beginning with episode one.
Whereas Northern Lights starts with Lyra already in Oxford, living in Jordan College with scholars including The Master and The Librarian, the TV show opts for a slightly different introduction.
A scene before the opening credits sees Lord Asriel carrying the baby Lyra through a supernatural flood into the care of the Master – which is actually a reference to Pullman’s more recent Book of Dust trilogy.
Speaking to RadioTimes.com, writer Jack Thorne and executive producer Jane Tranter said they had received special permission from Pullman to include this.
“We discussed it with Philip Pullman who very kindly gave us permission to include this element,” they said.
“We’ve used it very carefully as readers of the Book of Dust will realise. But we think it gives the series the epic beginning it deserves.”
Jordan College kitchen boy and Lyra’s best friend Roger is a major character in the first book of Pullman’s trilogy – and it looks like that will be no different in the show.
However, there are a couple of changes made to Roger’s character. Firstly, he is presented as an orphan in the TV show, which was never the case in the books. And secondly, in the series we see Lyra ask Mrs Coulter if Roger can accompany them to London. In the books Roger had already gone missing by this point – a presumed victim of the much feared gobblers.
Moreover in the TV show, the chance to rescue Roger is presented as a large part of Lyra’s motivation for moving to London. In the book, on the other hand, although originally sad about his disappearance, Lyra actually ends up feeling guilty at just how little she is thinking of Roger when she is taken under Mrs Coulter’s wing.
The Gyptians and Billy Costa
Early signs suggest that we’re going to get a closer look at the Gyptians, a group of characters with whom Lyra is on good terms and which includes key players such as John Faa and Farder Coram.
An early scene shows Tony Costa, another of the Gyptians, as the subject of a coming of age ceremony, with his dæmon having recently settled on its final form. This scene, which essentially operates as an introduction to the Gyptians, is new for the show, having not appeared in the book at all.
A more noteworthy change, however, concerns Tony’s brother – Billy Costa. During the episode, Billy refers to his daemon as Ratter, which is actually the name of the daemon of another character – Tony Makarios – in the books. This suggests that these two characters may well have been combined for the TV show as was the case in the 2003 National Theatre stage version – but we won’t know this for certain until the series progresses.
The show has already given us an early glimpse of the Magisterium – the sinister ruling body that exerts great influence over Pullman’s world – which is mentioned only by name in the first book.
We also understand that powerful Magisterium figures Lord Boreal and Father McPhail will have an expanded role throughout the show’s run – so look out for that in future episodes.
Although this is not a change to the story per se, die-hard fans will notice that Dafne Keen, who plays Lyra, doesn’t quite match up to Pullman’s description in the books.
In the books, Lyra is described as having blonde hair rather than Keen’s darker brown. But we reckon Keen captures the sense of adventure and unruliness so well that we’re willing to overlook a slightly different hair colour.
And Lyra’s not the only one whose book description isn’t taken as gospel – Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn’t quite match up with his character Lee Scoresby’s either.
Speaking about his casting, Miranda told RadioTimes.com, “Of course if I’m reading His Dark Materials, I wouldn’t cast me first!
“When you think about what’s on the page, you can’t get better than [film adaptation The Golden Compass star] Sam Eliot in that movie. He’s like Texan, he’s already got the moustache. He’s got it all already! So I just thought well, I don’t know what my version’s going to look like but I’m here for the ride.”
And it’s not just the human characters whose appearance is slightly different – in the first episode we see Lyra’s demon Pantalaimon take the form of a pine marten on a couple of occasions – something which doesn’t happen until much later in the books.
We’ll be keeping a lookout for any further deviations from the book as the show progresses – but so far we reckon they’ve done a pretty good job of capturing the spirit of Pullman’s work.
His Dark Materials airs on Sundays at 8pm on BBC1