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 episodes one and two.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
We’ll continue to look for more deviations and additions as the series progresses.
His Dark Materials airs on Sundays at 8pm on BBC1