This season, the BBC brought us an eight episode adaptation of Northern Lights, the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Taking place in a parallel universe where every human possesses an animal ‘daemon’ companion, the book follows the adventures of Lyra Belacqua, an orphan living at Jordan College Oxford. Following the disappearances of several local children, Lyra is drawn into a quest involving the shady goings-on of the all-powerful Magisterium.
Back in 2007, Northern Lights was adapted into The Golden Compass, a Hollywood film so disappointing that plans to also film the sequels were scrapped. Could a British TV series with more time to tell the story, and less watering-down of the underlying religious themes, do a better job? The answer is of course yes, for while this adaptation is by no means perfect, it is still well worth a watch.
Before we delve into the details about what works and what doesn’t, let’s spend a little time discussing some of the headline differences from the book. If you’re interested in an episode-by-episode account of what was changed, then let me first commend to you this guide written up by the Radio Times.
In the original book, the entirety of the story takes place in Lyra’s universe, following her as the principal character. Since child actors are prohibited from working long hours, two major changes had to be made to film eight episodes worth of content in a timely manner. First off, we get a more in-depth look at what other characters were doing during Lyra’s adventure, with extra scenes for US aeronaut Lee Scoresby, and Magisterium agents Mrs Coulter and Lord Boreal – the latter of whom doesn’t even appear in the first book. The second is that we get a first-hand look at the events unfolding in our own universe.
Readers of the trilogy will know that our universe first shows up at the start of the second book, The Subtle Knife, which also introduces the second main character, Will Parry. The Subtle Knife will be covered in the show’s second series, but here we not only get to see the opening scenes of that book in the final episode, but also various events leading up to them. Whilst I was initially concerned that it might spoil the pacing to expand on these events and accelerate their introduction, it actually works well, ensuring that we know and like Will enough to root for him as his adventure proper begins.
When woven in with the original plot, these new elements do make for a more solid and rounded story overall, but it’s one that doesn’t quite hit the mark in a few places. Let’s examine those in a bit more detail.
Acting and characterisation
For the most part, the acting for His Dark Materials is on good, solid ground. There’s a range of talented actors bringing the various characters to life, as well as a few doing voiceover work for daemons. Standouts include Ariyon Bakare as the nefarious Lord Boreal, and Nina Sosanya as Will’s mentally ill mother, Elaine.
Unfortunately, it isn’t all as good as it could be. Take Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter, for example. These two are depicted in the book as being perhaps the most powerful and charismatic people in their world, each with a striking and unique daemon. However, in the TV series, they don’t quite match up to expectations. James McAvoy takes a bit of getting used to as Asriel, although he does seem to pull it together later in the series, perhaps channelling the same “thinks he’s a hero whilst actually being a bit of an arsehole” vibe that he brought to the role of Professor Xavier.
Powerful women are often not portrayed well on screen, and Marisa Coulter seems to fall prey to that same failing. In The Golden Compass, Mrs Coulter was basically portrayed as “bitches be crazy, yo”, and whilst Ruth Wilson’s version of the character is colder and more controlled, it still isn’t perfect. Since she’s a woman, we have to see moments where she simply cannot control her emotions, becoming enraged at Lyra or revealing the obligatory hidden vulnerability. Obviously Marisa Coulter is meant to be an emotionally complex character, but some of the scenes in the TV show just ham it up far too much.
A central theme of both Lyra’s world and indeed the main plot of the series is the fact that every human has a daemon – essentially an external physical representation of part of one’s soul, in the form of an animal. I’m partway through writing a blog post examining the logic of daemons in more detail, but now we only need to consider two important facts about them. Firstly, most daemons cannot stray very far from their humans. Secondly, whilst a child’s daemon can switch between various different forms, after puberty a person’s daemon “settles” into a single form that best represents their inner self.
With this in mind, we can see that daemons are a key part of Lyra’s world, and any scene involving humans should also be teeming with daemons. For what were presumably budget reasons, we rarely get a sense of this onscreen. Important characters usually have their daemons present, but extras and minor characters frequently don’t have visible daemons. Now, arguably a lot of these people might have tiny daemons that they can carry around in their pockets, but the absence of daemons in crowd scenes and gatherings is really noticeable here.
It’s also important to the plot of the series that, as a pre-teen, Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon has yet to settle. In the books, it felt like he took many different forms, but for much of the TV series, he appears as an ermine. In episode three, Lyra talks about how she never wants him to settle into a single form, but ironically throughout this episode we only see him as an ermine. The points where he does transform are always memorable and spectacular – it would have been nice to see a few more of them.
There are many memorable moments in this series, from the sight of armoured bears to the dramatic events of the final scenes, however there were a few that fell flat for me. Here are the top offenders.
- In the books, it is eventually revealed that Lyra’s parents are none other than Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter. The TV series brings those revelations forward somewhat, dropping both of them in the first few episodes. However, both are done in an overly melodramatic fashion. During an argument, Mrs Coulter shouts that Asriel is “a failure of a man, and a failure of a father”, in an outburst that feels like it owes more to the writers wanting to reveal a plot point, than to being an appropriate response for the situation.
Later on, Ma Costa and Lyra basically have an outdoor shouting match in which Ma Costa responds to Lyra’s tantrum by saying “she’s your mother, Lyra, that’s what they’re not telling you”. Again, this revelation felt oddly placed and unnecessary.
- One of the most emotional moments in the books for me is the point at which Lyra and Pantalaimon are placed into the intercision device, and for a moment there’s a real possibility that they will be severed from one another. When the intercision is averted, the relief of their physical reunion is palpable – and it was something I was really looking forward to seeing portrayed on screen. In fact, the emotion of the moment felt distinctly and disappointingly underplayed.
- The fight between the armoured bears Iorek and Iofur should have been a no-holds-barred, emotionally intense moment. Unfortunately, I personally found it hard to keep track of which large white bear was which, and had to rewind and watch it again to clarify what was going on.
- A formative moment in Will’s story is when he accidentally kills an intruder in his home. When it happened at the end of the series, everything was so poorly lit that I entirely failed to realise exactly what had happened.
Although far from perfect, His Dark Materials is a respectable adaptation that is well worth a watch. I’m looking forward to enjoying series two later this year, and hope that the show gets the go-ahead to adapt the third book as well.