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All the Differences Between the Show and Book
The following post contains spoilers for The Golden Compass and HBO’s His Dark Materials show.
Philip Pullman’s incendiary His Dark Materials trilogy ignited a global conversation, and fury, as the books captivated the imaginations of (many!) millions when the first novel in the series was published in 1995. Christian groups protested the anti-religion stance of the author while academic bodies invited Pullman for guest lectures. Libraries logged countless requests to ban the material while movie studios fought over the rights to develop films based on the works.
But previous adaptations struggled to capture the magic of Pullman’s dense and often scary world. Nicholas Wright’s 2004 play for the National Theatre in London, which separated the 1,300 page narrative between two, three-hour plays while curiously inverting the majority of the drama into a flashback, was met with lukewarm reviews. And 2007’s feature film, The Golden Compass, which starred Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman, was both a critical and commercial flop. Production began with director Chris Weitz (About a Boy, American Pie) at the helm, but he left as pressures to water down the anti-god fervor—the basis for the driving question at the center of Pullman’s plot—mounted and budgets got capped.
The era of prestige TV, where runtimes matter as little as budgets, is the perfect time for a revived attempt. The new co-production from HBO and the BBC soars. Starring James McAvoy as the tempestuous and fearless Lord Asriel, Ruth Wilson as the cunning Mrs. Coulter, and Logan’s energetic, brutishly charming Dafne Keen as Lyra Belacqua, His Dark Materials is as punchy, inviting, questioning and captivating as Pullman’s original works.
Written by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) and directed by Oscar-winner Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables), Lyra’s steampunk-ish Jordan College bounds off the screen with zeppelin airships, spectacular academic halls, and a soulless, terrifying church. But while the energy is spot on with the books, a few changes have been made here for the screen. Here are the biggest alterations in the adaption.
How Lyra arrived at Jordan College
As Pullman’s first book in the series, The Golden Compass (called Northern Lights in the UK) opens, we find our young hero, Lyra, spying on the Master of Jordan College, where she lives. She’s been a resident of the university—itself an alternative Oxford in this multiverse—for all 12 years of her life, left here by her uncle, Lord Asriel, following the death of her parents. The TV epic, however, begins earlier. Introductory text fills the screen during its opening moments, welcoming viewers to a world ruled by the “all-powerful Magisterium.” One area, it notes, remains wild: the North. (It’s always the North at HBO, folks.) There, it reads, witches whisper of a prophecy of a child with a great destiny who has been brought to live at Jordan College. The following scene depicts this moment: Accompanied by his snow leopard daemon, Stelmaria, Asriel arrives at Jordan College during the Great Flood with a baby who he hands off to Master Carne, claiming “scholastic sanctuary,” as her right to housing.
The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials)
Alfred A Knopf
‘Scholastic sanctuary’ further outlines the relationship between church and science
The term ‘scholastic sanctuary’ is invoked repeatedly in Episode One as the college’s safety net for exploring theories and teachings banned elsewhere by the church. It’s first established in the opening scene and used as a way to further illustrate the relationship between church and science. ‘Scholastic sanctuary’ is a term that’s never explicitly used in the book but is a good tool to help better understand this parallel fantasy universe. As one of the scholars notes in the episode, the institution must be careful not to abuse this grace allowed by the Magisterium so as not to lose their right to academic exploration. Organized religion is no friend in Pullman’s original works, and while Thorne’s script maintains that spirit, it hurries the audience along to a clear understanding of the oppositional relationship between church and academia here.
Lyra’s framing as a child of prophecy
In Pullman’s books, we learn that Lyra is special when she displays a talent, with no education, that certain academics and theologians train years to understand, but Thorne’s new set-up helps the audience situate Lyra sooner. (It also, conveniently, helps explain why this London operates on a canal system, a la Venice, and favors airships rather than roads.) And while the author introduced us to Asriel following an expedition to the North, here, we join him on his fact-finding mission as he snaps a picture of another world, hidden in a sky filled with the aurora borealis, and as he crafts his ploy to deceive the Master at Jordan College with an intentionally misidentified skull. We become, in a way, his co-conspirators.
A repositioned Gyptian interlude
Curiously, we meet the Gyptians in HBO’s iteration at a celebration for a settled daemon. Settling occurs both in the book and on screen when a child reaches puberty and their daemon takes on a permanent form. It’s meant, as we understand via Pullman, as a way for a person to better understand themselves. And as they push on screen with a neighborhood gathering, full of cheers and hugs of congratulations, growing up and finding yourself is a good, welcome thing. Whether this is positioned as a way to get to know the many Gyptian faces and their warm community all at once or if it will have larger influence on Thorne’s plot as it unfolds is yet to be seen. One of the young boys in this group, Billy Costa, goes missing after this ceremony, lured off by a fox with golden eyes. But Pullman’s “Gobbler” accomplishes their work—nabbing children—via the lure of a golden monkey, who we soon learn belongs to Lyra’s new guardian, Mrs. Coulter.
We’re moving between worlds already
As Lord Asriel boldly theorized during his presentation at Jordan College last week, everyone in Pullman’s fantasy is actually living in a multiverse, where a series of alternate worlds are stacked on top of each other. Though the books also reveal this early on—during Asriel’s thunderous pitch meeting—it’s not until the very end of The Golden Compass where we see anyone actually step through to a new world. In Episode Two, Lord Boreal of the Magisterium leaves Jordan College by way of an ethereal slit in the air and arrives into a modern day London, marking the biggest change from the source material yet. His entire current plot, from his examining Grumman’s head in the Jordan College crypt to working with allies in present-day London to uncover something, is a departure from The Golden Compass.
“We see more of Lord Boreal,” actor Ariyon Bakare told RadioTimes.com of the new arc. “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.”
The General Oblation Board’s big reveal
The General Oblation Board gets a rather wordy explanation from Cardinal Sturrock (daemon: a buzzing insect) in a conversation written just for the screen with Father MacPhail (daemon: a slithering lizard) in the very eerie Magisterium halls early in Episode Two. He lets viewers into the church-sanctioned group’s machinations—their penchant for Gyptian children, their moving of children “constantly and quickly” to avoid peering eyes—and sends the Father on an errand to tell the head of the General Oblation Board they need to be more careful. He arrives, of course, at Mrs. Coulter’s apartment, unmasking her as the fearless, ruthless villain to audiences. Lyra’s dawning comes only a little while later. She roots around in Mrs. Coulter’s private study while she’s out visiting her recently-nabbed children and finds stacks of General Oblation Board Document but doesn’t realize how afraid she should be until a journalist tells her of Mrs. Coulter’s involvement—spelling out G-o-b-b-l-e-r-s point blank—while attending Mrs. Coulter’s soiree.
In Pullman’s works, the audience pieces together the scale of the operation, as well as Mrs. Coulter’s involvement, more slowly than it arrives here with a dramatic thud. (Case in point: In another new Boreal plotline, he murders the journalist immediately following his escorting her out of the party by squished her daemon—a butterfly—in his palm.)
Lyra’s father is named
In both the The Golden Compass and its new HBO adaptation, there is a terrifying moment where Mrs. Coulter’s nameless, voiceless daemon—something to consider when you think about how these animal forms represent the soul of a person—tackles Pantalaimon in middle of her living room. It’s the first time we see how powerful the tether between daemon and human is, as Lyra writhes on the floor begging Mrs. Coulter to make it stop. In the book, Lyra ends this exchange with the knowledge that she should probably reconsider her reverence for her new guardian but here, she also learns that Lord Asriel is actually her father, not her uncle. (For those who’ve read the books, you know there is one more parental reveal yet in store.)
Madison Vain is a writer and editor living in New York, covering music, books, TV, and movies; prior to Esquire, she worked at Entertainment Weekly and Sports Illustrated.