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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, which debuts Monday night, 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 major changes have been made here for the screen.
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.
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.