This His Dark Materials article contains spoilers for the TV show and some spoilers for the Golden Compass book. You can check out our His Dark Materials spoiler-free review here.
There are many ways to judge a TV or film adaptation—mostly, the same ways you judge original work. However, it can be fun, when it comes to TV shows and films developed from previously-existing source material, to also look at the narrative decisions the production made to make changes—or not—to what has come before.
HBO has officially launched His Dark Materials, an adaptation of Philip Pullman’s bestselling book series about a girl and her alethiometer. Let’s take a look at what changes writer Jack Thorne and executive producer Jane Tranter have chosen to make from The Golden Compass, the first book in the His Dark Materials book series.
His Dark Materials & The Golden Compass Differences Episode 5
Holy moly. We knew that the His Dark Materials TV show was bringing in elements from The Subtle Knife early, most especially the reveal of Will’s World, but I wasn’t sure if Season 1 would introduce Will Parry himself. In “The Lost Boy”—a title which could refer to Will, Billy Costa, or both—we meet Will Parry, who is one of the main protagonists in The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, second only to Lyra.
There are a few actual changes from Will’s storyline from the books (he lives in Oxford instead of Winchester; his mother gives him his father’s letters rather than him findhing them himself), mostly the details we get about Will’s pre-Subtle Knife life are not changes so much as additions. It’s a quiet, meditative look into what Will’s life looks like, going to school and taking care of his mentally ill mother, before everything changes.
Elsewhere, the prediction that Billy Costa’s TV fate would be that of Tony Makarios’ from the book sadly came to fruition. Lyra finds a daemon-less Billy in the northern village and he dies soon after. Because, in the books, Billy escapes from Bolvangar, all of the scenes including Ma Costa singing to her son and the subsequent funeral are added. In the books, Ma Costa does not travel north with the Gyptians and Lyra.
Witch Serafina Pekkala gets an early introduction in the TV series. As is true of all scenes that don’t involve Lyra, the conversation between former lovers Serafina and Farder Coram is new.
His Dark Materials & The Golden Compass Differences Episode 4
We meet Lee Scoresby’s beloved character in Episode 4, introduced via song, flying in on his balloon with his daemon Hester. In the books, Lee is more or less stranded in Trollesund after his previous expedition found itself short on funds and happens to find old friend Iorek, but, in the TV adaptation, he is specifically looking for old friend Iorek. Many of Lee’s character traits, from his penchant for cardplaying to his bar fight scene, are lifted not from The Golden Compass book but from short story “Once Upon a Time in the North.” Notably, Lee is less cowboy and more playful hustler here than in the books or the film adaptation (where he is played by national treadure Sam Elliott).
Another reveal that is moved up for the TV adaptation: the information that Lord Asriel is being held prisoner by the armored bears. In the TV adaptation, this is relayed in Mrs. Coulter’s scenes dealing with the Magisterium, which were all created for the TV series specifically, as the book sticks so closely to Lyra’s point of view. One of the characters Mrs. Coulter deals with, Cardinal Sturrock, is a character invented for the TV series specifically. You can pretty much assume any Magisterium machination scenes are not in The Golden Compass.
While the scene of Mrs. Coulter asking Fra Pavel to use the alethiometer doesn’t appear in The Golden Compass, it does happen in The Subtle Knife, the second book in the series, after Mrs. Coulter has a run in with the witches. Lord Boreal blackmailing Fra Pavel into using the alethiometer does not happen in the books.
In the books, Serafina’s daemon is a snow goose; in the TV she, Kaisa is instead a gyrfalcon.
His Dark Materials & The Golden Compass Differences Episode 3
When His Dark Materials decided to move up the reveal of Will’s World, we knew there would be repercussions in terms of further book elements that would be brought into the story earlier. This is on display in Episode 3 again, as we learn that Stanislaus Grumman, the Jordan College explorer whose head Lord Asriel claimed to have, is not from Lyra’s world, but rather ours.
As revealed in Episode 3 to Lord Boreal, Stanislaus is actually a former soldier named John Parry and—spoiler alert—he’s played by the eminently charismatic Andrew Scott (Sherlock, Fleabag). So be prepared for this stellar casting to continue into Season 2. As Will’s World is not properly revealed until The Subtle Knife, this is another reveal that happens much sooner in the TV show than it does in the books.
In an effort to find John Parry, Lord Boreal hires someone to trail his son, Will, who will become a major player in the story, and Will’s mother. Is there a chance we could meet Will in Season 1 rather than having to wait until Season 2, as book fans might have assumed? Perhaps.
Elsewhere in the episode, we get a slight change to the death of Gyptian Benjamin De Ruyter to make Mrs. Coulter a more prominent figure. In The Golden Compass, Benjamin is killed while he and Tony are trying to obtain information about the kidnapped children (and Lyra does predict it, using the alethiometer properly for the first time), but, in the books, Benjamin and his fellow Gyptians were spying on Lord Boreal, not Mrs. Coulter. There, he falls down a flight of stairs while trying to escape from Magisterium agents at the Ministry of Theology.
His Dark Materials & The Golden Compass Differences Episode 2
Episode 2 of His Dark Materials made a massive deviation from the books, choosing to introduce some major elements from The Subtle Knife, the second episode in the His Dark Materials book series, in this first season: namely, Will’s World.
We’ve yet to meet the character of Will in the TV adaptation yet, but we have seen the world he hails from: which is to say our world. In Episode 2, we see Lord Boreal cross over from Lyra’s World to our world, something he seems to have done before.
“It’s clear he’s been crossing through worlds for years,” executive producer Jane Tranter told EW, “and we were fascinated by the fact that Philip gave us a glimpse of him in Book 1 and then went on to really develop him as a character in Book 2. We thought, if he’s going to be this big of a character in Season 2, let’s use him in Season 1. Boreal also brings a healthy drop of thriller genre with him and we wanted to make use of that.”
In general, the first season has had to expand the focus of the story because 14-year-old Dafne Keen can only, due to child labor laws, work so many hours a day. Therefore, Lyra cannot be in every scene, as she is in The Golden Compass book.
By spending time with Boreal as he crosses over to Will’s World, we not only get to know more about Boreal than we ever do in the books, we also learn a lot more sooner, such as the reveal that scholar Stanislaus Grumman, whose head Lord Asriel claims to have in Episode 1, is actually from our world, and his name here is John Parry.
Another change from the books? While Will’s World in The Subtle Knife is in the mid-90s, as that was when the books were written, Will’s World in the TV adaptation is contemporary to now, which makes sense as a narrative decision.
“We wanted to make it work for 2019 and [book series author] Philip [Pullman] was fine on that,” Tranter told EW of the change. “We then were just mindful of how technology makes a difference…”
Another early reveal moved up from its place in the narrative in the book is the truth bomb that Lord Asriel is Lyra’s biological father. In The Golden Compass, Lyra finds this out slightly later in the narrative and from the Gyptians. In the TV adaptation, Mrs. Coulter reveals it to her seemingly somewhat unintentionally in the midst of an argument. It works well as a way to more fully develop Mrs. Coulter’s character as someone who is not fully in control of her strong emotions, and who has a lot of anger and pain hiding just beneath that polished surface.
His Dark Materials & The Golden Compass Differences Episode 1
Rather than beginning with Lyra (Dafne Keen) spying on the master of Jordan College, the TV adaptation chooses to adapt a scene from La Belle Sauvage, the first book in the ongoing His Dark Materials prequel/sequel trilogy The Book of Dust.
The scene sees Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) dropping baby Lyra (and Pan!) off at Jordan College during The Great Flood. (Though, it should be noted that La Belle Sauvage characters Malcolm and Alice are also a part of this dangerous effort in the books.) This is the first hint that this adaptation will be expanding the perspective of The Golden Compass in the book, showing us much more of this world and faster than we get when following solely Lyra’s journey in the books.
Because of this widening of perspective, we are introduced to various parts of this world much sooner and more thoroughly. The best example of this in Episode 1 is the introduction of the Gyptians, whom we meet in a daemon settling ceremony that is not featured in the book. In The Golden Compass, Gyptian Billy Costa (Tyler Howitt) is kidnapped by the Gobblers during the annual Horse Fair, not at his big brother’s settling ceremony. Because we see this happen, we learn more definitive details about the Gobblers early in this story, whereas in the book, the reader only has unsubstantiated rumors at this point.
Speaking of the Gyptians, His Dark Materials seems to have combined Billy Costa and Tony Makarios’ characters. In the books, Tony is the first local Gyptian taken by the Gobblers, and it is his daemon whose name is Ratter. In the TV series, Billy’s daemon is Ratter. This could mean some devastating things for Billy’s character moving forward…
We also meet Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare), an artisocrat working with the Magisterium. In the books, his character doesn’t pop up until Mrs. Coulter’s (Ruth Wilson) cocktail party. On that note, we get a peak at the Magisterium, with their high ceilings and their robes, very early on when it was just a daunting, yet faraway body for Lyra at this point in the books.
We also see Lyra try (and fail) to use the alethiometer much sooner than in His Dark Materials she does in The Golden Compass. As Den of Geek’s Louisa Mellor notes in her review of the first episode:
“One changed scene from the first book in Pullman’s trilogy (Season 1’s eight episodes adapt The Golden Compass, with the already-filming second season adapting The Subtle Knife, and any subsequent series tackling The Amber Spyglass) is Lyra’s first try at using the alethiometer. Like any kid in 2019, she attempts a Siri-like voice-command but gets nowhere. The gift she’s been given isn’t easy to penetrate. Like a truly great story, it won’t deliver showy answers from the off. It’s something special, something rare requiring an investment of time and attention that once made, returns untold rewards.”
Speaking of the alethiometer (which, should be noted, is square rather than round in this adaptation), it is actually La Belle Sauvage character Malcolm who leaves it with Baby Lyra, not Lord Asriel.
Check back in with this article, as we will be keeping it updated with any further changes made from the source material. Please let us know in the comments below if we missed anything!
Listen to our discussion of His Dark Materials on the Sci Fi Fidelity podcast: