The fantasy series shows us what was going on off the pages of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass.

By Nick Romano
November 18, 2019 at 10:00 PM EST
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Warning: Spoilers from His Dark Materials episode 3 are discussed in this article. 

In “The Spies,” the third episode of HBO and BBC’s His Dark Materials, Mrs. Coulter is on a rampage. Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) fled her apartment after the child learned the true identity of her hoped-for mentor: Coulter (Ruth Wilson) is the head of The General Oblation Board, a.k.a. the Gobblers, a.k.a. the shadowy organization that kidnapped children all over the city (including Lyra’s friend Roger) to take them north to something called “The Station.” In an attempt to reclaim her progeny — yes, it’s also revealed during the hour that Coulter is Lyra’s birth mother — she does something rash. With Magisterium troops by her side, Coulter ransacks Jordan College, breaking the long-held academic sanctuary that typically prevents such impositions.

It’s new material for both viewers and diehard readers of Philip Pullman‘s The Golden Compass, which serves as the basis for this first season of the TV adaptation. On the page, the story exclusively follows Lyra, including when she runs away from Coulter and finds herself in the company of the Gyptians. On screen, executive producer Jane Tranter needed to find new character arcs to follow, mainly because Keen, who’s now 14, couldn’t legally work the same long hours as the adult actors. (It’s a little thing called child labor laws.) So, through conversations with Pullman, teleplay writer Jack Thorne, and the cast, she found those threads to track and ended up creating something that feels like both a faithful adaptation of the novels and a companion to the source material.

The first episode is the most detailed page-to-screen adaptation and then it grows from then on,” Tranter tells EW. “We have done what I would call a very authentic adaptation of The Golden Compass. I think it is faithful to the essence and the spirit of everything that Pullman wrote. Sometimes it’s a faithful adaptation scene by scene.” When it’s not, she says it still feels “authentic.”

With someone like Wilson in the cast, known for roles on Showtime’s The Affair and BBC’s Luther, you want to take as much advantage of that as possible. So, Coulter became a focal point for the story, though she’s more of a shadowy figure in that first novel. Even Ariyon Bakare’s expanded role of Lord Boreal was seen partly as a result of wanting someone for Coulter to talk to, as Tranter previously mentioned.

“We introduced the idea of Mrs. Coulter so strongly,” she says. “What we do in the later episodes is we begin to track what Mrs. Coulter is doing when she’s not on the pages of Pullman’s novel. That was one of the first conversations that Jack and I had with Philip. We were saying, ‘What is Asriel doing now and what is Mrs. Coulter doing now?'”

Aside from her return trip to Jordan College, we find that Mrs. Coulter learns Lyra is in possession of an alethiometer through interrogation of The Master (Clarke Peters). Then, as she nearly falters in balancing on the edge of her apartment roof (echoing that tragic line she mentioned to Lyra in episode 2), Coulter unleashes the spy-fly, a mechanical clockwork insect powered by evil spirits to track and “spy” on others. A mirrored plot line sees Boreal crossing over into the other world again to hire his own spy to stalk Will Parry (Amir Wilson), son of John Parry (Andrew Scott).

In another stark shift away from what’s on the page in Pullman’s book, two Gyptian boys take it upon themselves to sneak out in the dead of night and infiltrate Coulter’s apartment. The mission ends badly and further shows the relationship between human and daemon. Tranter has a very clear idea of how each season of His Dark Materials functions, and everything feeds back to that. “The whole of the first season is about daemons, the whole of the second season [based on The Subtle Knife] is about multiple worlds, and the whole of the third season [based on The Amber Spyglass] is about Dust,” she explains. The same goes for the books. “So, you’ve got a whole eight episodes [across season 1] in order to really nail for an audience what it means to have a daemon and that is spectacularly nailed at the end of episode 8. But, if you don’t show some of that to an audience in the first episodes, how are they gonna go on this journey?”

This particular midnight mission illustrates what happens when a human dies. While the boys make it inside Coulter’s office, they are soon made. Tony Costa (Daniel Frogson) flees, but he’s forced to watch from the window as his friend, Benjamin De Ruyter (Simon Manyonda), is shot by Mrs. Coulter. As her golden monkey pins down Benjamin’s daemon, so, too, does he feel that pain.

Benjamin, eventually, breaks free and throws himself down the elevator shaft. When he hits the bottom, his daemon turns to Dust — unlike what we see when Boreal crushes the butterfly daemon of journalist Adele in episode 2, perhaps because it was simply hidden by his hand. The moment echoes a Biblical passage quoted in The Golden Compass: “…for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” In our world, we know this from the book of Genesis. In the world of His Dark Materials, some scholars of Lyra’s reality believe this to be a reference to Dust. When Benjamin dies, Coulter’s golden monkey watches as the bird it was once strangling now evaporates in a cloud of shimmering gold particles.

Alex Bailey/HBO

This scene also works to further show the unraveling of Mrs. Coulter. For Tranter and Thorne, the great advantage of working on an adaptation of a trilogy is they know what the finish line looks like. “We knew, for example, where Mrs. Coulter ended critically for us, not only where she ends in book 3 [The Amber Spyglass], but where she ends in The Subtle Knife, which is a place of considerable madness,” Tranter notes. “That gave us a lot of fun to able to pull forward and think, how is this woman of rigid control, who in the [first] episode looks like the most charming woman in the world, get to the place where she is in the end of the second book, or [for us] the second season?”

Coulter becomes even more beast-like as she begins to mirror her own daemon’s movements in cradling Benjamin’s body and picking at his hair. That all came from Wilson’s work with Brian Fisher, the puppeteer behind the monkey daemon. (Puppets were created to stand in for the daemons on set, while animation house Framework uses CGI for the screen.) “Ruth had wanted to incorporate some simian movements to her portrayal, and there are a number of occasions in the first season adopting a more simian-like pose,” Tranter remembers. “It was entirely her idea that, when she attacked Benjamin, not only would she shoot him and bring him to the ground, she would then go at him as a monkey would. We saw her rehearsal and we said, ‘Just do it.’ It was quite an extraordinary moment when that happens.”

Tranter, in earnest, doesn’t know how much of this extra material was on Pullman’s mind when he was writing The Golden Compass. Did he envision Coulter’s ransacking of Jordan College in the periphery off-page as Lyra was meeting John Faa and Farder Coram? “I know that when we talked to him about it, he was like, ‘Yep, that’s right,'” she says.

“He was very supportive and very tolerant,” Tranter adds. “We had all sorts of goes at different things and he would read and gently nudge us in one direction or another. As Philip would say, the clue to an adaptation is in the name. You’re adapting a book for how it could work on screen. If a book was just going to naturally work on screen, it wouldn’t have been written as a book.”

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