How His Dark Materials translated the world of the witches to the screen
Head witch herself Jade Anouka (Ruta Skadi) and executive producer Jane Tranter lift the veil on the book-to-screen changes.
Since season 1, based on the first book in Pullman's fantasy trilogy, The Golden Compass, showrunner Jane Tranter and writer Jack Thorne made a few executive decisions, changes from the text that would better serve the needs of a more visual medium like TV, while always maintaining the essence of the central story. Season 2, which adapts the second book, The Subtle Knife, continues in that spirit with witches being a part of that plan.
The team crafted a slightly different mythology and purpose for Pullman's witches for the screen, as Tranter and a season 2 addition, actress Jade Anouka, explains to EW. Anouka likens these women to superheroes, and she gets a superhero moment of her own while flying through a thundering storm as Queen Ruta Skadi in this season's premiere episode. "It's cool to be a witch," Anouka says over Zoom. "The witches in Philip Pullman’s world are potentially not the witch you grew up thinking witches were like. They’re robust and they have their own minds and they’re independent women and they fight for what they believe in and they have purpose."
All hail the queens
What remains the same are the clans.
Witches run in communities known as clans with a queen at the head of each. In a situation, like the council gathering in season 2's premiere, all witches, regardless of rank, have the right to speak their piece, but it's the queens that make the final decision for their people. Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas), though a relatively younger witch at around 400 years old, holds the rank of queen of the Lake Enara clan, while Ruta Skadi is queen of Lake Lubana.
Anouka says there was "a lot of work and rework" in the depiction of the witches on the show. Tranter confirmed Anouka's casting helped the writers flesh out the characterization further. "Ruta isn’t in [The Subtle Knife] that much and so they really wanted to extend that character and that relationship with Serafina," the actress says.
The clans have a problem when we first see them at the start of season 2. After Serafina went rogue and helped rescue the kidnapped children from Bolvangar, her sisters fell on The Magisterium's radar. The church had since captured a witch and tortured her for information—that last part courtesy of Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson). Serafina and Ruta found themselves at opposite ends of the ensuing debate, a moment not depicted in the books but that showcased how each rule their clans differently. Serafina preached caution, while Ruta urged an offensive approach.
"That scene changed quite a lot from filming," Anouka recalls. "The scene as you saw it [on screen] wasn’t the scene when we first filmed it. There were different things added in postproduction that helped tell the story as it developed. I think the writers went back and felt they had to adapt it slightly, but I do think it’s great because you’ve got Serafina there holding this witch council and everyone’s giving her the kind of power and authority, and then Ruta flies in and takes over. It shows in a few seconds what’s going on. These are two very powerful witches who are definitely on par. [Ruta's] not like all the other withes you see in the council, this is somebody who can actually and is willing to and is actually allowed to fly in and say what she needs to say and Serafina doesn’t stop her."
It's a dynamic, Anouka adds, on which the show continues to play as season 2 adapts the later parts of The Subtle Knife, which involves the witches flying through the portal after Lyra (Dafne Keen) and ensure the prophecy surrounding the child comes to pass. "Ruta’s not going to become more Serafina and Serafina isn’t going to become more Ruta," she says, "but they have to work out a way to allow each other to be their true selves and also make sure that they are working together for the greater good."
While the witches play a larger role in The Golden Compass as opposed to their limited presence in season 1 of the show, Tranter said there just wasn't room to include the clans in those first eight episodes. All their attempts lacked "the propulsion" the season 1 story required. "We hadn’t entirely worked out how the witches were gonna be [at the time] I think because we hadn’t really gone into the writing of all of the clans and worked out how many clans we were gonna have and when we would bring in Ruta Skadi," she adds. Season 1 already had a lot of "spectacle," from the different locations each episode to the massive action pieces around Bolvangar and the opening of the anomaly. The witches, then, became the "spectacle" for season 2.
Cloud-pine is the essential ingredient to a witch's power. It's a type of tree with magical properties that grows in their world and allows them to fly. In Pullman's novels, they physically hold a branch of cloud-pine to ascend into the air. For the show, it became another puzzle for Tranter to unravel.
"Philip never describes [the witches] as sitting on [cloud-pine]," Tranter explains. "So, it’s almost like you imagine them to start off like that. [Tranter holds her hands up above her head in a superhero flying pose]. It just felt so wrong and not very 'other.'" The point was to take what they knew about the original books to create something that felt different from previous cinematic portrayals of witches. That's when she landed upon a tweak to the mythology that would create something new.
"We had this idea that the older you get as a witch, because they are so in touch with nature, that [cloud-pine] would literally grow through them," Tranter says. Serafina and Ruta are two of those witches, with the cloud-pine snaking through their arms like veins. Therefore, ripping out a witch's cloud-pine from her skin, as Mrs. Coulter did to her prisoner, becomes a painful affair.
The idea that witches are one with the natural world and that nature itself is flowing through them became a defining element for costume designer Caroline McCall and hair-and-makeup artist Jacqueline Fowler. As Tranter puts it, "They’re not sirens. They’re badasses." Using the idea of coal-silk, a material described in the books as a "very fine" and almost "weightless" fibre, the wardrobe department crafted something for Ruta that felt battle ready, while the metallic embroidery mimicked the look of feathers. Her cuffs became a hiding place for daggers, and even the pins holding up her hair can be repurposed as weapons.
"They mean business and they’re always ready for what’s coming," Anouka says. "We may have beautiful dresses on, but don’t get it twisted. We will fight for what we believe in."
Weathering the storm
One of Anouka's earliest sequences for season 2 was Ruta's attempt to rescue her sister from the clutches of The Magisterium. Against the majority rule of her fellow clanswomen, she and her daemon Sergi race through the sky to lay waste to their enemies. After the episode aired, Anouka shared a behind-the-scenes video on Instagram to reveal the work that went into that moment. Against a green screen, Anouka is held up on wires as fans blow wind through her hair and a hose doses her face in water.
But Anouka, like Ruta herself, remains unfazed by the harsh elements. Though witches feel the effects of nature, whether it be intense cold or the chaos of a thundering storm, they are magically undeterred by them. This provides a unique challenge when Anouka is trying to hold herself up in the wire harness.
"It is quite a thing to be held in that position horizontally because you’re being held by your hips or your pelvis. If you relax you’ll just go ass over tit," she says with a laugh. "You’ve really got to work the whole time you’re in the wire and you really have to work to keep your composure, which is quite straining."
Tranter remembers filming the aftermath of Ruta's retaliation, after The Magisterium burned her land in response for the balloon attack. "We put them on location and it was absolutely pissed with rain," she says. "You can see the water dripping off their bare feet and yet they just look like they really didn’t care about it." Anouka remembers the sensation of filming in that autumn weather in Wales as "standing in ice-cold slush." "It felt like daggers were going up the bottom of my feet. That was a quite hard one," she says.
Despite the challenges, this attribute of the witches helped shape Anouka's performance as Ruta, specifically how she moves about the environment. "We did work with a movement coach, as well, to help us especially between the different clans to have a slightly different way of holding ourselves," she says. "There’s definitely something I felt almost like the back of your neck and the back of your arms. You know when the hairs on your neck stand up? It’s almost like how they experience the weather and the environment around them and even potentially another being approaching. It’s not always by sight, but it’s by feel."
Dealings with daemons
The same obsession of Pullman in the books became the same focal point for the producers: the relationship between a person and their daemon. In world of His Dark Materials, in Lyra's reality that exists parallel to our own, a human's soul exists outside of the body as a talking animal companion called a "daemon." They are both part of the same being. If something happens to one, the other feels it, and neither are able to physically move too far away from each other or suffer tremendous anguish. Witches are another matter.
They are the rare being with the ability to separate from their daemon over great distances. Mrs. Coulter is one of the only known humans to do this, though it took years of painful training to do so. Witches undergo a coming-of-age ritual in which they traverse a mysterious, condemned piece of land to the north where no daemon can tread. Upon their return, they acquire this new power, but the relationship between them and their daemon changes forever. It's something Pullman expounded upon his novella Serpentine, which became published for the first time earlier this year, as well as The Secret Commonwealth, the second book of his sequel trilogy to His Dark Materials.
Anouka's approach to Ruta was then different than Wilson's in that same regard. Wilson, like most of her costars, performed opposite physical puppets on set that stood in place for their daemons. It helped further flesh out that connection. As a witch, Anouka's puppet was more "fixed," unlike the others which "could move and have expressions." She sees this as a further reflection of that unique dynamic between a witch and her daemon. Ruta always senses Sergi, even though he may not be physically present.
Witches, and their daemons, have the agency Mrs. Coulter desperately seeks in season 2 as a woman who's not allowed to hold higher rank in the world of The Magisterium. Mrs. Coulter sees daemon separation as "a terrible act of sacrifice," Tranter explains, while witches accept it as a good thing. Witches are always born with birds for daemons. "There’s a real sense of freedom, flight, and soaring to them," Tranter says. "And Mrs. Coulter has a monkey. It’s a lot heavier and much more attitudinal mentally, whereas the witches’ daemons are more physical."
"I read an early version of The Secret Commonwealth while developing season 2 and I was like, 'OK, what can we use?'" Tranter says. "Understanding how important daemon and human separations is a theme in Philip's work. We lean into that in episode 6 for sure." It's also something she's leaning into with the development season 3, which is based on The Amber Spyglass. HBO and BBC did not formally announce a season 3 renewal for His Dark Materials, though Tranter and the writers began development work in October. "We're adapting that book in all its magnificence," Tranter teases, "and having a marvelous time while we do so."
His Dark Materials airs on HBO in the U.S. Monday nights at 9 p.m. ET.
His Dark Materials