top of page

A Northern Lights comic

Updated: Feb 17, 2022

A little while back I posted an illustration of a scene in Northern Lights by Philip Pullman where I'd applied some of my recurring poster-design approaches. I was pleased enough with the effect I wanted to develop a short sequence from it.

In my unending interest in the subject of why the screen adaptations of Northern Lights haven't been very good, I have a particular preoccupation with this scene, which happens pretty exactly halfway through the book, where Lyra discovers a lost boy sheltering in a hut and thereby learns the answer to the mystery of what the child-kidnapping 'gobblers' are doing to their victims.

In both adaptations this scene ends up being a notably weak spot, and even with adjusted expectations appropriate to each production's wider weaknesses... it's specifically baffling that this moment ends up as a bit of a nothing both time because, firstly, it's so good and so pivotal in the book which one would think would merit particular attention, and, secondly, it's a moment that would seem to lend itself so straightforwardly to screen storytelling.

It's basic horror storytelling, a moment we have seen executed effectively ten thousand times on screen: the terrified protagonist creeps through the haunted house, compelled to investigate something but almost paralysed with fear at what they might find.

To be fair this case, the impact in what Lyra does find depends on something very particular having been established effectively as horrific: the boy being with his daemon. In-universe that's a horror, while out of universe it's obviously the norm, so you really do need the previous text to have worked quite hard to convince your emotions of this mattering at all.

Pullman does that, but neither adaptation has remotely succeeded in anything like that kind of persuasion. It is fair to say that this project is harder and probably just less achievable on screen than on the page.

Even so, I've been surprised twice over by how little each adaptation even seems to be trying with that stuff. Like they haven't noticed that the whole story rather falls apart without daemons registering effectively.

All that is obviously a much bigger and more complex problem. I did a whole series of posts on the subject, in fact!

Another seed of failure planted long before this scene ever takes place is, I think, the now standard adaptational decision to change the identity to the 'lost boy' from someone who is a total stranger to out characters as in the novel, to the missing son of Ma Costa, Billy. I've gone into my reasons for feeling this is a very misguided move before so I'll try not to repeat myself on the general issues here. But even in the immediate moment it disrupts what ought to be the simple 'wham' horror of the moment.

Making the boy into someone Lyra knows means that there must be two 'wham' moments - the realisation of what the boy is missing and the horror of realising who the boy is. And the fact that Lyra knows him and his mum is back at the Gyptian camp derails the scene; that immediately takes emotional priority.

The reason screenwriters love to swap in a character here with a personal connection to the main characters is the idea that this strengthens the emotions. It doesn't; it gazumps them. If the boy is Billy, as soon as Lyra recognises him we're already skipping past the emotions and information of the moment, and pre-experiencing the inevitable upcoming drama of Ma's feelings.

With all that fundamentally blocking the scene from working at a foundational level, it's perhaps no surprise that it also fails in more immediate ways. The direction is better in the film's version of the scene than the TV series' for functional tension-building, but in both cases it's pretty lacklustre.

Meanwhile basic storytelling competence should tell the writers that a scene can't have impact if the characters are having to frantically exposit as to what's going on as its unfolding. Both scenes have Pantalaimon and Lyra unnaturally announcing out-loud what's bothering them. "He's got no daemon!", "Where's his daemon?", "It's Billy Costa", "That's what the gobblers are doing... cutting kids' daemons away" etc. I feel genuinely sorry for the two young actresses who are asked to act their way past this unsalvageable writing.

The thing is, regardless of wider failures each adaptation has in the storytelling of daemons I'm still surprised neither is at least more competent about all that. If you want an audience to recognise something in a moment, you first establish a visual signifier of that idea.

For instance, in The Blair Witch Project, the final and clinching image of horror is the POV shot where our protagonist runs into the basement of the house and sees her companion quietly facing into the corner of the room. In isolation that image doesn't signify anything. But here it's horrifying because it has been set up earlier in the film that there's a legend connected to the titular witch, where victims are taken to a basement in pairs, and one made to face the wall while the other is killed.

All that is needed for the 'lost boy' scene to work on a functional level is to establish what visually signifies 'this child has no daemon'. You can probably even do it right there in the scene: have Lyra holding her own daemon in a particular way, and have the lost boy holding something in exactly the same way - only what he is holding is not a daemon...

Anyway, coming back to my own choices:

I've talked about making the lost boy Billy and why I think it's a bad idea so it won't be surprising that the by I have is meant to be the original figure - Tony Makarios (though of course that point is pretty academic insofar as he appears in this wordless comic sequence!)

I've taken out all dialogue. If one can't get across 'girl and daemon are scared and hyper-sensitive to a creepy environment, then shocked to discover this boy' without dialogue you're onto a loser.

Coming to my notable changes to the source text, I've replaced what Tony is clutching from the book's frozen fish to a battered doll.

I've talked about that thought before too. The fish is a powerful image in the book. Like a lot of horror and tragedy, the image's nearness to potential comedy is part of what makes it so effective. At the same time, I'm cognisant though that in a visual medium and without the narrative voice of Pullman to carry it, this might be too obscure and distracting an object, overtipping into baffling humour.

The idea instead of a plastic babydoll has various resonances to it.

Practically it connects back to an existing point, that they give out dolls and stuffed toys at Bolvangar. And that note is part of a wider point frequently though subtly reinforced through the novel about the divide between that which is authentic and that which is a sop, a self-serving pretence intended to be safer and easier and of course rarely either:

For example, the winter clothes provided Bolvangar are compared to Lyra's. The stuff at Bolvangar is synthetic and ineffective. Lyra's gear is animal-based. It's smelly and filthy and Pullman is always very sure to make clear the gory relationship furs have to living animals, not in order to condemn it but rather because he positions dishonest self-protective squeamishness as the ultimate evil.

Elsewhere Iorek posits the hypothetical of replacing a daemon with 'a doll full of sawdust' to make a point, and of course that's just the idea we see play out with Bolvangar. The gobblers justify their actions with the lie that the naturally occurring relationship between human and daemon can be replaced with a sanitised version that avoids all of the thorny parts.

Thus a doll of synthetic materials which is falling apart under the intensity of the boy's need and its exposure to the elements is a neat bearer of this theme. If it's a babydoll it's also a metaphor for the boy of course, a vision of a destroyed child. There's a final cruelty too in the impersonal carelessness of this as a sop, of how inapt a babydoll is for an adolescent boy, and how nonetheless he must cling to this insult of a balm because they have taken everything else.

... My only worry is that it's a little too perfect and on-the-nose. I hope to avoid the gothic, which would be inappropriate in this human tragedy, by steering clear of classic porcelain-faced creepy doll stuff and instead going for the most banal version of a doll I can think of, the plastic-headed/cloth-bodied kind. the important distinction might get a bit lost in my illustration style, though.

Similarly, I know the image of the meat works in theory and I like the pace of it here. But whether I have mustered my skills to depict that clearly I don't know. I think what the second and fourth panels could use is a tiny touch of detailing on the boxes that just does enough to establish them as food supplies, contextualising the meat.

That leads me to the hut itself, and why it's full of boxes instead of racks of drying fish.

With the fish image swapped out, it has occurred to me to consider other images of Arctic huts for the setting than the fish-preserving hut of the book. Polar exploration being another ongoing fascination of mine, I thought of the still-standing huts from Scott's expeditions, which I - and I think generally we - find to evoke a sense of haunting sadness and creepiness; time capsules of people who didn't come back. That seems to connect very neatly into this scene's ideas and feelings.

Looking at the sequence as a while, I am pretty pleased with the colour use. I think the highlights of pink and yellow help locate the story clearly.

There's a few further details I think I want to add, but generally I'm very pleased with this!


bottom of page