You can find Part I of this series here
and Part II here
and Part II here
The writing of dæmons for screen
The TV series is pretty good except the writing is bad and the visuals are bad.
… OK I’m being glib, but I also don’t… not mean it.
His Dark Materials is not a bad show. There are a lot of skilled technicians involved doing excellent work on set design, location scouting, acting, prop design, modelling, animation etc.
And in terms of the writing and directing, the show has a kind of exacting, plodding respect for a book which is so full of intelligent imagination that the series can’t help but import some of that to decent effect, even if it sometimes seems to be doing its best to make the intelligent stupid and the nuanced flat.
But I think the storytelling is pretty absent on both levels in BBC/HBO’s His Dark Materials.
I originally thought this series would divide into four parts with the fourth covering the screen adaptations. I think now it will be six. As I indicate above, I find two broad angles of discussion important when looking at His Dark Materials in adaptation, with a focus on the storytelling around dæmons: the writing and the visual storytelling.
And I think each merits its own self-contained section.
This section is going to look at the writing.
Literalism versus interpretation in adaptation
“No meaning, only lore.” (Lindsay Ellis, Twitter)
Right now we are in an age of literalist novel-adaptation.
We’re seeing a lot of movies and, even more so, a huge rise in TV shows adapted from books, for a bunch of reasons that are much discussed and observed: streaming services like Netflix have a lot of cash to play with in production; books and comics come with an existing fanbase and cultural cache; the nostalgia buck is big etc. Streaming has also given rise to the miniseries format meaning that shows no longer have to make a two hour movie or a series of discrete episodes out of a novel. An average-length novel fits neatly across about eight episodes and when a show is designed to be binge-watched no one much minds if individual episodes don’t hold up as a discrete unit.
And there’s a generational thing going on with the people in charge of these shows too. We have been experiencing geek-led-mainstream culture long enough now that the writers and showrunners and directors helming their first big projects in 2019/2020 are increasingly of a generation that has worked only in a culture and industry of this type – an era of peak TV, of the MCU, of Game of Thrones being the biggest thing on air, of the Lord of The Rings films being established classics.
So we’ve got geek shows being made by geeks who have only ever worked in a geek-friendly industry, for an audience of geeks.
Meanwhile VFX and digital realism have been growing in sophistication and coming down in price. Visuals that were twenty years ago either entirely unachievable in any kind of literal form, or at least extremely difficult to execute with practical effects, are now available to even mid-budget productions and almost guaranteed to look good. Novels once assumed to be unadaptable by dint of the effects they would entail are now opened up.
These three factors – the dominance of geek culture in audience and makers, the growth in sophistication and affordability of VFX and CGI and the effect on TV budgets and structure of Netflix and co. – means we are seeing an explosion in adaptations from the world of ‘genre’ fiction, the traditionally cultish genres like fantasy and science fiction which as imaginative works tend to feature lots of stuff you have to stick on the effects budget.
If and where these kinds of texts were adapted before they required a bit of lateral thinking around some of the more visually huge and weird stuff. Now those things can be realised exactly as they appear to be described in the text.
This literalist approach has mixed results. Adherence to the surface of a book is at best a neutral quality. It’s just as easy to make something that misses the spirit of the original while replicating the surface as it is while changing it. Indeed I would say I am particularly suspicious of faithful adaptations for being inclined to miss the point. Sticking close to the text allows for a lack of imaginative thought, a failure to really engage with how the change of medium must change the meaning and context of those details. It feels to me like a misapprehension that any two tellings of a story can ever match, let alone two in entirely different storytelling media.
I see the concept of ‘faithfulness’ is a fundamentally empty and nonsensical one.
‘Faithful’ is a nice word. It sounds positive. It’s a way of putting into unobjectionable-sounding language an idea which sounds much more questionable put other ways. ‘Adaptations should somehow exactly materially match their predecessor’, ‘adaptations should be literal to the details even if those convey quite a different underlying sense in the new medium’ etc.
'Faithfulness' is a word which makes sound like an inarguable virtue that which is really no more valid or informed than the cries of male fans outraged that they remade Ghostbusters with women or that Star Wars: The Last Jedi dared to tell a slightly new episode of the story rather than rehashing existing ones. True, the latter camps are going to misogynist and racist places tin their casting about, which makes them considerably worse.
But at its base it’s all just fans who want the new installment or version of something to make them feel like they did when they were twelve and read the novel or saw the first films, and misattributing the disappointment they feel when it can’t possibly do that (nor, if it has any self-respect, tries to) to the most easily identifiable points of difference between what they already love and the New Thing.
And I don’t think individual fans are stupid or culpable. I think most people who are invested and attentive to a particular piece of media probably have the capacity for a lot of nuance and ambivalence in their feelings. The problem is that internet fan culture – whether it’s Reddit, Twitter or Tumblr – are machines that churn up a large collection oh ‘I dunno, I guess I’ll wait and see’ into ‘no I’m right, this is going to suck and here’s why’. Takes built on the ever piling scaffolding of previous takes and baseless assumptions and endless failure to have any insight into the creative processes at work.
There’s a lot of people with a deeply-held emotional attachment to the stories and properties that are getting traded about in the mainstream, who mistake the fact they care, for the idea that they understand how it works.
Sadly for me, some of these fans are making the movies and TV shows now.
The first series BBC/HBO’s His Dark Materials is a faithful adaptation.
It pays great attention to the surface detail of Northern Lights, but, I feel, takes no charge of it, does not consider the elements for what they do, how they work and whether they need shifting – or indeed are worth including at all. A philosophy of adaptive storytelling that can be summed up - as Lyndsay Ellis put it when discussing how Game of Thrones ended up - "No meaning, only lore."
In Part I, I examined the very first pages of Northern Lights to understand how Pullman explores his dæmon idea effectively and marks out the imaginative space he wants to explore going forward without giving much away.
It seems sensible that in getting into criticism of the handling of dæmons in the BBC/HBO adaptation, I should also focus on the opening scene.
So let’s start with a detail that I talked about in Part I, a single small thread which I think if we pull on a bit, we might find ourselves seeing the wider issues around careless fidelity come to light.
As I discussed in Part I, Pullman makes the name of our main dæmon work hard, as he makes all the details around dæmons work hard.
He calls him Pantalaimon. He has Lyra always call him ‘Pan’, but the narration always use his full name.
The full name is the first version we read and the one we see most often and it conveys in its form much that is useful and informative of character: it’s fantasy-ish, classical-ish, with vague associations of both mythology and classic children’s literature. It’s not the kind of name we associate with any particular thing in our own world – not the kind of think people are called, or pets. If it reminds the reader of anything it feels a bit like the name of a god or a demon from classical or Biblical mythology. It feels Greek and that bounces off the word 'daemon', with is Greek æsc vibe, to start building this particular resonance of the mythological/historical/scientific. But it also has just a touch of the familiar. The ‘-mon’ ending sounds almost surname-y which suits the way in which Pantalaimon acts somewhat like the fussy nanny of a wayward child mistress.
So the written word ‘Pantalaimon’ is loaded with cues and clues.
Equally significant is that it is a long and formal version of a name that Pullman can use in his narration in order to make clear the contrast of Lyra’s casual, intimate ‘Pan’.
And all this is important because Pantalaimon’s name is, in a written medium, his primary signifier. A novel’s medium is words. We know characters foremost by the word that labels them. We know a character has arrived in a scene because the narrator says, “John arrived on the scene”. We experience characters in a novel name-first.
Indeed the novel Northern Lights has examples that exemplify how important names are and how much Pullman is paying attention to them. Mrs. Coulter’s dæmon is never named but referred to always by the sobriquet ‘the golden monkey’. We notice the lack of name for such a prominent and recurring figure and it has an effect on us. We feel the golden monkey is menacingly unknowable.
Meanwhile in a visual medium, names are not primary signifiers and may not even be terribly important in a given show or movie. They don’t symbolise the character as they do in a word-based medium, they are here just a secondary detail. In film and TV we know characters first and foremost instead by their appearance.
It sounds complex, but it’s as simple as this: in books we read characters, on screen we see characters. In books we know them by their name, on screen by their appearance.
It’s another example of how story and storytelling are one and the same at least in the hands of skilled practitioner like Pullman. He has created dæmons through and for the novel form. The Pantalaimon/Pan name is something that specifically and significantly serves this story in a word-led telling, and which specifically does not serve a visual medium.
But BBC/HBO’s His Dark Materials sure is keep to establish the detail of Pantalaimon’s full name early and firmly.
And, like, who cares?
In a visual medium it couldn’t possibly matter.
Least of all as an urgent piece of information when there is so much else to convey. Here, where character names are not primary signifiers but merely a fairly secondary character detail, getting the longer name across can really only ever be needless, distancing clutter.
I’ve started by going into detail on this one point because I feel it so exemplifies Jack Thorne’s approach to writing this series, which replicates detail without displaying any understanding of what the element did in the novel and how that might translate to screen.
He writes fanservice.
I don’t mean that he’s deliberately pandering to fans, necessarily, I mean that his treatment of the source material canonises detail as somehow intrinsically important rather than understanding them as working pieces of a greater mechanism.
And I pick out the detail of Pantalaimon’s name as well because of where that piece of information is dropped, and what pulling on that thread does to the scene and eventually to the writing of the show.
That scene is the very first of the series: we open twelve years before the main narrative with Lord Asriel first bringing the infant Lyra to Jordan and placing her in the Master’s care.
The inclusion of Pantalaimon’s name in that scene is at first glance perfectly gracefulgraceful. It works fine within the scene. In the scenario depicted it makes perfect sense for Asriel to introduce daughter and dæmon by their full names. That's something we can logically presume happens at first meetings in Lyra's world. In fact exactly how dæmons get their names is something fans have often asked and – ah.
In her video essay That Time Disney Remade Beauty and The Beast, Lindsay Ellis describes how the 2017 live-action remake of the animated classic seeks to answer the kinds of ‘plot holes’ that viewers have thought themselves very clever for identifying over the years: why does no one in Belle's village seem to wonder where their local prince has got to? Why were the household staff punished for their master’s wrongdoing by also being transformed? Did you know that mathematically the Beast was only ten years old when he was transformed, doesn’t that raise a lot of questions?
The answer to which is, of course, yes. But the things is that questions aren’t a bug in a story, they are a feature. They are something the author should manage and steer, not seek to eliminate.
And of course the live-action remake of Beauty and The Beast isn’t a better story than its animated predeccessor for focusing on tying up those loose ends. It’s a much less effective one.
Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause him shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things.I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood's "Open Sesame": Once upon a time..." (Jean Cocteau's opening pramble to Le Belle et La Bete, 1946, Criterion Collection's translation)
Of course internal logic and consistency and authentic detail aren't verboten tools of storytelling. A story without any attention to those things would also be terrible. It's a storyteller's job to be the expert and to know how to deploy those tools, according to their intended genre and tone (a fairy tale has more license to amorphous logic than a fantasy book, for example) and where to leave space for the leaps of faith.
You can't eliminate logical gaps from a story to bolster faith in the story any more than you can eliminate doubt from a marriage by monitoring your spouse's texts.
So my complaint about the inclusion of the name ‘Pantalaimon' and its place in the opening scene is not that’s it’s jarring in itself. Rather that it is a smoking gun. It is a needless piece of information that draws our attention to the idea that maybe this scene has been created to deal with information in kind of a wrong-headed way. And maybe Thorne does a lot of that.
So let’s take a look at how some different versions of Northern Lights have approached opening their story and why BBC/HBO’s His Dark Materials makes the biggest mistakes of the lot.
The novel’s opening
I went into detail in Part I about the first pages of Northern Lights.To summarise: Northern Lights starts in medias res, finding Lyra already in a situation and only after the first couple of chapters begins to unpack the wider circumstances of her life.
That Retiring Room sequence, especially the action of the first chapter, is extremely self-contained, almost a drawing-room drama, almost even a farce in form. It’s all set in one room where characters enter and leave in a controlled way and our hiding protagonist secretly sees and subverts events. Perhaps this is Pullman’s experience in play-writing showing.
What this closed environment and controlled flow of players does as an opening for the story is enable us to get comfortable with the most important stuff – Lyra, Pantalaimon, their standard dynamic, and the basics of the human/dæmon dynamic and mechanic – before getting into the world outside of that.
This opening doesn’t appear to discuss dæmons explicitly. Indeed it is willfully reticent in expositing about them directly. But it turns out the action is perfectly arranged to provide a forum for just the right amount of set-up of the concept.
In the closed environment, we get a chance to become comfortable with dæmons, which are of course secretly the most important invention in the book, before we see any of the rest of the fantasy or alternate history of Lyra’s world.
Bear in mind that dæmons were first invented to serve this scene. Pullman felt he was missing a companion for Lyra to bounce off in her Retiring Room exploration, and thus hit upon the inspiration for dæmons. It makes sense, then, that this scene showcases dæmons without being obviously built around them. It needed them to work.
The novel’s opening has a strong, simple story – it has a motivated heroine, it has clear risks and stakes which escalate steadily. We understand the immediate environment pretty easily and the situation - if not yet clear in its context (we're not sure yet how Lyra belongs to this setting etc) – is clear in its in internal set-up.
We also don’t know exactly why Lyra is doing this specific thing, specifically now. We never do find out if there was a particular reason Lyra chose to sneak into a forbidden part of her home on that particular day. But Pullman is wise enough to know that we don’t need to pin this act to a specific circumstance to feel invested in the story. In fact it is better without any particular justifying background. Again, Pullman knows where to give detail and where to leave space. He leaves space where he wants the reader to leap to important points on their own and thereby believe in them more.
Pullman understands that sometimes it’s important to fill in detail and give particular information and sometimes it’s important not to. He understands that you earn a reader’s trust and investment not by suring up your story against any possible logical question but by mapping out enough of the territory that the reader is empowered to make their own leaps of imagination within that.
In this case the space he leaves around what motivates Lyra leads us to fill in something important about her. Without a particular reason given for Lyra’s actions we are led to conclude that she’s doing it, simply, because that’s her character. Any specific motivation he gave her would reduce the wider point being established here regarding Lyra's character.
And he's doing the same thing with daemons.
At a much later point in Northern Lights, Pullman describes Lyra’s skill at lying in these terms:
“She had to be careful not to say anything obviously impossible; she had to be vague in some places and invent plausible detail in others; she had to be an artist, in short.” (NL, chapter 17)
That's what Pullman is doing too.
The play’s opening
Nicholas Wright's play isn’t faithful in his adaptation, and it doesn't open with the Retiring Room.
In fact, while all the adaptations so far have kept in the Retiring Room episode in basic form. It is the Inciting Event (or the Hook or the Exciting Force depending on what model of story structure you prefer) of the story, none of them have used it as a cold open like the novel did.
Most adaptations (radio play, stage play, graphic novel, movie) employ a framing narration of some kind, and/or also take a few steps back to show us some narrative lead-up to Lyra traversing the dining hall with sneaking and hiding in mind.
I.e. they provide us with a direct motivation for the act in exactly the way Pullman didn’t.
I praised Pullman’s knowing to leave space there in the novel but that doesn’t mean adaptations are necessarily wrong to fill in the detail. Again, different mediums have different needs.
Wright, for example, has a different telling and weighting of the His Dark Materials story with different needs in adapting the books for stage. He consciously shifts the focus and tone of the story and how he sets it up.
Wright introduces a framing device to the story: Lyra and Will ‘meeting’ in the Botanic Garden on Midsummer’s Day in their different worlds, as twenty-somethings. Their cross-dialogue reminiscing turning into the stage equivalent of an extended flashback, forming the body of the play.
There’s no clutter, textually or physically – the stage is bare but for the tree and bench prop and our three characters. Thus Wright frames his adaptation deliberately and conditions the audience in how to engage with his play carefully: these are the most important characters; and this is a tragic love story at its core. It’s going to be a busy and wildly varied six hours, but we should keep our eye primarily on that.
It appears very different from the book’s opening but it is in fact using the same toolkit. It opens our story with a very small, contained scene operating on clear emotional cues and the limited scenery and players means that our attention is directed to the important questions about the elements that are allowed in.
It's just that it's a different intro to lead us into a differently weighted version of the story. Whereas Pullman was writing a novel planned as the first in a trilogy, but for now at least a discrete unit, and thus used his intro to focus us and connect us to the big important aspects of Northern Lights, the play treats the whole of His Dark Materials as a single ongoing narrative unit and thus needs to connect us to different themes and priorities with its start.
So in this intro, the only two points of mystery are the ones that it is important for us to have questions about: why can’t these two characters, apparently in the same place, appear to see or hear each other? And, secondarily, what is this animal-shaped character talking to the girl?
As I discuss in Part II it’s not that I think this reframing around the love story is the best possible way to serve His Dark Materials. I think it’s a decision necessitated by the play being such a dash through the books that it needs something very simple and identifiable at its heart to feel navigable. And it's perhaps too simple and identifiable to really serve what makes His Dark Materials such an interesting text in the first place.
But I am able to respect Wright’s version because it ties its colours to a mast. It finds a viable version of the story to bring out and does so consistently and well.
And I also appreciate that his adaptation, in so doing, gives me a version of His Dark Materials where I care about the love story, in a way I don’t in the books. One of the great joys of adaptation is when they transform an aspect of the source material in a way which makes one like it more. Again, it’s why I like interpretative, adaptive takes more than dully surface-faithful ones. It gives you a chance to find something new you love still connected to a source you love.
So while it’s a very different way into the story, this framing-device opening operates on the same principles as the book’s in-medias-res opening. It restricts the setting to first give us characters and emotions we can engage with at once. By buying into them and their relationship we care about their wider story, and are prepared to accept a lot of imagination-stretching stuff both on a textual and metatextual level as the story progresses into the plot and the wider world-building.
The movie’s opening
As I’ve mentioned before the movie opens, as the TV series later would, with Lord Asriel and Stemaria as the viewer’s first glimpse of the story, a kind of prologue before settling into the first Lyra-led scene.
In the movie’s case, Asriel and Stelmaria's appearence is brief and part of a wider montage/voice-over intro. But it is out first real scene with characters, set in the main timeline, and Lord Asriel and Stelmaria claim the first dialogue of the movie.
This briefer scene works better that the TV show’s Asriel-prologue partly because it doesn’t distract so much from where our attention should be focused. It may be Asirel and Stelamria talking but their dialogue points us away from them and towards ‘the child’ who we will shortly be meeting.
That might sound similar to the TV series, which also establishes Lyra via Lord Asriel. But that scene makes her an object in someone else’s story, almost literally, as a baby is as agency-free as human beings get. Meeting Lyra as a baby focuses us on her as an important thing rather than directing us to pay attention to her character-first. We meet her before she has that character.
The movie’s brief Asriel scene though does something different. It doesn’t give us flat information. It gives us intriguing question which directs our attention in the right way.
It’s not as successful an intro as the novel’s or the play’s but it is in its own way doing the same thing, giving the viewer the question it thinks it is most important to highlight. In this case, what is significant about this child?
And then we head from montage/voiceover section into Lyra’s world.
The expository voiceover/scene montage is a technique, of course, employed by The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of The Rings and that is no coincidence. New Line Cinema were explicitly seeking to create a new fantasy trilogy of films to capture the same market (just watch the first trailer, where the One Ring morphs into the Alethiometer).
And the book of Fellowship like Northern Lights is a book that opens its narrative with small, slow action familiarising us with the protagonist’s world. And the film adaptation of Fellowship kept that but preceded it with a big high-fantasy prologue, an extended pre-title sequence of epic battle and powerful magic, costume and camera-work and music all leaning fully into the hyperbolic – before coming to the cosy and human-scale (well, emotionally human-scale) opening.
So it’s not surprising that the same was attempted with The Golden Compass: a high-fantasy-high-stakes prologue followed by a tonally contrasting step into the small, slow world our protagonist starts out in.
But for a couple of reasons it doesn’t really work in The Golden Compass.
Firstly because the contrast isn’t there. In Fellowship the cut from the melodrama of the opening battle and struggle for the ring is in incredibly sharp contrast, in terms of scale, stakes, tone, fantasy, mysteriousness, to the Hobbiton section.
It’s a good tool for positioning our interest and sympathy with the hobbits. If the film had opened on Hobbiton we might have felt alienated by the strangeness. But following as it does the high fantasy and stylisation and drama of the opening, we receive Hobbiton as immediately naturalistic by contrast, relatable and sympathetic.
And that contrast is relevant to the story. It brings to bear the central narrative tension and theme. The sharp contrast makes us ask that central question: how will these ancient, grand matters possibly be affected by one of these small, humble people from this complacent place?
The thing is, that’s not really a narrative tension or theme that matters much to His Dark Materials. So thus emulating the opening of The Fellowship of The Ring was always a questionable move.
And even if it was, The Golden Compass's opening just doesn’t do that same work of contrasting point A with point B. Serafina’s narration is illustrated by images of the highest fantasy from this story. In Fellowship there is time taken to let us understand the world of the prologue – all epic battles and ‘cast it into the fire’ – and then how completely that contrasts with the world of the protagonist’s status quo. But in The Golden Compass we are just shown some context-free mildly outlandish images and then go into a mains story which feels more or less equivalent in outlandishness.
The preface uproots the mundanity of Lyra's Oxford by so firmly contextualising it as part of a high-fantasy world, and that distances us from it and from Lyra.
So Lord of the Rings serves us a high-fantasy apperetif, a brief, heady taster, and then follows it with a starter we are allowed to linger on before the next course. It makes the scope of the impending story feel huge by its use of sharp contrast. But the opening of The Golden Compass only mixes all the ingredients of Northern Lights a kind of stew. Not unpleasant, but by the third course of much the same thing you’re rather bored of it. It feels muddy in contrast and so things feel flat and limited in scope.
As I'm focusing on the screen adaptations in this section, I'll go a little further int the film and look at how it handles the true beginning of the story.
Lyra’s storyline opens in a scene of play/war between tribes of children. Roger is threatened and in order to protect him Lyra spins a tall tale to Billy Costa which prompts him to back down - on the promise of the fulfillment of a dare by Lyra, which will involve sneaking into the Retiring Room to steal a robe...
So that very neatly establishes Roger and Billy and how they relate to Lyra, Lyra's capacity for lying, and something of her history, while also triggering the true 'hook' scene of the story by giving Lyra a reason to sneak into the Retiring room - and as a bonus gives Roger and Billy a reason to be hanging around outside after dark ready to be Gobbled.
It’s a neat bit of writing. It establishes a broad and clear view of Lyra’s life in a scene which flows naturally and is already advancing the plot.
The problem is that it’s a little too neat, really. It makes sense for a movie, which not only has to get things across quickly but also have a sense of joined up narrative flow, not a lot of stopping and starting and disparate events at the beginning of a narrative. It’s impressive that one scene manages to get across so much so clearly but it does so at the price of making it all a bit flat and small. There’s no space for the audience imagination to really engage with any of it. We are left as passive viewers, understanding but not caring too much about the inventions of this story. We can see too clearly the neatness that moves the character about and so care less about any sense of inner life.
And as for dæmons, in a narrative that is desperately trying to pack in all its information up-front, dæmons become just another bit of equally-weighted ephemera to keep up with.
The TV show’s opening
So what then is wrong with the scene of Lord Asriel bringing Lyra to Jordan in the Great Flood?
Well, the flood for a starter. As Andrew Ellard, a script editor and TV commentator, pointed out, starting a fantasy story in circumstances which are actually outside the norm for that fantasy setting is always a dodgy move.
"...where you don’t know if a thing is unusual or normal for the fictional world. The flooded Oxford at the start of His Dark Materials did that. I was all “Oh, this Oxford is like Venice!” Two eps later they mention a flood."
(Andrew Ellard, Twitter)
Including the Great Flood is a pleasing reference for those of us who have read La Belle Sauvage, but that’s all it is. It’s fanservice. It doesn’t impact the story, it doesn’t speak to any theme, it just adds in a kind of false start for the imagination. When you are asking people to pay attention to what you’re doing with a bunch of fantasy stuff, you need to make sure that what you are asking them to pay attention to matters.
If you are going to ask people to pay attention to a complicated and subtle story and world, your half of the bargain as a storyteller needs to be that you will tell that story well and clearly.
So much for the setting of the scene, what about the concept of the scene in itself, showing as an opening to the series Lyra’s arrival at Jordan as a baby?
This is where we finally come back to the ‘Pantalaimon’s name’ issue. I.e this scene's entire purpose is to serve details that don't matter.
My guess is that the writer, Jack Thorne, has worried just how much establishing information needs to be absorbed by the audience straight away and he tried to shore up against that by writing things to be clearer, stepping back in time to establish the context of the main-timeline scenes.
So we see the moment that Lyra arrives at Jordan, we’re given her and her dæmon’s names, we are even given a phrase, ‘scholastic sanctuary’, which tells us nice and clearly regarding the eccentric circumstances of Lyra’s upbringing, “don’t worry, it’s a whole thing.”
So we open with Asriel dashing to Jordan to hand Lyra over to their protection, and the dialogue is basically “this is highly unusual! This is a university and babies aren’t usually left here!”.
And again - who cares? This stuff was only ever background colour. And here it all feels so laborious.
Meanwhile in terms of tone, this scene is entirely the opposite of what the story needs. Because the details are so various and confusing and opaque, the action and dialogue needs to be tonally flat and obvious to give viewers some kind of sense of what the hell is going on. It sacrficies an interesting story, a hook, an intrigue, an investment, in order to do some worried housekeeping about setting detail.
The movie used its brief Asriel-intro to focus the audience's attention in the direction of Lyra. The big-name actor with the cool leopard companion is invested in 'the child' so she's worth paying attention to. This intro might think it's doing something similar but it's not. It centres on Lyra but as a maguffin, an agency-less, personality-unformed baby.
All this scene does is pull the viewers eye and imagination in the wrong direction, clutter it with irrelevant questions and answers. It focuses us on unimportant details and prompts us to question that which actually the story does better to have us take on trust.
It doesn’t feel like a story. It feels like an embarrassed ‘here’s what you need to know’.
Pullman gave us clear action that unobtrusively showcased one central fantasy concept and allowed space for a little intriguing but tonally consistent detail with regards to the setting. Thorne gives us confusing action in a confusing setting, cluttered with details on both fronts that won’t actually be of much importance to the progressing story.
Again, the story is not separate from the telling and you can’t move the bits of the story around like this and expect them to act in the same way. Turning Lyra’s backstory from something we discover via a character we by then already believe in, a background she understands and cares about only vaguely, to the tone-setting first set-piece of the series, entirely transforms everything about that part of the story.
It’s like moving the camera too close to a painted backdrop in a movie lot. You can’t move bits of storytelling around with impunity. They were built for different purposes.
(It’s notable that when Pullman himself chose to set a story around the circumstances of Lyra’s infancy, he opted to write in quite a different tone and genre of fantasy from His Dark Materials – more fairy-tale-ish and less naturalistic.)
In the show, the gaps appear in the believability of this character history once it is shoved upfront. Further made-uppery must be invented to account for them – a lot of fuss, in this case, about ‘scholastic sanctuary’. Suddenly a lot of effort is being put into bolstering up a part of the texture of Northern Lights which is not particularly important to the story.
Over the next several episodes the concept of ‘scholastic sanctuary’ will keep coming up to no particular end other than having dragged all of this into the light it needs to stay there for a bit to feel balanced.
The book’s opening is also coherent. We might not yet have all the details about the dæmon concept, but everything we do see builds a consistent image.
But the opening of the series contains a mess of details that clash and confuse each other: helicopter – Oxford University – snow leopard – flood – baby.
the setting is thereby nothing we can grasp, and the action is also too opaque to provide any guiding star for us of what to care about or pay particular attention to.
That kind of wilful wrong-footery is a fine tone for HBO’s Watchmen or Westworld, where a certain kind of confused alienation of the audience is the point, the series thriving on subverting expectation and our being primarily invested in the details of their world. But that’s certainly not the kind of story Northern Lights is as a novel and it doesn’t seem that Thorne was consciously going or something different – he just doesn’t seem fully in control of what he’s doing.
There are other problems too, like how the opening distances us from Lyra and positions Asriel as a caring father before we’re meant to regroup and see him as a careless uncle. But of course I'm really here to talk about how this series lays down the template for an ongoing mishandling of dæmons in the show.
I think Jack Thorne doesn’t understand much about the principle of being “careful not to say anything obviously impossible” and having to be “vague in some places…”
He puts the heightened upfront, asks us to engage with the “obviously impossible” directly without having earned our willingness to go with it. The book opened asking us only to believe in the story of a bored and wayward girl sneaking into a room which is meant to be out-of-bounds, asked us only to be intrigued by the intruiging, and then worked hard to earn our engagement with anything else by way of character writing and rich, earthy, mundane detail of setting.
The series might not appear at first glance to throw in that much more overt fantasy than the book’s opening; there are after all only two (adult) human characters present, so only two dæmons.
But again, the problem is that we are not meeting this fantasy via character. Instead of meeting the concept of dæmons via Pantalaiamon - discrete-of-form, grounded-and-vivid-of-personality, bouncing vividly and relatably off his foil Lyra – we here first see Lord Asriel’s snow leopard. Exotic of form, lacking in personality and functionally superfluous to the scene.
And that first dæmon-appearance establishes a pattern, where dæmons are just kind of… there… in this series. They contribute very little as characters. You could do a pretty minor rewrite to remove them entirely (let’s say the people at Bolvangar are deleting souls in a more abstract way instead of cutting away dæmons) and the on-screen story would stay pretty much the same. You can’t say that about the books. The specific invention of dæmons is vitally important to the workings and impact of the book.
In the next section I am going to look at the visual storytelling associated with dæmons on the show. I will also focus away from the opening in particular and look at the broader presentation. This happens to echo how the first two sections went: Part I discussed Pullman's writing in the opening of Northern Lights, and Part II looked as his use of an artistic reference point for the writing throughout the novel. So that's neat.
So next time: CGI dæmons!