Designing character in Northern Lights

Updated: May 4, 2021

As I may have hinted at in the past, I have... frustrations with the BBC/HBO adaptation of Northern Lights into the first series of His Dark Materials.


My series about the storytelling of dæmons in Northern Lights and its adaptations is awaiting a final installment, and that installment is supposed to be on my thoughts about the visual storytelling employed around dæmons in the TV show.


And actually... I think this might be it


It differs in format from earlier installments. And it steps outside the remit of that series a little because as well as dæmons I'm discussing other character stuff.


But the below does feel like the culmination of the thinking I've developed over the course of that series - about how Pullman so successfully wrote dæmons in the first place, how he used Renaissance imagery to inform his creation, how the first major adaptation - the stage play - handled dæmons to my mind to the best effect out of all the big adaptations. In the last part, I went into some thoughts about how I thought the movie and especially the TV show have tripped up on the writing side of things. And now it's time to talk about the visuals.


So, hell with it. For now at least I'm calling this:



Dæmons in His Dark Materials pt. V

(But also other character stuff in His Dark Materials)


You can find Part I of this series here and Part II here and Part III here

and Part IV here


When I first started writing those essays about eight months ago I didn't sense that I was working towards a visual/illustration project at the end of it, but then it's hard to talk about what went wrong on the visual side without actually showing ideas for how I think those issues might have been better approached.


So I've worked on nine illustrations of characters from Northern Lights, each of whom I have thoughts about which springs off the thinking and writing I've done there.


In these illustrations, I've looked to specific actors for reference - but this isn't an exercise in fancasting. There's a couple of instances where I have a very exact actor in mind but mostly I've used the references of particular actors to suggest an approach, an angle of attack, more than to vote for an specific casting suggestion.


So here are nine illustrations that express what I would have liked to have seen brought to the characters and their dæmons of an adaptation of Northern Lights for screen.


Below I'll go first into wider thoughts about approaching the visual storytelling of dæmons, then into each character individually.





Dæmons


Firstly I'll explain, as a recap on the long essays I've written, where I'm coming from with dæmons and how I'd develop those basic principles into a way of coding and framing the idea for screen to what I believe would be better effect than what we've seen.


Northern Lights is about dæmons on both a thematic and practical level. You just can't tell a worthy, or even very coherent, version of this book without getting dæmons to work. And that's maybe not something you spot on the first read because part of how Pullman does this so successfully in the book is in seeming to downplay dæmons to normalise them. He keeps our eye elsewhere while he continually builds our understanding and emotional connection to the idea so when he starts paying off on that in big dramatic moments, it comes as a powerful and effective shock.


(But by the time you're adapting the book you should certainly have worked that out.)


There just doesn't seem to be much curiosity, imagination or thought in the TV approach to dæmons. And I should be incredibly clear here that though I'm talking about the visual stuff I'm never criticising any of the designers, modellers, animators or other artists and craftspeople who worked on the show. They all did incredible work. My issue is with the people who took the lead on overall storytelling, so the producers, writer and to a slightly lesser extent the directors.


Because the problems don't arise in the details, they're baked into the overall approach. Or really, lack of approach. My problem is not that I disagree with the direction taken on dæmons for the show so much as the lack of any direction


The modellers and animators at Framestore do truly astonishing work and their creations always look totally convincing and appealing. But that's just it, should dæmons be those things? It feels like an assumption, not worked out by careful thought.


The best analogy I can give is that this is like a production without cohesive costumes, where there's no sense of period or mood to the clothing, where everyone has been dressed to reflect some nebulous-yet-pat idea of their own inner soul rather than to create, en masse, an idea of time and place.


Only it's worse than that, because where we can probably get past chaotic costuming and use other cues and genre conventions to understand the intention, dæmons are an entirely new and invented concept for this story so we don't have any recourse when the show fails to engage in any coherent visual storytelling around dæmons. The medium is the message.


The show is meant to be teaching us what dæmons are; how to think and feel about them. If is doesn't, we got nuthin'.


Viewers have complained of the sheer lack of dæmons on show. The programme's producer Jane Trantor has said that even apart from the obvious budgetry limits, they also found that including too many in crowd scenes made it look like menagerie.


Which, again, is like someone saying that unfortunately they couldn't include many clothes because they tried just chucking random stuff on the actors from every part of the costume shop and it looked a bit much.


Over and over the main creative directors on this show have astonished me with this kind of thing. "We tried it like the book but it didn't look good so we did nothing."


Creating an adaptation is not giving the most literal top-of-your-head version a go and then shrugging when it doesn't quite get there. If you want to tell anything of the same core story, you need to, well, adapt. To find the filmic ways of doing what Pullman does on the page. It's not about replicating surface detail.


But the thing is, it also happens that Pullman is already a very visual, quite Spielberg-y storyteller so even if you want to be very 'faithful' it's kind of all there for you.


I've written on how I perceive a semantic field, or aesthetic, in Northern Lights, whether Pullman was deploying it fully consciously or not, which is vital in making dæmons work on the page. To quickly recap, I think Pullman was tapping into an existing framework of animal imagery that readers would be able to follow subconsciously - that of Renaissance art.


The forms dæmons take, especially in the first third of the novel where the idea is being established, adhere to a pattern of medieval/Renaissance imagery. In Oxford more heraldic, in London shifting into something more of the Flemish Renaissance.


The purpose is both thematic and practical.


Pullman is using a reference pool and system that we as Westerners have an implicit understanding of as a field, even if we don't know we've spotted it. We know, seemingly instinctively as we read that, for instance, an armadillo dæmon would seem world-breakingly odd in Oxford, while a basilisk feels suitable.


Pullman uses this sophisticated, arcane reference pool to pull away from other reference pools we might have and which would be an unsuitable association. E.g. these aren't Disney-esque talking animals, or New Agey totems. Before he ever gets into telling us what dæmons are he tells us what they're not, steers us away from some immediate but unhelpful territory by giving us a different map.


He's communicating to us the sense that what dæmons might be best defined as is "if we all had a companion like those animals you see in Renaissance portraiture (Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine, Holbein's Lady with a Squirrel and Starling etc), something animal shaped but also human and symbolic."


Which is far more interesting territory to me than the trite "a dæmon is a soul" line that adaptations like to trot out. Like, the latter is a conclusion Pullman does draw us to and which is suggested through his showing us what that means. But it only works as a story not a bald statement. It doesn't actually mean anything if you just say it, upfront.


Anyway. Renaissance.


Pullman's linking into this existing system of imagery and meaning really helps sell the dæmon idea in the story to the reader. We may not recognise what the pattern is consciously, but as denizens of the Western world, we feel comfortable with this set, these associations. We know how these symbols slot into the human world. All the storyteller has to do is hint at how that plays out and we're ready to go with it.


But screen adaptations seem to miss that there's a system at all. Or a need for such a system. They never seem to investigate how Pullman so successfully makes dæmons come across as natural and normal, much less work out their own filmic ways of doing the same.


The stage play got it! It regonised these challenges and opportunities and found a very satisfying stag way to code dæmons into what they needed to be and represent.


Meanwhile, it always feels like there a lot of uninterrogated assumptions going on in the screen creation of dæmons, almost all of which lead to exactly the wrong approach: that Pantalaimon should be cute, that his favoured forms should be reserved only for him, that realism as defined as 'being a close match for real live animals' is desirable, that uncanny vibes should be filed off etc.


So yes, my most basic intent is to pick up the sense of pattern and system I perceive in the book and work from there. I want my dæmons to take forms that obey the Renaissance pattern.


And I want their look to pick up on that too. Less of the fluffy aesthetic typical of modern animal CGI and more of a painterly quality to their fur; a greater emphasis on light and shadow; a palette that comes from this art history at least as much as it does from modern wildlife photography.


I want there to be a lot of similarity felt across dæmonkind, instead of a sense that each dæmon is built from first principles.


(And just think how much money you'll save by reusing animation models...)


Here are some guides I'd follow for creating dæmons as a system:


  • First I'd work out some universal principles, the kinds of forms that you'd most commonly see among background and minor players. I think there would be be lots of cats, mice, rats, adders, moths, blackbirds, wrens.

  • And I think the forms of 'hero' dæmons shouldn't necessarily be reserved as uniquely theirs. In the show, Mrs. Coulter's dæmon doesn't register with us as strongly striking - as he does in the book - because we've nothing to compare him to. There's no pattern to subvert. All the dæmons we've seen have been pretty equally unique and therefore striking. In contrast I'd have other monkey dæmons be seen, but only one golden one.

  • Because also I'd be sticking to a palette for dæmons on the whole: lots of brown, black, grey, rusty red. I'd hold off on striking colours like white and gold for the most part, or bold markings. That doesn't have to be drab. There can be plenty of beautiful starling-feather shimmer and adder sheen. But analogously to the costuming of extras, crowd-dæmons shouldn't be catching the eye.

  • Similarly to the point about the monkey, I'd also have mustelidae forms be fairly common - stoats and ferrets. Pantalaimon doesn't need his stoat and polecat forms to be unique to him to stand out. It's much more useful to signal how he fits in to the world of dæmons. He's the main dæmon by which we understand all the others - so link him visually!

  • I'd also be thinking about scale. The forms I've suggested as common suggest some of that already: dæmons should feel like they have a 'normal' in terms of size. No smaller than a moth, no bigger than a cat on the whole.

  • But I'm also thinking about the scale and proportions of individual creatures. I think it would really tap into that Renaissance wellspring to play with scale a bit. I'll talk more about that below. But I think of Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine and how the animal in it is ermine-coloured but not ermine-sized. It's more like a ferret. It doesn't stop feeling realistic. You can play with these things without losing the believability.

  • Background dæmon's should also be chosen not to feel too inconguous in their environments. The people on the streets of London shouldn't have rabbits loping after them, the scholars in the halls of Jordan shouldn't have foxes. I talked in Part I about how the book guides us to think of dæmons fitting social and environmental patterns at least as much as individual character, and so it makes sense to think that town people will have animals that suit our imagining of the town etc. This kind of thing is pretty instinctual (to me a monkey feels suitable for a background Londoner to have but not, say, an owl, which to some might sound pretty arbitrary).

  • And then there would be the rules for how dæmons interact in the humans' physical space... well I'm going to leave that for now, to talk about below.


But what I hope I'm conveying is my desire to create a real a sense of pattern and predictability to the world of dæmons.


And having that means you can then have the characters who are the exceptions to the rule stand out in all sorts of ways.




Lyra Belacqua/Silvertongue


There’s an essay to be written about the translation of child characters to screen from books. Much more than with adults characters, there’s a vast gulf between what child characters are and how they operate across the two forms. The fundamental difference is that on the page, the child is wholly the creation of an adult author’s mind. Informed by memories of their own childhood and observation of current children, sure, but ultimately an avatar of an adult authorship. There’s huge variation in how ‘authentic’ the author even intends to be, what the intent of using a child protagonist is in their story.


Meanwhile in live-action film and TV, children are played by actual children.


There's also an issue of audience. Northern Lights, for example, is a children's book, but His Dark Materials is a general audience TV show so that's going to impact how your child character ought to be framed too.


So even more than with any other character, you really have to get to grips with how a page-child is going to turn into a screen-child.


To save a longer examination of this process for another time, I believe that when bringing a child character to screen you have to have a real sense of clarity ('you' here meaning writers, casting directors, directors etc) about the kid's vibe, to the point of archetype. A child is not a seasoned actor. They can bring you a nuanced, real, performance, but you kind of can't write that down - you have to give them a really clear steer and allow their realness and unhoned talent to round that out into something more nuanced.


You can’t write a bitty, vague character and expect a child actor to breath life into it with the experienced technique a veteran can bring. An actor of the quality of Anne-Marie Duff can turn Thorne's lacklustre writing into a solid character via sheer chops. 14-year old Dafne Keen doesn't have the experience to avoid making broad, fuzzy writing come across as a dull and listless performance.


Lyra is such a vivid character on the page but capturing that vividness is not a simple matter of checking off all her character notes like a shopping list. Especially when those character moments are written so weakly. Our introduction to 'Lyra the wildcat' at the start of episode one is her race with Roger through Jordan. But the scene is weak in getting across anything very definitive about her. She's a bit wayward, a bit cheeky but the scene for some reason works hard to mitigate her brattishness perhaps in a bid to keep her from getting unlikable. She jumps into clean laundry but promises to help re-wash it, etc. And the writing throughout is like that; vague. Scared of taking her anywhere extreme.


My reference-point archetype by contrast would be Marmalade Atkins. A clever little horror, an irrepressibly wild and irreverent anarchist – who, in a completely understated way, of course, is only responding appropriately to the lack of care and love the adult world has shown her and is in fact quite capable of loyalty, affection and diligence when offered the same by others.

As a visual reference I’ve also looked to a young actor called India Brown, who played Susan in 2019’s utterly and unexpectedly wonderful revival of Worzel Gummidge. Brown must be about 14 or 15 in Worzel but nonetheless I found myself watching wishing she could play Lyra.


The fact is Dafne Keen doesn't remotely look 12 either. But with the character of Lyra, for screen, I feel you have the flexibility to present that character as a little older than on the page. Again, a 12-year-old on the page is not the same as a 12-year-old on the screen. Nothing in the trilogy stops working if she's that couple of years older. Indeed some parts might read better on screen with a slightly older actor. At some point we have to watch this character fall in love and that's going to be hard to buy, if not to say a little weird, with a 12-year-old actor.


Pantalaimon


I've written before on how I think Pullman introduces Pantalaimon very advisedly in moth form. As I've already mentioned here, Pullman was steering hard away from unhelpful talking animal tropes. He wanted to establish something else about Pantalaimon before his animalistic aspect, or any sort of cuteness.


Screen adaptations have done the opposite, making sure Pantalaimon is cute on arrival. In BBC/HBO His Dark Materials, we meet him in his iconic ermine form.


I think that's a misstep in a couple of ways. The whole point with children's dæmons is that they're mutable, of no fixed visual personality. I'm not saying there shouldn't be some work done on trying to make Pantalaimon's physical forms feel expressive and connected to one another, but I think part of the point of introducing him as a moth in the book was for it to be clear that his personality isn't attached to any one form. Pantalaimon isn't a talking ermine or mouse or wildcat. The moth makes him almost a disembodied voice at first appearance.


I think thus meeting Pantalaimon personality-first is something that should carry across to the adaptations. It works perhaps even better for screen as a device than for the book where visuals lead proceedings.


I'm also keen on the idea of a TV adaptation not treating the facts established in the book as Lore to be expressed through Clunky Exposition, but rather as ideas to investigate through the differing tools of the screen.


So, related to the above, one of the big headline Things about dæmons is that adult dæmons are fixed while children's dæmons can change form.


There's so much more you can bring to the table with the tools of film language than faithfully reproducing that fact and getting it across unmemorably in a bit of perfunctory exposition.


I would like to see children's dæmons tend small and hard to pin down: they're more inclined to be mice hiding in sleeves or moths disguised on the fabric of clothes, flickering presences rather than the public-facing versions adults have. I'd like to see children as less physically separate from their dæmons than adults are. I'd like to see that touch of children's dæmons feeling a little more like an imaginary friend or inner voice than the fully physical companion the adults' have. I don't mean any dæmon should literally disappear, but they should be much more visually un-pin-down-able presences. I.e. use filmic storytelling to help bolster the ideas and themes rather than just emptily reproducing the letter of the book.




Roger Parslow


Roger's the first of several characters I'm going to look at who has a pretty small role in the story - or rather a limited page-time and a limited chance to be a subject in his own right. To be honest, that describes most characters in Northern Lights, even those that make the biggest impact like Mrs. Coulter. The book is both told through a third-person narration that sticks close to Lyra's subjectivity, and also episodic.


So really with all the characters, to some extent, you have to be looking to techniques for how to make them come across strongly and memorably without having the luxury of time for them to emerge gradually.


A problem with Thorne's writing is he's come out of shows like Skins and Shameless and doesn't seem to have a writing ability that goes beyond those parameters. It is really mysterious to me that he keeps getting given projects which call for another skillset entirely.


In a show like Skins what you need to be able to write is interpersonal drama. People having diverting interactions. That is all that is going on in that show. It, and Shameless, those are good shows, don't get me wrong! But they don't even require a very clear sense of continuity or progression in those relationships because there's a collaborative soapiness that keeps it all sailing steadily. You can just throw these characters against each other and nudge them with circumstance and follow whatever threads seem most interesting. Thorne can do this one thing, play this one instrument.


And for one thing, as I say, that kind of writing just doesn't work for the shape of a story like Northern Lights. There simply isn't time to take that approach to writing these characters. We have to know and love them quickly. Because Northern Lights is a story with a lot more than interpersonal drama going on.


Furthermore there's the fact of this being an adaptation and therefore having a somewhat set text. There are established actions and endpoints. So you need a writer who can write filmic life into characters existing within firm parameters of story and time, not someone who is only really good at bouncing characters off each other to no particular greater end.


So looking at Roger, in the book he is far more an object than a subject in the narrative - and that's not something that needs to be fixed. In a story like Northern Lights, that's what some figures are, not agents in their own story, but motivators in someone else's.


At the same time, of course, one doesn't want such characters to be flat or transparent. In order for them to do their narrative job they need to register emotionally. With Roger, we need to believe in one way or another that Lyra will end up crossing half the world (and later beyond) for the sake of this boy.


I'm going to have to save my wider thoughts on how the TV series mishandles the whole Lyra/Roger/Coulter/Pantalaimon intersection for another time. But for now suffice to say they try to make Roger register by really showcasing Lyra and his friendship in the first episode before his disappearance. That's Thorne's singular idea of What Good Writing Is at work. He tends to think all character/relationship drama can be imprived by just seeing more of them together.


There are two problems with that here. Firstly, it crashes the Lyra/Pantalaimon relationship.


Secondly, there really isn't anything to showcase. The TV show just takes a longer time to tell us what the book told us in a line: "...Roger, the kitchen boy... was her particular friend...".


Re. the point about the show crashing Lyra/Pantalaimon with Lyra/Roger: this is a major problem for the series. As I've said, Northern Lights hinges on dæmons. Dæmons don't come across = story don't work.


And it's not just the time that the emphasis on Roger takes away from opportunities to see Lyra and Pantalaimon's relationship, it's the emotional space. There's a good reason that the boy was a lightly-sketched figure in the book. In the show Roger ends up kind of taking Pantalaimon's place. We come away with the sense that the headline is Lyra/Roger, while Pantalaimon feels superfluous. That's pretty disastrous for the basics of this text.


And as to the second point - yeah, there's not that much of a relationship to show. They're kids, they're mates, we get it in one go. It doesn't get more compelling for seeing more of it.


The show imagines that it's important to convey Lyra and Roger's connection as powerful, and that kind of misses the point. Lyra going after him isn't about their relationship - it's about who Lyra is.


Somehow the more they show of this relationship, the less interesting and compelling Lyra becomes via her determination to find Roger.


In fact I think it would a more powerful opener if the relationship wasn't shown so idealised, if there was a tension and arc there. Imagine if instead of the pleasant but static scenes we have we'd seen a Lyra - as per the notes above - who was far more the ruffian in her dealings with him, far less played for sympathy. A true feral brat with little sign of finer feeling.


Set Lyra up in more off-putting terms; make us feel impressed by her cleverness and reckless bravery but wary of her less nice aspects; make us wonder if there are any depths to this girl; make us like Roger on his own count - then when Lyra is the one person to step up and commit to rescuing the boy, that's when we fall in love with her.


As for how we're made to love Roger independently of his relationship with Lyra, that's the advantage of TV: you can give the viewer a more independent relationship with secondary characters. In the book we have to know Roger via Lyra. In the series, because the lens is less subjective, and because he's being played by a whole, real human being, you can give him a sense of independence and life without it taking extra space in the episode.


I want Roger to feel like a relatable and independent character because he's all function. The Roger I have seen on screen is too removed from reality to quite break my heart. I can't really imagine the life outside the story of this boy, so the threat to him and his eventual death don't feel poignantly tragic. While he's not exactly vivid in the book, again, that works because of the differences in subjectivity. We experience the tragedy there via the acutely drawn description of Lyra's experience of it.


So, no - I wouldn't go for the simple stolid thing, the plodding, younger sidekick. I'd cast an actor who conveyed a sense of quickness and mischief and seemed like a worthy playmate for Lyra, someone she has stuck with because he can hold his own, someone who gives the impression of existing outside his story function - because he super doesn't.


Salcilia


I don't have much specific to say about Roger's dæmon that isn't covered by what I've written about the differences of presentation I imagine between child and adult dæmons.


But it might be worth thinking about whether there's something to do to make this dæmon attach herself to your affectionate memory, so when events at the end of the book unfold we have some specific sense of her.


A marriage of careful voice actor casting and design should do the trick.


Roger can be in many ways the foil to Lyra's less sympathetic way of going on in the first epsiode, and perhaps one of those is that we witness a physical affection between Roger and Salcilia that we don't see between Lyra and Pantalaimon - yet.


Another option is giving Salcilia a comedy moment, possibly when Lyra and Roger get lit. Just a little moment to make us specifically like this dæmon so the death/separation ending lands more exactly.


I'll also add here that I'm not certain but I think I'd be inclined to cast adult actors for the voices of the children's dæmons, instead of the child voices that the screen adaptations have used. Those voices in the book just always read as adult to me, having that slightly Jiminy Cricket, fussy nanny vibe. When I listened to the (excellent) full-cast audio books, I remember feeling that Pantalaimon's actor (Rupert Degas) and performance were just right - an adult, Cockney-ish accent which allied him a little with the servants of Jordan in that opening.




Lord Asriel


I've talked about secondary characters, even major ones, not actually being around much in the story, and Asriel is the ur-example.


The book can make his presence felt beyond his page-time by referring to his place in Lyra's inner life, but the TV show mostly has to rely on him just making a big impression on us in his one early scene.


So I can kind of understand why they decided to include a '12 years previously' prologue starring Asriel delivering the infant Lyra to the sanctuary of Jordan. It gives him more screen-time to register with us. But that choice is riddled with problems, as I went into in Part IV. In terms of the problems it causes Asriel's character, the issues is that it characterises him in a way that completely undermines and confuses his characterisation in the main narrative.


Sometimes in fiction when we see a cut between a younger version of a character and an older one who behaves quite differently, the intended effect is to make us wonder things like, "what happened?" or "is that good man still in there somewhere?" etc. Look at the opening scenes of Firefly for an example of that. But this show doesn't appear to be saying anything by showing these two versions of Asriel. It simply takes what was a very strong character intro from the book and shows us first a bunch of stuff that muddies it; that undermines everything that was good about that intro. It confuses completely our sense of Lyra's relationship to him, and how we should perceive his attitude to her.


The Lyra/Asriel storyline in the book is one of ambivalence and that's exactly why you need to keep things crisp and precise. Lyra's attitude towards Asriel is both part of her character arc and forms the basis of one of the big emotional turns of the book.


There is, though, one excellent scene (or set piece) for Asriel in the first episode of the show - the Retiring Room incident. There's like one little choice I would have changed about that whole sequence (when Asriel says "who will stand against me?" we should cut straight to Lyra, not the wide shot) but I like everything else about it very much.


And though the other choices in that episode, as I say, unfortunately dogleg all over the place to leave us with a confused sense of expectations, James McAvoy helps sell the continuity of character. McAvoy was a great choice for Asriel, though non-obvious. He's not the Bond-type and he's not a big man. But I think of the scene in Atonement in the Balham flat and how he managed to play physically dominating and a little scary, all without losing a sense of sympathetic humanity, and sure enough he captures something like that to excellent effect in his performance of Asriel.


And casting an actor of this type - classical and stage-trained, unafraid to incoorperate a little ham into a generally nuanced performance - is bang on for Lord A.


So ultimately this illustration is less about the casting (I've gone for Chiwetel Ejiofor who is much in the same vein as James McAvoy) and more about the dæmon...


Stelmaria


What I hope I've managed to communicate so far re. dæmons is that there should be a real sense of pattern in what we see. And we create that in order that important details, exceptions and contrasts can be drawn out to particular effect.


For example, Lord Asriel is that character who bulldozes through all patterns. As I observed in the linked essay, his dæmon's snow-leopard-form signals immediately that Asriel is both a master of the world in which we see him, and also not contained by it - because snow leopards are both of and not of the Renaissance or heraldic field. Leopards generally are a meaningful and powerful symbol often reserved for royalty in heraldry. But she's a snow leopard, a species out of place in a Renaissance world because they weren't known by Westerners until later.


So I'd look to those helpful, storied resonances to shape my visuals. I'd think about how Stelmaria's look might by informed by the medieval 'pard' as well as literal snow leopards


And this is also a good place to point out that there's no one-size-fits-all approach to what dæmons are in Northern Lights; how they are used in tandem with their human.


For example, in contrast to some other dæmons, Stelmaria doesn't really operate as a character but a symbol. She's not a personality like Hester or animalistic like the golden monkey, she's really there like a piece of dramatic costuming or set dressing that reflects back onto the human character.


So whereas you might want a character like Hester to feel rounded and present, Stelmaria's one where you can be a little more stylistic, more posed and mannered in movement, emphasising the heraldic-ness of her presence.


Setting out those wider patterns enables Lord Asriel to come across as really striking because he's an exception.


Other characters break or build upon the patterns in more subtle ways. Let's take a look at Farder Coram next for an example of that...




Farder Coram


As with Lord Asriel, I don't precisely have any issues with the show's imagining and casting and visuals around the character of Farder Coram. But the writing, again, lets the character down.


This time it's not really confused character writing giving us mixed cues on set-up. It's not the writing of the character himself which is poor, it's more that he figures into parts of the story which are quite under-written.


I.e. Coram's role in Northern Lights is the mentor figure who takes Lyra under his wing just as she is beginning to be ready to mature into someone more thoughtful and responsible and consequently becoming able to engage with the Alethiometer. The Master advises Lyra to keep her own counsel; Farder Coram teaches her how to do so.


The problem is that the show doesn't have this strong arc of character development for Lyra. Connectedly, it also makes a pretty bad job of the Alethiometer story. Like in the play and movie, but with less excuse given its running time, the show can find no better way to tell the story of Lyra's learning to read the instrument than by having her try a couple of times then get it.


That doesn't leave a lot of room for Farder Coram to shine.


What the show does play up is Coram's past romance with Serafina Pekkala. I'm going to get more into my thoughts around that when I talk about that character.


But with better writing on both counts, James Cosmo would be a perfectly excellent choice ready to really register with us. Nevertheless for the sake of the exercise I've imagined a different approach - I've cast Sanjeev Bhaskar.


I'm going to talk more when I talk about Ma Costa on the benefits of casting comedy players in straight roles, especially smallish roles with scant writing. I feel that, like Ma Costa, Farder Coram is a role who could potentially benefit from the rounding effect of a comedy player bringing a warmth and humour and a useful cultural baggage to the part.


Northern Lights is rather full of solemn, wise characters, most of them older men, and there's something to be said for using casting to vary that up a bit.


Bhaskar is only 56 which is way off the canonical 70s/80s of the book character but I don't know how much that matters for this character, I think it would work. When I come to talk about Serafina and about Lee, I'm going to look at how I think age is an important note in their characterisation and worth really paying attention to in conceptualising them for screen. With Coram I think the character can have the same effect as a man in his 50s as in his 80s. It would depend on the casting around him - how his casting bounces off that of John Faa, in particular. It might be interesting to have them as men of similar age and energy and it might be interesting to have them contrasting.


But the real reason I ended up including Coram in the mix to talk about here at all is because of his dæmon, Sophonax. She is a cat, and that allows me to talk about a specific angle I have on my ideas of how best to visually code dæmons.


Sophonax


Cats are pretty central to my sense of how to bring the Renaissance aesthetic to bear. Because - as the internet has noticed before - Renaissance cats look weird, and I think dæmons could do with a little weird. Those slightly oddly-proportioned, too-human-eyed creatures sitting on laps and windowsills in portraits - they're not cats, they're dæmons. Sure they look a little uncanny sometimes, or a little funny, but that's kind of the point for me. Realism isn't a fixed point and the realism I think that belongs in His Dark Materials is not that which is softened towards the fluffy, cute and relatable, but is a little unusual and even edging on unsettling sometimes


So lots of cat dæmons in screen-HDM, but odd-but-realistic cats. What I would do, then, is look to the rarer small feline species to inform these forms.


Servals, caracals, jungle cats, flat headed cats, pallas cats, golden cats, margays. Cats which are more or less the size of a domestic cat. That you'd look at and say, y'know, 'that's a cat'. But which look a little off from the beasts we are most familiar with, off in that Renaissance way: their heads a little too proportionally small, legs too long, coat the wrong patterns etc.


A serval looks like a house cat painted from rough description.


So I've imaged Sophonax's 'large and unusually beautiful cat' form as something like a flat-headed cat or maybe a jaguarundi, the proportions and brown coat being just enough to feel off to our house-cat-modelled perceptions without being obviously exotic, in a way which feels really useful for dæmon aesthetics.


I think it would really help lift interactions between Coram and Sophonax away from feeling too much like a man and his pet, and from feeling too cutesy and connected to unhelpful talking-animal tropes. That's relevant generally for dæmons and certainly would help Farder Coram and Sophonax come across. You want dæmons to be a tool that helps build a sense of a character rather than being a distracting note. So Sophonax shouldn't feel fluffy and domestic but connected to something less accessible, outside Lyra's/our experience; something sophisticated.




Mrs. Coulter


This idea and illustration is actually where this whole project started as an exercise. I read that Phoebe Waller-Bridge was a big His Dark Materials fan, whose relationship to Northern Lights sounded a lot like my own. The Fleabag/Mrs. Coulter thing clicked into place immediately.


It would be unfair to imagine that the Fleabag character represents Waller-Bridge as a person or imagine it's the only role she can express. But she certainly has that association and I think it's something that could profoundly work for Mrs. Coulter.


I've referenced re. Farder Coram, and am going to get into more re. Ma Costa, the technique of casting comedy players in straight roles. As I've said, it can benefit smaller roles like that which might otherwise sit flat.


But something else it can bring is exactly the right kind of size to the performance of an iconic villain like Mrs. Coulter. Phoebe Waller-Bridge knows how to play heightened without losing sight of the truth at the heart of the character.


You can almost see Mrs. Coulter as what would happen to Fleabag in the circumstances of Lyra's world; her capacity for intelligence, love, humour all twisted and frustrated into alienation, control and cruelty. I've talked a bit more about that here.


And the unique way that Mrs. Coulter and her dæmon interact reminds me of the stuff in Fleabag about how the character relates to the fourth wall. This is how you go about turning a literary device into a filmic one.


The golden monkey


The golden monkey needs to come across as striking and unique among dæmons, and I think that is currently a bit eh on screen because there is no 'normal' established.


I'd make sure, in the ways I have described, that there's implicit parameters established for dæmons that we'll notice when they're subverted. And specifically I'd include other monkey dæmons because I think you need to connect the golden monkey into that pattern in order for his contrasts to stand out.


So if we see monkey dæmons which are brown and grey, and not terribly animalitic in their behaviour, Mrs. Coutler's dæmon is going to register far more strikingly with his bright gold fur and intense black features, and his impish behaviour.


I'm also going to start talking here about the patterning of physical relationships between human and dæmon.


A major issue for me in the show is the lack of much physicality between humans and dæmons at all, especially problematic as it pertains to Lyra and Pantalaimon. My best guess is that difficulty and therefore expenses shoots up the second you have a CGI creation interacting with a real actor. But I have to wonder how the movie, which came out ten years ago, managed to do so much better on this front than a current production. It's something that really undermines what's meant to be a central and profound relationship.


But more specifically than the idea that, like, it'd be a good idea if humans and their dæmons shared the occasional hug, this is again about how you codify a pattern of dæmon behaviour and appearance that helps us infer and believe in their place in this world.


I've heard people wish that the show did more to imagine how the existence of dæmons would make the world Lyra lives in different from the one we know, and I think that shows that people were frustrated with how dæmons sat in this story - but is also a desire that totally misses the point. Dæmons are an invention intended to show the reader, or viewer, something about humanity, about us. If you make it so their existence changes the ways humans live and think and act, that completely loses the basic point.


So the better act of imaginative world-building is to devise how you can incoorperate dæmons into recognisable societies without changing things too profoundly to accommodate them, on the whole, ando so in a believable way.


I've sat on the tube or walked down the street and imagined how dæmons could fit into such a scene. And I've worked out some patterns.


Part of what I've already set out as patterns comes from that. My sense that dæmons tend to be small is partly to fit a sense that they can easily fold into shared human space. On the tube, a cat dæmon can be on a lap, a serpent around the neck, a mouse in a sleeve examining the crossword their human is doing.


One thing I would want to do is hold off on dæmons riding shoulders. For one thing I think it's a little too cute, too unusual-looking, too in-your-face noticeable. It changes a human's silhouette to have a companion up on the shoulder and so disrupts the image of normality.


But certain dæmons you want to stand out like that. The golden monkey doesn't blend into Mrs. Coulter's space, he contrasts beautifully like an amazing accessory, up on the shoulder. Dæmons are like faces. Everyone has one but only occassionally is it something you find striking and glamorous.



Ma Costa


Ma Costa is a character who feels distinct in the book but has only a little page/screen-time or much to do. Unlike Roger though she's not really a plot piece, she's a supporting character. But her presence is felt in the book in the kinds of ways that are swiftly lost on screen.


Both film and TV adaptation have beefed up her role, presumably because they've felt the lack of many female characters, especially positive ones, in the story. Both adaptations send her North with the Gyptian party, which in the book was all-male apart from Lyra. In addition to this change, the TV show also gives has her be the character to tell Lyra who her mother is, which in the book wasa reveal that belonged to a conversation with Lord Faa and Farder Coram.


Making the latter moment Ma Costa's for the series was a great move, an honest-to-goodness improvement upon the book. It means it's a character with her own place and stake in that story who is telling it. It makes it emotional instead of purely expository.


But like any of the positive notes I have on the series, it comes with the caveat that I'm perpetually frustrated by the fact that this series doesn't seem to notice when the changes it has made open up new interesting possibilities. It always reverts immediately to book form and leaves these possibilities hanging.


What comes up with the series' version of the maternity conversation is a much stronger sense than in the book of Ma Costa's status as Lyra's other mother, the woman who in contrast to Mrs. Coulter nurtured and defended the infant Lyra, and who has carried on caring about her and keeping an eye out for her even when she was no longer in her custody. I wish they'd done more with the sense of Ma Costa as a foil and an adversary to Mrs. Coulter; of how she presents a a contrasting model of adult womanhood to Lyra.


The casting of Anne-Marie Duff makes Ma Costa rather more of a snack than one imagines her in the book, and it makes me think that it would have been interesting to see a past affair hinted at between her and Lord Asriel. After all, we know the two actors concerned have chemistry...


For me that would be a good way to give an emotional core to the back story.


With Roger, I talked about how I felt the series was mistaken to think that the way to make the big emotional turn (his disappearance and Lyra's determining to find him) land was to just spend more time with them being cute together first, and how I felt the moment would have benefitted from instead coming as the resolution of tension, of a question. We'd care so much more about Lyra's decision if we'd been set up to wonder whether there were any depths at all to this wayward brat.


Similarly here, I feel that the reveal of Mrs. Coulter's maternity could land so much better if there was something we'd been encouraged to wonder, suppose or expect. It lands a little damply as it is. Unlike the book, at this point Lyra and the audience already know that the original story about Lyra being orphaned by an airship accident is a crock, and Lord Asriel is Lyra's father, so we know there's a question mark over her maternity. Since Mrs. Coulter is really the only in-story candidate it's hardly a shock to us that's she's mum. Yet Lyra reacts with shock and horror. Understandable in-universe, perhaps, but a bit alienating to an audience that is nowhere near sharing those reactions.


So it could be really helpful dramatically to actually set up some other expectation so that this reveal is a surprise. I.e. lead us (and Lyra) to suspect that Ma Costa might be Lyra's mum, and to begin to want that to be true.


Tell the story of the connection between Asriel and the Gyptian people with a hinted-at love affair within it of these two.


It's not just an empty red herring, it's a nice way to explore some of that stuff about what makes a mother, what the heritage of these women means to Lyra etc.


So it turns 'who is Lyra's mother' into a story with stakes and themes around it rather than a meaningless bit of ephemera.


But yes, all that notwithstanding, giving Ma the reveal was a great move.


In contrast, the other major Ma moment the TV series includes is kind of my least favourite decision in the whole show. It's not one that's original to this show either. Both play and movie did it. It worked in the play fine, and was a low point in the film.


I'm referring to the change of the Lost Boy plot piece from being about a random child who only the reader has met before, to being Billy Costa.


That's the other reason Ma Costa gets sent North, to be part of this plot change. It's Billy, so his mother needs to be there to react. For me that's a one-two punch of bad decision making, but I'll come to that when I talk specifically about the Tony Makarios character/moment later on.


Other than that, Ma's presence in the North is... OK. There's a lot of wasted opportunity. She could be used to bring in a perspective and reaction to things like Iorek, Lee, the witches and so on that contrasts with the existing ones. She could be the voice of awe and fear re. Iorek. She could be used to bounce off Lee to bring his character out more sharply.


But whle the show doesn't really use her in any of those ways, she does have a decent role in the Bolvangar take-down which as a set-piece is generally probably the strongest part of the show. It's cathartic to see the mother, standing in for all the parents, avenge the children and save the survivors.


Anyway, casting... once again I have to honestly say that the existing actor in the role is a real favourite of mine, so my saying she's a misstep isn't a comment on her. But I think her casting is a blunt one-size-fits-all idea of what makes Good TV in the same way that Thorne and the producers that hired him seem to think being able to write decent interpersonal drama is the gold standard of all writing. I mean, Anne-Marie Duff is a world-class actor with classical pedigree. She's got to be the right choice, hasn't she?


But actually, I think they should have cast from the world of comedy. That's always a good way to beef up roles which are a little small but have a real potential for character in them. I'm not talking about making Ma a comedy turn, I'm talking about what comedy players bring to straight roles. There’s a quality, or rather technique, that comedy players can import, an understanding of how to make their character feel round and charismatic based on scant lines and time. They can calculate exactly how to heighten the tone, to be just that little bit mannered, in a way with sells a smallish role memorably.

Jessica Hynes is very good at that. She's an excellent comedian (Spaced, W1A) and an excellent straight lead (Years and Years) but she also gets cast a lot in small roles which the production need to feel... bigger. Mrs. Jackson in Swallows and Amazons is a classic example; it's a fairly tiny part but casting Hynes means she elevates it to feeling film-sized. Or look at her in the Doctor Who two-parter where she had to remain a likeable character while also not cheating on the fact that a character in that time and place would likely be pretty racist towards someone like Martha. Hynes has to convince us that what she represents might just balance out the years and years (ha) of the other life we've seen the Doctor lead. She needs to be so good in this one two-parter that we feel conflicted about whether the Doctor should stay with her or return to the life we have been watching and loving for decades. And she does it.


So, y'know, Hynes is a past master of taking relatively flat parts and imbuing them with a sense of life. But while she might be an ideal casting choice for me, again I'm not really here to talk about exact casting choices, more to offer examples of the kind of choice that I think should be being made. There are other actors with a comedy background who are quite different but would offer the same by way of bringing in a comedy background and technique to the production's benefit: Rosie Cavaliero, Vicki Pepperdine, Alice Lowe, even Katy Wix. Ma Costa is a kind of vessel you could pour a variety of different comedy players into successfully.


Her dæmon


As for her dæmon, he's mentioned as a hawk but it's such a minor note to her character that he isn't named and actually in early editions of Northern Lights, there's an inconsistency of form - Pullman appears to forget that Ma's dæmon is a hawk and at one point describes him as 'a great grey wolf-like dog'.


So here we have an example of a dæmon operating in the story quite differently to the way the golden monkey, or Stelmaria or Pantalaimon do, and it is in fact the most typical way for dæmons to operate: actually kind of a minor note. Not a character in their own right, not a particularly telling character-totem for their human. Like, I guess I get some clue on Ma Costa from her dæmon's form, that she's fierce, free and sharp-eyed. If she had, for example, a cat dæmon I suppose I'd have a slightly different impression of her. But it's a character-informing decision on the level of costuming. A helpful visual clue as to someone's personality and their world but something that should feel integrated and natural as its first duty.


As so often the TV show went unimaginatively literal. The book says 'hawk' so the TV show gave her (and Tony Costa) a very 'generic' hawk, a mid-sized brown bird occasionally seen. I'd be thinking of how I can tie the idea of a hawk more firmly to Ma Costa's look and world, and I'd choose a kestrel. It's a survivor that thrives in the margins of society. But it's not really the symbolic connections I'm thinking of, it's the aesthetic. Kestrels are small, with a touch of both the elegant and the scrappy, and they're colourful. They'd fit right into a Gyptian aesthetic while also adhering to the general principle of keeping dæmons feeling small, and not too exotic or grand.


I would have Ma Costa's daemon animated to echo her personality, in contrast to the personality-free symbol of Stelmaria, or the animalistic menace of the golden monkey who counterpoints Mrs. Coulter's poise. And not either like the full character treatment of Hester (who I'll be coming to shortly) but giving the dæmon a sense of sharing the good-natured humour of Ma Costa, beak often open in laughter, wryly chiding Pantalaimon etc. I'd do the same sort of thing with Sophonax, though I didn't mention it there, have her echo her human's basic manner in her movements. Use these dæmons to reinforce the sense of their humans' personalities and echo their behaviour and attitudes.


And as I mentioned, no shoulder-perching for this one. He might nestle in against Ma's neck, under her hair in the cold of the North but on the whole he'll sit on her hand or cling to her clothes when he's on her. Worth remembering that dæmons don't have to - and shouldn't, and can't - behave totally like real-life animal counterparts. A real kestrel might have trouble climbing on a human but that doesn't mean Ma's dæmon shouldn't be able to.




Serafina Pekkala