There is no way of getting around the fact that, for book fans at least, episodes six and seven of His Dark Materials have been a little underwhelming, and that explanations about budget constraints simply aren’t satisfying. There has been a slightly strained quality to some of the major scenes, reminiscent of the strained atmosphere of The Golden Compass after it was butchered to mollify religious sensibilities. Clearly the producers of HDM know which scenes are integral to the story and which major scenes fans will be looking forward to, but those pesky budget restraints are holding them back. Scenes that should have been grand and sprawling are now contained in small spaces, exposition heavy and light on action. In some ways The Golden Compass has gained a visual advantage, going back to watch the battle at Bolvangar and the epic clash between Iofur Raknison and Iorek Byrnison again this week has given me a new appreciation of the attention and care taken with those scenes. However, HDM’s problems are flaws inherent to small screen production. Some of them simply have to be allowed for.
While there were aspects of this episode that felt rushed, the performances from the cast grow more compelling with each episode. The Fight to the Death opens immediately in the remnants of Bolvangar as Mrs. Coulter stares at the smoking ruins of her Intercision machine and her career, the Golden Monkey maintaining a careful distance as he approaches her, before Coulter turns to give a startling guttural monkey scream. In the passageway Morfydd Clark’s eerie Sister Clara is shivering in the snow. Mrs. Coulter confronts her, asking her why she is still there. Clara mutters her mantra “this is the best place you could possibly be”, to which Mrs. Coulter snaps that “we cut out your dæmon, not your brain!”. Clara says that she wants to be of use, to make Mrs. Coulter happy, and it seems that Clara has been there for some time, although exactly how long is unclear, and it seems that she cannot function autonomously. She could be in her early twenties, or younger, and connecting Clara’s loss at being left alone with her revealing her dæmon had been cut away last week, it could be suggested Clara has been there since her teenage years and she was an early experiment. When Clara admits she doesn’t know where Lyra has gone, Mrs. Coulter goes animalistic and starts to strangle her while the Golden Monkey watches impassively. But it is clear that Mrs. Coulter is imagining she is strangling Lyra, and she manages to restrain herself before she kills Clara. She then takes a short, shallow breath to snap herself back to reality. A book fan will recognise some foreshadowing here, of which there is much in this episode.
Lyra’s fate is revealed just after the credits, she is captured and taken to Iofur’s palace at Svalbard. This is one of Lyra’s first truly life-threatening challenges, she has no protector, not even Roger, she is utterly alone with her wits. This was a dialogue-heavy scene in Northern Lights, but Iofur’s story has been scaled back quite a bit in the television series. Lyra’s stay at the bear kingdom at Svalbard takes a full two chapters of Northern Lights and between telling the remnants of Mrs. Coulter’s and Will’s stories to bring them up to the finale there was simply not enough time in this episode to tell it. So Lyra devises her plan with the inadvertent assistance of her fellow prisoner Jotham Santelia and works swiftly to carry it out. The exterior of the palace is impressive, with bloodstained stairs leading to a surprisingly narrow hall, although it still has a vast, cavernous quality. Lyra has been growing more and more like her book counterpart with each episode, (glancing over the appalling choice made for her to call Iorek a coward at Trollesund). Lyra inventing the tale of being Iorek’s dæmon to save her skin was performed wonderfully by Dafne Keen and this was given the main focus, leaving the clash between Iofur and Iorek somewhat stunted. The decision to forgo the bear armour, which will be the biggest complaint from fans, is really just one facet of the chapters that was not explored fully. There were still some points of interest – the fight itself was visually interesting, grittier and uglier without the ritual and the grand arena. The decision to hide the killing blow from the viewer was another surprise. There was some nice subtlety in these scnes, action over exposition for a change. Iorek’s memorable feinting was revealed in a split second blink between he and Lyra, Lyra’s savage defiance in the face of danger gave us something of her she-bear quality she will continue to carry with her, and Lyra’s desire to both see and unsee the killing reminded us how young she really is; all of these facets give the scene some more interest despite its brevity. Iorek granted Lyra her new name, Lyra Silvertongue, with little ceremony, although this was another nice moment between them without becoming overly sentimental.
While Lyra and Mrs. Coulter dominated much of the episode, Will’s story finally caught up with Lyra’s timeline. Will’s story has, thus far, mainly been expanded on from a few of Will’s memories at the beginning of The Subtle Knife, but this week it was adapted directly from the text, with Will’s hand finally being forced against his and his mother’s antagonists. Unsurprisingly, Thomas was the one “punished” by falling to his death – I assume for showing too much enthusiasm for his project. But there’s not much more to discuss on Will without going into spoilers. It is well established now that Boreal is after information on John Parry and that Will has to hide his mother to keep her safe, and keep the letters from Boreal. The rest of Will’s story should launch properly next season.
Lee and Hester’s scenes were brief this week, with Lee hilariously interrupting Serafina’s speech about a great war with “enough of that fancy talk!”.
Mrs. Coulter clashed with Father McPhail yet again, with each showing increasing aggression to the other. McPhail is not as prevalent in the books, but they do make an engaging pair of enemies. Back in episode three Mrs. Coulter seemed to gain the upper hand over him, but in their confrontation this week McPhail meets her aggression and matches it, even stepping in to touch her face, mirroring her manner. Father McPhail seems to be a symbol of everything in the Magisterium that is holding Mrs. Coulter back, but remember folks, she is not a feminist. Feminists don’t collude in oppression.
And finally Lyra made it to Asriel’s quarters to bring him the alethiometer. The episode wrapped up with Asriel gazing hungrily at Roger. With this part of the book yet to be explored on screen, it is satisfying to see James McAvoy playing him with the touch of madness and zeal that is required for the next part of the story.
Book to Screen:
Spoilers for Chapters 18 through 20 of Northern Lights only. Want to read along? Read pages 305-358 of Northern Lights/The Golden Compass.
Lyra was ushered inside the palace again, but into the state quarters this time. It was no cleaner here, and in fact the air was even harder to breathe than in the cell, because all the natural stinks had been overlaid by a heavy layer of cloying perfume. She was made to wait in a corridor, then in an anteroom, then outside a large door, while bears discussed and argued and scurried back and forth, and she had time to look around at the preposterous decoration: the walls were rich with gilt plasterwork, some of which was already peeling off or crumbling with damp, and the florid carpets were trodden with filth.
This week I decided to go back and watch the bear fight in The Golden Compass again, which was done on a grand scale as a book reader may have imagined it. I remember being amazed at the sight of it on the previews for the film (many moons ago) as it looked so spectacular. The clash between Iofur and Iorek was one of the best things about the film. What I wanted to see, though, was how the palace itself was depicted. I was a little surprised at the size of Iofur’s hall in this week’s episode, it was very narrow (easier to fit all the bears into the scene I assume) and it had none of the decoration that Lyra describes seeing in Northern Lights, it was, in fact, furnished practically to contain bears. The Golden Compass had a vast hall but besides the snow-covered filthy carpet they didn’t concentrate so much on decorative touches, focusing more on the magnificent gold-leaf on Iofur’s armour that shimmered in the wintry sun. It did, however, show Iofur holding his little dæmon doll. The fight, surprisingly, was bloodless, even after Iorek smashed Iofur’s lower jaw from his face. I hadn’t really paid attention to that before. It didn’t show Iorek’s neck wound from which he was bleeding freely, instead concentrating on the paw that Iorek feigned was broken. The Fight to the Death, on the other hand, left out the paw but concentrated on the neck wound, which is what terrified Lyra into running out into the hall to stay by Iorek’s side. The effects of the battles were vastly different, with The Golden Compass presenting a ritual and epic battle in an arena, and The Fight to the Death a struggle for power in close quarters.
They were Iorek’s bears now, and true bears, not uncertain semi-humans conscious only of a torturing inferiority.
What neither screen adaptation has done is depict my favourite part of these chapters, which is Lyra going through the rituals of becoming a bear. In The Fight to the Death Iorek gives Lyra her name, Lyra Silvertongue, after he defeats Iofur. In Northern Lights he names her that before the fight. After the fight there is much bear ceremony to get on with. Iorek eats Iofur’s heart in front of the other bears, who then take off the ‘human’ decoration from their armour and dash it to the ground. While the bears begin to smash up the palace, Iorek allows only Lyra to tend to him, and she packs his wounds with blood-moss. Exhausted, Lyra then curls up in the corner and covers herself with snow as a bear would. She wakes with her eyelids frozen shut and barely able to stand, but she survives. She and Roger are then taken to see Iorek by one of the Svalbard bears, but first they feast on raw seal. Lyra then attends a bear council before Iorek takes a team to get them to Asriel. The bond between Lyra and Iorek is better understood when having read these chapters. Lyra often pushes herself so as not to appear afraid in front of Iorek, as we witnessed in her approaching the hut in The Lost Boy. Iorek, for his part, loves Lyra frankly and without pretence, and her acceptance by the bears of Svalbard is a rare honour paid out of respect for Iorek. It is significant that Lyra continues to carry the name Silvertongue, not just as a display of her cleverness (for how would an outsider know this anyway?) but as a family name.
Spoilers for His Dark Materials Trilogy
Click to reveal spoilers
I am feeling strangely detached from Will’s story and I suspect it is because we had him in three episodes before I was expecting him. Everything in the previous three has been leading up to this episode, technically the start of The Subtle Knife, and now it feels a bit of a let down because we know who the mysterious men are invading his house. It’s not an issue, but the effect the different approaches have had is interesting. I haven’t been overly enthused with Will being at least fourteen in the series (and he looks older than that). It changes a lot of things. Ageing Will a few years has given him a slight air of teenage angst and he is quicker to grow frustrated with his mother, rather than the fiercely protective and depressingly capable eleven year-old. But then the story has changed again, Boreal is a direct antagonist rather than someone who happens upon Will and Lyra in a stroke of luck (for him). Boreal finding out about the knife was framed as Boreal being a collector of historical objects – something that stuck out this week when he mentioned it to Mrs. Parry. Our world doesn’t really have ‘dangerous’ historical objects.
This leave the question open, in any case, of how Boreal will learn about the subtle knife in the series. Or does he know about it already as a ‘dangerous historical object’?
Next week: Betrayal
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