His Dark Materials Book to Screen Analysis: Episode Two ‘The Idea of the North’

Episode Two Spoilers

The Idea of the North

In his lecture ‘The Writer’s Responsibility’, Philip Pullman quotes film director and playwright David Mamet, who says the basic storytelling question is ‘Where do I put the camera?’ In episode two of His Dark Materials, The Idea of the North, we find the camera paying a great deal of attention to Mrs. Coulter. In truth it is Mrs. Coulter’s character I have been most preoccupied with since the adaptation was announced, and this week’s analysis will mainly focus on her. I wondered if we would see the full scope of Mrs. Coulter’s villainy, or would we be subject to mawkish displays of her supposed maternal instincts? I am not surprised that they have written some glimpses of humanity in, tiny moments of regret, and only in regards to Lyra, but once Ruth Wilson shakes herself, and the maniacal smile is back in place, the mask is on, and the viewer is jolted back to some sort of reality.

This episode didn’t progress much further in terms of Northern Lights chronology but it did add some new material based on The Subtle Knife. I will discuss more of Lyra’s time with Mrs. Coulter and how Lyra became enchanted with her in the book-to-screen analysis but it was clear in episode one that she fell for Mrs. Coulter’s adventurous life as well as her beauty and charm. At the flat the idyll wore off quickly. Lyra’s personality was destined to clash with Mrs. Coulter’s, as well as the rigid new routine she is expected to adhere to. Lyra would like to read ‘some books’ but mostly travel and go on adventures. Mrs. Coulter’s mask is also beginning to slip. In an early scene Mrs. Coulter comments that she doesn’t like heights because she can never get away from the occasional urge to jump. During lunch at the Arctic Institute she points out to Lyra that there are no other female scholars in the room and how she can teach Lyra to wield power over men who would belittle her.

Shortly before the blow-up between Lyra and Mrs. Coulter, Father MacPhail has arrived at the flat to discuss her General Oblation Board project. The scene is particularly interesting. After a distant handshake in the hallway, Mrs. Coulter takes Father MacPhail into her study. After she closes the door she walks towards him and slips the key to her flat into her bra. McPhail’s eyes follow the motion. She then steps directly into his personal space asking him if he would like a cup of tea. MacPhail pulls back and tells her he doesn’t drink tea, and she responds by leaning in even closer to ask if he would like some water, all the while maintaining the discomfiting wide smile. McPhail steps away, and Mrs. Coulter has gained the physical dominance, and thus a victory over him. Once they are seated she maintains a confident stance until McPhail tells her the Magisterium may pull the plug on her project. At this point the veneer starts to crack, and she snaps at Lyra when she finds her eavesdropping. She maintains an aggressive stance towards the men as she marches them out of her flat. And then the confrontation with Lyra occurs. Lyra accuses Mrs. Coulter of losing control because she was angry, and that she is still angry. Mrs. Coulter denies it and Lyra challenges her. Mrs. Coulter turns to leave, takes a few steps but then turns and attacks Lyra afresh telling her to take off her shoulder bag. As soon as Lyra refuses she sets the Golden Monkey on Lyra and Pantalaimon.

This is a rather more drawn-out affair than in the book, where Mrs. Coulter merely snapped after Lyra disobeyed her over the shoulder bag, there were no incidents leading up to it. In some ways the scenes seemed designed to lead up to Mrs. Coulter cracking and blurting the secret that Asriel is Lyra’s father. The secret of her mother’s identity does not follow it. However, there has been an obvious emphasis on how Mrs. Coulter deals with men. This should not be seen as a particularly feminist statement, Mrs. Coulter is only interested in her own power and is certainly not a feminist ideal, but it is interesting nonetheless and adds another edge to her character. The reveal of her being the head of the General Oblation Board, the Gobblers, should quell any romantic notions of her alleged humanity. A woman who tortures children for the gains of adults has none. In the scene where Mrs. Coulter goes to visit the kidnapped children we see her false persona. With some slight hilarity, Ruth Wilson shows us how Mrs. Coulter slips her mask on. She charms the kidnapped children into going North “on an adventure” and encourages them to write letters to their parents, watching Roger write to Lyra carefully before she saunters down the hallway and gleefully drops them in the fire.

Lord Boreal’s story has been expanded quite a bit. The timeline for his first appearance is correct, at least in Lyra’s eyes at Mrs. Coulter’s party. Boreal was more involved with General Oblation Board in Northern Lights, but here he introduces himself as an executive of the Consistorial Court of Discipline. We get our first glimpse of a window between worlds, which we really didn’t see until Subtle Knife, and a brief glimpse Boreal’s life in the other world he inhabits, ours, in which it appears he has an agent called Thomas. Thomas knows about Boreal’s travelling between worlds. We, the viewers, are really going in with the knowledge there are multiple worlds and the early reveal isn’t that problematic. But it certainly does hint at a much larger story for Boreal, particularly after his ruthless murder of the journalist outside Mrs. Coulter’s party.

This week’s episode was nicely wrapped-up with Lyra experiencing her first real betrayals by adults, weeping bitterly, her dirty legs drawn up to her chest, still swathed in the oppressive clothes and shiny shoes that tried to repress her character, while Roger and Billy are marched off through a squalid dungeon, out of Lyra’s reach.

Spoilers for Chapters 4 through 5 of Northern Lights only. Want to read along? Read pages 75-98 of Northern Lights/The Golden Compass.

This episode didn’t progress far in terms of Northern Lights, only twenty or so pages since last week. Screen-wise Lyra’s time with Mrs. Coulter from Northern Lights is rather abridged, in the book she spent six weeks at the flat and her activities were described in detail, so we got a better idea of exactly why Lyra was so enchanted by Mrs. Coulter. Lyra was neglected at Jordan College, not with any intent or malice, but simply because of the environment. She was a young girl in a men’s college who belonged to no one in particular. Her education was patchy, she was taught in bursts by various scholars in their academic interests and not to a set plan suitable for a child. Her clothing was most often second-hand and worn or mended. She had no proper supervision and as we could see in episode one, where she begged Asriel to spend time with her, she was utterly starved for affection. Lyra’s days with Mrs. Coulter are pleasingly full, lunches with scholars at the Royal Arctic Institute, or with glamorous socialites, who Lyra thought so unlike female scholars or Gyptians or servants that they were ‘a new sex altogether’ and evenings at the theatre, new clothes and exotic food, all of which would easily persuade an eleven year-old that her new ‘employer’ had her best interests at heart.

It may also persuade her to forget her missing best friend. Philip Pullman is a fan of fairy-tales and some influence can be seen here, a child being enticed by treats into the clutches of a villain. It mirrors Tony Makarios’s experience, Mrs. Coulter only needed a chocolatl. On-screen the children are lured by the singing fox dæmon and captured, in the book many have been captured by Mrs. Coulter herself, who unlike C.S. Lewis’s Jadis needs no magic Turkish Delight, she only needs to find the hungry-looking ones.

Book Spoilers – Some brief thoughts on dæmons.

His Dark Materials Trilogy

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Philip Pullman has thankfully never expanded too much on dæmon lore outside of his actual texts. And with Pullman’s permission readers are all allowed a little interpretative freedom. The series started began by announcing that dæmons are a human soul in the form of an animal. Pullman created dæmons so Lyra would have someone to talk to. The inspiration comes from the Greek δαίμων, a lesser deity or guiding spirit. To me dæmons have always seemed to be the guiding force in the relationship, particularly with the child characters. The dæmon and human are individuals and the same entity, similar to a certain Christian theology, in this case two is one and one is two.

That dæmon are the human soul outside of the body is something I question, that they share a soul with their human feels more apt. But I don’t need to thrash it out, dæmons exist and they are what they are, dæmons. What I also question is the idea that in other worlds we have internal dæmons. I think that in Lyra’s world people are more complete than we are because they have dæmons. There was an interesting moment in The Idea of the North where Thomas asks to see Boreal’s dæmon and Boreal refuses. Then after a few moments she peeps out of his sleeve enticingly. Thomas is thrilled and leans towards her as if longing to touch her, but knowing he can’t. There is a particularly interesting psychology behind this scene, and while it was obviously just alluding to the fact humans are fascinated by things they don’t have, it also fits in with my own thoughts about the dæmon-shaped hole a lot of us seem to have in our souls. Those who have damaged souls, or trauma, might comfort-seek in other behaviours. Others simply don’t like solitude and fill it with other people. But we don’t have dæmons, if we had them perhaps we wouldn’t need these other things so badly.

This week when I watched Mrs. Coulter strike her Golden Monkey on the head it occurred to me that he is not the guiding spirit in them. While he may spit and bristle before she does on occasion, Mrs. Coulter always has total control over him. He allows her to hit him without retaliating. It’s been alluded more heavily in this episode that they can separate, perhaps, although the distance of a few rooms may not so far for an adult. But most of all, he is one of the few dæmons that doesn’t talk at all. There is also an incident in Northern Lights where Mrs. Coulter is washing Lyra’s hair. At one point Coulter looks meaningfully at Pantalaimon, who is watching avidly, and he understands that he has to turn away from Lyra, from these ‘feminine mysteries’, something he has never had to do before. This is a particularly significant mention of gender and it is unusual. Dæmons are not true animals. They are the opposite sex of their human, in the majority of cases, but gender is never really mentioned. Mrs. Coulter forcing her dæmon to look away is another unnatural aspect of their relationship. With these things considered it could be suggested that the dæmons of truly evil people, not necessarily mentally-ill people, but truly evil people have a severely adverse affect on their dæmon. It is not just the abuse meted out to the dæmon itself, but particularly in the case the Golden Monkey, the abuse it is forced to inflict on other dæmons, the weight of an evil soul and the sharing of experience as the abuser of other humans must have a fearful impact on his psyche.

The Book of Dust Vol I & II

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With that said, the Golden Monkey has been weighing more on my mind since I read La Belle Sauvage and was introduced to Gerard Bonneville and his terrifying hyena dæmon. She also did not talk. She also was abused, far more terribly than the Golden Monkey has been. Dæmons do not think like animals, but like humans, as one sharing a soul with a human. Yet all she can do is laugh, manically, like a hyena. What does she feel when Bonneville, a sex criminal, is assaulting or raping a woman? What state of madness does she exist in? Why does she urinate everywhere? Alice says she does it like a weapon. Or is she trying to rid herself of the filth of Bonneville? The Princess Olga’s story in The Secret Commonwealth reveals that dæmons are simply not universally in tune with their humans. It makes me wonder exactly what mental trauma a dæmon may be capable of suffering.

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