Welcome to The A.V. Club’s “Experts” reviews of HBO’s His Dark Materials. It is written from the perspective of someone who has read all three books in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, and intended for an audience of viewers who have also read these books. While the main review will not actively spoil details from future books, there will be a spoiler-specific section at the end of the review, and the conversation in the comments will feature spoilers from all books in the series. For those who wish to avoid these spoilers, please visit our “Newbies” reviews.
Casting any literary adaptation is a minefield. Fans have built up versions of characters over years of reading and rereading the books, and fan art typically reifies certain versions of characters in the process. Even in circumstances where authors leave room for interpretation, any interpretation is competing with thousands of others, creating a situation where directors and casting directors are fighting an uphill battle from day one.
His Dark Materials, though, has an even bigger hill to climb. While few fans were happy with 2007’s The Golden Compass, its cast was the one part of the production that more or less worked: yes, as always, fans will quibble with individual choices, but a key part of the movie’s failure was that it wasted a truly promising cast by failing to commit to the story it was telling. This doesn’t mean that fans weren’t willing to give new actors a shot, as certainly the response to Ruth Wilson’s take on Mrs. Coulter in particular has suggested that no one is actively holding onto Nicole Kidman’s take on the character unfairly, for example. But it does mean that in situations where the show’s casting raises question marks, there’s an existing answer in the back of everyone’s minds, an echo of the past you can’t quite shake.
And yes, this brings us to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Lee Scoresby.
I hadn’t reread the series when it was announced that Miranda would be part of the cast, but I was still a bit perplexed: my limited memory of Lee Scoresby was “grizzled Texas cowboy,” and that is not a character description that would lead me to the writer/star of Hamilton, personally speaking. And this is in part because of my familiarity with Miranda’s work, but also because I knew that Lee had been played by Sam Elliott in the movie, and he is one of the first people you’d think about when picturing Lee Scoresby. In the comments last week, “Kumagoro” wrote that “anybody who casts Lin-Manuel Miranda in a role that was considered perfect for Sam Elliott is either drunk or a villain,” and that’s less an explicit judgment of Miranda and more an acknowledgment of the thorniest casting conundrum created by this adaptation. And as I reread the books, my confusion only grew, and I went into the screeners wondering what kind of approach to the character would lead the producers down this path.
And after “Armour,” we have our answer: Lin-Manuel Miranda is not really playing that Lee Scoresby. Yes, he’s an aeronaut, ostensibly from Texas. Yes, he’s got a history with an armored bear. And yes, he is swiftly caught up in Lyra Belacqua’s journey north with the Gyptians to free the children taken by the Gobblers. But his personality and his role within the tonal framework of this story are nothing like the character in the books, which is likely not a byproduct of Miranda’s casting but rather the reason behind it.
In truth, I wish the show would have committed more to this new Lee Scoresby: for example, there are traces of an attempt at a southern drawl that do neither the character nor Miranda any favors, and it’d have been better if they would have just said he was from a different part of America. But from the moment the character is introduced, it’s a fundamentally different energy. In chapter ten of The Subtle Knife, Pullman writes about Scoresby and his daemon Hester that “he was used to her silence, and she to his. They spoke when they needed to.” But our first introduction is to Scoresby and Hester (Cristela Alonzo) in constant chatter, singing and providing exposition. And when he sets foot in Trollesund, it’s immediately clear that His Dark Materials’ Lee Scoresby is (like Miranda) a talker, a Han Solo-esque rapscallion whose dialogue with Hester is a regular buddy comedy, and who apparently creates “bedlam” everywhere he goes. By the end of the episode, it becomes clear that the inverse of the previous axiom is true: anyone who would cast Sam Elliott as this version of Lee Scoresby would also seem to lack a sound mind. It’s clear that from the very conception of this show, from writing through to direction and performance, this is the version of Lee Scoresby that His Dark Materials wanted as part of this story.
But in an environment where significant changes to the source text are inherently risky, why change this character so significantly? I can’t say for certain, but the best evidence based on “Armour” is that Jack Thorne felt the story needed to be lightened up. Lee’s entrance into the story is the first time that there’s been a direct element of comedy, especially with the show stripping Lyra of her precociousness—there’s even a little nod to it here, as Mrs. Coulter tries to make a joke when she arrives at the Magisterium but the space is too humorless to understand her intention. The choices made so far in the adaptation have led to a focus on family psychodrama and a series of tragedies, and the sense of light-hearted “adventure” has been somewhat lost (if not erased).
By reframing Lee Scoresby as a gallivanting aeronaut who is always up for a fight, quick with a retort, and fast with his fingers, the “getting the team together” feel of Lee and Iorek Byrinson’s entrance into the story carries a different energy, to the point where it registers as a different show entirely. At times, “Armour” feels like an episode of Doctor Who, where our heroes have dropped into a new situation with a new set of characters with a new set of problems. It’s jarring at first, especially having so recently reread the books and realizing how this will alter Scoresby’s place in the series moving forward. But as I sat with the episode, and as I considered the dynamics of those future story arcs, I realized that I more or less think this version of Lee can work if you basically accept it as a different character entirely, who will be taking the place of the stoic, Sam Elliott-esque character who the majority of readers were expecting. Given the nature of Lee’s role in the story (more on that in the spoilers below), I don’t think there’s anything about this version of the character that breaks future story developments, and so I am open to whatever intentions the show has with this reinvention of the role.
By comparison, the other character introduction in “Armour” is largely untouched: Iorek Bryinson is still an armored bear without his armor, and he’s still being held hostage by the town in order to take advantage of his labor. Although Joe Tandberg is technically stepping into Ian McKellen’s shoes, there isn’t the same casting tension with a vocal performance, and I thought Tandberg’s energy really worked, and matched Miranda’s well when it needed to. The original film won an Oscar for its effects work, but even on TV budgets the work on Iorek reflects the advances in CGI (even if the budget is still not expanding to show daemons outside of core characters). On some level, there’s no way to mess up introducing a drunk armored bear with a keen sense of justice, so even adding some unnecessary bureaucratic back-and-forth between Lee and the Magisterium doesn’t really drag it down. The call to adventure is inherently enhanced by Iorek’s introduction, and combining it with Coulter’s parlay with Iorek’s usurper Iofur Raknison creates a clear point of anticipation that the story has lacked to this point (especially with the Lord Boreal story, mostly ignored here, not generating much in terms of concrete value at this point).
Their introductions do risk further decentering Lyra from the story, especially when you combine with the necessary backstory on Farder Coram’s relationship with Serafina Pekkala and the check-ins on the show’s antagonists. But despite my continued frustration with Lyra’s lack of curiosity and joy as she journeys north, the narrative keeps her in an assertive position, and I appreciated the moment where Coram admits to Lee that he’s just following her lead. The more important the alethiometer becomes, and the more talk there is about her role in the prophecy, the more risk there is that she will become swallowed by the plot. That particular balance was handled fairly well as she throws herself into the middle of Iorek’s conflict with the town, though, so at least initially the show has succeeded at tethering the introduction of this new energy with Lyra’s.
I don’t know what the fate of this energy will be, exactly: as Lyra introduces Lord Faa to her new recruits, and the western soundtrack kicks in, and we cut to Mrs. Coulter in a furry hat chatting with a bear King, it definitely strikes a very different tone than the previous episodes. It’s a tone that is probably more immediately exciting, but I don’t know if it reflects the tone of the story as a whole. But it’s possible, based on the show’s new Lee Scoresby, that we don’t truly know what tone Thorne is aiming for, and therefore we ride into the known road to Bolvangar not entirely knowing what to expect.
- A clear effort here to contrast the Magisterium’s approach to the alethiometer—slow, bureaucratic, corrupt—compared to Lyra’s instinctive grasp of the device and its questions, even if it’s mostly to clearly roadmap out the “Why is Lyra important?” and “Who is Grumman?” questions the show wants us to keep in mind.
- Lyra insists to Pantalaimon that she’s been wanting to visit the north her entire life, but that energy just hasn’t been conveyed onscreen, which is a real pity. That particular part of Lyra’s personality just didn’t happen, and while there’s flickers of it as the team forms at episode’s end I doubt it’ll amount to much.
- I don’t really know what the endgame is for the romantic tone to Lyra’s interactions with Tony Costa: without clearly establishing their childhood connection, it doesn’t add up to anything, but we’ll see what their intentions are.
- I realize that it’s there to setup that the Witches’ representative is already aware Lyra has the alethiometer when the meeting starts, but watching Lyra casually pull it out and read it in a town full of people including various Magisterium soldiers was not the way to accomplish this: it makes her and Coram look reckless, as opposed to making the Witches seem powerful.
- Continually strong work in production design and costuming, but let’s face it: Mrs. Coulter’s hat is the real star here.
Through The Amber Spyglass [Warning: Explcit Book Spoilers]
My first thought when I saw Miranda’s version of Lee Scoresby was what impact it would have on the rest of the story. And when I did that, I came to a better understanding of why they went in this direction.
I had forgotten, in my distance from first reading the books over a decade ago, how isolated Lee is for much of the story—to be honest, he’s not a particularly important character, in the grand scheme of things. Even when he eventually unites with Grumman, it remains a pretty methodical (read: slow) story, and the idea of a stoic aeronaut on that journey does seem like it would play a bit dry without the ability to use narrative voice to flesh out his thoughts and feelings. When you start looking ahead, the impulse to inject a significant amount of “banter” into his future stories is a pretty clear problem-solving effort on Thorne’s part. The idea of this turning into a buddy comedy between Andrew Scott and Lin-Manuel Miranda may not be to everyone’s taste—Miranda himself has some feelings about how the tide has turned around these parts—but I at least see where their work is heading in a way that the idea of him playing Lee didn’t communicate.
It also helps, of course, that Lee’s arc is naturally built to generate pathos, which I don’t think this more comic take on the character precludes. The character is still defined by his desire to pay his debt to Iorek, and thus now his sense of responsibility to Lyra, and those are the kind of values that will drive his decisions for the rest of his life (and beyond). The fact he’ll be talking a lot more in the process, and carrying a very different energy, won’t really change the actual core of his arc, which is why I think the long-term consequences are less than the immediate shock of the change might suggest. It’s not going to be the same Lee many readers have gotten used to, but I’m open to the idea that it could become a more productive Lee, if handled correctly. But as with all of these butterfly effect-like changes, only time will tell.