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In November 2015 the BBC announced were going to make a mini-series adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy with Bad Wolf Productions and New Line Cinema: HBO having a non-exclusive first-look deal with Bad Wolf Productions with the series set to be filmed in Wales.
The His Dark Materials trilogy was a series of critically acclaimed children’s novels, which are also enjoyed by adults – Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the US), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Northern Lights won the Carnegie Medal for Children’s Fiction in 1995 and was declared as one of the 100 best novels by The Observer and The Amber Spyglass won the Whitbread Book of the Year award in 2001. The series as a whole was voted third by the British public in the BBC’s The Big Read in 2003.
The His Dark Materials is set in multiple universes and is about a huge conflict between oppressive churches and the people who oppose them. All the universes are suffering – decaying and dying – in some way, and the mysterious life-force known as Dust is disappearing. Two 12-year-old children end up being key to end this crisis, Lyra Belacqua, a girl from an alternative Oxford where people’s souls have a physical manifestation known as dæmon and Will Parry, a boy from our world who goes on the run after he accidentally kills a man.
Northern Lights was adapted in 2007 with The Golden Compass, which upset fans because of its deviations from the source material. The film adaptation toned down many of dark elements of the story and the religious subject matter. Studio interference was the main reason for this.
Some of the actors on this list may be considered a bit too big but the BBC’s adaptations of The Night Manager and War and Peace had big name cast members – and the series could still work as a movie trilogy. Think of this article as a guide. It would also be a special effects intensive series because of its worlds – like a streampunk Victorian world – and the world of the dead plus having creatures ranging from witches to armored-clad polar bears to other-worldly creatures known as Mulefas.
The roles of Lyra and Will required young unknown actors so will not be looked at in this article. However if the role was cast right now, The Book Thief‘s Sophie Nélisse would be perfect if she can do a good English accent.
Lord Asriel – Michael Fassbender
One of the most important characters in His Dark Materials is Lord Asriel, a man Lyra thinks is her uncle, but is actually her father. He is also a scientist and explorer who convinces the elders of Jordan College to fund his expedition to the Arctic and study the mysterious dust – but really uses the trip to break barriers between worlds.
Lord Asriel is also the man leading the rebellion against the Authority (God) and all his followers – uniting sentient beings around the universes in the battle to save all reality. But he is also a cruel and ruthless man, he has beaten Lyra in the past and at the end of Northern Lights commits a reprehensible act to travel into another world.
The character needs a big name actor who has displayed a dark streak in his previous roles. Michael Fassbender is one of the best actors to fit this description, the right age for the role and has played complex, duplicitous characters like Magneto, Macbeth and David in Prometheus. Fassbender has all the credentials to play a charismatic leader who is able to unite numerous races and creeds, while also having a darker personal side regarding his relationship to Lyra and willingness to take any action to complete his mission.
Whether the trilogy is turned into a movie trilogy or a TV series, the schedule could work for a big name star – in Northern Lights Lord Asriel’s role is limited to the beginning and the end and he does not appear in The Subtle Knife. But an adaptation would properly expand the role.
Marisa Coulter – Rachel Weisz
Marisa Coulter, usually referred to as Mrs. Coulter, is the main villain in Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife – who has a special connection to Lyra. Throughout the series Mrs. Coulter is a scientist and an agent of the Magisterium – the Church in Lyra’s world. Mrs. Coulter offers to take care of Lyra from Jordan College and promises to take the young girl to the Arctic Circle. Mrs. Coulter is openly kind to Lyra but her dæmon – a golden monkey – reveals her true character: a crude and sadistic being. Mrs. Coulter commit numerous horrific acts including kidnapping children, torturing a witch by putting out her fingernails, making a deal with soul sucking ghost creatures and, worst of all, literally steals the souls of children! But her loyalties are divided because of her relationships with Lyra and Lord Asriel and she attempts to redeem herself in The Amber Spyglass.
In the novels, Mrs. Coulter is described as beautiful and young with sleek black hair. At 46-years-old Rachel Weisz would be an older choice but she has all the physical features and she still turn heads with ease. Weisz would bring glamor to the role, like Nicole Kidman in the 2008 movie, while also being a woman in the field for her cause. Weisz also has the necessary virtues to play the sinister two-faced characteristics and still be able to soften the character, redeeming herself near the end of the series.
Serafina Pekkala – Alicia Vikander
Eva Green as Serafina Pekkala was one of the characters that was perfectly cast for the movie adaptation, but the new adaptation would require a clean break and recast the character.
Serafina Pekkala is a head of a Northern clan of witches who helps Lyra on her quest North, freeing her from a research facility and taking her to the island of Svalbard before having her own adventure in one of the other worlds. Serafina Pekkala is a smart, powerful leader who knows how to use a bow and arrow and a dagger as well as a magic spells. Serafina Pekkala is 300-years-old but ages much slower than humans. One of her ex-lovers has aged into an old man.
The actress to play Serafina Pekkala needs to beautiful with a mature attitude and preferably a Scandinavian background. Alicia Vikander fits the bill – an actress who has become known for her beauty and talent. It would be a role that would allow her to test her range and show her ability with action.
Fun fact: Philip Pullman came up with the name when looking through a Finnish phone book.
Lee Scoresby – Alan Tudyk
Lee Scoresby is a pivotal character in the His Dark Materials series, a proud Texan aëronaut and gunslinger (Texas is an independent nation in Lyra’s world), who helps Lyra and the Gyptian people to save the kidnapped children before venturing into another world with Stanislaus Grumman. Scoresby is one of the toughest characters in the series, skilled with a rifle and comes to see Lyra as a surrogate daughter. He makes a heroic last stand during the events of The Subtle Knife.
In official media releases, Scoresby has been described as an older man, but when I read the novels I pictured him as a man in 40s – young enough to be an action hero but old enough to have experience, wisdom and regrets– hence why he fell in love with Lyra.
Someone fitting that interpretation is Alan Tudyk, an actor with plenty of experience on film and television and a native Texan. Tudyk is mostly known for comedic roles – voicing many Disney characters – starring in movies like Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil and the TV series Suburgatory. Even when Tudyk is in more serious-minded movies like Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials he has a flamboyant edge. But Tudyk has also shown a more dramatic side in Joss Whedon’s space-western Firefly (his co-star Nathan Fillon would also be a good candidate for the role), being the pilot of the Serenity ship and having a complex relationship between Fillon’s Mal and his wife. Tudyk also showed his action skills in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, disarming a bar full of thugs – something he could do again in His Dark Materials. One of Scoresby’s big scenes is holding off a group of highly armed soldiers with a Winchester rifle.
Dr. Mary Malone – Kate Dickie
Kate Dickie is an underrated actress from Scotland who is properly best known for playing Lady Lysa Arryn in Game of Thrones but has also appeared in Prometheus, Filth and The Witch. One of her best roles was in the Glasgow-set drama Red Road, playing a grief stricken surveillance camera operator who seeks to get revenge against a man who killed her family.
Mary Malone is a physicist at Oxford University from our world conducting research on Dark Matter and Lyra goes to her to seek answers about Dust. Mary is also a former nun and atheist and becomes key to Lyra and Will to fulfil their destiny to save all consciousness. In The Amber Spyglass she has a subplot with the Mulefas in another world and continues to research on Dust, despite being with a species that are in the stone-age. The stage adaptation at the Olivier Theatre omitted the character, so an onscreen adaptation would provide the character the attention she deserves.
John Faa – Brendan Gleeson
John Faa, sometimes known as Lord Faa, is the leader of the Gyptian people – a water faring people who travel on rivers and seas around the world. Lyra befriends Gyptian children who had settled in Oxford, often playing games and lets her be a wild child. But the Gyptian children have been targeted by Mrs. Coulter for her experiments in the Arctic. The Gyptians save Lyra from Mrs. Coulter and John Faa leads an expedition to free the children when Lyra tells him what the woman is up to.
The actor needs to bring out John Faa’s leadership skills and be able to portray someone who lives the rustic life of an eternal traveller. Irishman Brendan Gleeson has these qualities, being a man who leads from the front.
Gleeson is a seasoned actor, appearing in blockbusters like the Harry Potter series and Edge of Tomorrow and independent movies such as In Bruges and The Guard. Gleeson would have no problem playing a man who has the weight of his people on his shoulders, having to make difficult decisions but also show a more gentle side when required.
Though John Faa’s title is King of Western Gyptians, Gleeson’s Irish accent would be a better fit for the character then an upper English accent because of the nomadic nature of his people and the industrial steampunk setting.
Farder Coram – Donald Sumpter
Farder Coram is the character who teaches Lyra to read the alethiometer, a device that is run on Dust and allows its user to see events anywhere and even predict the future. Only a few people in Lyra’s world is able to read the altethiometer and Farder Coram is one them.
Farder Coram is one of the oldest members of the Gyptian people, acting as John Faa’s second-in-command and key advisor. He is one of the most intelligential and well-read members of the Gyptians. 73-year-old Donald Sumpter is an actor who easily encapsulate these characteristics.
Sumpter is now best known for playing Maester Luwin in Game of Thrones – the role of Farder Coram may be considered too similar, being an intelligent older man who acts as a teacher and mentor to a younger character. Sumpter is also a very experience actor, acting since the 1960s appearing in movies and TV shows like Doctor Who and Being Human and 1995’s Richard III. Sumpter is a consistent performer and would fit perfectly well in Philip Pullman’s world.
Iorek Byrnison – Idris Elba
Iorek Byrnison is the exiled king of the bears, tricked by his usurper to force him out of his kingdom and then tricked by humans into drinking alcohol so they steal his armor. When Lyra first meets him, Iorek is made into a blacksmith at the town of Trollesund and has to drink to dull the pain and humiliation. Because of the young girl, Iorek gets his armor back and swears to protect her. He is a powerful ally, even if men do not trust an armor clad talking bear.
The character would require a lot of special effects to bring him alive. The Golden Compass won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. Since 2007 there have been big advances in motion capture – movies like the rebooted Planet of the Apes series and Smaug in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug have proven this. The special effects need to be at least on par with the effects in a series like Game of Thrones.
An actor who has recently voiced a CGI animal is Idris Elba, playing Shere Khan in Disney’s updated version of The Jungle Book. He has a deep, powerful voice that would perfectly fit a large animal. Elba’s voice has a majesty to it which would make him believable as the leader of a species and inspire them, yet still be gentle when he needs to comfort Lyra.
Iofur Raknison – Toby Jones
Iofur Raknison is the other major bear character in Northern Lights – the usurper of Iorek’s throne. The bear race are portrayed as a noble, misunderstood species, but Iofur is much more underhanded in his quest for power, including drugging his rivals and outright murder. Iorek also craves to be a human, making an alliance with the Magisterium and makes all his subjects carry dolls like they were dæmons.
If Iorek Byrnison is a more traditional strong king, Iofur needs to be a cunning, weaselly figure who uses his brains instead of his brawl. Toby Jones could easily play this power hungry figure and portray the intelligence of the character. Jones has a soft voice and during his career he has been able to vary it – as in Harry Potter as Dobby the House Elf series and playing Truman Capote in Infamous. He also has experience playing villains – he is Arnim Zola in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, played The Dream Lord in Doctor Who and a caricature of Karl Rove in Oliver Stone’s W.
Jones has played small parts in movies – he was Claudius Templesmith in The Hunger Games series which was no more than a newsreader and was one of the dwarves in Snow White and the Huntsman. At least Iofur Raknison would be a more juicy role.
Stanislaus Grumman – Paddy Considine
The character of Stanislaus Grumman is one of the most mysterious in the series. First appealing as a head so that Lord Asriel could convince Jordan College to fun his expedition to Svalbard. But it turns out he is alive.
In Lyra’s world Stanislaus is a German scientist and explorer, who has learn to use magic from the Tartar people. But his origins are actually related to our world and because of his time spend in another world he is slowly dying.
When we learn of Stanislaus’ origins it turns out he is a Royal Marine and explorer from a working-class background in England. Someone who can match those characteristics is Paddy Considine, a working-class actor who has proven himself time and again on screen. Mainstream audiences would know him best as DS Andy Wainwright in Hot Fuzz, being one of the main characters in The World’s End and being the journalist who is shot in Waterloo station in The Bourne Ultimatum. But Considine is also an actor who has dark intensity in the British indie film scene. He leads the grim and gritty thriller Dead Man Shoes as a former paratrooper who seeks revenge against the men who killed his brother and he showed this gritty sensitivity to his directorial debut Tyrannosaur. His next movie as a director, which he is also starring in is Journeyman, playing a retiring boxer who falls into a coma after a tough bout.
Stanislaus would be a perfect role for Considine, mixing his tough edge that he has shown in indie cinema while also being in a grand, epic adventure.
Chevalier Tialys – Richard Armitage
Chevalier Tialys and Lady Salmakia are two characters who appear in The Amber Spyglass . They are spies who work with Lord Asriel and are assigned to retrieve Will and Lyra and the Subtle Knife, but end up helping the children to a journey into the underworld. They are Gallivespians, a race of miniature humans who are suppressed by the Church in their own universe. The Gallivespians are armed with poisoned spurs and fly around on giant dragonflies.
Despite the suppression the characters face Chevalier Tialys and Lady Salmakia providing a fun swashbuckling presence. Chevalier is a man of action, willing to fight when required, even against creatures hundreds of times more than his own size.
Most audiences know Richard Armitage for his role as Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit Trilogy, but most of his work has been television, appearing in the BBC’s Robin Hood as Guy of Gisborne, three seasons of Spooks and the action series Strike Back. Armitage is a sex symbol in the UK and could easily do action scenes and His Dark Materials could allow Armitage to show a lighter, more fun side.
Lady Salmakia – Suranne Jones
Lady Salmakia is the other half of Gallivespaian duo. She is the calmer of the pair, being the diplomat and motherly, supportive figure. But Lady Salmakia is not above an outburst when insulted.
Suranne Jones is a prolific actress on television and the stage in the UK. She has won awards for her roles in the drama show Doctor Foster and the detective drama Scott & Bailey (which she helped create). Jones has also appeared in the long running soap Coronation Street, the comedy police procedural A Touch of Cloth and the miniseries The Crimson Field, just to name a few.
International audiences will properly know Jones best for her appearance in the Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife”, playing the personification of The Tardis. In this Neil Gaiman scripted episode Jones was allowed to let out her inner Helena Bonham Carter, being a fun and insane presence. A role in His Dark Materials would be a great way to get Jones more recognition internationally.
Sir Charles Latrom – Richard E. Grant
Sir Charles Latrom is the main villain in The Subtle Knife, at least for Lyra and Will. Sir Charles is an older Englishman in our world but has a connection to Lyra’s world. He is also a wealthy gentleman who plans to fund research into dark matter and a former spy and befriends Lyra so he can get the altethiometer. Sir Charles is an upper class gentleman who sees himself as refined and enjoys the finer things in life. He is also Mrs. Coulter’s lover.
Richard E. Grant is a fantastic actor with a long career on film and television, a man from an elite family, his father was the head of education in the British Protectorate of Swaziland. In movies Grant is known for comedic and larger-then-life roles, although in recent years he has focused more on TV roles. He has appeared in Downton Abbey, Girls and ITV’s Jekyll and Hyde and is set to be in the sixth season of Game of Thrones.
Grant has mastered a villainous role in Doctor Who, playing The Great Intelligence. Grant was the best feature in a weak season, being a figure seeking revenge against The Doctor and allowed the actor to be darker and serious.
Grant has a distinctive look, being tall and lean and it would be perfect in expensive Saville Row suits or Victorian/Edwardian clothing.
Hugh MacPhail – Kevin McKidd
Many Christian dominations have a leader and Hugh MacPhail is the president of the Consistorial Court of Discipline in Geneva in Lyra’s world – the governing body of the Magisterium. In The Golden Compass the role was given to Christopher Lee against Chris Weitz’s wishes. Mr. Lee was a great actor, but his casting was inappropriate. In the novel, Hugh MacPhail is a Scotsman in his 40s, the youngest man to be elected as the President of the Church in a lifelong position. He is a man who is willing to take any action to protect the world from Dust: even the Church’s annihilation.
Kevin McKidd is a Scottish actor in his 40s that could make the characteristics and physical features of MacPhail. In The Amber Spyglass, MacPhail is described to be a man who lives a spartan lifestyle, eating and drinking bread, fruit and water and is at the peak of physical fitness. McKidd is no stranger to playing physically strong characters, being the sports-enthusiast Tommy in Trainspotting and having military roles in Rome and Dog Soldiers. His role as Lucius Vorenus in Rome showed he could play very dark figures who will do anything to protect his family, or in the case of His Dark Materials be a man of pure dogma.
Batlhamos – Jamie Campbell Bower
Bathamos was one of two angels who appears at the end of The Subtle Knife, attempting to bring Will Parry and his knife to Lord Asriel in an attempt to win favor and gain a weapon that could ensure victory in the war against Heaven. Batlhamos and his lover Baruch are lower order angels, they are weak against humans and could only truly been since at twilight. Bathamos stays with Will while Baruch goes back to Lord Asriel.
Batlhamos and Baruch would need to be played by tall slender men. Actor and model Jamie Campbell Bower fits that description – he is six foot tall, very slim, has long blond hair, a youthful appearance and basically a pretty boy. He has a youthful look that would perfect to play a young angel.
Baruch has a smaller role in the movie and would be ideal for a newcomer to play.
Metatron – Michael Sheen
Metatron is the big bad guy of the whole series, the regent of The Authority and commander of the forces of Heaven. He is an archangel, the high-ranked order of angels and essentially in control of Heaven and the being that Lord Asriel has to overthrow.
In the novel, archangels are described as the epitome of beauty, muscular and having a blinding golden glow shining from them. They are also naked but any onscreen adaptation will properly alter this to give the actors some modesty.
Michael Sheen has shown himself to be an incredible actor with chameleon abilities to become his characters – just see his performances as Brian Clough and Tony Blair. Sheen also has an excellent physique, as he has shown in the Underworld series and is the right age to give Metatron the gravitas and grandeur he deserves. Sheen has also played villain roles before, starring as Aro in the Twilight Saga and Castor in Tron: Legacy, but for His Dark Materials he would need to tone down the more campy elements and make Metatron more measured. Sheen is an actor who would be perfectly capable to achieve this.
Xaphania – Amanda Seyfried
Xaphania is the most senior angel to fight for Lord Asriel, serving as one of his key commanders and advisors. Her role in novel is small but pivotal – particularly at the end of The Amber Spyglass and her role would most likely be expanded to show Asriel’s rebellion. Just imagine Xaphania leaving an army of angels into battle.
Due to her rank, Xaphania is an ancient being, but has a young appearance. Whoever is cast needs to be young but also be able portray the angel’s wisdom. This is a very difficult role to cast and it may need a big name actress to give Xaphania the gravitas she needs.
At 30-year-old Amanda Seyfried is a very experienced actress – she started her career on As the World Turns in 1999. She is a beautiful woman with a unique look because of her wide expressive eyes, giving Xaphania a slightly other-worldly appearance. Seyfried is a star but she has appeared in TV roles, she stayed in Big Love until the fourth season and played a small yet pivotal role in the fantasy movie Pan. She could easily give the role of Xaphania the weight it needs.