After weeks of adding this comparison to the bottom of my recaps, I’ve finally decided to separate them. Spoiler Alert! The following article discusses the His Dark Materials television series up to Season 2 Episode 5 “The Scholar” and it spoils all the events of The Subtle Knife as well as events in The Amber Spyglass. Proceed with caution! In this His Dark Materials book comparison, we’re primarily looking at The Subtle Knife (TSK) Chapter 9 “Theft” and Chapter 12, “Screen Language”. The show has been following the timeline of the series pretty closely, with the main deviation in this episode being the actual heist that Will and Lyra conduct to get back the alethiometer.
• Will has just lost two of his fingers and although he is suffering from the pain in the show, it’s not comparable to the pain that Will feels in TSK. In fact, the pain in his hand is one of his key hindrances in the final act of the novel. He wakes up with the bed soaked in blood, he bleeds through bandages, the witches can’t even heal his hand with magic. It isn’t until he reunites with his father that his blood moss ointment heals the wound and alleviates the pain.
While blood moss has fantastic healing properties, there is also a symbolism in Will finding this relief after meeting his father again. He’s spent so much of his life ostensibly alone — acting as his mother’s caregiver — and the loss of his fingers could be interpreted as the physical representation of this. The final meeting with his father therefore also symbolizes a form of closure for his adolescence and that loss. His father balms the unfixable wound in a way that only a father can.
• Also early in Chapter 9 “Theft,” Will actually gives Lyra his father’s letters to keep in her bag. This is a huge step of trust for Will and actually signals to his strengthening bond with Lyra. Not only is she just holding it for him, but he allows her to read them. Remember, protecting these letters was once his first priority. The letters are his and his mother’s attachment to his missing father. This is a major scene and I wish we could have seen it play out.
• The theft of the alethiometer is far more covert in the book. There’s no confrontation between Mrs. Coulter and Lyra, no fight between Will and Boreal. They aren’t even detected until the end of the heist. Instead, Mrs. Coulter arrives at the house after Will has already cut a window into the home, but Boreal is holding the alethiometer on his person. This is the moment when Lyra actually realizes who Boreal is. There is still some drama, with Lyra reacting much like she did in the episode when she sees her mother: “Sir Charles stood waiting, smiling, offering his arm to the woman who was getting out, and as she came into view Lyra felt a blow at her heart, the worst blow since she’d escaped from Bolvanger, because Sir Charles’s guest was her mother, Mrs. Coulter,” (The Subtle Knife, “Theft” Page 171).
• Personally, I think the show did this scene better than the novel, it was a charged scene that perfectly laid out Lyra and her mother. The book is subtle in its comparison. Mrs. Coulter’s character is distant for us as readers. We don’t see her alone with her daemon, we don’t see her beautiful mask fall, we don’t see her human side. In Lyra’s eyes, she is a villain. But Lyra has many similarities to her mother, and instead of listing them, this scene shows it without telling. They’re ruled by their emotions, fantastic liars and manipulators, defiant, independent, determined, and vengeful. Even the scene where Pan attacks the golden monkey is a parallel to their scene in Season One with the golden monkey attacking Pan.
• And that brings me to the view of morality in the book series and the way it questions traditional Christian morals. The title of “Theft” in Chapter 9 is therefore in reference to Lyra and Will stealing back their alethiometer. It’s interesting that Episode 4’s title “Theft” is therefore referencing Boreal stealing the alethiometer from her. This positions the word theft as a negative. But the book series has always been about positioning morally bad things in a positive light. Lyra’s masterful skill of lying is something to be applauded, her view of Will as a murderer is a pro and not a con, the emphasis of the title “Theft” is not on being stolen from but stealing. I don’t think the show has really pushed that boundary as much as the book series, but the book series does lay it out better with inner dialogue.
• A beautiful scene that I wish had been included, but obviously, I understand why: “The two of them were close enough to touch, Will in his world, she in Cittagazze, and seeing his trailing bandage, Lyra tapped him on the arm and mimed tying it up again. He held out his hand for her to do it, crouching meanwhile with his head cocked sideways, listening hard,” (The Subtle Knife, “Theft” Page 174). ‘Nuff said.
• While waiting for a chance to steal back the alethiometer, Will and Lyra overhear Mrs. Coulter and Boreal talking about Asriel’s plan to gather an army to continue the war against heaven. This was completely cut out and at the moment, the audience hasn’t really been updated on Asriel’s plans. Mrs. Coulter teases this to Lyra, but it’s hard to believe whether or not she would have told her daughter the truth.
• Also, at this point in the book, Mrs. Coulter has zombies as her bodyguards with her while she’s in Will’s world. She describes these guards: “…they’ve undergone intercision. They have no daemons, so they have no fear and no imagination and no free will, and they’ll fight till they’re torn apart,” (The Subtle Knife, “Theft” Page 176).
Mrs. Coulter’s mastery over other people and beings has always been one of her key identifiers, so it makes sense that she would be the type to have these guards with her. I’m glad this was left out because the topic of intercision would be very confusing and require a lot of explanation for audiences in the show, but still, wish we could have seen one or two zombies. I guess we sort of see them in the people who have been attacked by spectres.
• It’s not really clear what Lord Boreal does in Will’s world in the show. But in TSK he has actually been in the world for a while. He’s infiltrated the British government, worked for them during the Cold War, became a spy, and continues to hold ties to the other spies in his network. He’s not just a collector, but a saboteur. And while he does desire Mrs. Coulter, he has other intentions as well.
• It is with these connections that he is able to tell Mrs. Coulter that the governments of Will’s world know about other worlds. But they only know of one window, aka the window that John Parry disappeared through. He says that Asriel’s tear has not just affected Lyra’s world, but Will’s as well. The magnetic poles have been affected, and the windows between worlds no longer need to pass through Cittagazze.This is a major deviation, but one I think actually benefits the show. Mrs. Coulter was able to come into Will’s world because the window that Boreal normally travels through now opens directly into Lyra’s world and no longer requires passage through Cittagazze. This is why Mrs. Coulter is there. It is now safe for her to pass through. But, I think getting rid of this allows for more use of the Cittagazze set in the show. I’ll be interested to see the adults like Mrs. Coulter, Boreal, Mary Malone, and even Lee and John Parry in Cittagazze.
• Another small but important change is that Boreal seems to be ready to open up to Mrs. Coulter about his intentions with Lyra and the deal they struck. In the show, he seems to want to keep the secret of the Subtle Knife to himself, but he is far more honest to her in this scene. In fact, their relationship seems a lot less one-sided.
• The reveal of the angel’s vengeance is much clearer in Chapter Twelve of The Subtle Knife “Screen Language.” The two scenes that exist in His Dark Materials are actually the same scene in the book. Mary realizes that the angel she is speaking to is a rebel angel from the war in heaven. He tells her that she must play the serpent to Lyra and Will, also that she must to go the window, deceive the guardian, and prepare for a long journey, and that she will be protected from spectres. Personally, the main deviation for me in this scene is the lack of specificity from the angels. Why just have them say “hornbeams”? It may be dramatic, but in TSK, the angel is very exact. He sends her to Sunderland Avenue and that is where the window is.
• The angel also tells her that she must destroy The Cave to protect it from the enemies and I think this could have been a great scene to watch, but without the betrayal of Oliver Payne, this scene would have had less dramatic weight. Indeed, there is no remnant of the office politics that Mary faces with her colleague.
As far as episodes go, this one had the least amount of jumping around. We did not revisit Lee and John Parry (sad), nor did we hear from the witches (glad!). And while it deviated from the original text, it brought up ideas and let me look at the story in a new light. It highlighted the difference between Boreal’s relationship with Mrs. Coulter. There is no scene where Mrs. Coulter and Mary Malone meet, but I thought that was one of the pinnacles of this episode.
As we barrel toward the finale, there’s still the Alamo Gulch and the final scene with Will and his father in store for us in this His Dark Materials book comparison. I have some quiet fears about the last scene (my favorite in the series) and it being able to live up to the tremendous and fantastic tragedy of the series, but perhaps the show will surprise me. It certainly has with this episode!