As you may or may not have heard, the BBC is going to produce The Golden Compass, the first installment of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, as a mini-series. Coming nearly a decade after the 2007 film disappointed the hopes of The Golden Compass lovers everywhere, this is welcome news. Fans of the His Dark Materials trilogy know that it has great potential for adaptation to the screen, having already been adapted for radio and stage, and fans of the BBC know that they usually get their literary adaptations just right, with few exceptions. Fans of both His Dark Materials and the BBC, like myself, know the combination of the two means we could potentially have not one, but three BBC series to look forward to: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, pending the success of The Golden Compass, and The Amber Spyglass, after The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife engross critics and plebes alike.
For those unfamiliar with the books or the movie, here’s a quick overview of The Golden Compass: Lyra Belacqua, an orphaned girl raised among male scholars in Jordan College of Oxford, overhears the story of a fabled story, and is launched on an adventure the effects of which will be felt across the multiverse. She sets off in search of her good friend Roger, who disappears mysteriously, never knowing that her quest will lead her to the very edge of her world, toward an understanding greater than that of the adults around her, or that she will be watched by the powerful from every influential sphere. I can’t be more specific without spoiling something of the book, so you’ll really just need to read it.
The casting of the 2007 movie was, in actuality, really good, which makes a fantasy draft casting especially challenging. Some of the actors I would choose for prime roles in the BBC version were already part of the movie. Ian McKellan, for instance, has a wonderful voice for armored bear Iofur Raknison, Sam Elliot and Kathy Bates were a great duo for Lee Scoresby and his daemon, Hester, and it’s tough to think of a better Serafina Pekkala than Eva Green. So, for the purposes of this draft, we have selected alternatives, but suggest that the BBC should beg the original actors to sign on for their version, contract permitting.
Lyra (Belacqua) Silvertongue
Lyra is fierce, bright, and, most importantly, pure of spirit and motive. She outsmarts massive armored bears, releases imprisoned children from a painful fate, and through it all maintains the earnestness of a child. Therefore, Lyra needs to be played by a child, so no twenty year-olds pretending to be tweens, here. Lyra needs to be played by a talented unknown young actor. For this reason, we don’t actually have a casting choice, but just the stipulation that she be as genuine as the character she plays.
Damian Lewis as Lord Asriel
Lord Asriel is smart, powerful, and selfish, even in the way he loves. He seeks to understand Dust, the mysterious element that gathers around adult humans, not for the sake of understanding, but for personal gain. For this role, I suggest Damian Lewis. He’s skilled at projecting power, and can pull off the aristocratic and cunning Lord Asriel with no problem. We’re thinking specifically of his role in the Forsyte Saga–if he could bring just a bit of Soames into his Lord Asriel, that would be perfect.
Rosamund Pike as Mrs. Coulter
We had originally thought of Eva Green for this role, Mrs. Coulter is beautiful, strong, intelligent, and vulnerable. Eva Green can pull all of that into one character. She was previously cast as Serafina Pekkala, however, so instead we chose Rosamund Pike. She’s proven herself to be versatile, acting in everything from Pride and Prejudice to James Bond to The World’s End. Since Mrs. Coulter shifts easily between roles and personalities herself, Rosamund Pike is an equally good choice to Eva Green.
Gerard Butler as Iorek Byrnison
Iorek is an armored bear at rock bottom when Lyra meets him. She helps him recover his armor, releasing him from his imprisonment and his shame, and thus earns his loyalty. The two form an unlikely pair, being a massive bear and a small girl, yet it is somehow right that Iorek, who represents all that is just, allies himself with Lyra, who represents all that is good and human. Gerard Butler has a voice fit for a film like 300, yet has played softer roles too, and the natural growl in his voice makes him an appropriate choice for Iorek, King of the Svalbard bears.
Werner Herzog as Iofur Raknison
Iofur is, without giving away too much of the plot, Iorek’s nemesis. He is large, and physically strong, but weak in character. His downfall is that he wants to be something other than what he is. For the 2007 movie, Ian McShane played this role, and he’s a great choice. If you’ve never heard that man speak, find some audio clips so you can understand, or just watch Deadwood. A fitting second choice, assuming Ian McShane can’t sign on for the BBC version, is Werner Herzog. Again, if you have not heard this man’s voice, find some audio clips. He is a talented documentarian, but perhaps could be convinced to share his voice and play Iofur. We can only hope.
Timothy Dalton as Lord Boreal
Lord Boreal plays a minor role in The Golden Compass, but he is a highly important character in the second and third books of the trilogy, so his casting is important. Timothy Dalton is a lesser-known James Bond, but has the experience and the education to play a slippery aristocratic villain well, so he’s our choice for Lord Boreal. Lord Boreal was not included in the film adaptation of The Golden Compass, but we’re looking ahead here. And remember: There’s The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass to consider.
Peter Capaldi as Farder Coram
An elder member of the Gyptians, with whom Lyra takes refuge, Farder Coram passes on to Lyra enough knowledge to understand the alethiometer, or truth teller, which is one of the keys to her journey, though she doesn’t fully understand it. Who better to pass on mysterious and enigmatic knowledge than The Doctor? Peter Capaldi could pull off the wise and enigmatic air required of Farder Coram, who is at once kind, cagey, and paternal, as he is far more complex than he seems at first blush.
Ray McKinnon as Lee Scoresby
Lee Scoresby is an aeronaut from Texas, and he and his hot air balloon play a pivotal role in The Golden Compass. Sam Elliott was a great choice for this role in the 2007 film, but, again, it seems unlikely he would be able to play the same role for the BBC version. In his absence, Ray McKinnon is a good second choice. We’re thinking specifically of his performance in O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?, where he played a square, but bona fide, southern shopkeeper. Give him a nice mustache and a twinkle in his eye, and he’d make a great Lee Scoresby, another devoted protector of Lyra Silvertongue, an old friend of Iorek Byrnison, and a lone traveler.
Bonnie Wright as Serafina Pekkala
Serafina Pekkala and her clan provide essential services to Lyra and her entourage based on their interpretation of a prophecy that the child fulfills. She is young but ageless, wise but passionate, and also a witch. Eva Green was a great choice for this role, but Bonnie Wright, best known as Ginny Weasley, could also play this role well. It helps that she’s already played a witch, but she can also portray the right mixture of youth, age, wisdom, and passion that are necessary for Pullman’s witch clan leader.
There are, of course, several other characters that play important, if not central, roles in The Golden Compass. These casting choices, however, cover the primary players, and could help make the BBC adaptation the success that the film version failed to be. Regardless of the ultimate casting choices, we’re excited to see this interpretation of The Golden Compass, and hope that it is successful enough that we get to see the rest of the trilogy on screen, too!