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The His Dark Materials Comic-Con Panel Discussed Daemon Puppets, Religion and a Singing Lin-Manuel Miranda

By Beth Elderkin on at

With Game of Thrones gone, seems as good a time as any for a new fantasy epic to come into the picture. HBO looks to have that covered with BBC’s upcoming adaptation of His Dark Materialswhich made its San Diego Comic-Con debut this year. The panel had fun and got deep, diving into everything from daemon puppets, to how the show will handle religion, a controversial topic the previous film chose to ignore.

His Dark Materials took over Hall H at San Diego Comic-Con on Thursday with stars Dafne Keen (Logan), James McAvoy (Dark Phoenix), Ruth Wilson (Luther) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns) in attendance, along with executive producer Jane Tranter and writer Jack Thorne. The series is based on the book trilogy by Philip Pullman – which Keen had never read before, and didn’t think she needed to before her audition, since she was convinced she wasn’t going to get the part. But once she did, she couldn’t put them down:

I went into my audition and I’d only been halfway through the [first] book because I was like I’m not going to get it anyways... Then I was called and they were like, ‘You’ve got it.’ I was like, ‘Oh, right. We’ve got to read three books now.’ In the beginning I was like, ‘Okay, [keep your] mind open.’ Then, literally until I finished the three books, I did not close the book.

Keen plays Lyra Belacqua, a young orphan who one day overhears her Uncle Asriel (McAvoy) talking about Dust, a mysterious particle that’s connected to everything and everyone in the universe. All the characters know at this point of the story is that it has something to do with their daemons – which in the world of His Dark Materials are external manifestations of people’s souls that take the form of animals. Many of the characters talk to their daemons, share ideas with them, get into disagreements. Lee Scoresby’s relationship with his daemon Hester even gets musical – of course, because Scoresby is played by the perpetually busy Lin-Manuel Miranda.

“So I literally come into this thing singing a duet with my daemon,” Miranda said, to thunderous applause. “On a big-ass hot air balloon! Which is a pretty fun way to enter the world.”

Since the characters’ relationships with their daemons are so crucial to the story, many of the scenes utilising them were filmed with an actor wielding a physical puppet, who could then be later edited out in post-production. Wilson and Keen noted how much having the actor physically playing their daemons made a difference, instead of just using a ball on a stick, because it gave them someone to interact with. This was especially helpful for Wilson – who also revealed that the series expands on Mrs. Coulter’s story from the novels, giving her scenes and moments with her golden monkey daemon to provide more insight into this otherwise mysterious character.

Philip Pullman gave us license to dig a bit deeper into her, and to sort of see her on her own with her monkey. To see who she is without Lyra, and why she might do the things she does. That, for me, was really fascinating to dig into. Why she has a monkey? Why can she separate from her daemon when no one else can?

For Miranda, he said his relationship with his the puppeteer playing Lee Scoresby’s daemon – an arctic hare named Hester – eventually became like second nature. He described their human-daemon dynamic like they were in their “own little buddy cop movie in the middle of the show”.

“I’ve been lucky enough to get to work at Sesame Street for many years, I write songs for Sesame Street,” Miranda continued. “And when you bring kids to the set, they don’t look at the Muppeteers. They’re just talking to Elmo. They’re just talking to Grover. And that’s how it was for us with our daemons after a while. For me, she was this beautiful puppet – and the puppeteer who worked with it was so brilliant – that I would just be talking to Hester.”

But all the daemons pale in comparison to Lord Asriel’s Stelmaria, who is the coolest cat in the trilogy... literally. McAvoy, a major fan of the books, noted how interesting it is in the world of His Dark Materials that your daemon’s final form, which comes after a human reaches puberty, ends up telling you something about yourself that maybe you didn’t know, or might not even like. For example, if your daemon is an obedient dog, in this world that means you’re probably destined for a life of servitude. Of course, Lord Asriel doesn’t have that problem according to McAvoy:

I guess the day that Lord Asriel’s daemon settled as a snow leopard he went, ‘Wow, I’m totally badass!’

Lord Asriel is kind of a badass. He’s on a mission to free the world from authoritarianism and won’t let anybody stand in his way, something that McAvoy found very compelling about the character – even if it meant Asriel’s relationship with Lyra suffered because of it.

The whole thing is about freedom, and Lord Asriel is all about attaining that freedom for everyone on a grand scale that we won’t give away right now. But he’ll sacrifice any love in his life [for it].

In the books, Lord Asriel’s enemy is the Magisterium, a powerful religious organisation that shares some parallels with Catholicism. The 2007 movie adaptation of the series, The Golden Compass, chose to remove this from the story and make the baddies more generic – partly in response to criticism from religious groups – but Tranter said for the most part everything that’s in the books will be in the television show. However, she made it a point that His Dark Materials isn’t criticising faith or religion, but rather the damage that authoritarian mindsets can inflict:

I think one of the great things about His Dark Materials is that so many different conversations to have about it, and then many conversations about the religious aspect of His Dark Materials as well. And I think like all conversations – talking about these days – it’s better to have a conversation where there are some facts on the table, rather than just lots of assumptions that lots of people who haven’t read the book sometimes make about the religion [aspect].

Philip Pullman, in these books, is not attacking belief. He’s not attacking faith. He’s not attacking religion, or the church per se. He’s attacking a particular form of control – where there is a very deliberate attempt to withhold information, keep people in the dark, and not allow ideas and thinking to be free. And at times that can be personified by an autocratic kind of form of government or church or whatever it is, and in His Dark Materials it’s personified by the Magisterium. But it doesn’t equate to any particular church or form of religion in our world. So we should be clear on that.

His Dark Materials has been picked up for a minimum of two seasons, with Amir Wilson set to join the cast later on as Will Parry – a character who will play a big role in the series moving forward. His Dark Materials arrives on HBO and the BBC in Autumn 2019.