La Belle Sauvage — Differences from Page to Stage

If you think about Philip Pullman’s novel La Belle Sauvage you realise what a tricky book it is to adapt for the stage; Much of it involves an enormous flood, destroying buildings and carrying people off on it’s current, along with various other mythological and magical happenings.

So it’s impressive that The Bridge Theatre have successfully produced a version, now also broadcast by National Theatre Live.

Their version is adapted by Bryony Lavery. An excellent choice as she’s someone who clearly knows about adaptations for the theatre — I particularly enjoyed her version of the equally nautical Treasure Island broadcast on National Theatre live in the depths of the lockdown.

And after seeing the play a couple of weeks ago I thought she’d done a great job, catching much of the essence and atmosphere of the book, and the world Pullman creates while necessarily making some changes to ensure the flood er flows.

Though I did think ‘Thank goodness I’d read the book’ as if I hadn’t I think I’d have been pretty baffled. I’d be interested in anyone who’s not read Philip Pullman’s books (or indeed seen the TV show) but has seen the play. Did you rapidly become immersed in the world and understand it or were you thinking ‘What the hell is this?!’

It’s perhaps doubly tricky to adapt as the novel doesn’t explain daemons, that we’re in a parallel universe, there are witches, etc and so forth, as Philip Pullman can take it for granted readers will have read the original trilogy.

I really enjoyed the production and there’s lots of praise to go round for what makes it a successes — the lighting, which does so much of the work of creating the flood, sound, costumes, and of course the great cast and director — it’s directed by Nicholas Hytner, who among much else directed an adaptation of the original His Dark Materials trilogy at the National Theatre back in 2003.

But I’m going to focus on the writing and for the unashamedly nerdy fans attempt to provide a summary of the differences between the novel and the play:

Obviously this contains SPOILERS but c’mon if you’re found this on the internet and have read this far you’re probably already a fan and know what happens.

(This is based on seeing the play a couple of weeks ago and doubtless I’ve missed a few changes so if you spotted any others do please shout.)

Unseen Characters

While an impressive number of the characters in the book make it into the play there’s a few who’ve been cut out.

Coram van Trexel — In the book we see the Gyptian who we know as the venerable ‘Farder Coram’ from The Northern Lights as a slightly younger action hero type, who fights with the villainous Gerard Bonneville and cripples his Hyena daemon, and later warns young Malcolm Polstead that there’s going to be a flood.

In the play he doesn’t appear — the Hyena’s missing leg is unexplained, and the warning about the flood is provided by Lord Asriel (Weather forecasting is clearly another hobby along with exploring, seducing, God-slaying..)

Miss Carmichael — In the novel the sinister League of Saint Alexander encouraging children to inform on their parents is run by a Miss Carmichael.

In the play this role is taken by Mrs Marisa Coulter — Lyra’s mother does appear in the book but this gives her a bigger role which simplifies things and means we see more of this compelling character.

Malcolm’s Father — in the play Malcolm’s father isn’t on the scene. Presumably he’s dead though I don’t think it’s ever actually mentioned.

This means Malcolm’s mother, and her badger daemon, run The Trout Inn alone and it saves on an actor.

I did think Malcolm’s mother being called Brenda was original to the play but it turns out she is referred to as Brenda once in passing in the book (p.135 of the paperback if you’re really interested).

The Giant — My friend’s very first question when we discussed going to see the play was ‘How are they going to do the giant?’ And the answer is disappointingly they don’t — the giant which rises out of the river in one of the weirder wilder scenes of the book doesn’t appear in the play.

But we get plenty of other characters and snazzy effects so guess we can’t complain.

Diania — the fairy woman with a cloud of butterflies as a daemon who brings an extra dash of weirdness to the book is also absent

A few other smaller characters are understandably omitted, particularly those working for Oakley Street against the Magisterium are largely condensed into the character of Lord Nugent.

Characters we do see

Those characters we do see are often slightly different

Malcolm (played brilliantly by Samuel Creasey in what’s impressively his stage debut) I felt was a bit more self confident from the start of the play, for example enjoying reeling off facts, unlike his habit of keeping quiet and listening in the book.

An understandable change for the theatre..

In the book we’re told ‘If he’d been the sort of boy who acquired a nickname he would no doubt have been known as ‘Professor’, but he wasn’t that sort of boy’. (Incidentally is Phillip Pullman giving a conscious nod to Emil and the Detectives here?) In the play he clearly is that sort of boy as he’s nicknamed ‘The Professor’.

Alice (also played wonderfully by Ella Dacres) I thought was pretty true to the book, though she does have a slightly different backstory — in the novel she’s a local Oxford girl who lives with her Mum and sisters (p.406).

In the play she tells us she’s from London and had to bring up her sisters and brothers until she got sick of it and went in search of adventure. She was found begging by Mrs Polstead who then gave her a job as Pot Girl at The Trout.

Marisa Coulter (played in another great performance by Ayesha Dharker) is also quite similar to the character in the books, or at least equally enigmatic and hard to define.

She’s perhaps less sympathetic in the play as she’s much more a primary antagonist than in the book. In the book as the La Belle Sauvage canoe makes its way through the flood Malcolm, Alice and Lyra are pursued by the whole power of the Magisterium, and the CCD police, as well as Gerald Bonneville and his laughing hyena.

In the play the pursuers are largely Bonneville and Marisa Coulter.

Also, there’s a scene, in the Priory of the Sisters of Holy Obedience, well staged with a long line of cots, where baby Lyra is being kept amongst a lot of other babies. Marisa Coulter comes to reclaim her daughter but takes the wrong baby!

In the novel the wrong baby is pointed out to a visiting priest as Lyra, but by an unnamed Nun (and it’s left unclear whether she makes a genuine mistake or deliberately misleads the Priest so the nasty Sisters can keep control of Lyra).

Making Marisa Coulter not recognise her own baby daughter (and her daemon) makes her less sympathetic and Alice later uses this as evidence she’s an uncaring mother.

It also raises the question of what on earth happened to the ‘wrong baby’ taken by Mrs Coulter?? Did she just realise her mistake and return her soon after or is that baby being brought up somewhere, thought to be vitally important for the future of the world? Spin-off material?

In the book it’s unclear if the Priest takes a baby as he says he’ll take her in the morning, by which time Malcolm has rescued Lyra. The fact the Church keep pursuing them presumably means they realise the Nun’s mistake/deception?

Also watching the play I thought Marisa’s golden monkey daemon (called Ozymandias in the TV show) seemed pretty amiable rather than deeply sinister as in the books, but this might just be me.

Lord Nugent (portrayed eminently by Nick Sampson), the former Lord Chancellor who now co-ordinates opposition to the Magisterium, also undergoes a crucial change in the play.

He’s shown getting a new job as the Master of Jordan College.

This isn’t the case in the book, where they’re clearly two separate characters, and adds a new depth to the character of the Master who we see in The Northern Lights. I think it works well — it explains the Master’s later protectiveness towards Lyra and both the Lord Nugent of La Belle Sauvage novel and the Master of The Northern Lights show similar ambiguous morality; Nugent is willing to endanger Malcolm, and the Master to poison Asriel to meet their aims.

Given this change is potentially quite important I’d be interested to know if Bryony Lavery ran it past Phillip Pullman? Given Pullman’s fairly relaxed attitude to his characters backstories (Think the opposite of JK Rowling) if she did you can imagine him going ‘Yeah fine. Do what you like’ or even ‘Hey, why didn’t I think of that!’

Andrew — A minor character in the book, the boy who betrays Lyra to the League of St Alexander, sees his part slightly expanded. In the book we see him briefly in the cave with George Boatwright and the other outlaws before he scurries off to inform on our heroes.

In the play he’s a school friend of Malcolm’s who initially refuses to join the League — adding a little twist.

Lord Asriel (played by John Light who walks the tricky tightrope of making booming dramatic utterances without lapsing into the ridiculous) and Gerard Bonneville (made splendidly sinister by Pip Carter) are both very true to the book and very well done.

The Plot

A few plot scenes in the novel are omitted. Malcolm and his daemon Asta having to painfully separate so Malcolm can rescue Alice and Asta watch over Lyra which is made a big thing of in the book is omitted all together.

The grim scene in which Alice is sexually assaulted by Bonneville is also toned down. In the book it is made clear that Bonneville rapes her while in the play he merely intends to before he is satisfyingly smashed over the head by an oar.

The whole business with Malcolm seeing a ‘spangled’ nimbus which recurs repeatedly in the book is also omitted (with no great loss imo)

In general the play also adds some extra humour which is always welcome. In particular there’s a good original scene where Alice explains to the CCD why Lyra is hidden in an oven.

Plus, for a play performed at The Bridge Theatre overlooking the Thames, we get a couple of local London references added. Tower Bridge gets a name-check.

In terms of the actual storyline I thought the first ‘Act’ of the novel up until the flood sweeps away Godwin Priory was pretty faithfully followed in the play.

The setting of Oxford, the Trout Inn and the Priory were all nicely re-created

The second ‘Act’ where Malcolm, Alice and Lyra take a strange Odyssey-like voyage via various islands has been understandably streamlined (If one can streamline a flood).

To demonstrate here’s a list of all the stopping points on the voyage of La Belle Sauvage in the book and whether they feature in the play. (Sorry, I told you this was nerdy..)

A tree near the Oxford Oratory — No

A pharmacy in Oxford — Yes

An Island with the house of ‘Lord Murderer’ — Yes (All just as sinister as in the book)

Poachers’ Cave — Yes

Priory of the Sisters of Holy Obedience — Yes (Though much more briefly)

‘The Enchanted Isle’ — No

An underground River (containing a Giant) — No

A bare island where they meet a witch — Yes

Various roofs and hilltops — No (and the story loses precisely from this)

A Mausoleum — Yes (including Gerald Boneville emerging from a grave which I found unintentionally comical)

Another pharmacy — No

Lord Asriel’s boat-house — Sort of. In the book there’s a brief ‘battle at sea’ in which Malcolm et al are rescued by Lord Asriel and La Belle Sauvage is sadly destroyed

In the play they simply arrive at Lord Asriel’s house with the canoe presumably living to float another day.

But there is a final, nice little twist with Marisa Coulter added which makes a good scene.

The final trip in a ‘gyropter’ is then splendidly staged in a gloriously daft way which has to be seen to be believed (Surely the best use of a helicopter on stage since Miss Saigon — another Nicholas Hytner show), which brings the epic voyage of La Belle Sauvage and this similarly meandering post to a conclusion.

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@joe_oliver

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