His Dark Materials’ Change To The Book's Epic Bear Showdown Was ‘Almost A Religious Thing’

iorek byrnison his dark materials hbo screenshot

Spoilers ahead for Episode 7 of His Dark Materials Season 1, called "The Fight to the Death."

The first season of His Dark Materials is based on the first book in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" novel trilogy, called The Golden Compass, but readers know well by "The Fight to the Death" that the series isn't holding strictly to the source material. The biggest change is undoubtedly the Season 1 introduction of Will Parry, who joins Lyra as a lead in the second book of the trilogy, but the show's version of the bear battle between Iorek Byrnison and the usurping king Iofur Raknison was different from the page in a key way as well: the armor.

In The Golden Compass, both bears enter the battle wearing their armor, and they tear it off each other piece by piece in the fight. In "The Fight to the Death," both bears enter the fight already without their armor, with nothing but fur between their flesh and the enemy bear's claws and teeth. Joe Tandberg, who voices and stands in for Iorek for His Dark Materials, shared why the change to the book version of the scene was so meaningful, saying this:

It’s definitely a question I knew fans would ask when the episode came out. It’s a tricky situation that you put yourself in because you want to showcase one thing, but the fans of the books have seen another thing. We talked a lot about the importance of this fight in terms of what they’re trying to accomplish. One thing is that Iorek shows up in his armor. If it wasn’t for Lyra’s deception and trickery, he would’ve been torn apart before he even entered the palace, even with his armor. For Iofur, who is king, to take off his armor and challenge Iorek is almost a religious thing.

Iofur taking off his armor wasn't just a demonstration of bravado in the show, nor was Iorek removing his own armor to match the bear who had taken his place as king. There was a ceremonial element to the fight from the start, where it was one bear challenging another rather than two bears picking a fight with each other. By taking off his armor, Iorek accepted the challenge.

Did the battle go down exactly the way it did on the page? No. But did it give the fight a grittier, more personal feel? I would say yes. It felt like they were both fighting for something, not just pride, and the lack of armor made the threat to Iorek feel very real, even if I did read the book long ago and had an idea of what was going to happen.

Joe Tandberg went on in his chat with EW about the rituals of the bear culture of His Dark Material:

We wanted him to be as animalistic as they are, that part of their nature. They’re warriors, and you can imagine Vikings or Samoan warriors or Maori warriors. In a fight to the death, you would imagine it being man-on-man and you would have little protection and very little weapons. That’s just the way they fight and settle disputes like this. The fact that they fight without the armor, to me, means the sheer size of Iofur means more than him with the armor on. It just makes him more powerful as a king to make that choice, and for Iorek to have to obey those orders. I think it’s a very, very awesome thing to do. It shows that they’re more animal than I think most people anticipate, and the more bear we can get out of them, the better it is.

Iorek and Iofur certainly brought nothing into the fight other than their bulk, teeth, and claws, but the show actually held off on showing just how animalistic their book counterparts got. When the time came for Iorek to finish off his opponent, viewers may have expected to see Iorek rip off Iofur's jaw and eat his heart, which is how the battle ended in the book, and His Dark Materials does air on the same network on the American side of the pond that aired Game of Thrones.

Instead, the camera modestly -- by HBO standards, anyway -- cut away from showing exactly what Iorek did to Iofur, and the action moved on. Lyra did still have to reunite with her friends and find her dad, after all! She did have a happy reunion with Roger, although Lee is still on his own, tasked with the mission from the witch. Her reunion with her dad was a little more confusing.

While Lord Asriel was initially panicked to see Lyra and wanted to get her far away, he significantly calmed down when he saw Roger was with her. I don't want to say that Roger is disposable to him, but Lord Asriel looked pretty thrilled to have a kid he doesn't have to care about in his clutches. He and Mrs. Coulter may have more in common than a daughter!

Why His Dark Materials Filmed Season 2 Before Season 1's Premiere

At least there's no risk that this attempt at a His Dark Materials full adaptation will flop after one poorly-received installment! Find out what happens next when the Season 1 finale of His Dark Materials airs Monday, December 23 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO as one of the final notable episodes before the 2020 winter and spring TV premiere schedule kicks off.

Laura Hurley
Senior Content Producer

Laura turned a lifelong love of television into a valid reason to write and think about TV on a daily basis. She's not a doctor, lawyer, or detective, but watches a lot of them in primetime. CinemaBlend's resident expert and interviewer for One Chicago, the galaxy far, far away, and a variety of other primetime television. Will not time travel and can cite multiple TV shows to explain why. She does, however, want to believe that she can sneak references to The X-Files into daily conversation (and author bios).