|“||I told him I was going to betray you, and betray Lyra, and he believed me because I was corrupt and full of wickedness; he looked so deep I felt sure he'd see the truth. But I lied too well. I was lying with every nerve and fiber and everything I'd ever done… I wanted him to find no good in me, and he didn't. There is none.||„|
|~ Marisa Coulter to Lord Asriel, The Amber Spyglass|
Marisa Coulter is a recurring antagonist in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Material. Known as Mrs. Coulter throughout the series, she is an icy and sophisticated villainess and makes her first appearance in the first novel, Northern Lights (1995). Her character undergoes several transformations before her reformation in the third book, The Amber Spyglass (2000). She is portrayed by Nicole Kidman in The Golden Compass, the 2007 movie adaptation of the first book, Northern Lights. In the 2003 BCC radio adaptation, Emma Fielding plays the role while in the audiobook version read by Pullman, Mrs. Coulter is voiced by Alison Dowling.
A long-time associate of The Church and a high ranking official in the Magisterium, Mrs. Coulter was head of the General Oblation Board, an association that performed harmful experiments on children in The Church’s interest of eliminating Dust. In the series, Dust is a conscious material believed to be related to free thought and Original Sin. Though physically beautiful with a charming and persuasive demeanor, Mrs. Coulter’s character is portrayed as cold, cruel, vicious and powerful, and is written to enjoy the torture and killing of her victims. Despite her charm and charisma, Mrs. Coulter is feared by colleagues, opponents, and subjects of her experiments due to her appetite for cruelty.
For years, Mrs. Coulter pursued The Church’s agenda vigorously with the driven need to advance herself in Magisterium's ranks and successfully achieves her aims. Despite this, Mrs. Coulter’s soft spot is her daughter, 12-year old Lyra Belacqua, the series' protagonist from whom she is on opposite sides. Mrs. Coulter enjoys performing cruel experiments on other children but she devotes herself to protecting her own child, Lyra, from these same experiments.
Lyra is Mrs. Coulter's daughter, a child conceived by Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel, Mrs. Coulter's then-lover, in an affair. For a short time after Lyra's birth, Mrs. Coulter hides her daughter away from her husband, Mr. Coulter, and places her with a Gyptian nurse, afraid Mr. Coulter would be angry over her illegitimate daughter. After Mr. Coulter discovers the existence of his wife's daughter, he goes after Lyra in a murderous rage but is killed by Lyra's father Lord Asriel, who saves Lyra. Shamed by Lyra's illegitimacy and only interested in advancing her own career with the Magisterium, Mrs. Coulter gives up a young Lyra to her father, who places Lyra with the scholars at Jordan College and poses as her "uncle". Nonetheless, Mrs. Coulter experiences the maternal urge to save Lyra from The Church and works to protect Lyra throughout the series, despite her power-driven desires, loyalty to The Church, and explicit enjoyment over the suffering of other children. Consequently, Mrs. Coulter experiences a conflict of identity between being Lyra's mother and as a loyal associate of The Church with a powerful career in the Magisterium.
Mrs. Coulter is devoted to The Church and zealously works for the Magisterium as a leading scientist. Throughout Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife, Mrs Coulter is a powerful and high-ranking representative of the Magisterium. She develops projects and heads initiatives, which often include cruelty. These projects are designed to rid the world of Dust (free thought) and advance herself in the Magisterium. However, when Mrs. Coulter learns The Church is interested in experimenting on children, she remembers her own child Lyra and finds Lyra to try and ensure Lyra's safety. Nonetheless, Mrs. Coulter still avidly enjoys developing and performing grisly experiments on other children and works to rid the world of Dust and free thought in any way possible. At the end of The Subtle Knife, Mrs. Coulter begins her reformation, which continues throughout The Amber Spyglass. After killing and maiming a witch for information on a prophecy, Mrs. Coulter learns Lyra is the second Eve who will bring about The Church's downfall. Faced with the choice between her daughter and her ideals, Mrs. Coulter seemingly intends to destroy Lyra to prevent the dissolution of The Church but she defects from The Church and works to save her daughter, hiding Lyra to prevent The Church from killing her. Near the conclusion of The Amber Spyglass, Mrs. Coulter unites with Lord Asriel to defeat Regent Metatron and save Lyra. Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel die in the process when they sacrifice themselves to kill Metatron when all three fall through the abyss between universes.
Mrs. Coulter is described as being 35 years old, slim, ‘beautiful and young’ with ‘sleek black hair’ which ‘framed her cheeks.’ In the movie adaptation, The Golden Compass, the character’s physical appearance was changed to blonde. Author Philip Pullman approved of this change and regretted not making Mrs. Coulter’s character blonde in the novels (Butler, Robert. An Interview with Philip Pullman. ‘Intelligent Life.’ 2007).
Mrs. Coulter is a published academic and scientist, written as sophisticated, elegant, intelligent and wealthy while she possesses an appetite for cruelty. Despite her feeling that Lyra is too much like Asriel, both Mrs. Coulter and Lyra are shown to be impassioned and talented liars. Her dæmon has taken the form of a golden monkey. His name remains unknown in the books but he is called "Ozymandias" in the BBC radio adaptation of the series.
- Mrs. Coulter was named the third top villain by Big Bad Reads after Voldemort (#1) and Sauron (#2).
- Pullman expressed a firm interest to casting directors to see Kidman in the role of Mrs. Coulter but had no part in final casting decisions (Butler). For her part, Kidman was initially reluctant to take on the role, as up to that point in time she had shied away from villainous roles. Ironically, her performance ended up being one of the few consistently praised things in the film (which got overall negative reviews).
- Marisa Coulter is a blonde in the movie, but is dark-haired in the book. After seeing Nicole Kidman in the role though, Pullman acknowledged that, in retrospect, the character should have always been a blonde.
- The moment when Mrs. Coulter tells Lyra that her mother did not die as Lyra had been told, but that she, herself, is Lyra's mother, is received with shock and denial from Lyra. This moment is reminiscent of the moment in The Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader reveals that he is Luke's father, followed by Luke's initial denial and then despair.
- She is technically just a bit worse in the film than in the books, owing to how she does not redeem herself as she went on to do in the books (due to the film never getting sequels as a result of underperforming critically and financially).