I've resisted commenting on the new HBO series Game of Thrones, made possible by way of The Lord of the Rings. (That's a gift that will hopefully keep on giving to the fantasy genre. No one wants to go back to the 80s when B movie status was forced upon an entire genre.) I wanted to see how the series did or did not evolve from the kick-off show a couple of weeks back. So after three hours in the Seven Kingdoms, it feels like time to discuss.
After glancing at a few reviews and comment pieces, most of which seem elated at the ratings or the instant second season renewal, it seems the general consensus is FuckYeahGameofThrones. I am personally not elated though I did want to be. I imagined that the right cast or storytelling decisions in the series would smooth over or even hurdle some of the problems with the book series. I loved the first book but grew less enamored with each until I finally gave up on the series halfway through the third. By that time we had been introduced to dozens of major characters (plus several dozen minor ones) and the story threads, splintered at the thrilling final chapters of the first book, had only been rebraided in the abstract. The characterizations were, generally speaking, quite interesting. What killed it was the lack of interaction between the characters. The map is so big and the plots so resistant to truly intertwining that it felt like you were reading 100 different novels at once and even the ones about blood relatives would almost never overlap. Great characters are great characters but even they need chemistry with other great characters to truly leap off the page or screen.
George R R Martin can turn a phrase with the best of them, build a thrilling moment, and make complex decisions about characterizations (the best longform aspects of the book may be that, aside from maybe three or four characters, most of them minor, nobody seems entirely like heroes or villains). But I found the author's voice too cruel -- the ratio of gruesome plot turns to endearing or lighter or funny or romantic bits is roughly 99 to 1 -- and the stories far too repetitve once it was clear that entire books would go by and we'd still be harping on the same points (in that way it was already a television soap opera!) and still yearning for some face-to-face time between ANY of the characters we'd seen interact in the first novel.
But here's how the pros and cons and character detail breaks down thus far.
- Those opening credits. Ingenious really, flying to and fro over the map with all its three dimensional whirling, spinning, elevated tiny kingdoms. LOVE. When did opening credits become such an art form? It seems like it started happening in the 1990s and became more and more a must-have element. It's a beautiful entertainment development, yes?
- The Stark boys. Jon is just as glum as he was in the novels but he's somehow more three dimensional. Rob is just as sketchily characterized, script-wise, but he feels more relatable. Bran has a great child actor face... and he'll need it since he's bed-ridden. I'm hoping this is a case of the right actors in the right roles. I think they made the right choice to make the two eldest boys look so similar.
- THE WALL is a great visual. And genre epics really need to land their visuals.
- Tyrion Lannister. "The imp" is the best written character in the novel, or at least obviously George R R Martin's favorite, and so he gets the best actor in the cast to play him. As per usual, Peter Dinklage is great.
- The costumes at Winterfell look great, all those furs and heavy dark layers.
- Catelyn Stark. She's my favorite character in the novels -- perhaps that's no surprise -- and how much does look Michelle Fairley look like Joan Allen anyway? This character is transferring fairly well though I wish Ned were more vivid at the center of the experience.
- Jamie and Cersei Lannister. At first I thought the casting of Lena Heady was lazy (genre film -- oh, get Lena!) but both characters are working well on screen and both actors are justifying their gig. Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) didn't truly come alive for me in the books until #3 (which I think he kind of owns) but he's already a delight in the series.
- It's shackled to the novel, shackled and sore. So far the series is extremely faithful, using dialogue, the same chronology and exact plotting. This may be the saddest legacy of the Harry Potter series on adaptation culture. In order for a story to work in separate mediums it needs to stay true to the heart of the original, but be free to become its own new self in a new neighborhood. One of the great things about the best television shows is their ability to evolve. On the best shows, writers notice which actors are bringing it, which plots are completely working and which are playing flat, and they're free to lean towards their strengths and shed their weakness and just improvise in general.
- It's moving too quickly. I've read some reviews saying "be patient. it'll speed up." It will but why hurry? As a result of the faithfulness, the need to cram it all on in, the dramatic moments sometimes feel skimmed and less impactful than they should be. They're touching on everything but racing through.
- The casting seems very hit and miss. And so far at least it's difficult to tell a lot of the characters apart and this is coming from someone who has read a couple thousand pages so I can't imagine with the minor characters if they're registering at all with viewers? One minor player who will be very important later on is The Knight of Flowers.
I am not familiar with the actor Finn Jones, and he's certainly handsome but shouldn't he be wildly attractive in comparison to the other young swordsmen we've already met given the character he's playing? The photo on HBO's character guide makes him looks as grimy as everyone else but at least they understood to make Jamie Lannister well groomed. Sansa is another character I have trouble picturing as the same girl we met in the books. The actress Sophie Turner is attractive but it's tough to see Sansa's specific soft womanly Princess beauty that is so fawned over in the book.
- Anya vs. Sansa vs. The Prince and the wolves. This storyline, covered in episode 2, is absolutely devastating in the book. In the series, it's just this happened than this happened and now everyone hates each other -- and that's just one plotline in one episode. Maybe it needed stronger performances but it definitely needed more time. This incident changes so much about the relationships and the narrative and it played like a "oh man that sucks. NEXT". You have to truly enjoy a moment before a moment can be spoiled for you; Sansa's heartbreak about life in King's Landing and her impending nuptials only works if you've experienced her joy and excitement about those things in the first place. It seems like they gave her only one lines to indicate her enthusiasm about joining the Royal Court and now she's hating it already.
- Hit and Miss Visually. Winterfell looked great, the Wall wows and what we've seen of the throne room at King's Landing was generally pleasing. But in other moments there's something disappointingly cheap looking about the sets and costumes. And the Dothraki stuff is a nightmare of "fantasy TV show". Like, I don't know, Xena, it feels entirely like a TV show with actors wearing wigs and "barbarian" costumes and play-acting at being "rough". These sequences, should feel dangerous and savagely alien. It's not working at all.
- It's super weird and non-committal when it comes to the sex scenes. The sex scenes in the books may be extremely limited in their POV, exclusively phallus-driven that is, but they're frequent. They're even weirder in the series, as if they're nervous about titillating you. They couldn't even get it up for every straight man's favorite: the girl-on-girl stuff. What was with that oddly chaste 'i'll teach you how to please your man' scene? HBO is the hometime of True Blood. If you're going to be so faithful about the blood spilling -- how many beheadings already in three episodes? -- why are you so nervous about to get the blood pumping?
- Where is the humor? There's a few sly smile inducing bits in the first three episodes -- usually courtesy of Tyrion, the Imp. But the book is often funny in a particularly mordant and/or plot-twisty way. Being gravely serious 100% of the time is not usually the way to go in long form storytelling.
- Why does Ned Stark (Sean Bean) look so raggedy all the time? The Dothraki look like they go to day spas when juxtaposed with him. I like Sean Bean but none of the wealthy aristocratic characters, with access to feather beds and baths and underlings ought to look so in need of a comb, a bath and a good night's sleep in every scene.
That last bit is too harsh. What Hand of the King ever got a good night's sleep? Ned Stark knows that the worst of it is still ahead. Hopefully the best is still ahead for the series itself.
Are you enjoying Game of Thrones so far? Or are you impatiently waiting for some other sword & sorcery franchise to get the big or small screen treatment?