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Thursday
May052011

Game of Thrones, Three Hours In 

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.

Pros

  • 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.

    Bran Stark, Jon Snow, and Rob Stark. Brothers From a Different Mother.
  • 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.

Cons

  • 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.

    Finn Jones as Ser Loras Tyrell, "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?

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Reader Comments (26)

I never read the book, but i was drawn in by the adverts and hype for it.
I have to say, I tried two episodes and gave up, it just didn't draw me in, it felt lacking and voila your post just sums it all up.
Shame, not even my like for Sean Bean keeps me tuned in.

i'm hoping when The Borgias eventually airs here, i won't be let down. Have you seen that?

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjazz

To be honest, I didn't want to watch Game of Thrones. I just didn't need another fantasy epic to obsess over at the moment - and I've never read the books, so I wasn't excited about it anyway. BUT, my man turned it on for the first episode because there was nothing else on, and that first shot of The Wall hooked me right away. Without any knowledge of the books, I'm finding it hard to keep some of the characters straight, and the limited knowledge of the world of the Seven Kingdoms that gets parcelled out is frustrating. I don't really know anything about this world, so I have no clue what certain things mean or what the repurcussions of a certain action or line might be. Is this how people who never read any LOTR books felt about the movies?

But anyway, I feel like it's mostly done well, and is now appointment viewing for me, just as I feared it would become. I don't love it yet, but I feel like it could get there if the writers keep handling it well.

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

I haven't read the books and I must say so far it's played pretty well for me. After reading your comments, however, I can see that it defenetly has some weaknesses I hadn't noted (I am especially sad about the way they handled the wolf storyline after reading what you had to say about it).

Also, I must say I haven't had a hard time differenciating the characters, I may not know their names, but I can tell who's who.

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterConrado

The books are eating my life right now, in a good way, but I agree about the show. Though the first two episodes were fine, they don't match the quality or the imagination brought to the title sequence. I'd be perfectly happy missing the rest of the series, as long as no one tried to take my e-reader away.

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterester

The series is so damn confusing. I can't be the only non-reader struggling with this series. Isn't there another Stark brother that gets little air time? When they were rescuing the direwolves, someone said there were five for the Stark children, but none for Snow b/c he's a bastard (which everyone reminds him of constantly). Arya, Sansa, Robb, Bran, and ? Or is that wrong and Snow's the fifth?

Don't know how much longer I'll watch the series. It's stunning to look at, but beyond that, I'm not getting much out of this.

The opening credits are going to win the Emmy.

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterIan

Ian, there's an even younger than Bran Stark kid named Rickon, and I honestly don't remember even seeing him yet. I haven't been keeping my eyes peeled for him, he still hasn't had a whole lot to do in the books even since he's so young. But he's the fifth Stark kid.

I agree with all your points, Nat, but I'm sticking with it. I def. feel it's working better for me as someone who's read the books and can fill in the holes and project a lot onto it that the show itself is def. not earning. Hopefully they'll get more episodes for the second season and they can let the thing breathe a little bit.

Also I can BELIEVE you quit the books! I got monstrously frustrated with them myself for the same reasons but I was just way too hooked at that point. You are a stronger man than I!

Also, I think the girl playing Arya is WONDERFUL.

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJA

Ian -- there is another brother "Rickon". he's a little kid. You can see him running around in the background in a few scenes but yeah, they weren't careful with introducing hte Starks (the first section of the first novel is so focused on the Starks that you really get to know them as individuals and as a family but the series, perhaps knowing that they'd be split up so quickly, just raced through. Not a good idea since you kind of have to root for them for a long time even when they're no longer a unit.

May 5, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

And I thought the other Stark brother was one of the older guys that was hanging out with Robb and Snow. Ahhh, whatever.

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterIan

Fun fact: the opening credits were designed by Oscar winner Angus Wall.

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRax

"When did opening credits become such an art form?"

You can't be serious. It was around the mid-50s/early-60s thanks to the work of graphic designer Saul Bass. Honestly, I don't know how you expect to be taken seriously as a film connoisseur if you don't know that.

As for Game of Thrones, some of your critiques are fair. But admitting you quit reading the series midway through book three, widely considered the best of the series and cited by many as the best book in the fantasy genre, makes it fairly easy to dismiss your review outright. Sorry.

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercrispy

I'm quite enjoying it, apart from the awful-looking Dothraki stuff, and some of the casting. I don't get the Dothraki being multi-racial. Loras isn't attractive enough. And what on Earth happened to Renly? The whole point of Renly is that he's unusually handsome and jovial and everyone loves him. I didn't get any of that in his brief scene in episode 3.

I think Jon Snow, Bran, Arya, Vyserys, Cersei, Tyrion, and Jamie are terrific (as is the opening credit sequence).

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

crispy -- i stand by my opinion of the third book. I firmly believe that authors need compelling range within their work. I don't need to be coddled as an audience member -- lord knows i wouldn't love half the things i love if I did -- but building a complex and interesting family as the nervous system of your work and then REFUSING to let them reunite in any way for thousands of pages and then teasing the audience that they will only to... well i don't want to get into spoilers but that third book is pure sadism. The Red Wedding? It's basically a violent act against the readers. NO THANK YOU.

i would like to know who cites it as THE best fantasy book though and I'll make sure not to trust their fantasy recommendations (a genre I love). That said, I reject the notion that anyone's opinion of anything can be dismissed if you disagree with one part of it. That's just silliness. So i take back what i just said about not trusting people who think book #3 is the best fantasy book of all time: to each their own.

RE CREDITS: I know about Saul Bass ;) I mean really. I'm talking about television opening credits. For the past decade at least they've suddenly become their own creative thing even on minor shows... as if hollywood suddenly understands them to be "logos" and thus crucial for branding. Or as if having a cool one is a trophy for any project. This is not unprecendented of course but it's certainly far more prevalent than it once was.

Scott C -- I think the multi-racial Dothraki casting is to avoid charges of racism. The fantasy genre does often like to have one group of "others" that are easy to read as racist depictions so you have to be careful with casting.

Rax thanks for sharing that. I hadn't noticed but i love his editing so whaddyaknow.

May 5, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Um, love it so far. It's just so much fun, and I actually care about the characters (but is Jon Snow really becoming chaste? Noooo!) I can't believe Arya isn't higher on your list. She's pretty much schooling everyone in the series so far. It feels much more human than Boardwalk Empire and intelligent than True Blood, so I'm sticking with this one.

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercaroline

caroline -- episode #3 was a step in the right direction for her, i'll give you that. i guess i loved the ARYA / SANSA dynamic so much in the books that i was let down by the first couple of episodes.

we'll see...

May 5, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

And to add to that fun fact about Angus Wall -- he's already an Emmy winner in Best Main Title Design for "Carnivàle" (an underrated gem of a show, now sadly departed), and also nominated in that category for "Rome." Hope he wins this year for "Game of Thrones"!

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLes

Regarding Nathaniel's impression of the books...I share it completely. It's been years, but I followed the same path, read each book as it came out until the third which I never finished. I've read fantasy and scifi for 45 years and don't regard these as anything but skillfully written torture for the same reasons stated. I'm not as critical of the show however. They've done a superb job of world building. The cast is fine, though I see Catelyn as younger (Ned too). BTW, she is not a favorite character of mine. I don't know how I'm going to end up feeling about this series, but I'll continue to watch this one and the next one too. I enjoyed CofK above the others...obviously the 3rd one. There's no way I'm touching 4 and 5.

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRon

I made it an episode in and then gave up. There were so many characters and I felt like they were all so rushed to be introduced. I didn't even pick up on the fact that the queen was having sex with her brother until someone I was watching with (who had read the books) told me. I had completely forgot what the queen and her brother had looked like by that point.

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJasper

The hot Dothraki warrior guy's name is Jason Momoa. He's the new Conan in what looks like an awful remake. And he's the baby daddy to Lisa Bonet's new daughter.

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPreston

Preston -- i hadn't made that Conan connection. Oh no. I don't think he's a very good actor. ah well.

May 5, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Re: Conan

The new trailer is up and not bad. The initial teasers were awful. It could be entertaining if it's not tamed down for a PG13 rating.

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRon

Well, thankfully I haven't been polluted by the books - so I just see a brilliant series.

May 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKermonk

On the Dothraki multiracial nature:
Take note of who is on horses vs who is walking. For the most part, it's the slaves who are multi racial. Guys on horseback tend to be somewhat bronzed.

May 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCritical Geek

I have to say, you're the first person I've met who quit the series in the middle of Storm of Swords. Everyone I've met either quit after book 1, or is counting down the hours until the next book comes out.

I like your critique. As I'm obsessed with the books, I unreasonably get upset by negative reviews of the show. I want it to be great, because I feel like the source material is some of the best fiction around.

I think they need to make some fundamental changes for season 2. The pacing feels strange, some of the plot lines can just be cut from the TV show. I mean, honestly, they could take the whole Danerys plot and make it a 3 episode miniseries after the 7 kingdoms story is done. It would hold the rest of the story together a bit better. But, that's just, like, my opinion, man.

May 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

Catelyn as your favorite character? Really? Yikes. Dozens of well drawn interesting characters and Catelyn is your favorite? She's just barely ahead of Sansa at the bottom of the list. She antagonizes two of the better charactaers - a total dick to Jon Snow, starts a war by arresting Tyrion. And horribly cast on the show, too.

May 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCatelyn?

Okay.

If you quit reading Storm of Swords, then you missed the payoff from the Red Wedding. Red Wedding: WTF????? End of SoS: OMFG WTF OMFG!

Your loss. Epic storytelling requires some patience from the reader. There's not really gratification in every book. FoC doesn't even have the entire NORTH. But I trust that GRRM has a better imagination that I do and so I will keep going. If you pick it up again, wait until A Dance with Dragons is already out because this has been the longest seven years of my life.

The series is ok, I really enjoy it. The movie in my head is much more awesome.

May 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSharky

the multi-ethnic dothraki are because the dothraki are multi-ethnic. this was briefly exposed in the show when the two handmaidens had vastly different views on the nature of the moon.

May 15, 2011 | Unregistered Commenternichobert
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