You may recall that I blogged six months ago at the precise moment when my squee for the proposed HBO adaptation of A Game of Thrones reached a level at which I felt I could say with conviction ‘This is going to be AWESOME’. Since the show started airing, I felt like I should blog about it, but didn’t feel I had much to say beyond ‘So, I was right, then’, which is both dull and off-puttingly self-satisfied. But now that it’s over I find that I do have some points of reflection that might be worth sharing, even if those points are still largely in the ‘Awesome, wasn’t it?’ spectrum.
First off, let’s just talk about what an incredible and inspiring achievement this is. It actually sort of feels like it marks a shifting point in the dynamic of how we view television and what we use it for. There have been other successful TV adaptations of books. Plenty of them. It’s not even HBO’s first. From that perspective, Game of Thrones is just riding the crest of the groundswell of book-to-TV adaptation that has been popularised by the success of such shows as Dexter and True Blood. We’re all familiar with the film adaptations of books that have gone horribly wrong because the plot was necessarily butchered to fit a 90-120min slot. It’s evident that TV executives have discovered the retrospectively obvious fact that a TV show offers the opportunity to preserve much more of the original material whilst capitalising on the interest of existing fans. On the other hand, it’s still rare to see a television show that sticks so faithfully to its source material. If there’s one comment people will have heard over and over again about this show from pre-existing fans of the books it’s their surprise and joy about how faithful it was.Now, again, this isn’t entirely original to Game of Thrones. We’re all quite familiar with successful mini-series adaptations, especially for historical novels. For the most accurate and enjoyable TV adaptation prior to Game of Thrones I probably would have pointed to the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice from the mid 1990s. (Not that it didn’t have its minor deviations.) On the other hand, Game of Thrones is a substantially longer book, and it’s probably a lot easier to make an accurate TV adaptation if you can use existing stately homes for your settings and don’t need to worry about the special effects necessary to represent dragons and walls of ice several hundred feet high. In other words, fantasy has not always fared quite so well, even in the mini-series. I’m still trying to apply sufficient brain bleach to forget Stephen King’s It.
Game of Thrones was an ambitious undertaking. It has more main characters than most TV shows would attempt to comfortably accomodate. Much of its tension centres around complex political situations in a world that isn’t our own, and can only loosely be said to call upon the Wars of the Roses for reference points. It jumps about to wildly different settings, from a far north that would place the Scotland-analog in the arctic circle to a distant south where the France-substitute looks like it might be in north Africa.* It’s violent, risque, and morally ambiguous. In short, it’s a lot for producers to take a gamble on, and many would have hauled on the reins for at least some of it. Admittedly, there is slightly less nudity in the show than in the book (no, really – they made the very wise decision of cutting the ‘Catelyn forgets she’s naked’ moment, for instance), but that’s about it. This was a fat book, and very, very little was cut from it. And it works.
I feel like this has opened the doors to other fantasy novel adaptations in a way we really haven’t seen before. I rather hope so. I have been eagerly eyeing my shelves, thinking of all that might be. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell anyone? Assassin’s Apprentice? Maybe even Perdido Street Station? It gives you hope for the mooted Dark Tower project, at the least, although the latest rumour-mill suggested it may be a no-go.
Not that every single thing was just how I pictured it. Ned Stark still wasn’t right, for me, although Sean Bean did a good job on the vision that was clearly handed to him by the producers, and it works as an alternate view that plays up the North/South divide. I was also not as inspired by Jon Snow as I had been in the books – the lad’s just not how I pictured him. A bit too old and stocky. But as he seems to be a firm favourite with my mates who hadn’t read the books, I guess he’s still working the required magic for new eyes. Overall, these are minor gripes in what was, in general, phenomenally appropriate casting.
I don’t think I can go any further without mentioning this fine figure of a man: Peter Dinklage. I stick to my original comments that he’s far too attractive to play the Imp as he is portrayed in the book, but I can’t honestly say I mind. And it’s not exactly a bad thing to challenge our stereotypical conceptions of male beauty by casting an attractive man to play a character with dwarfism. But enough about his looks. Although Tyrion Lannister was always a firm favourite of mine in the books, Dinklage undoubtedly adds an element of charisma that effortlessly makes this character centre-stage of any scene he’s in. There’s been a lot of noise in the blogosphere and twitterverse about him deserving an Emmy for his performance, and I can’t really help but agree.
Over and above Peter Dinklage as an actor, though, this is a great part. As a member of the most wealthy family in Westeros, Tyrion is uniquely placed, by virtue of his dwarfism, to commentate both from a position of education and privilege, and as an under-dog outsider figure to whom we can relate. These characteristics culminate delightfully in such moments as when he is able to both verbally and physically lay a smack-down on the crown prince, Joffrey – probably one of the most unlikable characters in literature. Apparently people like that sort of thing:
But Tyrion isn’t the only stonkingly well-cast character. Much credit should be given to Nikolaj Coster, who plays Jaime Lannister. This is a difficult and subtle role to play. Jaime is one of the most complex and interesting characters I have ever encountered, not least because he initially struck me as unutterably shallow and despicable. One of the first things we see him do is an unspeakably horrible act, yet we are gradually brought to see that this is a character of many facets. His duality is neatly encapsulated by the nickname by which he is frequently insulted ‘Kingslayer’. He stabbed a king in the back. It casts him as traitorous, cowardly, and untrustworthy. He is almost universally despised… except by those who have fought with him. We see this in fleeting conversations long before we ever see him fight, and the build up to his demonstration of skill does not leave one disappointed in its climax. In his confrontation with Ned and Ned’s men one thing is clear: Ned is good, very good… but Jaime’s better. He is neither cowardly nor unskilled, and though he may have betrayed his king, he also killed a madman who had cruelly murdered innocents when no one else dared stand up against him. There’s a lot of complexity to convey, here, and we see little, in the first season that allows Jaime to show a more sympathetic side, yet I felt Nikolaj Coster achieved this nonetheless… without losing Jaime’s inherent insufferableness, either.
Credit is also due to Emlia Clarke. Daenerys Targaryen was probably my least favourite character in the books, as much of her role seemed to revolve around her use as an object of male gaze. However, despite the fact that I’m not as sold on her acting as I am by Peter Dinklage’s, say, I actually became involved in her story – even rooting for her and her rapist-cum-husband, Kharl Drogo.
But the true joy was watching Arya flower into the beginnings of the forceful woman she will become. Miltos Yerolemou is fabulous as Arya’s ‘dancing master’, Syrio Forel, and Maisie Williams is just perfect as Arya. To the New York Times journalist who thought that women would only watch this for the sex, all I can say is that you clearly didn’t have enough role-models like Arya growing up. She’s awesome, and she’s still the sort of woman I want to be when I grow up.
I really could go on and on, but I suspect this review would lose all structure, so I’m going to finish on a note of fun: with the long break between now and season two under way it won’t be updating as often, but I still thoroughly recommend My Mom Watches Game of Thrones**, a comedy blog about a comedienne’s conversations with her mum about Game of Thrones. That link is to the beginning. Like many comedy things, some of the jokes build over time, and you’ve plenty of time to catch up between now and the new season.
And now it really is time to sign off. Long days and pleasant nights…
*As mentioned in my previous post, Game of Thrones follows a familiar tradition in western epic fantasy of being set is a world whose countries look suspiciously like the British Isles and Northern Europe. Moreover, there are more direct ties to British history as it relates to the Wars of the Roses, with the Lannisters making a fairly clear analog to the house of Lancaster, the Starks an analog for the house of York, King’s Landing a fantasy version of London, Dorne practically a portmanteau of Devon and Cornwall, and so forth.
** It has come to my attention that, because Tumblr is an unfathomable mystery to me, there is no stable link to the first page of the ‘My Mom Watches Game of Thrones’ blog – the page number increases as posts are added. If anyone is aware of how to solve this dilemma I will happily fix the link. In the mean time, if you click the link and scroll to the bottom and find a ‘previous page’ button… click that. In the mean time I will try to correct the issue if I spot that the page number has increased, but otherwise, you know… sadly, I’m still mortal.