Game of Thrones: Reviewer Melee

In the week between “Baelor” and "Fire and Blood" I found myself checking the blog more than usual. I kept returning to the quotes at the top of the “Baelor” review, the way I might return to a lovely image or poem. Those paired snippets of conversations are stark, simple, and completely in character for the speakers. But what I loved most was that they disagreed.

I don’t mind a good “idea” novel every now and again (Vonnegut, Robertson Davies, House of Leaves), but I prefer a great story with interesting characters, strong writing, and that ineffable something that keeps me up at night, turning pages. (Robertson Davies does not keep me up at night.) George R.R. Martin’s series keeps me reading, so many of the more philosophical questions it raises—about power, the meaning of life, the impossibility of honor, the structure of a society in the early days of capitalism—take a backseat to my affection for Tyrion, the Hound, Ned Stark, and Arya.

But reviewing the series has brought some of those big-picture ideas to the fore (mostly because an entire review of “How awesome is Tyrion, right?” would be dull for you and for me). And the more I examine the questions that Game of Thrones raises, the more I am impressed that it refuses to answer them simply.

After all, questions about life, death, power, honor, and so forth don’t have answers—any universal answer to those questions turns into a platitude or bromide. Game of Thrones raises questions, and lets each character work out a series of answers depending on their circumstances. That makes the TV show just as fascinating as the novels, which change perspective with each chapter. That the show is adapted from a series of novels also means that there is less impulse to create a false sense of closure. Like life, these stories continue, meander, take sudden detours, and sometimes have sudden endings. That’s beautiful.

In the spirit of contradictions, different opinions, and raised questions, a few of the Doux Reviews writers have contributed their takes on the series. Let the melee begin!

Ben

First let me say I am a big fan of fantasy literature and movies, but I haven't read Martin's novels. Although he did once stop me at a convention and ask me to lead him back to whatever party I had just come from. Now the fact that I had no shirt on and was wearing a top hat covered in plastic fruit may have had something to do with it, but I think he simply sensed I was a kindred spirit. But I digress.

All that (probably too much) said, I found Game of Thrones a bit tenuous to get into. The thing is with fantasy is that it is wholly made up, with no connection to the real world or even a pretense of it. This is good and this is bad. It's easier to accept in a novel because you can draw it so richly. It's harder on screen where you have to rely on folks just getting it. The season suffered from the lack of either a real narrative through-line or protagonist (if you are beheaded in episode 9 you were never really the protagonist). The last episode had it emerge that the Daenerys story was, perhaps, the true lead narrative here: the return of the dragons, if you will. The rest of the season was really just getting all the chess pieces on the board. It is all very interesting but awfully wasteful of episodes and interesting characters. Let's take Syrio, for example, great character and fun scenes but then discarded. I know this may follow the book, but slavish interpretation of the material is no virtue, and the character could just as easily be rotting in a dungeon somewhere to return in season 3. It's hard to care much about characters who come and go with such alarming frequency and it also loses its impact narratively. Again it works in a book, where a minor character can still get 30 pages of appearances but less so on television. Did I still tune in and watch the show as each episode was broadcast? Absolutely, but am I concerned I will drift away from the show over time? Absolutely.

Finally just let me say, Martin still owes me a hat.

Harry

I knew this story had me completely in its grip when I was listening to the audiobook to drift off to sleep with and sat up in bed shouting “No he f***ing didn’t!” at 2am. No prizes for guessing what part I was listening to. I love fantasy with grit, and despite the white walkers and dragons, the story feels very realistic; medieval power struggles which you win, or you die. Game of Thrones has been pretty faithful to its source material, so coupled with some perfect casting (I’m looking at you Peter Dinklage) it’s quite hard not to fall in love with this show.

My main disappointment this season has been things left out of the book, and it’s pretty obvious that all the decisions were made with either running time or budget constraints in mind. It’s difficult to make a TV series with so many detailed characters; things like dream sequences, flashbacks, direwolves and Dothraki hordes get whittled down or cut to compensate for the sprawling cast. I am hugely looking forward Season Two, I just can’t fathom how they’re going to pack that huge book into a measly ten episodes!

Mark of House Greig

These are the words of Mark of the House Greig, first of his name (I think, genealogy isn't one of my strong suits). ‘Twas the casting that first me to this series drew, and that is what I have come here to praise.

I first heard about George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series when Sean 'tis but a scratch' Bean was cast as Eddard Stark. Then I read about Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Aidan Gillen and Jason Momoa joining the cast as well. Next thing you know the first book is sitting on my shelf, gathering dust, just waiting to be read. Eventually I got off my backside, read it, loved it, bought the rest and then had to endure the agonising wait for future books just like everybody else.

What I love most about Martin's books is the characters and I am so happy to see them all brought to life so well. Even the ones I despise. There just isn't a single miscast role. So what if Dinklage can't pull of an English accent, there still isn't anyone who could play Tyrion any better. While it was the likes of Bean, Dinklage, Heady, Gillen and Momoa that first got me interested, it's the younger actors that have impressed me the most. Still hard to believe that for Emilia Clarke, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Isaac Hempstead Wright, John Bradley and Kit Harington this was only their very first TV work.

Of course, being British it’s a thrill just seeing the likes of Julian Glover, James Cosmo, Donald Sumpter, Peter Vaughan, Iain Glen, Clive Mantle and Charles Dance pop up throughout the season in major and minor roles. If the series does manage to cover all seven books I can imagine every living British actor will eventually have a role in it at some point. In which case I demand that Keith Allen be cast as Balon Greyjoy. Come on, you all know it makes perfect sense.

And then there's Jerome Flynn, going a long way to redeeming himself for his musical career by stealing every scene he's in as Bronn. That may be Game of Thrones' greatest achievement of all, actually making me love a Jerome Flynn performance.

Jess

As several failed attempts to succinctly express my thoughts on the first season of Game of Thrones have now taught me, I could easily go on at length about how much I enjoyed the series and how thrilled I am that it actually lived up to my very high expectations. But to spare you the effusive gushing, I’m going to give brevity another go and limit myself to my three main thoughts on Season 1. Once more unto the breach!

Casting. Obviously, the showrunners had strong source material, but I think one of the greatest factors in the show’s success has been its uniformly excellent casting. So many of the actors cast have perfectly inhabited characters I already loved or loathed, bringing them to life in delightful fashion. Some of them have even caused me to develop attachments to characters I previously didn’t have much investment in. I have to give special kudos to Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime, Iain Glen as Jorah Mormont, and Richard Madden as Robb Stark in this category. Jaime was a character I actively disliked in the first book, but NCW brings such charm, shading, and depth to him in the show, that I find myself looking forward to every appearance, even though he’s often playing the roguish villain. Similarly, Iain Glen and Richard Madden have brought a certain charisma, gravitas, and humanity to Jorah and Robb, making them pop for me in a way they never did on the page. Well done, gentlemen.

I’m now eagerly anticipating Season 2, not just because I want to see George R.R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings rendered on screen, but because I want to see Kit Harington’s Jon, Emilia Clarke’s Dany, Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion, and especially Maisie Williams’ Arya experience the next step on their epic journey. I want to see more of NCW’s Jaime, Glen’s Jorah, and Madden’s Robb. I want to see Michelle Fairley’s Catelyn struggling to balance her need to save her children with her need for revenge. I want to see Conleth Hill and Aiden Gillen dance another pas de duex as Varys and Littlefinger. I want to see John Bradley’s Samwell bringing some light and heart to the darkness beyond the Wall. I want to see Jerome Flynn’s no-nonsense mercenary, Bronn, mixing it up in King’s Landing. I even want to see Jack Gleeson being perfectly awful as King Joffrey. And I can’t wait to see who they cast for several key roles next season! (Any chance we could get Ian McShane as Stannis? Too old?)

Length. The first season was just too short. It covered the main beats of the plot arc well, and added in some very nice new material to flesh out characters and relationships not seen via the point-of-view-character structure used for the books. Unfortunately, these additions came at the expense of depth for several important characters. I understand that it’s hard to translate the intimate understanding of characters you get from reading their thoughts, feelings, and memories on the page, but I feel like we barely scratched the surface with some of the characters we come to know so well in the books. Particularly Bran. If memory serves, Bran seemed like such an important and central character on the page, even though he wasn’t caught up in much of the action. In the television series, however, Bran became little more than the catalyst for the story. (Did we even learn his direwolf’s name?) When I’d discuss the show with my husband, I’d often forget that Bran was a character at all. I know that Bran’s dreams and interior monologues were probably particularly tricky to effectively convey on screen, but at this point he seems like a plot device, not a character, and that’s a huge disappointment for me.

Backstory. I’ve also got some concerns about the way the history of Robert’s Rebellion is being doled out. Namely, I’m concerned that a lot of important information readers learned about that history in the first book has gotten lost in shuffle or been entirely absent in the series --- specifically, some backstory that hints at a possibly significant connection between two otherwise unconnected characters. Unfortunately, since many of these hints were gleaned from Ned’s thoughts and fevered dreams in the books, I’m left wondering how or if the information will be introduced later. Hopefully, there’s some kind of a plan to bring it up down the line, because I’ll be extremely disappointed if GRRM told the producers it’s alright to drop these tidbits because they are insignificant. (Of course, that’s more an issue with the overall story, and not necessarily the show.) In general, I think the history and the role of characters we know in that history is important context for what’s happening now, and I hope we get a better sense of that past next season. (Unless it means more “sexposition.” I could certainly do with far less of that. You’ve got some seriously gifted actors, Benioff and Weiss. Please, give them a chance to deliver exposition without all the distracting working girls in the background.)

OK. Clearly, brevity’s not my thing. But Game of Thrones definitely is. I can’t wait for Spring 2012!

And now, gentle readers, it’s your turn. What did you think about Game of Thrones?

1 comment:

TVNerd said...

I started the season suspect, unsure if they could capture the sheer size of the book they were tackling. Then I re-read the book up to when I thought they would end the first episode. That simple comparison, from book to screen, was a perfect example of what you shouldn't do in preparation for a screen adaption of a beloved book. I left that first episode wondering what went cockeyed.

Don't get me wrong, there was a lot to love. But for some reason I absolutely didn't connect to what I was watching. But on faith that the story would capture me, I sat down for the next installment. And although it did grab me a little more, I felt that nagging at the back of my mind that something was still off.

Now with a little trepidation I sat down for episode three. I was a little lost in the narrative chronology at that point, since beyond those first few chapters I hadn't read the book in years. But when I realized what was coming, and where it would end, I found myself on the edge of my seat hoping that Ned wouldn't have to kill that poor wolf.

That's when it clicked for me, the moment where I realized that the show wasn't beholden to its source material. That it had become a creature unto itself. Characters that I hadn't even absorbed as characters, in the book, suddenly sprang to life. Jorah, Joffery, Verys, Bronn, Robb, and Sansa all had more weight and presence. These were characters that I had no connection to in the book, but on screen they were a revelation.

If the translation had only done that I would've been happy. But the adaptation of my favorites were beyond my hopes. Dany with her quiet strength, Arya with her determination and tenacity, Ned with his absolute refusal to relent, Tyrion with his wonderful wit... I was blown away. So much so, that I didn't even realize that the narrative structure was suffering a little.

Now I believe this is a story that cannot be fully appreciated week to week. It is meant to be seen as a whole. Simply because this is not ten individual stories, but a multi-layered narrative without clearly defined chapters. I think ultimately it will be remembered for its characters, for its striking visuals, and for the fact that they were willing to sacrifice popularity for story.

This has been a wonderful ride, and I'm so looking forward to next season. Thank you Josie for writing the companion reviews for this show, and for the rest of you for giving us your insights as well.

TVNerd