Game of Thrones: Winter is coming
|FEATURES - TV|
Can HBO convert the fantasy-phobics...?
Winter Is Coming.
We may be in the midst of winter now, but HBO have cleverly adopted this slogan for their forthcoming adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire, throughout which those words “Winter is Coming” are echoed many times. No strangers to epic storytelling, HBO have courageously stepped up to the plate in a bid to once again change the general public’s perception of modern fantasy storytelling.
Before Peter Jackson released his epic, game-changing Lord of The Rings trilogy adaptation, the fantasy genre had long been a place reserved for the geeks, freaks and outcasts of society, deemed by the average Joe as a place riddled with mystical races, talking dragons, magic swords and evil wizards intent upon the destruction of the world for no other reason than they 'wanted to'. Sort of like World of Warcraft, but without the sense of humour or irony – and to some extent, they’d have been right.
Not so with A Game of Thrones. Set in the world of Westeros, a medieval-like fantasy setting, Martin’s world couldn’t be further from the cliché-ridden environment of the traditional 'good versus evil', 'black and white' storytelling that has come to define and - to a great extent - plague the fantasy genre. Executive producer of the forthcoming show David Benioff has said that a bad way to describe the show would be to say “it’s The Sopranos meets Middle Earth”. Having read the books almost once a year since 2004, I’d have to agree with him: it’s a bad description. In fact, it’s the kind a desperate writer might pitch to a cable network in an attempt to neatly encapsulate the show they believe the network want.
Both the reference to Tony Soprano and Middle Earth fail to ring true – this is not, for example, Frodo sitting through hours of therapy with Dr. Gandalf trying to confront his repressed homosexuality – no, A Game Of Thrones is a mean, lean drama with plenty of action, often full of shocking twists. It wouldn’t be correct to say this is a world of “good” or “bad” characters, but if it were, the good guys almost always lose.
Characters that you come to love are killed off, quite suddenly, and without any warning. Trying to predict what’s going to happen next in A Game of Thrones is almost impossible – Martin has a brilliant knack for leading the reader down a certain trail of thought, inviting them to develop their own expectations, and then swiftly proceeds to pull the rug from under them every time. The result makes Westeros a thoroughly engaging world that always keeps you on your toes at all times. To his credit, Benioff has since admitted regretting making that particular misleading pitch.
Before going on with any more misleading analogies to other media, allow me to diffuse your likely inaccurate expectations and bring you up to speed. The world of Game of Thrones is set in a realm known as the Seven Kingdoms, though together they now form only one. The King of this realm is Robert Baratheon, a once mighty warrior whose muscle has diminished to rump. When Robert’s friend and mentor dies unexpectedly, he comes north to visit the Warden of the North, Ned Stark, his life-long best friend and sole remaining trusted advisor. Robert asks Ned to take up the recently vacated office of the King’s Hand, the overseer of the realm. Robert aptly describes the role to Ned in a single line “The King eats, they say, and the Hand takes the shit.” Ned is loath to accept the post, but ultimately accepts, upending half of his family to the South in King’s Landing while his wife and sons remain in their home castle of Winterfell.
"In terms of the scope of its cast, A Game of Thrones is comparable only to one other TV show: The Wire. It also has a similar storytelling structure"
In Hollywood movie terms, this is the inciting incident, the event which gets the action going for the rest of the story. But the canvas of A Game of Thrones is infinitely more complex, spanning not just multiple cities but multiple continents. In terms of the scope of its cast, A Game of Thrones is comparable only to one other TV show: The Wire. It also has a similar storytelling structure; minor characters become major, villains become heroes and storylines are slow-burning; seemingly isolated events that suddenly converge through crucial, frantic plot developments.
Once Ned has left Winterfell, the story opens out and expands from there; we meet the Lannister Family, composed of Robert’s wife Queen Cersei, her twin brother Jaime, a member of the Kingsguard, and most intriguingly Tyrion, Cersei and Jaime’s dwarf brother; stunted and misshapen, he is the polar opposite of his siblings. Tyrion is a cunning politician and master manipulator, self-serving with a twisted code of ethics, he shows no hesitation in ordering the executions of his enemies. He’s also the most honourable of the Lannister family by a country mile.
The Stark family, conversely, are about as different as can be imagined from the Lannisters. In the Seven Kingdoms, each family house has their own set of “words”, a motto if you will, and the Lannisters' righteous “Hear me Roar” clashes with the Starks' sombre, ominous “Winter is Coming”. Patriarch Ned is as close as we come to finding an honourable man in the Seven Kingdoms, and even he has his demons. His otherwise untarnished reputation was spoiled when he left behind his newly pregnant wife Catelyn to return home from war with a bastard (illegitimate) son, Jon Snow. While Catelyn and Ned have five other children, she has forgiven Ned for his moment of weakness, but not for bringing Jon back with him. Their other children include sixteen year old Robb, Sansa, a thirteen year old girl with a head full of romances and songs, Arya, eleven and a tomboy whose more interested in swordplay than stitching, Bran, nine, a boy who loves climbing the huge towers of Winterfell and Rickon, a three year old toddler.
Meanwhile across the Narrow Sea, Viserys Targaryen, son of the Mad King Aerys II, deposed by now-King Robert (confused yet?) is plotting his revenge and a return to the Seven Kingdoms in a bid to reclaim the Iron Throne. His sister, Daenerys, a timid teenage girl who is often both mentally and physically abused by Viserys, finds herself being sold off to the highest bidder in order to amass soldiers for Viserys’ return.
These are just three of the nine major Houses in the Seven Kingdoms that vie for political dominance, simpering and preening by day while sharpening their daggers by night. The wide cast of characters in A Game of Thrones expands slowly, but before you know it the already sizeable Stark and Lannister families are just a blip on a huge, multi-faceted stage. In fact, the cast is so large that at the end of each of the books is a glossary of characters provided to help readers refresh their memory as to who characters are, should they need it (for first time readers, it is all but essential).
In some cases, though, the reference will be wholly unnecessary. There are many characters in A Game of Thrones that will make an instant impression and stay there the entire time. Take for instance, Sandor Clegane, a knight with half his face burned off (by his brother) that brutally runs down a fleeing boy, or Littlefinger, a master manipulator who is responsible for the realm’s economy yet has questionable plans of his own, or master swordsman Syrio Forel, Arya Stark’s instructor for her “dance lessons”.
"The Dark Crystal, Conan The Barbarian, Labyrinth, Masters of the Universe and Willow, while each entertaining in their own right, were more than often made with kids in mind as the intended audience, and with the possible exception of Conan, adults were never truly considered an audience for the fantasy genre"
The cast assembled so far is, on paper at least, an incredibly impressive ensemble. This is a cast that boasts Hollywood movie stars who have held leading roles (Sean Bean, Peter Dinklage), actors who’ve already had played the central protagonist in hit TV shows (Lena Headey, Nikolaj-Costner Waldau) and others who’ve provided standout supporting roles in the past, both across television and film (Aiden Gillen, Charles Dance, Iain Glen) and dozens more.
To accompany this impressive cast is an equally accomplished crew. Author George R.R. Martin is on board as a Co-Executive Producer, ensuring that these will remain faithful adaptations and not just cash cows. Martin, Jane Espenson (responsible for many of the best Battlestar Galactica episodes) and Bryan Cogman are set to write one episode each, while the remainder are scripted by D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, the series ‘creators’ and executive producers.
Looking at the track record of fantasy films and television pre-LOTR, it’s plain to see that this was not a genre taken seriously as dramatic entertainment; The Dark Crystal, Conan The Barbarian, Labyrinth, Masters of the Universe and Willow, while each entertaining in their own right, were more than often made with kids in mind as the intended audience, and with the possible exception of Conan, adults were never truly considered an audience for the fantasy genre. Television suffered a similar condition, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Xena: Warrior Princess leading the charge in the campy fantasy field. Those shows weren’t bad in their own right, but required a strong pinch of salt and you could hardly make a compelling argument for the genre as an authentic medium for dramatic storytelling with those as your primary examples.
"The best description of Game of Thrones I’ve ever heard came from Martin’s own mouth when I met him on a book tour – 'I write fantasy for people who hate fantasy'"
Thankfully, Lord of the Rings did for fantasy what Star Wars did for sci-fi: it legitimized it. Since LOTR left cinemas, the fantasy-fiction market has exploded, with some excellent new writers rising to the forefront of the genre (a list of recommendations at the article’s close), and Martin, while a veteran of fantasy and sci-fi, is now chief among them, hailed by many as the “American Tolkien”. But this is neither fair nor accurate – Tolkien was a master, perhaps the inventor, of traditional good versus evil fantasy that we have come to know over the years, but Martin polarizes him in this respect as a writer disinterested in telling a morality tale, far more concerned with the human psyche: the motivations and inner thoughts of his characters. In Westeros, no one is inherently good or evil, and every single character lives in a grey area – even the children. However, the best description of Game of Thrones I’ve ever heard came from Martin’s own mouth when I met him on a book tour – “I write fantasy for people who hate fantasy”.
With HBO’s heavyweight backing behind them, a well-rounded, star-studded cast and a crew of such talent, Game of Thrones is set for immeasurable success. Or is it? Martin recently went on record himself and said his main concern about the series was its budget. To those uninitiated with the world of Westeros, this may raise a few eyebrows. Although known for their sprawling vast casts, incredible attention to detail and exquisite sets, not to mention colourful language, toe-curlingly graphic violence and gratuitous, wild sex, HBO are outdone by one simple, undeniable fact: the imagination has no budget. However much cash is pumped into Game of Thrones’ production, the odds of it actually bringing to life the almost impossible architectural wonders described in the books are slim at best.
Take, for instance, the Eyrie, a huge, impregnable fortress set precariously atop a mountain where prisoners are put in cells tantalizingly close to freedom – by way of a thousand foot drop. Or Harrenhal, a gargantuan castle in a state of squalid disrepair, better suited to giants than humans. Or the Wall far to the North, a three hundred mile long, seven hundred foot high block of ice, manned by the Night Watch, keeping supernatural horrors from entering the Seven Kingdoms. These are visual wonders that boggle the mind, epic locations that are almost impossible to capture with a suitable respect for their scope in any visual enterprise with the exemption of the mind’s eye. Indeed, my first impression upon seeing the trailer for Game of Thrones shocked me beyond measure, as it was absolutely apparent from the beginning: it didn’t look rich enough.
In my mind’s eye, I had come to visualize a world where the principal characters dwelt in wealth beyond measure, living gluttonously luxurious lives – Martin’s own descriptions echo this very notion; at times entire pages are given solely to describe the extravagance of the banquets that occur in Westeros, or to describing the locations that come to define this incredible world. Though the prose can sometimes feel superfluous, it nonetheless adds to the richness and atmosphere of the world, and it is this particular quality that I feel Game of Thrones is heartbreakingly lacking.
Adapting fantasy is never a risk-free venture, the main reason being each person’s reading of the novel will generate a different mental image, one that belongs entirely to each individual reader. The problem with adapting fantasy as a genre is, the freedom and unique personal interpretation is traded for a dogmatic, singular vision that rarely competes with the one held within the reader’s mind.
Whenever one of your favourite pieces of fiction is adapted from the page to the screen, there’s a rising, intangible feeling that begins in your chest and quivers like a newly-hatched butterfly, half pure elation, half terrifying, other-worldly giddiness that threatens to send you shakily stumbling to the toilet on jelly legs, hoping you make it in time for the inevitable spew. This feeling is a hope so fragile that the slightest alteration to your particular interpretation of the work will have you reeling back and forth like an in-patient at a psych-ward. Part of you is frantically punching the air in an almighty moment of triumph, the other half is cowering in a corner, terrified of what the powers that be might do your baby.
"Beyond the realm of Twilight or Star Wars, few fan-bases are as rabidly protective and hopelessly obsessed as fans of Martin’s epic medieval-fantasy world"
This is precisely the emotion that comes to me when I think about Game of Thrones. Having read the books roughly once a year since 2004, there’s a personal investment at stake for me here, and for millions more of Martin’s fans. Beyond the realm of Twilight or Star Wars, few fan-bases are as rabidly protective and hopelessly obsessed as fans of Martin’s epic medieval-fantasy world. And by all accounts, if you ask any fan of the series, they will almost certainly tell you that HBO are just about the only network that could bring this series to television and do it justice, but that somehow even this may not be enough.
Yet, the ambition and balls of HBO must be commended – they’ve even gone to the lengths of actually creating a new language for the scenes with the nomadic warrior tribe, the Dothraki. It’s incredibly pessimistic to be doubting A Game of Thrones’ chances before it even airs, and as a network, they hold, and have held for some time, the highest standard of dramatic television out there, with only AMC coming close to rivalling them. While on the subject, the hype behind Game of Thrones is incredibly high, particularly for a television show that hasn’t aired yet, and this level of excitement is almost unheard of in pre-air television, comparably only to last year’s awesome The Walking Dead.
HBO are no strangers to controversy. In fact, it’s fair to say they actively seek it out. Last season of True Blood had almost more sex in it than actual dialogue, with one or two scenes in particular that immediately come to mind – I doubt that anyone’s going to forget Bill and Elena’s quasi-rape fest that was more than a little reminiscent of The Exorcist anytime soon. That said, they’re about embark upon new territory once more. Game of Thrones has several moments that are likely to cause the faint-of-heart moments of gag-inducing revulsion, and none of it necessarily because of the violence. If you’re a stickler for television that pushes the boundaries, Game of Thrones may be just what you’re looking for; there’s repressed homosexuality, rape, child-murdering, underage (by today’s standards) sex, dismemberment, disfigurement and even a fully-realised incestuous relationship. Without wishing to give too much away (no names, promise), I cannot but resist the recalling the time a friend summarized one particularly deviant sex scene in which “a brother and sister have sex over the coffin of an immediate family member, in a church, while she’s on her period!” Well, when it’s put like that, it’s hard to think of anything quite as cutting-edge.
But it’s not the drama that concerns me. Martin has that by the barrel-load and HBO are excellent purveyors of it themselves. The worry is that the world simply fails to live up my own imagination. Already, my own personal ideal version has been compromised; where I wanted Daniel Day-Lewis for Ned and early 00’s Nicole Kidman as Cersei, I have Sean Bean and Lena Headey. Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those actors per se, but they’re just not my Ned and Cersei. Hell, even the pronunciation of Jaime has had me up in arms, debating on forums and in real life alike, only for all my arguing to come to bitter, crushing defeat when I heard the actors and writers say it themselves. It’s an incredibly small detail, but it’s exactly this kind of personal interpretation that almost always trounces any screen adaptation, no matter the calibre.
"If Martin doesn’t finish a book in time for the next season, will HBO patiently stand by in the wings and keep their idle actors on a payroll?"
At the moment, Martin has written four of the envisioned seven books in the series, and is hotly rumoured to be on the verge of announcing the completion of his very long-awaited fifth entry, A Dance With Dragons. The proposed plan is to adapt one book per season, though considering Martin published the first book in 1996 and takes a notoriously long time to write each entry, HBO face the somewhat daunting prospect of catching up to Martin before he’s written the next book. This could pose some seriously complicated issues down the line for the production of the show. If Martin doesn’t finish a book in time for the next season, will HBO patiently stand by in the wings and keep their idle actors on a payroll? Or worse, will they order the show to continue beyond the books' publications, spoiling the events of the novel and making them virtually redundant by the time they’re published? These are big, unanswerable questions, but ones that nag at the minds of fans everywhere.
Of course, all of this won’t mean a thing if people don’t tune in and watch the show or buy the DVDs. Like many shows before it, Game of Thrones runs the risk of overreaching – it has a vast, multi-faceted storyline, and certainly demands a budget that matches if not tops a run of other past shows that tragically found themselves consigned to the HBO scrap pile. As such, fans of the books and the show alike will be dependent on you, Dear Reader, to tune in.
If you’re looking for a televised weekly dosage of Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia or even God forbid Twilight (not fantasy!), give Game of Thrones a miss. If, however, you like dark, well-rounded drama with exceptional characterization and unpredictable plot, come to Westeros with us and share our meat and mead.
One thing is for certain: winter Is coming.
and the rest of Shadowlocked's Game of Thrones reviews
IF YOU ENJOYED THIS ARTICLE, PLEASE HELP SUPPORT OUR SITE, AT NO COST WITH ONE CLICK ON THE FACEBOOK 'LIKE' BUTTON BELOW:
If you're interested in writing for Shadowlocked (disc and screening reviews, etc, or just getting some extra coverage for your extraordinary writing talent, get in touch with us.