Friday, March 30, 2012

Game of Thrones: Season One

In some respects George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire seems an obvious fit with HBO. Their programmers have long gravitated toward material that can be labeled "dark and gritty," and the success of Showtime's The Tudors has suggested an audience willing to watch this kind of thing when the characters wear period costume and live in castles. Martin's fiercely anti-romantic take on the high fantasy genre certainly fit that bill, full of the moral ambivalence and brutality and unsympathetic characters critics love to praise writers for writing - the jokes about "The Sopranos of Middle Earth" not too far off the mark as a description of its intrigues, which are driven not by the machinations of some external Evil impinging on a happy world, but the base ambitions and hungers of high nobility (though north of the wall, at least, there are also the stirrings of a common danger).

Additionally, Martin's novels marginalize the fantasy elements (magic, imaginary creatures and the like), particularly in the series' earlier volumes, making this kind of thing easier for critics and mainstream audiences to take (while relieving some of the pressure on the FX budget, which for the ten-hour series is likely less than a movie studio would bring to bear on a first-rank two-hour film). The fact that it has become routine for television networks to buy the rights to genre novels as a basis for their series (like Flash Forward, and The Vampire Diaries), and that Martin's books have as big a built-in audience as any recent work of speculative fiction not written for young adults (indeed, Martin was virtually the only non-YA fantasy author on last year's list of the top hundred selling books), doesn't hurt.

Yet, there were plenty of reasons for doubt about how the production would fare. The source novels are not just long but dense, packed with characters and intrigues which are both complicated and complex. My hardback edition of the first runs to 674 pages, not including the 20 page appendix listing the characters by house – and the story only gets bigger and more tangled with each succeeding volume. (Indeed, the fourth book of the series ended up being split into two volumes, each focusing on a different set of characters.) Translating that into a TV series which is both faithful and accessible is not a simple thing. Additionally, much of the tale is told through the eyes of very young characters, some of them children (Arya, Bran), hardly the kind of thing the channel seemed likely to accommodate. I wondered, too, if the show's production values would do Martin's world justice. (Martin himself has recently wondered what the Battle of the Blackwater would look like when it reaches the screen.) And at any rate, HBO's track record with speculative fiction has not been impressive.

On the whole, I was pleasantly surprised. The first episode was admittedly a bit shaky. Exposition-heavy, it felt a bit crowded and disjointed, the milieu thin. However, the storytelling quickly got smoother, and the world of Westeros more satisfactorily developed. I was ambivalent about a few of the tweaks (the softening of Cersei Lannister, the use of Renly Baratheon as a foil for his older brother rather than a younger version), but most of the adjustments - the scenes created from scratch, the alterations of events and the like - aided in clarifying the storyline, better establishing the characters (especially the non-viewpoint characters, who so often come off as opaque in Martin's writing), and holding together a sprawling epic. Certain scenes and bits of action are admittedly scaled down from the novels (like the depiction of Vaes Dothrak and the Twins, and the major battles), but never in such a way that it compromised the story (though one might wonder about their presentation of the Battle of the Green Fork). And of course, the cast has been deservedly praised (with Peter Dinklage notably picking up an Emmy for his performance as Tyrion Lannister - a rare win for genre television in the acting categories). As a reader of the original novels I came away satisfied, but I think the series would have been accessible and entertaining even if I came to it without that background, and it has left me looking forward to season two, which starts airing Sunday, April 1.

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