Winter is finally Coming:
Anticipating HBO’s Game of Thrones
When I was roughly 14, I read The Lord of the Rings. I enjoyed it, so my parents went to a bookstore ahead of Christmas and asked for something similar. The employee suggested A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire – when I unwrapped it on Christmas morning, I can remember being somewhat underwhelmed, having not (at that point) really delved into any literary series (I was a latecomer to Harry Potter, for instance) and not entirely keen on starting a new one. But, my reluctance aside, I started reading A Game of Thrones, and then A Clash of Kings, and then A Storm of Swords. Very quickly, I had read through the first three volumes.
And yet, today, I barely remember any of it. I don’t particularly know why, apart from a few key events (mainly deaths, which Martin seems to revel in), I found myself struggling to remember many specific details when I first heard of plans to bring to show to life as a new series for HBO. However, in spite of my lack of memory, there was one thing I was sure of: there was something compulsively readable about this particular brand of fantasy, and also something complex that seemed to confound my 14 year old memory but which may just be perfectly fine-tuned for my post-secondary critical mind.
Ever since the pilot was first announced as a potential HBO project, I’ve been pondering digging back into the series, but in the past few months I realized I had no excuse: HBO has been busy amassing the largest ensemble cast in their history, production is due to start in Ireland in just a few months, and a particularly resourceful blog has managed to turn casting speculation and analysis into a refined and comprehensive process worthy of this comprehensive story. Where some literary adaptations feel like a process being done independent of the material at hand, Game of Thrones has the series’ author onboard as a writer, devoted fans and active producers who have turned even casting into an internet event, and (as I discovered over the past week) some really amazing source material that feels like a perfect fit for both television as a medium and HBO as a network.
So, in short, I’m a little bit excited, and I think you should be too.
[Brief Spoiler Warning: I won’t be spoiling anything personally, but some of the links could contain spoilers in comments or in the posts themselves, so be wary if you’re behind or haven’t read the series at all]
For those who don’t know, A Song of Ice and Fire is a fantasy epic, telling the story of the people of Westeros, a continent bordered to the East by a mysterious Eastern land and to the North by the depths of the wilderness beyond the imposing Wall. Within this world, George R.R. Martin stages a fascinating power struggle, as various warring factions shatter a lengthy but tenuous peace in the midst of questions of succession, placing questions of honour and humanity at the center of the novels’ conflict. The first novel is largely defined by the wars amongst elders, those who were around during the last great war, but its focus on the younger generations will bring them into the spotlight as the ownership of the continent begins to shift from one generation to the other, perhaps sooner than they can handle. There’s many who have called it a fantastical version of Rome, and I think that’s a fair comparison: introduce some magic into that world of political and sexual intrigue, and I think you’ve got A Song of Ice and Fire.
What makes Game of Thrones so interesting to me as a critic is not only the source material in terms of the characters (all well drawn, complex and nuanced in their emotions) or the action (which effortlessly blends the magical and the human, the action-packed and the quiet reflection), but also the way the novels’ complexity could be captured in televisual form. The series is, without question, a visual powerhouse: in the first book alone, the amount of imagery is astonishing and is a director’s dream to be able to work with. However, perhaps more importantly, the books are also unfilmable in their current state: divided as they are into character focused chapters told from one particular perspective, they lack that clear line of temporality that makes some adaptations too simple for their own good.
While there will inevitably be comparisons between how the show handles the text, I think that the show will be able to stand on its own simply by placing things into something approximating chronological order. Moreso than the novel, which tends to segment things and disorient you by switching locations and leaving things hanging, the show can play off the concurrent nature of events, bringing together similar motifs and characters who share similar fates so as to heighten the dramatic impact while maintaining the sense of anticipation Martin creates with his chapters but is necessitated by the episodic nature of television. Martin’s choice of structure is ideal for this kind of material, but in television it opens up all sorts of new potential to expand beyond the rigidity of the format into something more free-flowing but that still takes to heart the focus on character that Martin’s chapters were designed to maintain.
In re-reading A Game of Thrones, there were all sorts of connections which came to light immediately. Without spoiling anything, there’s a real theme during the middle third of the novel about dinner tables: characters remember back during the uncomplicated times, when dinner was a chance to bring everyone together and to share stories and socialize. However, as the characters begin to splinter across the series’ landscape, dinner becomes about being segmented, about tension and conflict and that sense of loss and remembrance. Although the novel takes place in numerous settings, the dinner table ritual is something that is observed in almost all of them (from the halls of Winterfell to the ranks of the khalasar). So, focusing an episode during that period on the dinner rituals, highlighting the differences between characters or cultures based on this point of connection, is a possible way for the show to use this newfound freedom to draw parallels that are present but necessarily subtle in the context of the novel.
Just reading the novel, you see the TV series unfolding before you: you can see the pivotal moments, you can see the intense action sequences, and you can also see those elements which will be pared down for time in order to fit the entire first novel (which isn’t short) into a single 13-episode season. Combine with what will be an absolutely mind-blowing final scene of the season (if you’ve read the novel, you know of what I speak), and you have a highly cinematic tale that feels well-suited to the benefits of episodic television. More than movies, television shows are built for large ensembles and focusing on character in the midst of more genrefied content, and Game of Thrones feels like it will fit perfectly as the fantasy equivalent to Battlestar Galactica, where genre is but a frame on which to investigate the depths of human behaviour and its response to external threats.
However, the novel is certainly not the only experience that has really brought me on board with this project: perhaps more than any other adaptation of this nature, the process of the casting and production has been highly public in the best possible way. Winter is Coming, an unofficial blog covering the adaptation’s progress, has emerged as a fascinating combination of news source (reporting the various castings that have been made in the past few months) and speculative rumour control. It’s not a site that’s about fantasy casting, per se, but rather one which facilitates the careful consideration of casting various roles (so, in other words, a really sophisticated form of fantasy casting). By focusing so heavily in hosting, rather than creating, these discussions, the site does exactly what it should: it encourages more people, those who have read the novels and those who haven’t, to anticipate not only the final product but the process itself.
Recently, George R.R. Martin’s own blog got into the act, and there was an elaborate series of clues which hinted to new casting announcements, which have been leaking unofficially for quite some time, much to the apparent chagrin of HBO executives. I’m admittedly confused about how anyone can disapprove of the amount of hype this generated: it had fans congregating online to discuss the project, it had them interacting with the novels’ author (and writer of the show’s pilot), and the eventual reveal was well-received by the fan community. There’s 841 reactions to the news on Winter is Coming, which shouldn’t be entirely surprising: like any comprehensive fantasy series of this nature, there are online message boards and the like and this is bleeding into the blog environment.
But what I really love about Winter is Coming is the way that it presents the information. While a blog like this runs the risk of seeming like an armchair casting director, designed less to discuss the adaptation than to criticize and explain how they would improve upon it, there’s an intensely open mind at play behind the scenes. There’s an editorial voice, certainly, but one that focuses on the scope and scale of the project, and that is willing to give everything a chance. As a critic, I’m always one to jump onto an element of a show that looks like it could need work or that I’m skeptical about, but there’s something about Winter is Coming that has calmed that impulse and turned my concerns (admittedly extremely limited) into curiosities: in a project this big, there’s going to be question marks, but without faith where are we as viewers?
Right now, HBO has to realize how valuable this all is: with Martin blogging, and Winter is Coming hosting analysis/speculation, they’re having one of their major problems solved for them. It’s one thing to say that a series of books has a hardcore following, but it’s another to figure out how to turn that literary following into a television one. Winter is Coming, and sites like it, have the potential to serve this role, bringing them into not only the show itself but the process of making that show. Sure, in the end it could only give them the information to know who precisely to curse should the show not meet their expectations, but this current culture of anticipation has really got me enraptured in the saga all over again, and I have every plan to reread the next two volumes, and get to the fourth which I own but have not read, in between thesis revisions in the weeks ahead.
As it stands, Game of Thrones starts filming in October in Ireland and Morocco, and while it’s only a pilot order for now the size of the ensemble and the sense of excitement about the project would seem to indicate that barring some unforeseen financial or casting complication the show should make it to series and likely find a place on HBO’s Fall schedule in 2010. It seems like a long wait, but considering Martin’s lengthy delays on the next installment of A Song of Ice and Fire I’d say the series’ biggest fans will be able to remain patient for just a bit longer. Besides: while we wait for Winter to come, we’ve got much speculative blogging to do, hmm? I don’t usually cover “news” about various castings or upcoming shows, but I, like James Poniewozik, feel this deserves some special attention, and as a result look forward to more coverage in the future, including some potentially spoiler-y discussions of the texts and potential adaptive methods.
- As far as the casting goes (Winter is Coming has a full list), I’d say that they’ve really hit the mark, especially with Tyrion. Yes, it’s a bit obvious for Peter Dinklage to take on the role, but Tyrion is such a fantastic character and Dinklage is just perfect for the kind of sage wisdom required for the role. Elsewhere, grabbing Sean Bean as Ned Stark is a particularly strong choice, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is the next biggest “name” in terms of previous television work, including FOX’s canceled pilot Virtuality. They’ve stuck with mostly unknowns in the role of the various children required, but for the most path the actors seem to fit the part and there’s definitely a sense that with Martin heavily involved they are casting not only what they’d need in the first season but also the seasons which follow.
- There are some roles left uncast, the main two being The Hound (who may have been cast if rumours prove true) and Queen Cersei, who feels like the kind of role that could potentially be cast with a slightly larger name. That could potentially explain the delay, or perhaps they’re simply focusing on the tougher roles – there’s plenty who can play icy bitch out there, but fewer child actresses who can capture Arya’s rebellious spirit.
- Director Todd McCarthy is really the biggest question mark in some ways. Martin actually has TV experience working on Beauty and the Beast, but McCarthy has never quite done fantasy or effects before, which raises some questions about certain elements of the story (in particular the central Direwolves, larger than life wolves which follow around and operate as characters within the Shark family in many ways). However, he’s such a character focused director (having worked with Dinklage on The Station Agent and more recently on The Visitor), that I’m willing to overlook the fact that he was Templeton to think his abilities are perfect for the character focus of the novels.
- Just as one final note: I know I’ve technically read Books 2 and 3, but I don’t remember them, so if you comment below try to avoid spoilers. It’s tough, I know (I wanted to talk about a lot of specific Season 1 stuff), but for now it’s really the best way for people to experience the series. If you really want to discuss spoilers, send me off an email and I’ll get to it once I’m caught up.