15 Minutes in Westeros: Previewing HBO’s Game of Thrones
January 12th, 2011
There were two things which struck me as particularly strange while watching the fifteen minutes of footage from Game of Thrones which HBO has made available to critics (and which debuted at the TCA Press Tour last week).
The first was that it seems almost unfair that I’m seeing this footage while the majority of the show’s fans must deal with only detailed rundowns. I understand why it isn’t being made publicly available (it is unfinished, with temporary music and effects), but even as someone familiar with the books I know that there is a much larger audience out there who are much more anxious about this footage. Accordingly, I take on a sort of additional responsibility, knowing that the audience for my impressions (which are, of course, provisional based on the temporary nature of the footage) has an insatiable desire for information makes watching it a unique experience.
The other bit of strangeness is that it’s weird to see bits and pieces of a narrative, even when you know the rest of the story. Alan Sepinwall, who is going in without knowledge of the books by his choice, chose not to watch the footage simply because he didn’t want to see brief glimpses of a story that will, in the future, be a complete whole. And so while I might be in a position to fill in the gaps, knowing the meaning of each of these scenes and how they place within the larger narrative, there’s still the sense that we’re missing key pieces of the puzzle that would allow us to put to rest all of our curiosities surrounding the adaptation.
However, let’s not bury the lede here – it might seem weird to be sitting there watching this particular collection of scenes from Game of Thrones, but the more we see the less “weird” this adaptation seems. While the fandom has largely avoided snap judgments, resisting the urge to outright reject casting choices and waiting to see the final product, I still didn’t think that it would seem quite this natural. There are little hiccups here or there, but the world that’s been built is showing that a bit of faith, and plenty of talent and financial support, can go a long way in making a story work.
And, even in fragmented form, this story’s working.
There are plenty of rundowns of the footage out there, which means that I don’t really have anything to add – Winter is Coming has a complete recap, while Maureen Ryan and James Poniewozik ran through their impressions of the footage in more extensive detail, which means that you likely know what I got a chance to see via an online stream.
What struck me about the footage (without any spoilers, at least initially) is the way that it focused almost exclusively on plot. This shouldn’t be so strange, considering that this is a television show and all, but I would not characterize the books as a plot-driven series. In fact, because of the way that each chapter takes a particular character’s perspective, I’d very much argue that plot is often not the driving force behind the story, and that what plot does take place is more often than not framed as the consequences of particular characters and their actions.
And yet, I understand why the fifteen minutes of footage lays out a plot in the way it does. For critics who are unfamiliar with the books, who this reel is intended to impress and give a sense of the scale of the series, the plot is going to be the “problem” (if, in fact, a problem exists). This is not a simple show by any measure, and so the challenge facing HBO is selling it to critics who might be turned off by the notion of an “epic fantasy.” The show is capable of boiling down to key themes that audiences should be able to relate to, whether it be the bonds of family or the insatiable desire for power, but the guiding principle of honor is considerably more challenging (and something that I actually wrote about in the context of adaptations of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur a few years back).
There are a couple of scenes in the preview which really focus around the idea of honour and responsibility, and what is owed as a result of past allegiance, and the idea of the Night’s Watch and the role they play is similarly featured. While HBO will certainly be playing up the universality of many of the elements featured, I think the way they characterize honor is particularly well-handled, and something that I’m pleased to see contextualized in a clip of this nature. It strikes that perfect balance, in that I could see the characters of Ned and Catelyn Stark emerging where non-fans might have seen only a typical (albeit very well acted by Bean and Farley) take on the wife lamenting as the husband prepares to take on a dangerous responsibility. It’s the tightrope that the promotional teams are going to have to walk in the months ahead, but I think the footage does a nice job of finding moments which highlight our understanding of the characters while also selling them as part of more generalized “plots” that can be more easily digested by the media in attendance.
As readers of the books, the devil’s in the details: knowing how involved George R.R. Martin has been, there are no concerns that the plot of these stories would be in any way threatened, and since this is simply a promotional reel it wouldn’t really tell us much about the broader storytelling. However, it does offer us a larger view into the different actors, and the aesthetic look of the series, and the ways in which the performances are cohering with (or diverging from) our expectations. And while I can offer a few of my general thoughts in this matter, it’s hard for that to really gain any meaning for those of you reading this: I probably saw different things reading the books than you did, which means that we’re just creating more degrees of interpretation.
[Warning: the rest of this is a tiny bit more spoilery – nothing too severe or detailed, but some gestures towards future events.]
Still, I do want to highlight how great Michelle Fairley and Emilia Clarke are in this footage. This is not to say that the rest of the cast are weak: while I think there are some understandable reservations about Lena Headey’s performance lingering around the internet, I like the idea of Cersei as cipher. It doesn’t entirely mesh with my impression of the character from the books, but it offers a compelling juxtaposition with Catelyn which I think will play to the show’s favor (based, again, on the bits and pieces of footage made available). Headey is playing things close to the vest here, and leaving some of Cersei’s character to be revealed over time feels to me like something which will help the show finds its narrative traction – I also think it’s a character that really needs to be seen in context for the whole picture (of course absent in this type of presentation) to come together, so I’m definitely reserving any judgment in that area.
That being said, Fairley and Clarke have me sold. There is something about Fairley that is entirely different than the Catelyn I pictured in my head, but she owns the role. I always imagined her to be younger, although I understand that this was both only my imagination and would have changed in light of the decision to age the children considerably for the adaptation, but Fairley adds a great deal of weight to this character. Between the cold winters of Winterfell, the presence of Jon Snow, and the new tensions spreading in Westeros, this is a mother who has a great deal on her shoulders, and there are moments towards the end of the footage where Catelyn sheds her initial reservations to take control of her family’s destiny. It’s a moment that felt logical in the books, but seeing it on the screen made it feel triumphant, and the sense of transformation (even without the proper context) was palpable. Can’t wait to see it in context, and to see Fairley take control of the remainder of Catelyn’s journey.
Clarke, meanwhile, strikes me as the piece of the puzzle that most clearly came into focus as a result of the footage. It’s not that Clarke’s status as an unknown made her particularly concerning, but rather that Daenerys is the character who sort of has to carry her own weight. While there are certainly other characters to help support her – and both Mormont and Viserys look to be very nicely drawn – this story depends on Dany and her sense of authority, and while it’s a season-long process it’s going to start as a potentially tangential side story. The connection between the two is something that the fifteen-minute reel focuses on a great deal, implying that HBO (and Benioff/Weiss) understand the challenge of drawing a line between the two sides to this battle for the Iron Throne. However, what works best is simply drawing us into Dany’s journey, and in the scenes available Clarke nails it: transitioning between weak and strong, and displaying both fear and maturity, the young actress brings to life a story that needs to feel like the start of something which will have a heavy burden in subsequent seasons. It may seem like a bold claim, but I think there’s plenty of evidence here that Clarke will be up for that challenge, which suggests a strong foundation for the series’ future potential.
And yet, realistically, this footage doesn’t highlight a great deal of that foundation. Arya is almost entirely absent, Bran is treated largely as a plot point, Robb is similarly non-existent, Jaime is portrayed as a fairly straightforward villain, and Tyrion gets only a few brief scenes which do little to speak to his character and more directly help lay out certain plot developments and display Peter Dinklage’s charms. Without going too deep into spoilers, these characters are all tremendously important to the show’s big picture, central figures in the conflicts which will come, but it is technically true that they would be beneath the “big picture” at this stage in the game. Part of the thrill of Martin’s series, after all, is the ways in which these characters emerge from beneath the plot to take control of their own destinies, to find their own role to play in this game of thrones despite being too young, too short, too damaged, or too proud.
This footage does not tell those stories, but it shows us an attention to detail and an overall impression of quality which assuages any lingering fears we may have. I make no judgment of this footage, both because HBO asked me not to and because I didn’t naturally come to any conclusions when viewing it. This is not meant to lead to conclusions, to be “reviewed”: rather, it is meant to be one more step in the long journey until we finally have the premiere on our television screens, and we can truly journey to Westeros in the way that Benioff and Weiss intended it. However, even as a taste of what we’re about to receive, this does everything it was intended to do: as a constructed narrative it does a fine job of selling the central premise and world in which these books take place for those critics who may not be quite so familiar, and for readers like myself it gives every sign that these stories have been done justice.
Bring on the real thing.
- My favorite moment in the preview is easily a brief meeting between Robert and Ned – some great work from Addy and Bean, who seems as if they’ll be a fantastic pair and form a great centerpiece to the political/bureaucratic side of the story. Very different from much of Addy’s previous work, but he really feels right at home.
- One reason that moment works so well is that it has elements of humor – for the most part, this is a dark trailer emphasizing the foreboding danger and conflict inherent to these stories, but there is a lighter side to be found, so I was glad to see bits and pieces of that peeking through at times.
- I know I’m a few months late on this observation, but had a nice thrill spotting Fairley as Hermione’s mother in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One.
- The effects work is still unfinished, but damn does the Wall look great – the danger of the North is going to be very much less is more in the first season, but the scale of the setting is going to imply something much larger, which will work to the show’s advantage. Some strong conceptual work, there.
- No timeline as of this moment as to when the premiere and subsequent episodes will be arriving to critics (the show, of course, premieres April 17th – my guess is that it’ll be March before the premiere makes its way to critics, and considering the effects work it’s unlikely that critics will be receiving the whole season or a large chunk of it (which is common for cable series). Either way, I’ll be covering the show in detail, so stay tuned for that.