A Televisual Love Letter: HBO’s Game of Thrones
April 3rd, 2011
When I sat down to watch the first six episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones – which HBO subscribers can preview tonight at 9/8c when the first fifteen minutes of the pilot air before the third part of Mildred Pierce (and arrive streaming online shortly after) – I knew that I would be viewing them from a particular perspective.
As someone who has read the first four books in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series – the fifth comes out in July – on multiple occasions, I knew my way around this story. I would not count myself among those who have an encyclopedic knowledge of Westeros, and I’ll readily admit that the density of the books means I often misplace particular story events within my memory, but the fact remains that I am very familiar with the world Martin created and the characters that inhabit it.
Accordingly, I expected my view of the series to be influenced by this perspective: I would know more about these characters than the show would expect me to know, able to fill in details and see foreshadowing that some viewers would not even know was foreshadowing. I would be more excited about seeing things come to life than I would be about seeing things happen, surprised not so much by the events transpiring but by the decisions made in giving those events physical form. However, I also presumed that I would ultimately remain the stoic critic figure, my familiarity with the series presenting less as a “fandom” and more as an extra layer that would contribute to my experience.
So imagine my surprise when my experience became defined by this familiarity, my fairly casual “fandom” transformed into a giddy reverie by the time the credits rolled on the show’s pilot. Game of Thrones is not precisely Martin’s books come to life fully formed, but I would argue that this is a love letter to A Song of Ice and Fire and those who hold it most dear. It does not just stumble its way into bits of foreshadowing: it fully embraces the scale of this narrative from the word go and begins to craft a tale worthy of the source material. It does so not just through strong performances and evocative production design, but also through tapping into the very qualities that made the source material so compelling on a structural level: this is not just an instance of plot and character being spun into a new medium, but rather David Benioff and D.B. Weiss drawing inspiration from a man who knew how to build something.
The result is a rare adaptation which compounds, rather than challenges, our appreciation for the franchise in question. Game of Thrones may not yet be the finest show on television, but it is well on its way to being one of the most rewarding television experiences I’ve ever had, and certainly shows the potential to be found in continuing to explore Martin’s – and now Benioff and Weiss’ – Westeros for many seasons to come.
The first time I wrote about Game of Thrones on the blog was right after HBO had decided to go to pilot, and while I was in the midst of a reread of the first three books in preparation for finally digging into A Feast for Crows (which I had put off for a number of years after finding casual reading challenging while finishing off my undergraduate English degree). It was my first time reading them in the context of television: I was less television-minded when I read them around 2001 (at the age of 15), and returning to them was a very different experience for this (and many other) reasons.
What I quickly realized, and what I wrote about in that piece, was that this book was made for television. This was not only because the story was clearly too long and too complex for films, but also because Martin’s experience working on Beauty and the Beast seemed to have given him a mind for the televisual. In particular, the way in which the novels were organized, each chapter giving us a particular character’s point of view, showed a keen awareness of the challenges that come with a wide-ranging ensemble. In that piece, I speculated about how an episode could easily merge those perspectives to create thematic resonance, although I was not anticipating that the moment I was lingering on would be brushed aside in an effort to expedite the plot in its opening episodes.
The challenge facing Benioff and Weiss in adapting this story is that they would, inevitably, be forced to cut material from these novels. The problem is not only that a lot happens in the books, but also that Martin tends to err on the side of depth in his prose, and recreating depth is always challenging. While HBO provides additional running time and few content restrictions, the writers are still forced to contend with how to tell a story that could fuel two seasons if paced in a certain fashion run for only one.
What they realize very quickly, and what sets the show off on the right foot, is that depth is not the same as length. Martin’s book is long, yes, but it does not necessarily tell a long story. It lingers in certain moments to visualize the world of Westeros, and to shed light on its characters, taking advantages of these “pauses” in the central narrative to explore nuances. These sections are integral to the novel’s success, and most of them don’t make it into the show itself in any great detail. However, the principles behind them do: the production design team has done a splendid job providing a Westeros for these characters to inhabit, and Benioff and Weiss manage to find stolen moments for just about every character which at least give us a glimpse at their inner dialogues. In a visual medium, depth can take on many new forms, and the actors, writers, directors and production crew work together to find ways to find Martin’s vision slightly faster than might have been possible in prose.
Of course, this still holds the potential for conflict with avid fans of the novels: after all, it still very much becomes the writers’ interpretation of the story, rather than the story itself, which opens the door for disagreement. On a personal level, I felt like Benioff and Weiss (and the other writers brought in to work on the series, including Bryan Cogman, Jane Espenson, and Martin himself) were reading the same books that sit on my bookshelf, their choices reflecting an understanding of both A Game of Thrones and the remainder of the series.
It is actually this last point which most surprised me, as the early episodes contain countless knowing winks to the future of these characters. Of course, Martin’s novel itself is filled with foreshadowing, and so revisiting this story would logically have us thinking forward to the way these characters change/grow/die/etc. However, it seems to have been explicitly highlighted here: sometimes it’s a twinkle of an eye, other times a lingering camera shot, and other times simply elements that have been added or emphasized in order to build on themes that will become relevant later in the story. It never feels forced, the story events from the novels remaining largely intact, but it does feel like something more than an “added bonus” or “fan service.”
This last term is probably accurate: these brief “moments” of foreshadowing do seem to exist so as to wink to fans who are anticipating where this story is headed. I think we need to clarify, though, that this bit of “fan service” is also serving the narrative: while we nod (or fist pump) at realizing a connection, non-readers would raise an eyebrow, wondering what weight a particular scene might hold given the emphasis placed upon it. Admittedly, I was too busy fist-pumping to figure out just how effective it would read to non-readers, but it helps put to rest the notion that the show would be inaccessible to new viewers. Sure, those “in the know” will have no trouble at all filling in the gaps in the narrative or remembering the various houses and their allegiances, but the show is in a position to service those viewers while simultaneously signalling future complexity for those coming to the series for the first time.
There are, of course, elements built into the story to help reinforce these elements for new viewers. Title cards mark the first appearances of the central locations in the premiere episode, and the much lauded opening credit sequence establishes the geography of Westeros by visualizing their position on the map (and even changing to reflect the characters’ movements throughout the season). There’s also numerous scenes throughout the early episodes where school lessons serve as cheap exposition, allowing the show to delve into the viciousness of the Mad King or the motto of each of the different houses.
What sets these moments apart from similar efforts in other series, however, is that they still feel like character moments. If Sansa is the one being tested on her knowledge of Aerys Targaryen, the scene is as much about her frustration with Septa Mordane as it is about the Mad King; if Bran is being tested on the Lannister house motto, the scene is more about his antagonism towards academic pursuits than the details being discussed. Nothing on display in the series feels as though it has been left untouched by the spirit of Martin’s world, the show proving remarkably cohesive for something that is cobbling together so many different narratives. Even the new scenes that Benioff and Weiss introduce to the show feel natural: in some cases characters are given subplots to foreshadow their future importance (and to reveal small details about the character that would have emerged more gradually in a less accelerated narrative), and in others subtext is elevated to text in order to serve the same functions, but the overall effect is of refinement rather than reinvention.
As for the performances, this is perhaps a bit tough to judge. Not only do I have the emotional baggage of each character’s future from my experience reading the series, but I also have what seems like years worth of casting speculation and discussion (through sites like Winter is Coming, which I discussed back in that first piece in ’09 and which has grown into a tremendous fan resource) – I’ve been imagining Sean Bean as Ned for so long that it has erased whatever other image I might have had, and my last re-read of the books coinciding with the casting announcements and being closely followed by the first footage from the series meant that various performers had become synonymous with the characters even before the series even began. As a result, there was nothing to be surprised by, no depiction that I had not mentally prepared for on a visual level; instead, it goes back to that earlier question of depth. Any great performance needs to say more than is being said, but that seems even more important when being judged by fans who know more than is being said. This was important on the level of plot, certainly, but it goes for character as well, and the last thing the show wants to do is have characters explaining with words that which would be best communicated in a brief glance.
Everyone will have their dream cast in their minds, I am sure, but there is some really tremendous work on display here. I don’t have the time to run down how every single performer is handling their role, but I will say that the “anchors” are doing particularly fine work. While the performances are strong throughout the show, it depends on the work of Sean Bean as the honorable Ned, Emilia Clarke as the vulnerable Daenerys, Michelle Fairley as the devoted Catelyn, Kit Harington as the bastard Jon Snow, and Lena Headey as the conniving Cersei. While some marked Headey as a case of miscasting, I think she proves herself where it matters most: her take on Cersei is less unhinged than perhaps I had imagined, but the cold and cunning style proves beneficial in confrontations that work best when allowed to simmer rather than being forced to explode. And while Clarke and Fairley were both only cast after the original pilot, the transformations that Martin maps out for both characters are rendered in vivid detail, with Clarke in particular proving a wonderful find.
Bean, along with the inimitable Peter Dinklage as Tyrion, are examples of note-perfect casting for characters that come more or less fully formed with a great deal of history and a clear perspective on the world. Harington, meanwhile, steps into a character who is woefully naive about the world, and who fans know is positioned to take a central role in future storylines. Benioff and Weiss seem to be building towards that early on, expecting Harington to anchor a pretty substantial portion of the series on his own, and the young actor steps up to the plate. Like many of the younger performers on the series, it’s as much about potential as it is about delivery, but I do not feel that I need make excuses for any of the performers (unless we count Rickon, Myrcella and Tommen, who barely feature). They are already transformed into their characters through their work in the earlygoing, and that connection will only increase as they grow into the roles and as the material grows with them.
While I don’t want to even entertain the idea of the series being canceled after a single season, which seems unlikely given the strong critical and fan response to the early footage/episodes, watching the first season made me realize just how much that would wreck me. My excitement while watching the episodes was partly the result of seeing major moments play out before my very eyes, the almost novelty of seeing this project come to fruition in such tremendous form. However, there was also the sense of anticipation that it built for what is still to come: perhaps the greatest compliment a fan could pay the series is that they spent as much time imagining what was going to happen in the future as they spent appreciating what is being offered in the present. While some might think that visual mediums like television take away the imagination of literature, great adaptations like this one simply shift the imagination to a different area of focus.
I hope to be able to revisit the first six episodes over the course of the next week, both in preparation for weekly reviews and to see if it’s possible to find a more grounded critical perspective that might better reflect how non-readers would view the series. My expectation is that it is not, and I don’t think there’s really a problem with that: in fact, it was so thrilling in part because I was already where I usually am by a show’s third season. The connections I have to these characters is the same as my connections with characters I’ve watched for three or four seasons on shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men – Game of Thrones isn’t quite yet as strong as those, still working on bringing its world fully to life and finding its rhythms, but knowing where the story goes and knowing the way these characters develop means I’m just as engaged with Ned Stark as I am with Don Draper or Walter White.
This “review” is a chance to reflect on why, and the ways in which the show works to cultivate this response among fans of the series – that it does so so effectively is a testament to the work done in adapting these stories in a way that honors Martin’s work, and something that everyone involved should be enormously proud of. However, in terms of covering each episode, I want to go into something of more detail – I want to talk about how the buildup to the show’s premiere might have shifted our expectations, or how individual characters have been altered slightly, or how particular storytelling devices present in the novels are adapted for the purposes of a different medium. I won’t say that these reviews will not be influenced by my positive response to the series, or my “fandom,” but they will not an exploration of those qualities.
Last summer, during the first cycle of the Cultural Catchup Project (which, I swear, is coming back late next month), there was some discussion that I wasn’t showing much in terms of an emotional connection with Buffy and Angel. This is not entirely uncommon: coming from more of an academic perspective, I have been trained to keep a certain distance from my subjects of study when writing about them. However, as I noted at the time, just because I wasn’t necessarily revealing emotions related to particular episodes does not mean that they were not felt. I may write from an academic perspective, therefore limiting the amount of personal opinion in my analysis, but I am not a robot who doesn’t feel in the process of watching a television series.
So let me, in this instance, set the record straight: regardless of how unemotional I might seem to be in future reviews of the series while discussing narrative form and the series’ relationship with the HBO brand, I had a hell of a great time watching the first six episodes of Game of Thrones. There were cheers, there were jeers, and there was a sense of anticipation which almost made me forget that I knew what I was anticipating. It is not a perfect show, but the convergence of great television and great source material made for a truly spectacular viewing experience that I think everyone should consider engaging with in two weeks.
Because, oddly enough, nothing will ring in Spring better than the start of what will hopefully be a very long Winter.
- I’ve seen some discussion about whether or not people should watch the fifteen-minute preview, or just wait for the premiere. If you know you’re already going to watch the show then I guess you don’t expressly have to watch the preview, but I don’t think it will ruin the experience or anything. For fans it’s another element of hype to add to the pile, while for non-readers it’s a small taste of what’s to come. It’ll be a limited perspective, focused only on the prologue and the first scenes at Winterfell, but it’s a fine representation of the series.
- As noted, I do want to offer a more specific non-reader pre-air review next weekend, but we’ll see if I can shut off the foreshadowing to consider the episodes in a different light.
- While I don’t intend on spoiling anything (you’ll notice the above was pretty darn vague), if anyone has any particular questions you’re welcome to ask them in the comments.