Game of Thrones: Features

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Our First Impressions

Before we launch into our general impressions of the first six episodes of Game of Thrones, some disclaimers.

First, the episodes are not complete—ADR, color grading, VFX, music, and sometimes even credits are still temporary—though the very first episodes seem much nearer to complete than the final episode.

Secondly, as “superfans”, Linda and I have been in some fashion involved in the fan community, the re-reading, the discussion, the news reporting and article writing, almost every day of our lives for the past twelve years or so—we have been about as immersed in the books as anyone not named George R.R. Martin can get. This gives us a perspective that is certainly very different from that of the new viewer unfamiliar with the books, probably very different from all of the professional critics (who have, none the less, been very positive so far about what they’ve seen), and even rather different from that of many other devoted fans of the novels. It’s very hard to divorce our views from our knowledge of what the story is in the novels, to try and imagine how it plays for those unfamiliar with it, so we’ll not make much effort to do that.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: visually, this is a feast for the eyes. From the stunning main title (bank on an Emmy award nomination next year) to the closing credits, you’re treated to the epic, expansive sweep of Westeros; the tall castles, the knights in armor, the glittering courts, the rugged landscape, its all there. The production has not been afraid to put their own stamp on things—their conception of the Red Keep is a fantastical construction, the Eyrie is even more incredibly sited than what’s described in the books—but there’s definitely a real sense of this place being a world of wondrous vistas.

We might quibble about some details, about some of the general choices made in regard to arms and armor, or clothing (this is probably the area of the production where we have the most reservations; it’s well-done, but it has the strongest feel of changes having been made for the sake of the changes), but on the whole it’s simply amazing that so much effort was put into those details in the first place. There are tiny details that 95% of the viewing audience won’t even notice, but they’re there because the production believes they ought to be. The visual effects are eye-popping, as you can imagine, as are the practical effects (expect blood pumping out of a few severed throats here and there).

Musically, we can say less at this stage. Combined with the amazing title, the main theme by Ramin Djawadi is our favorite of the pieces of the music for the show. It, too, captures the epic sweep of the setting, and so is a perfect match for A52’s title design. One thing we believe we’ve noticed is that one common idea fans had—that each character should have a distinctive theme, something as a nod to the POV structure of the novels—does not seem to be Djawadi’s approach. Pieces of music are much more tied into the events happening rather than the characters they involve.

There are some events that don’t seem to be getting any music at all—the fight on the high road was one that stood out—but because of the incomplete nature of the episodes (particularly the later ones), we’re not sure if this is how it’ll be when these episodes actually air. So far, the music that does happen within the episodes is generally more atmospheric, and we have to say, nothing other than the main title has so far struck us as particularly memorable; but then, music that helps set an atmosphere isn’t necessarily intended to be remembered, but to support the action, so this may be a good thing depending on your perspective.

The actors are uniformly good, but before we get into more detail we are going to have to discuss the writing, and more importantly the production’s approach to the adaptation. This is probably the place where most of our discussions between ourselves have been focused.

Adaptation is not a simple thing to do. When adapting a literary work like “A Song of Ice and Fire”, it’s simply impossible to make it a one-for-one translation. Interior monologues disappear, with some bits salvaged to turn into dialog and others simply having to be sacrificed. Details of the setting and its history may be very vaguely sketched, or simply elided entirely. The first and foremost concern has to be presenting the present story. In this, the writers—led by executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss—have done an excellent job.

They’re balancing a lot of story threads, a lot of exposition and action, and pushing things forward. The earlier episodes feel breakneck in their pacing, because there has to be so much laying of ground work, and sometimes the pace seems to threaten to get out of hand (there’s one or two moments where the cut to a new scene feels like it’s tramping on the last syllable of the previous scene), but with the fifth and sixth episodes, we feel that they now have time to let each story breath a little more, give it a little more space, and this may be why those two episodes are our favorites to date.

Given the structure of the novels, it may be that each season will have to start off with a very intense amount of action and activity. Will viewers be able to keep pace? This has been a concern for some critics, that it may just require too much concentration to keep it all straight, but for fans who’ve read the books it’s not going to be a problem at all, and we think the show has done as well as it is able to do.  Starting off too slowly would almost certainly have been a worse choice than starting too quickly (potentially).  The great amount of out-of-episode material that HBO has put on-line – character bios, introduction videos, and more – will also certainly help those intrigued enough to explore them.

However, in all the effort to keep the present action front-and-center, there is something that is largely missing from the series’ first six episodes: the tragic romanticism—in the classical sense (a description of what GRRM means when he says he’s a romantic can be found here)—with which the past is depicted in the novel. There is an elegiac quality whenever A Game of Thrones turns the clock back to the events just before and during the war, a sense that Westeros as a whole lost something in that conflict, a loss of certainty and innocence that has shaped the lives of some of the central characters of the overall narrative (Ned and Robert, certainly; Jaime as well, and Viserys and Daenerys it goes without saying). This subtext is very rarely touched upon in the TV series, largely because it does lie in interior monologues from Eddard Stark and Daenerys Targaryen.

Let’s take a simple example: the Kingsguard. In the novels, they were once a “shining example to the world”, but no longer. What does that mean? Why would someone say that? It reveals a great deal of the mindset of the character, yes, but also the society, that any small group of men could be held in such regard. They’re not just famous swordsmen who protect the king. They’re a symbol of chivalry, of fealty and honor, who are held up as an ideal to strive for.

But in the show, there’s no sense of the wonder in which they were once held, or how very greatly they are seen to have fallen (all because of one man, the Kingslayer). They’re just noble guardsmen, famous men perhaps, but one notes that at this time there’s no sense that this is a chivalric order, open only to knights. It’s just ... a job, from what little is gotten across about them. The storied history is gone, the reasons for why they were great and now no longer are, and (more importantly) the psychology of the characters in the novel who could find the Kingsguard such an inspiration and such a tragedy. Even Barristan Selmy is lightly sketched—a great and respected warrior, but there’s little of the color, of the way he’s a living legend of whom the smallfolk speak in the same breath as they speak of Prince Aemon the Dragonknight or Ser Ryam Redwyne (we hasten to add that we like Ian McElhinney’s performance; there is a gentlemanly quality his performance, a sense that he lives and breathes chivalry)..

We believe that the events of the past, and the mystique of it, figure in some of the central to the themes (and the story, of course) of the novel. The story elements remain largely in place, as such things go, although certain aspects have been downplayed so far. But the theme… It’s one of those things that reminds us that Martin does tend to romanticism (it’s something easily lost in all the tragedy and “grittiness” of the action) and that that romanticism is strongest in those sections about the past. While Martin also subverts the romanticism as the story goes on—and indeed, there’s a great scene in the 6th episode in which one character angrily questions the fixation on the past by King Robert—it doesn’t take away the fact that the bittersweet, romantic image of the past looms very large in the way many characters see their world and what’s going on in the novels.

When the project was first being considered, word was that they were aiming for 12 episodes, and now we understand why GRRM has said he’d have been happier with that number. Some of the depth and the richness of the setting at the core of the story, is muted or lost. Some readers may consider these moments, this dichotomy between the past and the present, to be the very soul of the whole series, and that a show without them is in some sense soulless. I would not go so far, but I would say that the spirit of the show is less expansive, less nuanced, than that of the novels. This is something some fans are going to have to get used to, while we suspect most won’t mind. And in the end, if the choice is between the story and the underlying subtext, you probably have to go with the story if you really can’t fit everything in.

We will give credit where credit is due, as well: there are a handful of scenes which do hint at these qualities of how the past is perceived. One of the very best is a quiet scene between Eddard and Jon (glimpsed in previews), which hits a perfect note for those who are fans of the books. Watch for Sean Bean’s performance as he utters the words, “I promise.”

But lets get back to the acting. The fact that the story can’t all be told in the show has meant that some characters are coming off differently than they otherwise would. Similarly, the expansion of the story in some sense—the abandonment of the strict POVs of A Game of Thrones to show a more multifaceted narrative, with characters such as the Lannister twins, King Robert, and Prince Viserys having scenes in which POV characters are not present—means that some of the shape of the narrative has changed. The Lannisters, except for Tyrion, are only seen through the eyes of others in A Game of Thrones; now we can see Queen Cersei and her brother, Ser Jaime. They become more complex characters in this sense, but one can’t help but think that some of the best parts of novels like A Storm of Swords or A Feast for Crows will be muted if the show gets that far.

On the other hand… if that’s what has to be done to see the show get that far in the first place, that’s a very small price to pay.

If we were to discuss the actors who most seem to fit the character as described—in performance, in scenes, even in appearance—then the standout for us is Harry Lloyd as Viserys Targaryen. He has a couple of new scenes, and the latter of these in episode 6 is wonderfully well-played, really striking home some facts about a character who is generally glossed by fans as an outright villain when the picture is really more complicated than that. George writes a great villain, and he writes a great pathetic villain, but he never forgets that every character is “the hero of their own story.”

Beyond Lloyd, other characters tend to vary a bit more. Peter Dinklage is particularly exceptional in the final episodes John Bradley as Samwell is a revelation—his character is a bit more comedic than from the novel, but he owns Samwell Tarly, and his comedic timing is absolutely exemplary. His scenes with Kit Harington—a young actor who seems set for big things, and who’ll carry a great deal of weight on his shoulders in time as wel—are among the best of the later episodes.

It would get boring, we suppose, if we just focus on everything we’re utterly happy with. So, going back to the things that have been lost… Of all the characters, the ones that seem most changed to us are Catelyn Stark (played exceptionally well by Michelle Fairley) and Cersei Lannister (played by Lena Headey). The former, we have shared our concerns about before. The first six episodes do not allay our unhappiness that her role in the first two episodes is substantially different from the novel, and in a way that is nearly inexplicable to us. She is less complex than she was: her ambition for her family and her husband are gone, her very strong antipathy towards the situation she has been forced to live in with Jon Snow has been somewhat muted, there seems to be a bit of clumsiness to spell out things to the audience that are not so spelled-out in the books. Fortunately, after the first two episodes, she seems much more in line with how she appears in the novel.

Queen Cersei, on the other hand, never seems like the character from the novel, or indeed any of the novels. To what degree this is a matter of Lena Headey’s performance, in which Cersei is a cool, calculating manipulator, and to what degree it is the writers choosing to portray her differently, we can’t say for sure. One may well have fed into the other. By dint of giving Cersei more of a direct presence in the story, the writers seem to have felt forced to flesh her out, to make her more nuanced now rather than letting those nuances develop over the course of the series. This is not, as such, a bad change. But it’s a definite change, and it’s one that feels aimed at creating a balance, a certain amount of parity, between the depiction of the Starks and the Lannisters that isn’t in the novel. Similarly, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau turns in what I consider a very good performance for Jaime Lannister… but it’s a Jaime Lannister who readers of the whole series might feel is somewhat further along in his personal arc than everyone else is, who does not quite have the panache, the larger-than-life qualities, of the character from the novel.

There’s a scene, shown in previews, in which Jaime talks to Ned of it feeling like justice when he killed King Aerys, because he remembered Aerys’s laughter as Rickard and Brandon Stark burned… but that’s a scene that we know would never have happened in A Game of Thrones; it reveals too much of a character who in the novel is presented in a certain way, with only the briefest of hints that there is more to him than what he himself chooses to present to the world.

Finally, Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen has a lot of weight on her shoulders, looking at the show as a whole. But it’s easy to forget that a vast majority of her early chapters are interior thoughts, reflecting on months of travel, on the past, and her recent trials and tribulations. Much of this disappears, and with that disappearance, she feels as if she has relatively little to do in these epiodes. Clarke seems very capable, but it will be the last episodes that will really show us her mettle and how well she’s able to capture Daenerys Stormborn. There’s one particular scene, involving one of the dragon eggs, which is beautifully set up in the novels because Daenerys has been interacting and thinking about them in detail, because she has started having her strange dreams, which simply doesn’t have any of that set-up here in the show. She just acts, and while the writers use the opportunity to add a foreshadowing detail, her actual motivations for doing it in the first place remain utterly opaque to the viewer.

Dreams and visions are one of those things that seem particularly sacrificed. Daenerys’s dreams are gone. Bran’s dreams are not quite what one would have expected, although they do at least take central elements from the dreams in the novel. This may largely be time issues, or it may be that some of the details of those dreams were too fantastical (or, alternatively, too visual effects heavy). In any case, they are missed to greater or lesser degree; Dany’s more so than Bran’s, actually.

But on the whole, the performances are very good, sometimes even great, and the fault—if there is any—lies in the things that the show cannot capture, or which the producers have had to chose to not depict for all the various reasons that they have to make choices. The Stark children are all wonderful, with each shining in particular episodes (Maisie Williams in episode 5, Sophie Turner in episode 6, Isaac Hempstead-Wright in episode 6 as well). Secondary characters are richly depicted—particular praise has to go to Conleth Hill as Varys and Aidan Gillen as Littlefinger, as well as Iain Glen as Jorah Mormont and —and even many tertiary characters are well-played (we quite liked Francis Magee as Yoren and Ciaran Bermingham as Mord, to name just two who stood out for us; and Elyas Gabel as Rakharo and Amarita Acharia as Irri have wonderful chemistry, and seem like they were born and raised speaking Dothraki).

There are some very minor things, they’re not important, but we admit they are a bit annoying. For example, there seems to have been an error in the production in regards to Loras Tyrell’s byname, as it’s given as the Knight of the Flowers. And then there’s this whole confusion of the Seven Kingdoms. There’s a lot of emphasis on “the kingdoms” as distinct realms, as if they’re really each a separate kingdom. It’d be as if Westeros were the United Kingdoms, and Robert claimed the crowns of the North, the Vale, etc. But ... that’s not it in the novel: “It is all one. One realm, for one king to rule alone.” We think that the way they talk about it is probably going to be more confusing to those new to the story than if they had kept it as in the novel. The change of Robert Arryn’s name to Robin Arryn is ... well, understandable, but we imagine it does not give enough credit to viewers.

There are other things like this, little implications or elisions, but compared to how many things they get right—including many little references which fans of the novels will pick up on, and which show the attention to detail and the sheer love of the books from the writers (we’re going to have to give Bryan Cogman a particular tip of the hat here, as the “reference guy” who would have helped get some of these details in)—it’s really just a pittance. Our advice for the inner core of devoted fans, the ones who might notice every single change: take the little changes in stride, and just realize how many things you’re seeing at any moment that are right, from lines of dialogue lifted straight from the text to foreshadowings of things to come.

From the point of view of extremely invested fans such as ourselves, the things that we wish were there that aren’t give us a pang, but there’s so much to be joyful about, the gracenotes, the acting,  the visuals, the direction, and the writing [or, to put it more clearly, Linda and I loved it even while feeling that some things had to be sacrificed that we’re sorry to not have on the screen]. But we need to emphasize that we don’t believe that viewers unfamiliar with the books will have the same concern. There’s enough meat in the show, there’s enough depth, that those who are entirely new to it will find something to enjoy. It is really well done fantasy, unlike anything ever produced for television. It is a quality drama, a rewarding one, and we think those who stick through the dizzying number of characters, plotlines, and locations in the first two episodes will be appropriately hooked. If you want the full depth and complexity of the world, all the nuances and subtleties, there’s always the books to turn to.

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