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Game Of Thrones Reel: First Impressions

Thanks to the good offices of HBO, Linda and I were give the opportunity to watch the 15 minute clip compilation/“sizzle” reel that was first aired to critics at the TCA Winter tour. We’ve watched it several times now, and have discussed it a fair bit. After some consideration, this first post is just going to be about the general impression it makes, the sort of things we think anyone would be interested in. We’ll post some more detailed impressions of some of the specific scenes we see in a future post.

A great deal of anticipation has built for this show since it was first announced, and this reel—for us—simply pushes that further. It aims, in its way, to fill in journalists and critics not familiar with the source material with the basic shape of the plot and its key players. Does it succeed? It’s hard to divorce our knowledge of the novels from what we saw, because inevitably we’re able to fill in things that wouldn’t be apparent to someone unfamiliar with it, so take this with a grain of salt: yes, we think it does it.

I’m not sure we’ve yet seen a commentary from a critic completely unfamiliar with the book, and that’s a bit of a shame, but regardless it really does convey—in a straightforward sort of way—that there’s something rotten in King’s Landing, something that the Lannisters are keeping secret, and something that they’re willing to kill for. At the same time, an irresponsible drunkard of a king—a man who may once have been worthy of the crown, but no longer—tries to foist the responsibilities that belong to him onto his loyal, dutiful friend, and so sends him into a nest of adders as everyone around him has their own agenda.

Meanwhile, there’s the story of that other faction across the narrow sea, the Targaryens among the Dothraki. Praise has already been heaped on Emilia Clarke by multiple sources, but we won’t beat about the bush: she’s as good as everyone else says. Although Linda personally feels that Clarke is too womanly to convincingly play out Daenerys‘s childish qualities early on (a hard thing to carry off, perhaps, when a character that starts the novel at 13 is nearer to 17 this time around), she thinks that Clarke is likely appeal to most people. And I certainly agree that she appeals as an actress. Her performance is mature and well-crafted from these few scenes we see, and though this may be an example of careful scene selection, we suspect HBO had quite a lot of good scenes to choose from.

There’s hints of a greater story—a gruesome, murderous discovery in a winter landscape, and dire warnings about the coming winter—which reminds viewers very strongly that there’s a fantasy element here. It’s a fantasy element whose importance is signaled, we think, by the fact that it dominates the end of the reel, as the blind Maester Aemon intones: “The Starks are always right eventually. Winter is coming. This one will be long… and dark things will come with it.” It’s a reminder that this shouldn’t be forgotten, and that works for us, because a major part of the narrative is that most of the key players are unaware or don’t care, caught up in their “game of thrones”. A disaster looms, but petty politics is all anyone has time for except for the motley group of the Night’s Watch, a military order whose purpose was absolutely clear thousands of years ago, but who have become increasingly disregarded as the danger they’re allegedly protecting the Seven Kingdoms against has never materialized.

Until now, that is.

Other stand-out actors for us? We’re both very impressed by Michelle Fairley as Lady Catelyn, and she’s given some of the most dramatic moments in the whole reel. For my part, I am quite fond of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister, the queen’s brother. He carries himself with all the arrogance and pride you an imagine, and a constant need to mock and belittle as he picks fights ... and yet he has another side, one we’ll discuss in the more spoilerish second half. Linda feels he lacks a certain ebullience that she imagined in his character, that his carriage and character doesn’t seem larger than life—think a mocking, swashbuckling Errol Flynn-type, perhaps. Funnily enough, years ago GRRM indicated post-Princess Bride Cary Elwes as the sort of actor he could see in the role; Elwes, of course, was selected by Mel Brooks to spoof Errol Flynn in Men in Tights. Despite that, we both think that what he’s doing, he’s doing it very well indeed. He should go over pretty well.

We can go on and on about the sets and the costumes (visit our gallery to get an in-depth look at what’s been seen already), or the brief but high-quality effects that we’ve glimpsed, but suffice it to say the show truly does look like nothing that’s ever been produced for television before. The best looking fantasy on television? That seems a given (although Starz’s Camelot may challenge it). Is it exactly as described in the books? No, of course not. But it captures the essence of the setting and gives it substance, and that’s a genuine accomplishment.

How will full episodes play out, when fully scored? We suspect it won’t be just a visual feast, but an aural one as well. We have Academy Award-winning soundtracks used as a temporary track for this piece—Gladiator and The Lord of the Rings were immediately recognizable—and we imagine that these choices reflect, very broadly, the musical sound the producers will be aiming for. We can’t wait to hear the first snippet of the genuine score.

Do we have some qualms or quibbles? Yes, of course; Linda more so than I (“Random facial hair!” she groaned at the propensity of the younger men in the cast to cover their faces in stubble, effectively making them look older), but the majority of them are ... well, very fannish sorts of things, little changes from the text that don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. We do have one serious problem with the adaptation, a change in the portrayal of a significant character, but the fact is that even this is a change that should not affect the overall narrative. We’ll discuss that a bit more in our next post.

The fact that there’s really only one character we’re concerned about strikes us, in its way, as a compliment to David Benioff and D.B. Weiss for their incredible fidelity to the novel. If the reel gives us a good sense of their adaptation, they’ll have successfully brought genre fantasy to television as never seen before, imbuing it with a sense of realism and importance that has eluded past attempts (to the point that most play their fantasy elements as camp) and which accurately captures one of the most important facets behind the success of George R.R. Martin and “A Song of Ice and Fire”.

April 17th is going to be an exciting day. And… the Wall. It is big. More a bit later, as we discuss some specific lines and moments.

(Until then, make sure to read Myles McNutt—an excellent commentator—giving his thoughts on the 15 minute reel.)

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