Original version posted August 28, 2012 on The Cat’s Cradle
I just finished watching the first season of The Game of Thrones… and, to be honest, I was not especially impressed. I know I’ll probably catch hell for saying that, but it’s the truth.
Now you’re probably wondering, “But you’re a huge fantasy buff, Kat! How could you NOT like it?” So let me be clear: I do not think that Game of Thrones was a bad or poorly done adaptation. I did enjoy watching it. HBO did a wonderful job on locations, costuming, sets, music, cinematography… all of the technical details. The level of visual detail is superb, even stunning. And it is extremely faithful to the book, which is a mark in its favor.
That being said… the characters did not really engage my sympathies. The thing that’s often overlooked when adapting fantasy is that fantasy is about people. Take away the people and all you have left is fancy window-dressing.
Those were the generalities; now, on to the specifics.
I did read most of the first book before watching the series. It was a calculated risk; on one hand I would be better able to compare the two and see how well they adapted such a huge fantasy epic, but on the other hand it would also act as a spoiler of events if the adaptation was faithful. My copy is roughly 700 pages. I read only the first 500 pages, enough to get into the world but (hopefully) without spoiling the final events of the book. I think I met with modest success, and will experiment with the second season by not reading the book at all and seeing if my reaction to the series changes.
I enjoyed the book. It is good high fantasy fair with plenty of blood and intrigue. The level of complexity is remarkable and the characters were likeable (or dislikeable) and engaging enough to keep me reading. I latched onto Lord Eddard Stark, Arya, Bran, Jon Snow, and Daenerys almost immediately, and Tyrion Lannister intrigued me greatly. A true trickster character, I wanted to see what he would do next with no idea where his loyalties lay. But for someone like me who has been immersed in fantasy for two decades, much of the book didn’t strike me as being anything out of the ordinary. Three things did make me sit up and take notice:
A) The lack of elves or an elvish equivalent which makes it a nice departure from the Tolkien model.
B) The high level of social and political complexity.
C) The fact that it was one of the first fantasy series to have that complexity when most other fantasy fare of the time were simplified Tolkien knock-offs or very flat adventure stories with magic thrown in.
That was the book. How did the film adaptation compare?
THE TV SERIES
1. POOR INTRODUCTIONS
The HBO series gets a deep bow of approval from me for their attempts to remain as close to the source material as possible. The first four episodes especially are almost exactly like in the book. However, I think that, for introducing the characters, this approach worked against them. I’ve heard many people that they had a hard time keeping the characters straight. Even I had some trouble, and I had the advantage of having read the book! They were almost too subtle in some of the details meant to distinguish the members of different Houses. With a book, you have the names right there, so it’s easier to keep everyone straight, especially when there are so goddamn many people. Also, in the book, you have the advantage of sliding in thoughts, history, and background details that help flesh out and make sense of the world without it seeming jarring. The show followed the same path as the book, but lacked that internal information, and thus came across feeling… flat. This was a time when adaptation could take a few liberties to keep close to the material, but changing, combining, or adjusting a few things to make it easier to follow. To be fair, I don’t know how well that would have actually worked with Game of Thrones, but watching the first couple of episodes just left me feeling cold. I felt like I was missing something, something vital.
I was honestly shocked that I wasn’t very moved or interested in Eddard Stark while watching the show. Stark was my favorite character in the book and I really like Sean Bean. In fact, all of the actors are good in their roles. No one struck me as particularly spectacular, but no one was especially bad either. Good, solid performances. But the only character who I looked forward to seeing on screen was Tyrion. Remember my list of characters I liked in the book? He was the only one who carried over into the screen adaptation with my interest intact. (I admit that I also liked Sansa a little better in the show than the book. In the book she seems blind and stupid. In the show, she comes off as naïve and wakes up a little too late, but I didn’t dislike her as much.) Daenerys also did not hold my sympathy into the show, which is odd because her kind of character I generally like to follow. However, she appears rather weak in the show, mostly because the performance of her brother Viserys was not compelling enough. In the book, he’s twisted and scary in an understated kind of way, and they only managed “whiny brat” in the show. I couldn’t understand why Daenerys remained under his thumb for so long. Intellectually I could see that it was probably from long-term trauma and fear… but again, that didn’t carry across.
Again, it’s not that the actors did a bad job or anything. I just didn’t feel anything while watching them. Their struggles didn’t interest me until episode 6 or 7, and even now, my concern is not very deep. I am curious… but not moved. Plus, the plot didn’t really get rolling until the later episodes either, so I was slogging through the first four episodes on the promise of, “It will get better,” and the pretty scenery alone. I have no problem with a show that takes a little while to gain momentum plot-wise, but I need to care about or entertained by the characters until the plot gets rolling.
2. FOCUS ON MILIEU, NOT CHARACTER
It has been suggested that the reason the characters didn’t engage me is because Game of Thrones is more of a milieu story than a character story. “Milieu” focuses on the place, the environment or social setting of a story. A lot of older fantasy is more plot- and world-driven than character-driven; the characters tend to be more flat and serve the purpose of exploring a new world, a new atmosphere. They tend to read more like history books than a “story” per se. James Cameron’s Avatar is a milieu story. The plot is basic, the characters flat, but that’s okay because the purpose was to explore this amazing alien landscape and social structure. I have three pieces of evidence that… well, really do not repudiate the suggestion that Game of Thrones is milieu, but rather reinforce the idea that character was supposed to play a key role, and for me, the show missed the mark.
First, George R.R. Martin, many of the actors, and the show adapters went on and on about the importance of rich, complex, believable characters of Game of Thrones in the behind-the-scenes interviews. They said that the characters were the biggest attraction of this project. I’ll admit the characters are often grey in their loyalties and actions (which is good to keep people interested and guessing), but they are also grey in the sense that, for me, they have little color or life or sparkle to them. They feel more like pawns on a chessboard than flesh and blood. I don’t know if all of these people were saying that because they were expected to, since the importance of well-fleshed out characters has become a more prominent theme in modern fiction, or if they meant it and I’m just being picky.
Second, while reading the book, the characters did engage my sympathies. I cared about them, their causes, their struggles. Perhaps not to the same extent as some other characters in more recent stories have, but I still cared, and caring about what happens to characters is very important. I’ve been immersed in fantasy all my life; it takes more than a pretty landscape and some incestuous backstabbing to engage me. Unless the landscape is so very new or explored in a way I have not seen before (and like I said, Game of Thrones is typical high fantasy fair for me), I need to have something else to draw me in and make me care. That usually means I need excellent characters to watch. If the background and basic plot has already been trod before, that’s fine as long as I care about the people in it. If the background is breathtaking, I’ll go along for the ride, but without the emotional attachment provided by characters, background and history is all it will be to me. It will be pretty, but it doesn’t mean anything. The defining feature of Game of Thrones is its complex politics and even politics isn’t that interesting unless I care about the people affected by them.
Last, I’ve read milieu-driven fantasy before, stories that read more like history books than adventure tales. Lord of the Rings is a primary example of this. The forerunner of modern fantasy has an extremely rich and complex world with extremely flat characters populating it. Reading Lord of the Rings, I never got a very strong sense of who the characters really were. They really were pawns for the most part, pieces to move around and show off Middle-Earth. And that was all right because I never felt like Lord of the Rings was trying to be anything else. It knew what it was and did it well. In that sense, Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones are cut from the same cloth (with Game of Thrones having the modern benefit of a little more character development necessary to pull off fantasy politics.) But Lord of the Rings was also adapted to film. Three features length films rather than a TV series, but if you watch the extended editions of Lord of the Rings, you’ll find that it’s almost the same amount of running time as Game of Thrones. So, we have two milieu stories that I read prior to viewing with fantastic complex worlds and mostly flat characters, with lavish visuals and good actors occupying roughly the same amount of screen time of 9 to 10 hours.
And yet I was more moved and more emotionally invested in Lord of the Rings after four minutes than I was in Game of Thrones after four hours.
Why? To be honest, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because Lord of the Rings is more action-oriented (therefore easier to adapt visually) and Game of Thrones is more politically driven (which is harder to show). Maybe Lord of the Rings took greater liberties in the adaptation and Game of Thrones tried to be too faithful. I enjoy fantasy politics, but they are very hard to translate to the screen. I didn’t really get interested in the plot and politics until Littlefinger and The Spider had their little chat in the throne room in Episode 5 or 6. I didn’t start feeling emotionally invested in any character besides Tyrion until Eddard and Jaime have their duel in the street in episode 7 or 8. It’s possible that my inability to identify or care very much for most of the characters comes from a concern that I had before I started reading or watching. There’s a song, a parody, about these books, and in the song, there is a line, “…and George while you’re at it, stop killing our favorite characters please.” That tells me that pretty much any character I come to care about is probably going to die. I was right when it came to Ned Stark. Those with honor are the first to die and that depresses me, even though, politically, Ned’s death will probably ultimately lead to the fall of the House of Lannister. His death may ultimately do good, but it still saddens me and makes me reluctant to invest emotionally in characters. Right now I’m assuming that Tyrion, the entire Stark household, and the Night’s Watch are going to die, along with any other honorable characters that may turn up. It’s kind of hard to care when you’re in that pessimistic mindset.
3. ISSUES WITH ADAPTATION
Normally, the closer and more accurate a show is to its source material, the happier I am. However, this feeling has been changing, especially after watching several BBC adaptations of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, and then reading the books. The fact is books and film are two very different mediums. Today’s writing is getting more and more visual (and thus easier to adapt from one medium to another) but older works like Dickens, Austen, and yes, even George R.R. Martin, are more word-heavy and stretched out. A film adaptation has to take what’s in the book and render it engaging and often more compressed than its source material. Andrew Davies did some masterful adaptations that retain all the important information, relationships, and heart of Dickens’ and Austen’s stories by adjusting, adding, cutting, and changing things subtly until the stories read in a more dramatic and engaging fashion than the originals.
With Game of Thrones, I think they tried to be too accurate.., at least, in the beginning. As a result, the first four episodes are especially clunky, slow, confusing, and emotionally unsatisfying in terms of characters and action. If you’re willing to wait then you start to sort things out, slowly, but will enough people wait for that payoff? Apparently enough did, but it’s a gamble that I’m surprised worked in today’s action-heavy, speed-oriented culture. The further I went into the series, the more liberties they took with adapting the text, condensing or moving things so you got the information you needed in an interesting way, and that’s when the show started to get better. Episodes 5 and 6 got me more interested in the world and its conflicts, and 7-8 got me more emotionally invested than I was previously. As I said before, the conversation between Littlefinger and The Spider in the throne room marked the turning point in my interest in the show. The exchange was not only important, but engaged me. I loved watching them have their little political word-duel so soon after a real blood-and-guts duel.
However, even though I approved of most of the changes that were made for the adaptation, there were a few things from the book that were changed and should not have been. Episodes 9-10 annoyed me because I was cheated out of not one, but two battles, and a wonderful visual that was present in the book but, for some unknown reason, changed in the show.
In the book, you do see the battle between Tywin Lannister and the two thousand northern soldiers sent as a decoy. In the show, Tyrion gets hit on the head and we only see the aftermath of the battle. It angers me when a show seems to be leading up to a big battle (in this case between Robb Stark’s forces and the Lannisters), only to cop out at the last second. In the book you do not see the battle between Jamie Lannister and the rest of Robb’s forces, so that was accurate to the book, but I was still angry because I thought, “Well, okay, so we don’t see this battle, which was essentially a massacre anyway, but now we can see Robb kick Jaime’s ass, right?” WRONG! What angers me the most is that it could have been done! There was no reason not to! After spending God knows how much money on sets and costumes, they should have been able to allocate some resources to a brief battle! And the first battle was from Tyrion’s perspective anyway, so it’s not like you needed to stage a massive fight with tons of extras. It would have been relatively simple to stage a smaller one with roughly twelve extras and some CGI multiplication that would seem bigger and more terrible than it was, especially coming from a dwarf’s POV. So I felt like that was a cop out.
The second big thing that angered me was the hatching of the dragons. In the book, Daenerys walks onto that funeral pyre for her Horselord husband and the eggs hatch while she’s in the fire! The eggs break open and the baby dragons come out and twine around her as her clothes burn away but she stands unharmed. Wreathed in flames and dragons, she stands, the Dragon-Queen, as her remaining Dothraki stare and bow before her revealed might. What an image to end the show with! That’s one of those iconic cinematic moments that just wow you into stunned silence. In the show, she walks into the flames, her knight turns away, apparently everyone fall asleep as it burns, and in the morning they find her ash-covered and naked in the remnants of the pyre with the baby dragons already hatched. I’m sorry, but if you are looking for an impressive and lasting image, the first one impressed me more and would have been totally possible to pull off with the technology we have these days. I saw no reason why that should have been changed from the book and there was no reason why it could not have been filmed.
A WORD ON SEX AND VIOLENCE
I was a little confused about the way the show was often described to me before I watched it. People primarily described the sex and violence as “graphic.” Okay, well, kind of. Yes, the killing was violent and had a little more blood, but the camera never lovingly lingered on people getting killed, which I’m grateful for. One can be violent without being gratuitous and Game of Thrones pulls it off well. The violence never seems thrown in just for the hell of it. It serves a purpose within the context.
Yes, there is sex but there aren’t “random sex scenes” that pop up. There may be more than in the book, but not by much. There is a lot more nudity including some full frontal, but it’s mostly women and I’d much rather look at an attractive naked woman than a naked man any day. The fixation on sodomy was a little disturbing. In the book, only the Dothraki had that fixation, which culturally made sense. Stallions don’t mate mares face to face; they mount them from behind. It makes sense. But even in Westros, all the sex scenes are with the woman being mounted. I personally find this distasteful because it’s a position of humiliation. That’s the way animals mate. The only face-to-face sex is between two women, and even that turns into anal sex halfway through. (And that’s one of the… extra sex scenes mostly likely thrown in for titillation, although one can’t really skip it because Littlefinger is giving some fascinating insight into his character by giving a monologue while the prostitutes do some practicing in front of him.) Oddly enough, the majority of the scenes that contain face-to-face foreplay are the ones with Tyrion, which is interesting because he is looked down upon as not being a “real” man. He’s called “half-man” and is derided and not treated as an equal, yet he seems to have the most “equal” intimate encounters. Maybe my English major brain is reading too much into that, but I find it interesting and wonder if there was a reason for it. Is sodomy easier to fake on camera? Did they want to see both parties’ faces at the same time and so sodomy was an easier way to accomplish that? Those are perfectly reasonable explanations; I’m just morbidly curious to know why there was so much of it (relatively speaking) outside the Dothraki culture. Does the choice of sexual positions have anything to do with the internal workings of the characters? Or maybe the directors (or Martin) just really like anal sex…
Game of Thrones was an enjoyable show to watch. It is groundbreaking for being the first major adaptation of a fantasy epic to make it onto HBO and become popular. The level of detail is fantastic, especially on a TV show budget, and I hope it will pave the way for other fantasy tales to be made into TV shows. However, it misses the mark on being a truly great show mostly in the realm of emotional investment in characters. I’m not exactly sure what they missed or how they missed it, but the fact remains that my heart pounds more during the opening title sequence than during the show itself. I await the coming seasons with curiosity (but no excitement) to see if my opinion changes.