Game of Thrones Season 1 — the HBO series considered
Ah, books as the basis of stage, radio, television or film adaptations. Now there’s a thorny subject. Even back in Victorian England, there was ambivalence when much-loved classics were adapted for the theatre. The major success was William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes, or The Strange Case of Miss Faulkner which eclipsed Doyle’s own stage versions of the Great Detective as one of the most profitable versions of written works ever performed. It succeeded because it only borrowed the ideas. To parody Hollywood, “it was inspired by written sources”, i.e. written as a play that just happens to be about Sherlock Holmes. In most other cases, critics and audiences failed to see the virtue in, first, stage and, later, film recyclings of classic novels. Strangely, radio has fared somewhat better, possibly because, like the written word, the spoken word also leaves much to the imagination. Once you show something in the flesh or on screen, there’s an immediate loss of credibility. I vividly remember seeing an early screen version of The Phantom of the Opera, the one staring Claude Rains as Erik and, when the mask was removed and he only showed a bad case of acne, most people in the cinema burst out laughing. Such was the quality of makeup and special effects in the distant past.
The average length of a novelisation converts film scripts into books of average length — strange how publishers manage that trick. Converting books usually creates films of average length which, for these purposes, is about two hours of action on the screen (excluding the opening and closing credits). For the cinematic experience, there’s a practical limit to how long people can or will sit without a break. When I was young, longer films like The Ten Commandments or Lawrence of Arabia had an interval where we could all stretch legs, empty bladders and gird our loins for the second half. The cinema owners also did well out the sales of hot drinks and icecream.
This crystalises the problem for those making a film. As those of you who buy audio books will know, it can take more than thirty hours to read a book aloud. It’s not practical to craft a film as a straight reproduction of the written word (with illustrations) unless it’s only as long as Where the Wild Things Are. So when it comes to adapting George R R Martin’s books in the series, A Song of Ice and Fire, the notion of a single film or even a trilogy is a nonstarter. Editing the content down to fit into the average length for a film would mean gutting the story to meaninglessness. This allows me to praise HBO for allowing an adaptation of the first book, A Game of Thrones, into ten one-hour episodes. There’s enough time to do justice to the plot.
However, our final judgement must be of the serial as a piece of television. Frankly, I don’t care whether it’s a faithful recreation of the book or not. I’ve seen many wooden and boring adaptations. Whoever scripts and shoots the scenes should be expert in visual narrative techniques. What may take pages to describe can be seen in a moment as background scenery. Whole chunks of dialogue may be more effectively caught in a single expression. Equally, what we might accept as appropriate continuity on a page may not make sense without bridging scenes on screen. Third person POV text does not necessarily translate directly to the screen unless we’re prepared to sit through a first-person-shooter narrative. We usually need a context for the action to make sense.
Writing the best adaptations takes time and can be improved through an evolutionary process — to winnow out the essential story and find the best way of showing it. As more unusual examples, Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock and Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie were first adapted for the stage and only later transposed to the screen. It takes time to find what works best in the visual media. This is an even greater challenge when the source novel is a fantasy. How do you approximate on screen what each reader has been visualising in response to the written word. This serial has been some three years in the making and the care to get the structure of the narrative right for one-hour episodes shines brightly.
As to content, there are further problems, like how to portray the Dothraki. This is a horse-based, semi-nomadic culture with Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) as an unexpectedly gentle, if physically powerful, Genghis Khan. This is not a problem solved by CGI creating a castle we can believe in as the Eyrie. We need bodies credibly acting like barbarians. Those of us who have sat through Conan-type films know barbarians are not the most attractive people. So how far should HBO go in showing this horde as fundamentally unpleasant, happily fucking and killing each other when not killing, raping and pillaging in cities around the neighbourhood. Ah, yes, we must remember this is an HBO production and therefore there will be many opportunities for frontal nudity and different varieties of sexual behaviour from heterosexual whoring and lesbian sex through to a mother breastfeeding her physically and mentally disabled son. Let there be little left to the imagination in showing sex both doggie style and later missionary position with coarse language to match. The most intriguing is the somewhat gratuitous lesbian scene during which Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) explains his motives. Personally, I find it faintly amusing to see how vigorously HBO push the boundaries of “good taste”. It’s commercially audacious to include soft porn because that’s supposed to make these fantasies of knights and barbarians feel more realistic. Or is it because the results appeal to the voyeurs among us and deliver more paid advertising to the several million people who have so far watched the spectacle?
Whatever, this is a story about honour in conflict with pragmatism. In a more perfect world, feuding nobles would put aside their petty differences and run their kingdoms with the interests of the people more in mind. The Game of Thrones shows how jealousy and corruption fuel situations in which the maximum number of people can be sacrificed to personal causes. So we get many of the mediaeval clichés: the joust manipulated to place a victim in line with a killer’s lance, trial by combat fought to win rather than as a spectacle of good sportsmanship, political backstabbing as revenge for a jilted lover, and so on. This parade of the venal is intended to give the serial a sense of its own gritty reality. We see the darker side of human nature rather than some rose-tinted version of “history”. There’s a hilarious moment when Tyrion is giving an inspirational speech to his loyal woodsmen only to be trampled underfoot as they rush off into battle. That’s essentially a visual joke. It wouldn’t be funny on the page and it would be somewhat painful in real life as Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) sends out the expendables to slow down the attacking northerners. There’s no need to fight when you have idiots prepared to do it for you. So, in all this, what price peace? Are principles worth more than thousands of lives? Should everything be negotiable? Or is power too seductive? Will pride always prevent compromise?
The cast of this ensemble piece is impressive. There’s even a valiant approximation of vaguely northern accents (with one speaker showing off a Durham accent for 10 seconds) versus generalised southern received pronunciation for the courtly ones. Although it’s faintly invidious to single out individuals, Sean Bean as Ned Stark shows calm determination in doing what he feels right, Lena Headey brings depth to Cersei Lannister, with the standout being Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister. He’s a revelation, combining intelligence and his own sense of honour with well-honed survival skills. Among the children, Maisie Williams promises well as Arya Stark. Taken overall, Game of Thrones is one of the best pieces of fantasy I can recall seeing on television at this length. I was emotionally engaged for most of the time, with the last two episodes demonstrating real power — the final images are particularly striking. You can’t ask for more than that on the small screen. For those of you who have not yet read the book, A Game of Thrones by George R R Martin, it’s an experience that will enrich your understanding of the television version.
For a review of Season 2:
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 1. The North Remembers
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 2. The Night Lands
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 3. What Is Dead May Never Die
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 4. Garden of Bones
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 5. The Ghost of Harrenhal
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 6. The Old Gods and the New
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 7. A Man Without Honor
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 8. The Prince of Winterfell
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 9. Blackwater
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 10. Valar Morghulis
Game of Thrones: Season 2 — the HBO series considered