To my great shame I only just got around to watching this – if you don’t have Sky it’s actually been quite difficult to get hold of in the UK. I myself – and I don’t recommend this for everyone – was given a boxed set as a reward for singing to a sales conference. Long story. Anyway, I thought it was an excellent adaptation of one of the most – perhaps becoming the most – important epic fantasies since Lord of the Rings. I’ve spoken about the book at some length before, and you can actually read the piece I wrote for SFX about it on t’internet as well. Stone me if it wasn’t four years ago already that I wrote that, and it still sums up my feelings pretty well. But great books don’t necessarily make great TV, do they?
If you want to see quality science fiction on screen, you don’t have to look far. There’s Terminator and sequels, Alien and sequels, Blade Runner, 2001, Total Recall, Robocop, there’s Star Wars and Star Trek, there’s at least two pretty excellent seasons of Battlestar Galactica and we’re scarcely scratching the surface. I think it’s probably fair to say that fantasy – particularly of the epic/heroic type – is a little less well served by the visual media. There’s the Lord of the Rings films, of course, and there’s … um … the original Conan the Barbarian, maybe? Not the new one! And not the Destroyer, God help us, not the Destroyer! Xena? Krull? Hawk the Slayer? You see what I’m saying. I’m not entirely sure why it is that filmed fantasy, when it happens at all, tends to come out so … naff.
But Game of Thrones is not naff. From the excellent title sequence on, the whole thing smacks of quality, thought, investment, and faith in creative freedom. Best of all it’s stayed very, very close to the source material. Unashamedly nasty, grimy, sexy, tough, filthy, edgy and unpredictable. Unashamedly gritty in content and character. It feels as if only HBO could really have put something so bold, dark, unexpected, uncommercial in a sense (though it’s clearly been successful) together. Different people involved of course, but it’s a logical progression in a way of the approach they took to things like the Wire and the Sopranos. It is to fantasy very much what Deadwood is to the western.
I guess if you were being really critical you could say you inevitably don’t tend to get the mighty scale that you see in, say, the Lord of the Rings films. You don’t really get more than a couple of score of Khal Drogo’s numberless host on screen together. No sweeping shots of crawling masses. The tourney, a vast and elaborate affair in the book, looks a little cut down to size here. But that doesn’t really matter much, actually, because what’s there looks very good, costume and design is excellent, effects have been used sparingly and well, and the book is really focused much more on the individuals and the interactions between them – it’s told much more in close up than wide shot. And the much greater length of a TV treatment gives the opportunity to get a lot deeper into the characters and setting. Great casting, script, and acting, therefore, is at the heart of the success of the adaptation. A huge and diverse cast, obviously, and scarcely a weak link among them. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Sean Bean doing Eddard Stark, Peter Dinklage was predictably good as Tyrion and Charles Dance as Tywin, Emilia Clarke did very well with a tough role as Daenerys, some great turns from the kids, especially Arya, but some of the more surprising castings were the real revelations. Jerome Flynn as Bronn, Mark Addy as King Robert, and Iain Glen as Jorah Mormont I thought was brilliant – surely one of Britain’s most underrated actors.
What else to say? I thought it was very, very good, and actually reminded me how good the books are. It switched smoothly between the many different settings, brought in a huge array of characters without every becoming confusing. It did not dumb down the material – there was plenty of the history and worldbuilding left intact – but it didn’t get dull and dumpy. They let the nature of the people, their relationships and their pasts, seep through naturally in snatches of conversation, in looks and gestures. There was an effortless quality to it after a couple of episodes, no doubt born of an awful lot of effort in many departments – the designers of sets, props and costume certainly had, and did, a hell of a job. I forgot that this is a very big thing in the circles that I work. I stopped watching it critically as a writer or a tv editor or even a fan of the book. I just got caught up in a great piece of entertainment.
Finally, there’s a really strong, high quality filmic vision of epic fantasy to put alongside Lord of the Rings, and one that will reach an audience that would never have read the books. The effect on Martin’s sales and profile has been profound. Clearly he was already one of the very biggest players within epic fantasy , a New York Times no. 1 bestseller, but since the tv series came out and Dance With Dragons was released he seems to have shifted to a new level. Right now, and this is sixteen years after the first book came out and eleven months after the TV series first showed, the NYT paperback bestseller list, which goes up to 35, still features 6 titles from Martin’s series. How can that be, since only four have been published in paperback? Two are in twice, in trade and mass market paperback. It’s impossible to say whether they can keep up the quality and popularity of the series, particularly as the books broaden and more work of adaptation is required. But you couldn’t really ask for a better start. It’ll be interesting to see what the effect on the genre more generally will be. More grit, anyone…?