Cliffs Notes: HBO’s Game of Thrones

July 19, 2011 at 2:32 am | Posted in Television | 15 Comments
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I have gotten letters over the years from readers who don’t like the sex, they say it’s “gratuitous.” I think that word gets thrown around and what it seems to mean is “I didn’t like it.” This person didn’t want to read it, so it’s gratuitous to that person. And if I’m guilty of having gratuitous sex, then I’m also guilty of having gratuitous violence, and gratuitous feasting, and gratuitous description of clothes, and gratuitous heraldry, because very little of this is necessary to advance the plot. But my philosophy is that plot advancement is not what the experience of reading fiction is about. If all we care about is advancing the plot, why read novels? We can just read Cliffs Notes. — George R. R. Martin, in an interview with The Atlantic

In the above quote Martin saved me a lot of effort by eloquently summing up his approach to A Song of Ice and Fire, though he might have mentioned that with Game of Thrones, at least, we can watch Cliffs Notes instead of just read them. Rereading the novel a few days ago took me just over twelve hours. I read fast, if not extraordinarily so, and I’m comfortable saying based on my experience that for the vast majority of people, the experience of spending ten hours or so to watch the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones will be faster and easier than reading the book. As is inevitable with this sort of adaptation, there’s quite a bit of material from the novel that doesn’t make it into the show. I’m not sure if there’s any less sex on balance, but there’s somewhat less violence and considerably less feasting, clothes, and heraldry. In fact, one might fairly accuse the show of, well, cutting out everything that doesn’t advance the plot.  Is Martin arguing here that the show is inevitably bad?

Obviously not. I don’t think it will be news to anyone reading this that HBO’s first season has been very well received by both the avid fans of the books and those completely unfamiliar with the source material. I was somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, having read the first four books of the series last year and come away with some reservations, but I found myself enjoying the show far more than I expected. So much so that, rather than read Adam Whitehead’s summaries to refresh my memory before reading A Dance With Dragons as I had originally planned, I decided to actually go back and revisit at least the novel Game of Thrones to better compare it with the show.  Having liked the show better than my first reading, I found I actually liked my second reading of the novel better than watching the show. A surprising but pleasing turn of events, except that now I have to try to explain this.

Martin provides a clue in the quote above. “If all we care about is advancing the plot, why read novels?” he asks. Well, is plot the only reason we watch television shows? As I’ve already noted, HBO’s adaptation necessarily subtracts the novel’s “gratuitous” feasting, clothes, and heraldry, leaving just the plot.  But adaptation is not merely subtractive. The show adds acting, set design, and music (to name just three of many things) to the plot it takes from the novels. Being a lavish HBO production, and what’s on screen is all the more lavish because the show saves money by omitting some things we’ve come to expect from fantasy adaptations (I’ll get to that in a second), all these are excellent. Seen in this light, my experience makes more sense. Having read the novel already helped me enjoy the show more, since it saved me from having to learn the characters in the first few episodes and dignified the smaller players with backstories the show didn’t have time to cover, and having seen the show helped me enjoy the book more, as my imagination incorporated the show’s excellent performances and visual design.

This view of two different versions of a work as mutually reinforcing, by the way, helps explain why some prefer one medium or another to be their first experience.  Over the past decade of Harry Potter films, I had friends who set out to read the books before seeing the films as well as other friends who did the precise opposite. This is partly explainable in terms of which heightening effects each preferred, though a complete explanation would also have to say something about the different forms of suspense that come from encountering a story for the first time in prose or visual media.

HBO had already greenlit the first season when I first read Game of Thrones (indeed, that was one of my reasons for doing so) and while reading it I was trying to keep a figurative eye out for particularly visual scenes. I was surprised to find the story rather lacking in this regard, and I wondered whether this would hurt the adaptation. To briefly explain what I mean by “particularly visual scene”, in the run-up to the Lord of the Rings movies there were a number of scenes I was really excited to see realized in live action, scenes like the flight to the ford and the bridge of Khazad-dum, for instance. I thought Peter Jackson did a good job with some of these moments and a disappointing or even disastrous job with others, but he never lacked for effort.  His worst failures, in fact, were usually through overdoing it.  It’s not enough that Sam joins Frodo at the end of Fellowship of the Ring, he has to almost drown trying to do it. It’s not enough that Gandalf advances on Theoden and cures him, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli have to beat up a bunch of extras while he does so.

It was these crescendos I was looking for while reading Game of Thrones, but I didn’t find them. Partly this may be explained by diminished investment: I loved Lord of the Rings, I only liked Game of Thrones. But despite my best efforts at objectivity, the only scene that struck me as one that would play with intensity on the screen was the flashback to the investment of King’s Landing, when Eddard Stark lead his men into the throne room on horseback and found Jaime Lannister on the Iron Throne. The HBO series didn’t even bother filming this scene…so much for my directorial eye! (Although, in my defense, I contend they would have shown it if the limitations of de-aging effects hadn’t made them eschew flashbacks entirely.) But given I enjoyed the series anyway, was I wrong? Peter Jackson dug up some genuinely effective dramatic moments of Lord of the Rings I hadn’t noticed in many rereads, after all. Did the show do the same for Game of Thrones?

Well, not really.  There’s a case to be made for some of the scenes that end the episodes, like Bran at the window or the final moment with Daenerys, but I would argue that the show really doesn’t have these moments. The thing is, it works just fine without them.  Hollywood in general and the Lord of the Rings movies in particular have trained me to expect that kind of heightened (detractors would say melodramatic) visual punctuation, but Game of Thrones isn’t that kind of story. The action of politics is in conversation, not epic showdowns, and (for now at least) this is a political story first and a fantasy story second. Rather than try to inject drama into scenes that didn’t previously have it, the show is confident enough to stick to a straightforward depiction in almost every case. One imagines that Peter Jackson would have filmed Jon Snow’s brief departure from the Night’s Watch as involving a five minute chase scene on horseback ending with Samwell making a horse-to-horse diving tackle of Jon, then one or both of them temporarily appearing to have died from the ensuing fall. Jamie Lannister’s swordfight with Ned Stark, which adds a bit more action at the cost of making the entire sequence of events incomprehensible, is probably the one exception. This confidence in the characters and the plot pays off handsomely, thanks in large part to the actors.

While the cadence of the show is derived from the story it’s telling, I suspect other elements from the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings visual toolbox are missing more because of budget. Swooping helicopter shots of castles and traveling groups of people, even if overused in Jackson’s trilogy, would given the sense of scale and landscape that the show’s credits sequence could not, no matter how beautiful it was. The show was also plainly unable to muster the extra or effects for large crowd shots and battle scenes, and the visual and narrative tricks used to sidestep these limitations only go so far. That said, if helicopter shots and battle scenes are the price of getting ten hours instead of the three or so we’d get from a big budget movie, that’s a bargain.

As successful as the first season is, I do have some concerns for future seasons (which I will discuss generally so as not to spoil anyone). Any time you telescope a story from the novel format (and Game of Thrones is about three times as long as the typical novel) character nuances are going to be lost. The television show’s Tyrion, for example, is something of a caricature of the novel’s. Tyrion is witty, and with relatively few lines to work with, everything that comes out of his mouth in the show must be a joke of some sort, save one or two Character Revealing Scenes. In this Tyrion gets off easy compared to Littlefinger, whose true motives in the novel are revealed slowly and in parsimonious little details, but on the show these get lost in the background, so he must completely depart from character to monologue everything about his inner self to two strangers. But far more troubling are the characters who are going to be important in the second and third seasons but who get inadequate emphasis in the first. The huge abbreviation of the Hand’s tournament means the Clegane brothers and Loras Tyrell remain ciphers, for example. Most worryingly, almost no information is provided about Jaime Lannister except his relationship with his sister. There’s no sense he’s particularly talented in combat, nor is it clear what he gave up by joining the Kingsguard. I suppose it’s really the third book where this becomes important, so there’s still time, but the story in Clash of Kings doesn’t give Jaime very much to do.

Perhaps I’m overestimating the importance of this sort of setting up, even if it’s one of the things the novel does very well. We don’t learn much more about Beric Dondarrion in the novel than we do in the television show and that wasn’t a huge problem, I suppose. Perhaps all that is just more so-called gratuitous detail from the novel, like the clothes, feasting, and heraldry. We’ll find out in a year, but in the meantime I’m off to see if A Dance With Dragons will live up to my suddenly increased expectations.

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