Thursday, June 14, 2012

Box Set Blues: Game of Thrones, Series 1

Sometimes I’m quite happy about being so behind in TV shows, because it allows me to watch them free from the attendant hype (good and bad) that often attends them, and allows me freedom binge or meander through a series as I see fit. Sometimes, however, it’s a pain, as something I want to watch simply isn’t available to me to (legally) watch. HBO shows are even worse, as the window between transmission and DVD release is artificially lengthened, usually so that the previous series comes out just as the new series hits the screens for the first time. So it’s taken us a year to watch Game of Thrones, which has felt like a long cold winter.

Shedding it’s “A” on the way to the TV, this is an adaptation of the first book of the hugely long and still continuing A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin, the sort of sprawling epic series that gives Fantasy Novels a bad name, but one that uses that length to tell a genuinely interesting and weighty story with complex and challenging characters. Even the first book, which is pretty straightforward on the face of it, feels like a big ask to condense down to 10 hours of television, never mind the wide array of locations that might not make the budget.

So yes, there is some notable absences - the most glaring of which appears to be about 90% of Khal Drogo’s Khalsar, which feels due to the open-spaces nature of the Dothraki Sea often feels a little sparse, and the famous Stark direwolves, which appear when they need to but are strangely missing for a lot of the “hanging out” scenes they should still be in. However, none of this should detract from what the show gets right. Sticking to a narrower set of locations means that those locations, especially ones that are going to get used a lot, are fantastically realised. The production design is outstanding; right down to the fact all the major locations - Kings Landing, Winterfell, The Wall, etc - are shot with different lighting effects and dressed in different colour palettes, so you can quickly tell exactly where a location is, without waiting for a recognisable character to walk on set.

Which is good, because you’ve got a lot of characters to keep track of. The books have cast lists that run to dozens of pages at the end of each volume, and a lot of the minor cast get little walk-ons or name checks but it’s there for the fans, rather than some intrusive parade of extras. Actually the adaptation is pretty ruthless in this regard as it increases screen time for some characters like Theon Greyjoy for example, who are going to be a lot more important later on. (Poor Theon, always in the background being whiny and unlikeable!). Smartly, the show puts a small core cast right in the centre of the action, and gets stand out performances from the actors. Much attention has gone rightly to Peter Dinklage, but Sean Bean and Lena Headey particularly anchor much of the politics and scheming with real emotional undercurrents.

Another neat trick worth pointing out from the production is the opening credits. Not only are they gorgeous to look at, but they also get around the problem a lot of fantasy adaptations have had with geography but showing you where all the key locations are in the world right up front. And because the style is go attention grabbing, well you pay attention, and you don’t have even more exposition in the actual show. Although there is a lot of exposition in the actual show, often in presence of female nudity, presumably so that if you’re the part of the audience that is tuning in for the beheadings and sex, not the talking, you’ve still got something to look at.

As you can probably tell this is pretty much a high-class operation. There is a huge amount of care and attention gone into it, and its been adapted with a clear idea of what it’s doing both visually and in the perspective change from the books sort-of-first-person to the third person narrative of television. Its not shy to change interpretations, remove some of the ambiguity around characters, and generally much about in the world, and George R R Martin’s close involvement (and history as a TV writer) is probably a solid contributor to this.

That said, I’m not sure Game of Thrones is quite as distinctive as it thinks it is, or as I’ve seen it praised as. One of its strengths as a novel series is as a broadside within the genre; part of an debate about realism and “grit” within fantasy, and one of its attractions to me has been its sometimes ruthless deconstruction of classical fantasy archetypes and storylines, as I think Ned Stark can confirm. It is also by a staggering large margin the best Fantasy TV show ever made, although I’m conscious that isn’t exactly a high bar to clear.

However, when sat alongside the output of the current generation of quality US shows it’s not its undoubted quality that makes it distinctive so much as simply its setting. After all, we’ve come to expect great writing, quality actors and movie-standard direction from top-end TV for while now, and we’ve been getting detailed recreations of lost worlds for years, from Rome to Mad Men to Boardwalk Empire and so on. The leap to full-blown fantasy seems like only a matter of time, although I can’t think of a better choice than this one!

Game of Thrones has absolutely been one of my favorite shows this year - both in terms of ambition and execution its a fantastic show and a great setup for the more twisted and complex storylines the books have in store for its viewers. Just a shame I’ll probably have to wait a year for the next DVD release!