As the man himself has said many times, George R. R. Martin wrote A Game of Thrones (and indeed the other existing entries in A Song of Ice and Fire) without considering translation to the screen. In fact, Martin had become frustrated with the restrictions that budgets placed on his ability to tell stories as a television writer, and revelled in producing a print series that he believed would be ‘unfilmable.’ The good news, which fans have enjoyed the results of over the past few months, is that HBO, particularly creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, have been able to bring a tremendous retelling of Martin’s work to the screen in the first season of Game of Thrones.
From the outset, one of the great strengths of Game of Thrones (apart from the source material) has been the casting. Given how impossible it is in the television medium to flesh out every character, it is incredible how many characters can be grasped because they just look right. Ian McElhinney becomes Ser Barristan Selmy. The Stark children are wonderful, especially Maisie Williams as Arya. Emilia Clarke really grows into the role of Daenerys Targaryen, which is perfect in its way for the character. A couple of secondary characters stand out as well. Iain Glenn is tremendous as Ser Jorah Mormont, and Miltos Yerolemou makes Syrio Forel as memorable on screen as on the page. I could go on.
Oddly it was the two premier actors attached to the series, Sean Bean and Peter Dinklage, whose on-screen appearance did not suit my image of their character. Dinklage in particular is much better looking than the Tyrion of the books could ever hope to be. This is not to say that both Bean and Dinklage don’t do an excellent job, just that the years of familiarity with the books demanded adjustment on the part of some viewers (read: fanboys). However given that some of the characters are meant to be ugly to the point of disfigurement (not just ‘Hollywood ugly’), the important contrast that Martin makes between the beautiful and the ugly does disappear.
True to the source material
Several scenes translate perfectly to the screen. Drama and tension drip from virtually every scene of dialogue, which is a credit both to Martin’s original text (many conversations are lifted directly from the book) and the show’s writers. Sean Bean’s Ned Stark and Mark Addy’s King Robert reminisce like genuine comrades, without ever losing the tension that circumstance has brought into their friendship. Lena Headey’s Queen Cersei laces every word with royal arrogance. Peter Dinklage is of course a standout, capturing Tyrion’s pathos, intellect and acid tongue brilliantly. Daenerys’s arc is both heartbreaking and uplifting, and provides a fitting end to the television season just as it does in the novel. The final scene is breathtaking, uplifting and will be genuinely surprising to any viewer who has not read the novel. Immediately after seeing it, I turned to my wife and said “Now you see why I have to read A Dance with Dragons as soon as I can.” She just nodded.
Of course, some scenes simply lack the atmosphere and vibrancy imbued in them by Martin’s prose. The incredible, cosmopolitan marketplace in Vaes Dothrak, where an attempt is made on Daenerys’s life, becomes just a place with a bunch of people selling stuff. The Hand’s Tournament at King’s Landing is much smaller in scale. The Battle of the Whispering Wood is completely unseen, save for the capture of Jaime Lannister in the aftermath. Perhaps the best that can be said is that the production team lacked the budget rather than the skill to bring these set pieces to the screen. It is particularly difficult for Martin’s readers not to lament the lack of direwolves. They appear for pivotal scenes, but they don’t have the constant presence that is so important to the Stark children and their characters.
Criticisms of sexuality
Of course the major criticisms that have been levelled at the show relate to the sexuality. It is perhaps interesting that many key encounters from the book actually have their impact reduced, or their effect on the story changed. The obvious example is the wedding night of Daenerys and Drogo. Its impact is muted by the casting decision to increase Daenerys’s age, but it becomes more disturbing as Drogo is portrayed raping his unwilling bride. Uncomfortable viewing, but at least it makes sense to the story. More challenging for some viewers will be the decision to spice up scenes of exposition with sex. Not really sure who Theon Greyjoy is or why he matters? He’ll explain his motivations to a prosititute while having sex with her. Confused as to Littlefinger’s motivations? He’ll outline his plans while that same prostitute pleasures another on a nearby couch. Even viewers who are far from prudish may find themselves disappointed with the lack of imagination.
Ultimately I found Game of Thrones to be a wonderful television series in its own right, not just a wonderful adaptation. If my review tends to the negative at the end it is simply because it is easier to point out a few flaws than to gush over the qualities, particularly for someone unused to reviewing film.