Friday, July 29, 2011

Why "A Game of Thrones" Wins

I've never read any of George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" fantasy series. I had heard of the books before before, but frequently got them mixed up with Robert Jordan's "The Wheel of Time," and the old Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta animated film, "Fire and Ice." Also, I thought "A Song of Ice and Fire" was a much older series, and didn't realize the last few volumes are yet unwritten. So I was in the position of having no expectations when I went into the HBO adaptation, "A Game of Thrones," named after the first novel. Well, that's not true. I've seen a lot of fantasy miniseries, most of them produced by Robert Halmi Sr. or Jr. or both. Easily digestible, effects-driven spectacle is their forte, and I was expecting more of the same from "A Game of Thrones." Since it was HBO, I thought the writing might be more faithful than the norm (the Halmis are famously awful to their source material), and we were probably going to get a good amount of "True Blood" style sex and violence.

Ten episodes of "A Game of Thrones" later, watched with increasingly feverish excitement, I concede that I vastly underestimated HBO. They nailed everything that other adaptations almost never get right about high fantasy literature - the detailed worldbuilding, the epic scale and scope of the storytelling, and characters who function by the rules and ethics of their own universe instead of ours. It was a thrill to discover the creators hadn't compromised or dumbed down the material. Even though I had never read the books, I could tell how faithful the series was, simply from the number and variety of characters and how much depth and dimension they had all been given. There's a lot of exposition in the show, infusing the world of "A Game of Thrones" and its key players with a keen sense of history and place. Other adaptations rarely take the trouble to do this, which is why many onscreen fantasy worlds come across as so generic.

I suspect a lot of this has to do with the kind of story "A Song of Fire and Ice" is. I don't want to get into too much detail yet, because of the complexity of the character relationships, but what's immediately apparent about "A Game of Thrones" is that it has less to do with the magical creatures and wizards that people have come to expect from fantasy fiction, and more to do with power struggles, family ties, and various notions of duty, justice, and revenge. When I think of comparable shows to "A Game of Thrones," what immediately comes to mind is "I, Claudius," the BBC miniseries that followed the rise and fall of the four Roman emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, from Augustus to Nero. In George R. R. Martin's land of Westeros, largely modeled off of Medieval Britain, four different families clash over the seat of power, the Iron Throne - the Baratheons, the Lannisters, the Starks, and the Targaryens, with various other notables in the mix to keep things interesting. This gives it a lot in common with the historial fiction series that have been produced for premium cable lately, like "The Borgias," and "The Tudors," which cover similar ground.

Make no mistake that "A Game of Thrones" is fantasy, and includes the occasional dragon, witch, and messenger raven. However, it also has a very adult sensibility that I haven't seen in any piece of filmed fantasy media since the 80s. The bloodshed is brutal, and graphic sex scenes are plentiful, but few come off as gratuitous. Rather, the sexual encounters are vital in the development of several storylines, and are often used to complement character moments or exposition. As for the violence, you may never look at a jousting scene the same way again after you get an up-close look at the damage tourney participants sustain in episode four. Injury and death are frequent occurrences in Westeros, and rendered even more sobering when you consider how many of the players involved are children. Future seasons of "A Game of Thrones" will no doubt see these kids, deeply embroiled in bloody intrigues already, grow up to take over the battles of their parents. "Harry Potter" this is not.

I don't know that anyone else could have made this show but HBO. Who else could have foot the bill for the high production values and special effects, while retaining the adult nature of the books? Who else would have approached the material as something for mature grown-up viewers instead of the PG-13 action-loving crowd? "A Game of Thrones," is the best argument for taking the fantasy genre seriously that may have ever existed. HBO has gone and raised the bar for the fantasy television, even higher than "The Lord of the Rings" did for fantasy films.

There is not enough room in one post to get across everything I want to say about "A Game of Thrones," so this will do for an intro. More to come soon.

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