Thursday, August 4, 2011

Is "A Game of Thrones" the First of Many?

Ready for some more conjecture and meta about "A Game of Thrones"? Let's start with a proper plot synopsis this time.

In the medieval world of Westeros, where seasons can last for years, winter is coming upon the land, and by all indications it's going to be a long, hard one, foreshadowing other conflicts to come. The action centers on the Stark family, led by Lord Eddard (Sean Bean), known as Ned to his friends. He and his wife Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) have five children. From oldest to youngest these are Robb (Richard Madden), Sansa (Sophie Turner), Arya (Maisie Williams), Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), and Rickon, who is only three and doesn't get to do much yet. There's also Ned's bastard son Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), who is treated as the black sheep of the family, though he has greater aspirations.

In the first episode, the Starks receive King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) and Queen Cersei (Lena Headley), who have come north to ask Ned to take the position of the Hand of the King, and manage the kingdom for them. Baratheon is an old war comrade of Ned's, but Cersei has more questionable motives. She comes from the rich, ambitious Lannister family and travels with her two brothers, knight Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and dwarf Tyrion (Peter Dinklage). Both have terrible reputations for different reasons, and the Lannisters may have played a part in the demise of the last Hand of the King. But since Ned is dutiful and loyal, he says yes to the offer, and his elder daughter Sansa is engaged to the young heir to the throne, Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), for good measure.

Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, Viserys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd), the exiled son of the former king Baratheon deposed, is scheming a way to win back the throne. In exchange for an army, he forces his younger sister Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) to marry Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), the leader of a tribe of the Dothraki, a more brutish, savage people who have a culture centered around horses. Danger is also lurking beyond the massive Wall at the northernmost border of Westeros, which was erected to keep out supernatural enemies like the White Walkers, who may have awakened after thousands of years of dormancy. The first line of defense is the Night's Watch who guard the Wall, and Jon Snow is keen to join them.

What I appreciate the most about "A Game of Thrones" being told as a television series is the sheer amount of screen time it affords the creators. All of the plot outlined above comes from the first episode, and much more happens as the show goes on. With a commerical feature film, at most you would have three or four hours to cram everything into. The first season of "Thrones" runs for approximately ten, and subsequent ones may expand to twelve. This means you not only get to spend significant amounts of time with major characters like Ned, Daenerys, Jon Snow, and Tyrion Lannister, but also smaller players like money man Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen), Arya's swordmaster Syrio Forel (Miltos Yeromelou), a prostitute named Ros (Esmé Bianco), and the various members of the Night's Watch. A skilled director probably could figure out a way to present every plot point from the book in a single film, but not without drastically cutting or simplifying all the bits that make the series distinctive in the first place.

But even though the story was clearly better suited for long-form television, it's only been recently that better special effects technology has become available, and the standards for television productions have gone up enough to make television adaptations really comparable to film adaptations. I've mentioned before that I thought "A Game of Thrones" benefited greatly form the success of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. It was "Lord of the Rings" that brought fantasy back into the limelight and showed that the genre could have broader appeal. However, the series owes just as much to "The Sopranos," "Mad Men," and other highly acclaimed television series that kept taking risks and raising the bar for what a televised series could be capable of.

And there's no doubt that "A Game of Thrones" was a significant risk for HBO. The prevailing wisdom in Hollywood has been that fantasy is for the PG-13 viewers and under, which is why the studios have been so reluctant to fund projects like Guillermo Del Toro's "At the Mountains of Madness," and Ron Howard's "The Dark Tower," which feature material that skews older. And if fantasy films for adults were scarce, a fantasy television series aimed at mature audiences was a total anomaly. In that sense, "A Game of Thrones" is a major leap forward for the fantasy genre on both the large and small screens, simply by retaining all the darker, less savory elements that never would have been allowed to remain in a film version aimed at the usual summer blockbuster crowd.

After the success of "A Game of Thrones," will we see a boost in similar fantasy television series? Hollywood is on notice that there is an audience out there for this kind of content, and now the fans know what HBO is capable of. Over at AICN they're calling for "The Dark Tower" to become a series in th same vein, because it would require fewer changes to the material than a film adaptation and there's no longer the sense that quality of the production would be in any way compromised. I'm starting to hear similar chatter about titles as well. HBO has at least one other fantasy project already in the works, a miniseries adaptation of Neil Gaiman's "American Gods." Another of Gaiman's novels, "Good Omens," co-written by Terry Pratchett, is becoming a miniseries with the BBC, after fans waited for years for the the planned feature film adaptation to emerge from development hell.

It's too early to declare that we're looking at a new age of televised fantasy. "A Game of Thrones" might be a success, but it's one that could prove difficult to duplicate, and may well be a fluke. Still, I wonder if movie studio executives are getting nervous that all this talent and good material keeps being grabbed by television now instead of film. When we have genre series like "True Blood," "The Walking Dead," and "A Game of Thrones" garnering so much goodwill from fans and acclaim from critics, you have to wonder. How long is it going to take before they realize that television is now not only a major competitor for big titles and franchises, but quickly becoming the more desirable option for many?

More to come soon. Next time I'll get into more story and character specifics.

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