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Review: With 'Game of Thrones,' HBO Attempts to Live the Fantasy

by Maureen Ryan, posted Apr 13th 2011 11:15AM
Boldness is a recurring theme in the works of fantasy writer George R.R. Martin, the author of the novel on which the new drama 'Game of Thrones' (9PM ET Sunday, HBO) is based. Time and again in his epic yet emotionally intimate tale of intrigue and war, individuals facing almost hopeless odds stand up for their beliefs and, despite their flaws and fears, show admirable courage.

As a storyteller, Martin is similarly resolute: If a setback or a death makes sense within the context of his tale, he doesn't hesitate to unleash it and, true to his focus on the story's wonderfully complicated characters, he also depicts the full range of implications that follow every act of violence (and every altruistic impulse).

As a television series, 'Game of Thrones' is frequently handsome, even gorgeous at times. This tale of knights, kings and spectral threats is, in general, well acted by an able cast, and once the medieval-flavored story of courtly maneuvering and moral ambiguity gets into gear midway through the season, much of what works about the novels begins to work in the show.

Yet at various junctures, the TV show lacks the boldness on display in Martin's fiction.

The show is faithful to the events of the novel, but, especially in the early going, it's only fitfully faithful to the novel's emotional depth and thematic complexity.

While a desire to diligently depict the incidents in Martin's 807-page book (the first in his seven-novel 'Song of Ice and Fire' series) is admirable and even understandable, 'Game of Thrones' needed to be shaped more aggressively to fit the needs of a television drama. Each hour needed to have its own beginning, middle and end; more elements should have been rearranged, given additional context, amplified or eliminated.

For the series to inspire loyalty from both Martin fans and from newcomers alike, the characters need to come alive much earlier and much more consistently than they do in the first few episodes of the show. Many articles have been written about fans' loyalty to Martin's books, and that's an entirely real phenomenon and certainly the epic story itself is part of the reason for that devotion. But in my view, 'Song of Ice and Fire' fans are so loyal because they love the people in this world ferociously. The excellent cast does what it can with the scenes they're given, but those scenes are sometimes stilted and, at times, strand characters in choppy stories that don't feel part of a cohesive whole.

In the main, the show tends to follow Martin's narrative closely, which results in a lot of jumping around to different locations and story lines. Martin's first book is told from the perspectives of eight different characters, and the writer gives readers the kind of contextual information and personal and political histories that help them see how each new section of the tapestry fits into the whole.

Here, the constant shifting of venues and characters regularly impedes the narrative drive, resulting in awkward pacing, and viewers don't always get the context they need in order to invest in what's happening. When, later in the season, 'Game of Thrones' spends the majority of an episode at one or two locations and allows viewers to get to know certain individuals and places more thoroughly, it's a more satisfying experience.

Some aspects of the show work well, others are less graceful. The classic simplicity of the coming-of-age tale told at the Wall -- a towering mass of ice meant to protect the kingdom of Westeros from uncivilized "wildlings" and worse things -- is wonderful to see. It's the strongest part of the drama. Events at King's Landing, the seat of the restive King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) take much longer to become interesting, given that the setup for that part of the tale is time-consuming and often tedious.

HBO sent critics six episodes of the 10-episode season, and while the first episode is a solid and visually rich scene-setter for the tale to come, there's a lot of dry, sometimes clunky exposition to get through before the story really gets going in the fifth episode, which is far and away the best hour of 'Game of Thrones' I've seen. It's not that there aren't good scenes before the fifth episode, but it takes that long for the narrative to have consistent forward momentum and for the story as a whole to begin to cohere.

Several scenes in that fifth episode are exceptionally well written and acted, but one in particular captures the essence of what inspires such loyalty to Martin's novels. In the scene, two weary characters discuss how their expedient personal choices years ago rippled outward and ultimately had a disastrous effect not only on their lives but on the fate of a troubled kingdom. The scene is funny, heartbreaking and full of the kind of rueful honesty and regret that accompany middle age.

That scene is not in the book, but it perfectly captures many of the themes of Martin's novels, which aren't just about battles among kings and princes but about how personal choices sometimes intersect with harsh political realities in unexpected ways. Will 'Game of Thrones' do for fantasy what 'Deadwood' did for Westerns or 'The Sopranos' did for gangster stories? No, not at this point, but thoughtful scenes like that demonstrate the kind of potential residing at the heart of this complex tale about the cost and necessity of hope.

It's not that the creators of the show, executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, have to depart from Martin's text to create great drama -- far from it. When good, meaty scenes from the book are adapted gracefully, they can be quite satisfying indeed. For instance, scenes featuring Arya Stark, the feisty daughter of nobleman Eddard Stark, are generally wonderful. Maisie Williams, who plays young Arya, is a terrific find.

But scenes from the book are not always translated to the screen smoothly, and, in any event, to fit Martin's dense tale into 10 hours of television, the show needs more of what I came to call "shorthand" scenes: Moments that capture the themes of the story, deepen the portraits on the people in the tale and shed light on their desires while subtly introducing new information. Several scenes like that were invented for the TV show, and they're generally inspired and interesting.

But too often, especially in the early going, characters stand around talking about what has happened in the past, what might be happening in the present and what could happen in the future. It's admirable that 'Game of Thrones' wants to make sure that no viewer is left behind -- the world of Westeros is full of complicated histories and alliances -- but the makers of this drama needed to choose between being faithful to the incidents of the books and depicting complicated people in dramatically compelling situations. The latter priority gets short shrift more than I'd like, though in the fifth and sixth episodes, the story begins to deepen in promising ways.

At that point, Eddard Stark (Sean Bean), an old friend of King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), becomes hopelessly enmeshed in various maneuverings among the aristocracy, and Stark's wife, Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), has her hands full dealing with various crises resulting from incidents at their castle, Winterfell. Both Starks have to contend with members of the rich, powerful Lannister family, which includes the king's wife, Cersei (Lena Headey), and her siblings Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage).

When they're given scenes that are not exposition dressed up as dialogue -- and even when they are -- these actors are very good, as are Emilia Clarke, Harry Lloyd and Jason Momoa, who play a far-off princess, her ambitious brother and a ruthless warrior. The actors playing young characters are also excellent; Williams, Isaac Hempstead-Wright as her brother Bran and Kit Harington as Jon Snow, Stark's bastard son, are particularly impressive.

Snow, like his father, is a man of few words and much heart; Harington effortlessly makes you understand how this young man's ambiguous status as the not-quite-noble offspring of a nobleman has had a profound effect on his life. And it's not possible to overstate Bean's importance to this show -- Ned Stark's goodness, rough intelligence and quiet strength anchor the proceedings in countless necessary ways.

The series contains the kind of gorgeous vistas and spine-chilling moments you'd expect from a fantasy epic, but there are also a few aesthetic choices that didn't work for me (I'll write about various likes and dislikes in more depth in my weekly reviews). And there's one major disappointment among the cast. Peter Dinklage is an undoubtedly talented actor, but the haughty English accent he gives Tyrion is so overdone and the character's enunciation is so over-the-top that it is, at times, distracting.

At this point, if you've gotten this far, you're probably wondering whether you should watch this show or not. Yes, you should watch it. You'll know within the first few episodes whether it's for you, and if you stick with the drama through the middle of the season, you may find the tale growing on you.

At this stage, 'Game of Thrones' is not everything it could be, and if there are future seasons, the producers will have to be much more bold if they don't want their version of Martin's ever-expanding tale to become unwieldy, but there are several things to recommend HBO's rendition of the story, most notably the cast and many of the visuals. If nothing else, it's going to look great in HDTV.

For the Metacritic devotees among you, here's how I'd rate the first six episodes (each score is out of 100): episode 1: 80; episode 2: 50 (not the show's finest hour by a long shot); episode 3: 60 (mainly due to the final scene); episode 4: 70 (mainly due to the terrific Wall scenes); episode 5: 90 (exceptional work by the cast, excellent writing); episode 6: 70.

The show's clever and informative opening credits get a score of 100. I hope to write more on that later.

Note: No spoilers in comments. Please. Most people who'll be checking out the show have never read the books, so please don't refer to plot information that could impede their enjoyment of the show.

For a number of recent features on 'Game of Thrones,' including interviews with Benioff, Weiss and Martin, look here. A podcast on the show featuring the editors of Westeros and Winter is Coming is here.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.


Watch clips from the 'Game of Thrones' premiere

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Brad l

Good call on Peter Dinklage... Too bad is the only character nominated for an Emmy.

August 29 2011 at 11:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
qewrwqerqerqwere

And btw, Peter Dinklage is one of the best actors on this show - just because you feel threatened by his accent doesn't mean its bad (and btw, the other comment was meant to go on review of episode 4)

May 17 2011 at 6:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
qewrwqerqerqwere

So another who has read the books and now whine about how its not the books, and how there is too much exposition. Its only exposition if you haven't read the damn books! Its interesting stories from interesting people. If you've read the damn books then stay way from the series!

May 17 2011 at 6:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jesus

Wow was all I could say after watching the first episode of "Game of Thrones", this show was epic. I will definitely watch the other 9 episodes. I have and work at DISH Network and was able to find more information on this show at DISHOnline.com. From there you can watch the making of "Game of Thrones" or check on other shows you may like.

April 22 2011 at 11:19 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Jenny

I read some of the comments below, and meow, talk about opinionated people! But aren't we all?
I liked Dinklage's portrayal, and didn't have an issue with his tone or speaking. I always took him to be the smartest of the Lannister kids, since he read so many books. Yes, Dinklage is easier on the eyes than how I imagined Tyrion looked while reading the books, but adaptions are not always going to match our imaginations. I'm willing to look past those imperfections, especially from a project that is a grand as this one.

Many people keep referring to Camelot, and I must say Episode 1 was great Episode 2 made me stop watching the show. However, comparing these two shows, Camelot and GOT, is not apples to apples. I don't think you were but others are, and it's not quite right. It's a scale of 100.

As for the sex and women aspect, that many people are discussing, women were treated like chattal and abused throughout history. I saw nothing gratuitus or porn like. Dothraki women apparently like sex, so get over it.
I look forward to seeing how my views of the next several episodes compare to this post, and your weekly post.
Thanks for the honesty, and though we may not agree, healthy debate is always a good thing :)

April 22 2011 at 11:20 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
applelinda

Game of Thrones is nothing more than porn. It's demeaning to women. No wonder they call it fantasy. It's fantasy for men. HBO should be ashamed. Even the Playboy channel is not so violently graphic.

April 20 2011 at 11:22 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Marlboroliteman

Your review was longer than the freakin novel the show is based on.
I give the show a 90 and your review a 10.

April 18 2011 at 7:52 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Craig Ranapia

If anything, it seems they've been TOO respectful of the source material. Now, before GRRM fans start dreaming about putting my head on a pike stick with me. I'm a huge fan of James Ellroy and Patrick O'Brian's Aubery-Maturin books, so I'm outraged that the film adaptations of LA Confidential and Master & Commander took, to put it politely, considerable liberties, right?

Not at all -- much as I love the books, the screenwriters on both projects knew that what works brilliantly on the page doesn't necessarily cross over to the screen (big or small). Curtis Hanson and Peter Weir made gorgeous movies that honoured the sprits of two equally fine writers without making a fetish of the text.

April 15 2011 at 6:04 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Craig Ranapia's comment
ldr

Interesting. I haven't got around to reading Ellroy or o"Brian yet (both are on my to-read list though, just waiting for the right time) but both adaptations made for truly brilliant movies that can easily be watched dozens of times. Surely that makes up for any liberties?

April 18 2011 at 1:57 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Who Is Jacopo Belbo?

so wait. your metacritic score for Camelot was 60 and your score for GoT is 70? are you seriously saying that GoT is only marginally better than Camelot?

here is my concern Mo, you and Ryan both tend to go out of your way oftentimes to find the "good' in a show that is really pretty bad. Camelot is a case in point. or you tend to gloss over shows that have a torrid beginning (Spartacus) and eventually turn it around into fairly decent shows. but you both seem to be grading GoT on some sort of curve or holding it to a higher standard.

now your review is less guilty of this as is Ryan's but you spend at least half your time talking about what you don't like/issues/criticisms of the show (and Ryan spends about 70-80% of his review doing so) and yet you both want people to think you "like" the show and that it is "good just not great". um, call me simple but i'd think that a show you liked and that was good would spend most of the time talking about what was good and what you liked and a small amount of time talking about issues you had or areas for improvement (and again Ryan is more guilty of this than you).

again, i suspect it is in both of your natures to be a tad contrarian or to overcompensate against the grain. when people are being harsh on a poor show you'll both often make great efforts to say nice things in your podcasts about it or couch your criticisms lightly and try to focus on the few decent elements (Camelot is a good example of this. Truly, thru 3 episodes the show is a mess, cheesy, not that great looking and the acting....do mostly to a wretched script....is often painful. and i wanted to like the show because i love Eva Green. yet you both looked for plenty of nice things to say about the show) and i suspect that the opposite is also true. that when a show is getting uber buzz and acclaim your tendency might be to err on the side of being critical so as not to be seen as just piling on with the praise or joining the train of love without being properly critical.

basically the fact you can give Camelot a 60 and GoT a 70 means either you are schizoprehnic, i need to really worry about GoT ******* or you and Ryan, for whatever reason, have felt the need to hold GoT to some higher standard and judge it more harshly to keep your critic cred or just because of your rebellious/contrarian natures (and as a rebellious contrarian myself i can empathize).

so i guess my question is, is GoT really only marginally better than Camelot as your and Ryan's reviews for both would indicate?

April 15 2011 at 11:28 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Who Is Jacopo Belbo?'s comment
Mo Ryan

I judge each show on its own terms. And I purposely did not read any other reviews before I wrote and published my own GoT review. As is my habit, I went out of my way not to be influenced by any other critics.

My only goal, ever, is to offer my true and honest assessment about the show I'm reviewing at that moment in time. At no point have I ever had any other agenda. And I don't think there's much point in saying "this is better than that" or "how much better is this compared to that." Each show deserves to be judged on its own terms. And having seen six episodes of GoT, this is my assessment.

April 15 2011 at 4:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Mo Ryan's comment
Who Is Jacopo Belbo?

it is pretty clear you don't "judge each show on its own terms". it is obvious from listening to your podcasts and reading your reviews you often try to find the "bright side" of shows that are mediocre to bad (like Camelot). and from you GoT review it is obvious you hold some shows up to a higher standard than others. it is human nature and not really a surprise but to not admit it seems kind of senseless.

nobody is saying you need to compare one show to another. but you review a number of shows so your overall assessment/tone and metacritic score for one show can and rightfully should be held up to your others.

so your assessment, taken in the context of all of your other reviews (not a comparison up front but after the fact) is that this show is marginally better than Camelot? that is where you want to stand?

for now i cannot really object because i have only seen Camelot but if GoT is only marginally better than Camelot i am going to be one peeved ASoIaF fan because Camelot has very few redeeming qualities and for also being a show in a premium cable channel is pretty poor in production quality, writing, acting and general tone (caught between trying to be "light" fantasy and "grim" fantasy and failing at both).

just a note. i am somebody who desperately wanted to like Camelot. after one episode i told myself "remember Spartacus sucked for the first 4 episodes too". i adore Eva Green and wish she had been cast in GoT (even moreso now seeing how wretched Camelot is, poor girl). but even in all of my Eva Green crushfest i couldn't bring myself to honestly say Camelot is anything other than Merlin with some boobs and far worse overacting and completely unself-aware of how cheesy it unintentionally is.

April 15 2011 at 7:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down
mallie888

GRMM is probably one of my favorite authors. The series grabbed me from the first book and I've eagerly awaited each one after that. I know Martin must get tired of fans dogging him for more but it's hard not to anticipate the next story. I can't wait to see the series. I know there's so many stories he could spin off ... just the adventures of Rickon and Bran would make a whole new series.

April 14 2011 at 5:39 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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