Game of Thrones – A Reflective

The Iron ThroneYou may recall that I blogged six months ago at the precise moment when my squee for the proposed HBO adaptation of A Game of Thrones reached a level at which I felt I could say with conviction ‘This is going to be AWESOME’. Since the show started airing, I felt like I should blog about it, but didn’t feel I had much to say beyond ‘So, I was right, then’, which is both dull and off-puttingly self-satisfied. But now that it’s over I find that I do have some points of reflection that might be worth sharing, even if those points are still largely in the ‘Awesome, wasn’t it?’ spectrum.

First off, let’s just talk about what an incredible and inspiring achievement this is. It actually sort of feels like it marks a shifting point in the dynamic of how we view television and what we use it for. There have been other successful TV adaptations of books. Plenty of them. It’s not even HBO’s first. From that perspective, Game of Thrones is just riding the crest of the groundswell of book-to-TV adaptation that has been popularised by the success of such shows as Dexter and True Blood. We’re all familiar with the film adaptations of books that have gone horribly wrong because the plot was necessarily butchered to fit a 90-120min slot. It’s evident that TV executives have discovered the retrospectively obvious fact that a TV show offers the opportunity to preserve much more of the original material whilst capitalising on the interest of existing fans. On the other hand, it’s still rare to see a television show that sticks so faithfully to its source material. If there’s one comment people will have heard over and over again about this show from pre-existing fans of the books it’s their surprise and joy about how faithful it was.

Mr Darcy/Colin Firth in a wet shirt, having just emerged from a lake.

Mr Darcy in a wet shirt: This never happened in the book, it was just for cheap titillation to keep the women interested.

Now, again, this isn’t entirely original to Game of Thrones. We’re all quite familiar with successful mini-series adaptations, especially for historical novels. For the most accurate and enjoyable TV adaptation prior to Game of Thrones I probably would have pointed to the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice from the mid 1990s. (Not that it didn’t have its minor deviations.) On the other hand, Game of Thrones is a substantially longer book, and it’s probably a lot easier to make an accurate TV adaptation if you can use existing stately homes for your settings and don’t need to worry about the special effects necessary to represent dragons and walls of ice several hundred feet high. In other words, fantasy has not always fared quite so well, even in the mini-series. I’m still trying to apply sufficient brain bleach to forget Stephen King’s It.

Game of Thrones was an ambitious undertaking. It has more main characters than most TV shows would attempt to comfortably accomodate. Much of its tension centres around complex political situations in a world that isn’t our own, and can only loosely be said to call upon the Wars of the Roses for reference points. It jumps about to wildly different settings, from a far north that would place the Scotland-analog in the arctic circle to a distant south where the France-substitute looks like it might be in north Africa.* It’s violent, risque, and morally ambiguous. In short, it’s a lot for producers to take a gamble on, and many would have hauled on the reins for at least some of it. Admittedly, there is slightly less nudity in the show than in the book (no, really – they made the very wise decision of cutting the ‘Catelyn forgets she’s naked’ moment, for instance), but that’s about it. This was a fat book, and very, very little was cut from it. And it works.

I feel like this has opened the doors to other fantasy novel adaptations in a way we really haven’t seen before. I rather hope so. I have been eagerly eyeing my shelves, thinking of all that might be. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell anyone? Assassin’s Apprentice? Maybe even Perdido Street Station? It gives you hope for the mooted Dark Tower project, at the least, although the latest rumour-mill suggested it may be a no-go.

Not that every single thing was just how I pictured it. Ned Stark still wasn’t right, for me, although Sean Bean did a good job on the vision that was clearly handed to him by the producers, and it works as an alternate view that plays up the North/South divide. I was also not as inspired by Jon Snow as I had been in the books – the lad’s just not how I pictured him. A bit too old and stocky. But as he seems to be a firm favourite with my mates who hadn’t read the books, I guess he’s still working the required magic for new eyes. Overall, these are minor gripes in what was, in general, phenomenally appropriate casting.

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion LannisterI don’t think I can go any further without mentioning this fine figure of a man: Peter Dinklage. I stick to my original comments that he’s far too attractive to play the Imp as he is portrayed in the book, but I can’t honestly say I mind. And it’s not exactly a bad thing to challenge our stereotypical conceptions of male beauty by casting an attractive man to play a character with dwarfism. But enough about his looks. Although Tyrion Lannister was always a firm favourite of mine in the books, Dinklage undoubtedly adds an element of charisma that effortlessly makes this character centre-stage of any scene he’s in. There’s been a lot of noise in the blogosphere and twitterverse about him deserving an Emmy for his performance, and I can’t really help but agree.

Over and above Peter Dinklage as an actor, though, this is a great part. As a member of the most wealthy family in Westeros, Tyrion is uniquely placed, by virtue of his dwarfism, to commentate both from a position of education and privilege, and as an under-dog outsider figure to whom we can relate. These characteristics culminate delightfully in such moments as when he is able to both verbally and physically lay a smack-down on the crown prince, Joffrey – probably one of the most unlikable characters in literature. Apparently people like that sort of thing:

Jaime LannisterBut Tyrion isn’t the only stonkingly well-cast character. Much credit should be given to Nikolaj Coster, who plays Jaime Lannister. This is a difficult and subtle role to play. Jaime is one of the most complex and interesting characters I have ever encountered, not least because he initially struck me as unutterably shallow and despicable. One of the first things we see him do is an unspeakably horrible act, yet we are gradually brought to see that this is a character of many facets. His duality is neatly encapsulated by the nickname by which he is frequently insulted ‘Kingslayer’. He stabbed a king in the back. It casts him as traitorous, cowardly, and untrustworthy. He is almost universally despised… except by those who have fought with him. We see this in fleeting conversations long before we ever see him fight, and the build up to his demonstration of skill does not leave one disappointed in its climax. In his confrontation with Ned and Ned’s men one thing is clear: Ned is good, very good… but Jaime’s better. He is neither cowardly nor unskilled, and though he may have betrayed his king, he also killed a madman who had cruelly murdered innocents when no one else dared stand up against him. There’s a lot of complexity to convey, here, and we see little, in the first season that allows Jaime to show a more sympathetic side, yet I felt Nikolaj Coster achieved this nonetheless… without losing Jaime’s inherent insufferableness, either.

Daenerys TargaryenCredit is also due to Emlia Clarke. Daenerys Targaryen was probably my least favourite character in the books, as much of her role seemed to revolve around her use as an object of male gaze. However, despite the fact that I’m not as sold on her acting as I am by Peter Dinklage’s, say, I actually became involved in her story – even rooting for her and her rapist-cum-husband, Kharl Drogo.

Arya and Syrio water dancingBut the true joy was watching Arya flower into the beginnings of the forceful woman she will become. Miltos Yerolemou is fabulous as Arya’s ‘dancing master’, Syrio Forel, and Maisie Williams is just perfect as Arya. To the New York Times journalist who thought that women would only watch this for the sex, all I can say is that you clearly didn’t have enough role-models like Arya growing up. She’s awesome, and she’s still the sort of woman I want to be when I grow up.

I really could go on and on, but I suspect this review would lose all structure, so I’m going to finish on a note of fun: with the long break between now and season two under way it won’t be updating as often, but I still thoroughly recommend My Mom Watches Game of Thrones**, a comedy blog about a comedienne’s conversations with her mum about Game of Thrones. That link is to the beginning. Like many comedy things, some of the jokes build over time, and you’ve plenty of time to catch up between now and the new season.

And now it really is time to sign off. Long days and pleasant nights…

*As mentioned in my previous post, Game of Thrones follows a familiar tradition in western epic fantasy of being set is a world whose countries look suspiciously like the British Isles and Northern Europe. Moreover, there are more direct ties to British history as it relates to the Wars of the Roses, with the Lannisters making a fairly clear analog to the house of Lancaster, the Starks an analog for the house of York, King’s Landing a fantasy version of London, Dorne practically a portmanteau of Devon and Cornwall, and so forth.

** It has come to my attention that, because Tumblr is an unfathomable mystery to me, there is no stable link to the first page of the ‘My Mom Watches Game of Thrones’ blog – the page number increases as posts are added. If anyone is aware of how to solve this dilemma I will happily fix the link. In the mean time, if you click the link and scroll to the bottom and find a ‘previous page’ button… click that. In the mean time I will try to correct the issue if I spot that the page number has increased, but otherwise, you know… sadly, I’m still mortal.

Reviewing Through the Time Machine: Pushing Daisies

Ned and Chuck - Pushing DaisiesTitle: Pushing Daisies
Original Run: 2007-2009
Starring: Lee Pace, Anna Friel, Chi McBride and Kristin Chenoweth
Created By: Bryan Fuller
Genre: Comedy-drama, Fantasy, Mystery, Quirky/Odd-ball
Awards: Nominated for 57 awards, including 17 Emmy Awards; Won 18 Awards, including 7 Emmy Awards
Price: Season 1: £5.99; Season 2: £9.99 (Amazon prices at time of posting)

The most beautiful, funny, poignant, stylish, and original television show ever to get axed.

Premise: Ned has an unusual gift: he can touch dead things and bring them back to life… but only for a minute. If he touches them again, they go back to being dead, but if he leaves them alive for more than a minute then something else has to die in their place. Ned discovered his power as a child when his dog Digby was run-over, and learned the limitations on his power when his mother died, suddenly. He restored her to life, but at the cost of his childhood sweetheart’s father, who died in her place. He grows up to become a pie-maker who avoids close personal attachments, for fear of what he might do if someone he loved were to die. A private detective named Emerson Cod discovered his power, and now Ned works with Emerson to solve mysteries by waking the dead (but only for a minute!) and asking them who killed them.

But when Chuck (aka Charlotte Charles), dies in mysterious circumstances, Ned cannot stop himself from bringing her back, for good. As Chuck helps Ned and Emerson investigate her own murder, she and Ned renew their affections for one another; the only trouble is… they can never touch. Or Chuck will die again, this time, forever.

Why you should love it

Pushing Daisies achieves an unlikely, but perfect balance. Its bright colours, cartoonishly surreal style, and impossibly sweet hopeless romance could very easily be sickeningly saccharine, and yet it is not. Similarly, the morbid subject matter could just as easily be too grim and depressing for a light-hearted comedy. However, together, each provides a perfect counter-balance to the other, producing something so quirky and wonderful and dark and heart-warming that it is like no other show I have ever seen.

Every element is in harmony. The casting could not be more spot on. Lee Pace is an inspired choice for the sweet, physically awkward Ned. Anna Friel positively glows off the screen as Chuck, effusing exactly the renewed zest for life needed for a woman who spent most of her life cooped up looking after her shut-in aunts before being killed on the cruise that was her first independent venture into the world. Kristin Chenoweth deserves every bit of her two Emmy Awards for her portrayal of Olive, the diminutive waitress who has long pined for Ned, and the foot and a half difference in height between them provides the perfect opportunity for some sweet and well-played physical comedy. Chi McBride’s sarcastic but good-hearted Emerson Cod grounds the show with a dash of practicality.

Much credit should be given to the costume and visual design, which perfectly complements the vibrant surreality of the show. This is probably the most stylish television programme I have ever seen (although Mad Men offers some stiff competition from a different genre). Accents of 1950s and 60s fashion are mixed with something thoroughly modern in joyfully bright colours that speak of the fairytale undertones whilst lightening the darker elements of the show.

Most of all, the fast-paced and snappy script is both witty and poignant as it brings the characters to life, exploring their unusual issues and unveiling the weekly mystery they must solve.

This show was always going to hit a sweet spot for me. The Ned/Chuck romance with its associated angst is just exactly the sort of thing I like to curl up with, and you guys know how I adore someone with superpowers who is forced to hide his ability. But Pushing Daisies is never weighed down by its angsty elements; it soars with them to new heights, and somehow always leaves you at the end of the episode somehow feeling better about the world. Because even if their world is not our world, wonderful men and women alive in our world dreamt it up.

Moreover, it’s a wonderful programme for race and gender, for the most part because it doesn’t make a fuss of them. Although the two leads are white, it is otherwise unusually racially diverse for an American TV show, Emerson Cod being just one of several black men and women, and although he’s the only non-white show regular, many of the guest stars are Asian or latino. There are also more female regulars than men, which is very unusual, and although there are romantic plotlines, Pushing Daisies passes the Bechdel Test so well it’s not even an issue. Yet this is not a show with any overt feminist themes, it’s just a show that thinks about people in terms of their characters first, not their genders.

It is a true loss to the world that this show was cut short. Its ample awards demonstrate that the brevity of its run is not a reflection of its quality or critical reception. It was just a victim of the writer’s strike. Its first season was cut in half, and it wasn’t able to build on its early success to develop the following that would ensure viewing figures to satisfy the networks in its second season. This is nothing but an act of short-sightedness on the part of executives who dismissed the shows clear potential for future growth on the basis of present figures at a very difficult time. Not that I’m bitter, or anything.

Anyway. If there’s one new TV show you want to try this year, make it this one. Just get it. £6 will get you the whole first season. You could spend more at the cinema getting a headache from a poorly made 3D film. And if you’re worried about the inevitable lack of resolution for a show cut short: Bryan Fuller has been working on a comic to tie up the story.

Besides, Lee Pace is very pretty.

Why I’ll be watching HBO’s adaptation of A Game of Thrones (and why you should, too!)

This would be the trailer that finally filled me with sufficient squee for blogging:

I guess there’s two questions, here: Why HBO, and why A Game of Thrones? The first is easy, but better explained with reference to the second, so I’ll leave it to last. So:

Why A Game of Thrones?

A Game of Thrones is the first book in a series by George R R Martin called A Song of Ice and Fire. A very long series, and one that isn’t finished yet. Some fans are annoyed about this, but it’s an emotion I’ve never quite understood. But then, my first and longest book obsession was Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, which took 26 years to complete. I’m used to waiting. I actually quite like it.

But don’t get me wrong, I understand why someone might be impatient and champing on the bit to get the latest issue, I just don’t get the anger and entitlement some fans seem to feel about this series. The entitlement that led Neil Gaiman to respond: ‘George R R Martin is not your bitch‘; thus spawning the awesome John Anealio song titled after the rant.

I understand the passion, though, and here’s why:

1. It’s a really cool setting. Yes, yes, it’s a fantasy version of the wars of the roses, and making your world an alternate Britain is not new. But I like this one a lot. And it’s not just a fantasy Britain. It’s a world where seasons last years, and winter is so long that it’s a whole new kind of deadly. If you don’t stock up on food when the weather is mild, you’re really in trouble. There’s something that almost feels SF about this: what if there was a world where the seasons lasted for years? Reminds me of Nightfall, although I never did finish reading that one.

And yet, on the fantasy hand, there’s the Wall. A vast structure of ice, defended by the Watch. The Wall marks the border between the Seven Kingdoms and the frozen lands to the north, inhabited by the ghostly and feared Others.

2. The politics. I wish I could write politics like this. I like writing books with a lot of characters to juggle who inter-relate in interesting ways, but it takes real skill to juggle political intrigue on such a vast scale in a way that doesn’t abstract from the up-close-and-personal grit of the bloody, cunning, carefully planned, stupid, accidental, and tragic acts that make it up. George R R Martin is truly a master of this, and one of the ways you can tell is that you really need to step back and think to realise how clever it all is. For me, that’s the real way to tell a masterpiece: it was such a good story that you didn’t even have to notice how well-crafted it was to get sucked in.

3. Relatedly: the violence. I once got a puzzled look from someone who had read and liked these books because I said I loved how realistic they were. I think he was making the mistake of thinking that a fantasy novel can’t be realistic simply because it is fantasy. But A Game of Thrones is realistic, especially in the brutality and starkness of the violence. I have no clue if the descriptions of armour and tourneys and whathaveyou in any way reflects genuine medieval practices (if you know, please enlighten me!) but the descriptions of the violence are grim and convincing and gripping.

4. The way the above are woven together. Amidst the violence and grabs for power and personal tragedies there’s the ominous shadow of the North, and the fact that Winter Is Coming. In the game of thrones, the warring houses forget about the Others, the Wall, and winter. And slowly, slowly one is brought to feel the stupidity and futility of these violent struggles in the face of the more terrible danger that is coming. I imagine a million different analogies could be drawn, here. Perhaps: our own wars and petty squabbles in the face of climate change. But I think there’s a broader point about games of power and how they distract us from what’s really important in our lives, whether on the large or the small scale. The sheer violence of the case in point underlines how horrible that can be if you ever stop and think about what matters, and what you’ve been doing instead of doing what matters.

5. The characters. This man can write a character. Oh boy, can he. And a character progression. If you had told me I would grow to like Jaime Lannister when I first opened these books I would have been severely sceptical. If you’d told me he would have become one of my favourite characters, and one of the ones for which I had most sympathy, I would have laughed in your face. But it’s true. Martin wove an incredible about face in my emotions, in part by revealing more of the character and that character’s past, and in part by growing the character. Masterfully done.

And then there are the Starks. The Starks are sort of Our Heroes (although in a tarnished sort of way, and they’re certainly not the sole protagonists). Ned Stark is about as noble and moral as you can get. His family is rich and interesting. They maintain a moral core even when divided, physically and by personal differences. It is their strength and their weakness. This is a book that looks at good and bad from all sides. Sometimes the best thing to do is not what one would think was categorically right, and yet, it is not purely and simply a critique of absolutist morality. A Game of Thrones provides no answers. I like that.

But it’s not all perfect. There are two significant defects.

The first is that it takes an age to get going. Martin is building a vast and interesting world, and this slows the pace considerably at the start. I was persuaded to keep going by the friend who leant me the first book. I’m grateful to him for that. If I’d just picked it up off the shelf or the library, I probably would have given up, but it is worth it.

The second is the female nudity. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have no problem with nekkidness, or women getting nekkid, but it’s pretty comical how it’s represented at times. You can play ‘Count the number of women who conveniently forget that they are naked’. One of them is Lady Stark. I hate to break it to you, fellas, but I’ve never once forgotten that I was naked. It’s not just an excuse for cheap titillation, it’s so ridiculous it throws me out of my immersion every time. There’s also the ‘How convenient, in this foreign land we will show how different the customs are by having one of them be wandering around with one boob hanging out’. Again, customs of nakedness and toplessness can be done plausibly (See Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Fate and Ellianna’s coming of age ceremony for how this can be done well), but in Martin it simply doesn’t wash for me. I’m not against a little voyeurism, but if it’s simply for its own sake it only detracts (unless you’re writing porn).

That said, many of the sex scenes (and there are quite a few) are well written and relevant to the plot. All in all these are minor defects that mar an otherwise excellent work – nothing that stops me waiting anxiously for the next instalment.

So, that’s why A Game of Thrones. Why HBO?

A much shorter answer. If you’ve seen Rome you know what HBO can do with gritty realism in violence and a rich historical(ish) setting with deep and interesting characters and convoluted politics. I mourned the end of Rome precisely up to the point that I heard they were doing A Game of Thrones. Seeing what they could do with fantasy in True Blood was simply icing on the cake. I trust these people with characters, with setting, with realism, and with fantasy.

The trailers so far have been pretty uninformative. I was perhaps the only person on the Internet not thrilled to hear that Sean Bean was playing Ned Stark. With all the respect in the world, I just think he’s wrong for the part. Too grizzled and too gruff, if the trailers and stubble are any evidence. But the trailer I’ve linked to above is much more promising. A lot of the characters (the little we see of them) look right. I’m particularly keen to see what they do with Tyrion Lannister – one of the most interesting of a very interesting bunch. Even if he is too young and good-looking by half. And they have the feel right. They have the throne room right. And they have the throne of swords completely right, too.

I’m psyched. I think it’s going to be great. If you haven’t read the books, well, of course I recommend reading them first, but I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t make it very far into the first one. If you don’t get on with the books, I suspect trying the series first instead might help them to grow on you.

And yes, I’m going to stick my neck out there and say that on the scanty evidence of a few cryptic trailers and my knowledge that HBO is in charge. That’s how good I feel about it right now. If I’m wrong, I guess I get to blog loudly about it later.