The World in the Satin Bag has moved to my new website.  If you want to see what I'm up to, head on over there!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Game of Thrones: Episode One ("Winter is Coming")

I've been cautiously anticipating the HBO adaptation of George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones for a while.  My ex and one of my friends tried to get me to read the first book in the series, but for whatever reason I couldn't get into it.  That negative experience, however, didn't shake my anticipation, in part because HBO had previously adapted two historical products (Band of Brothers and The Pacific), both of which became two of my favorite TV shows of all time (granted, those shows are based on real-world events).  Needless to say:  HBO has a track record of producing good stuff.

Episode One ("Winter is Coming") has the toughest job of any episode in the series.  It not only has to set the foundations for the tone of the entire series, but it also has to establish the relevant characters, plot points, and so on which will remain central to the progression of the story.  "Winter is Coming" does so in expert fashion, opening with a creepy prologue in the woods beyond
the Wall -- a scene that is relatively faithful to the book. If any scene in the first episode were to tell you that HBO was serious about A Game of Thrones, it would be these opening moments.  The White Walkers are terrifying, slipping through the woods beyond the Wall with an ease that reminds one of an horror movie (a good horror movie).  The music, too, highlights the tension, and the scenes following the credits further establish the tone of HBO's adaptation.  Justice is delivered to deserters with apprehension written on Eddard Stark's face, direwolves are discovered in the woods -- an omen for a dark time to come -- the Hand of the King is dead and the Lannisters are plotting, and children of dead kings are rising to retake the thrown that was once theirs.  This is no light-hearted fantasy, to which fans of the books can well attest; HBO is taking the source material seriously for what it is:  a sprawling, epic fantasy, deeply political, bloody, and medieval.
The show's heavy budget, of course, makes it easier to establish the tone of the series, since it allows for well-crafted sets and beautiful visuals.  As important as it is for any show to have good acting, a solid story, and so on, it is just as important for a fantasy production like A Game of Thrones to be visually arresting.  It is perhaps prudent that the series is being adapted now rather than ten years ago.  Budgets are understandably larger, HBO is more firmly established as a producer of quality television programs, and the technology is (more or less) adequate to the task of producing visuals which television budgetary constraints typically cannot produce using real sets.  For the most part, "Winter is Coming" functions well within what financial constraints still exist and exceeds where such constraints are less relevant.  The costumes are gritty or extravagant enough to feel real within the world being set up and the castles and cityscapes (or townscapes, perhaps) are well designed and used sparsely, but still give a sense that Westeros and its outlying regions are real places.  This coupled with the tone makes it easier, I think, for a fantasy fan such as myself to suspend disbelief.
The perfect setting of tone is also enhanced by an excellent cast, all of which, thus far, are well chosen for their roles.  There are no poor choices here, whether members of the Stark family, the Lannisters, or even the last of the Targaryen's.  Sean Bean (Eddard Stark) and Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen), however, are the standouts here.  Both give performances that are emotionally charged and, for lack of a better word, "deep."  It's not just how they deliver their lines -- fluidly and with precision -- but more particularly in how one can see the emotions, history, and thoughts painted on their faces and buried in their body language.  Other actors pull this off too, sometimes out of necessity, but it is only Bean and Clarke, in my opinion, who do so continuously by giving performances that will hopefully be given recognition when the awards season rolls around.
Having lofted high praise at the production values of the show, however, I do want to point out the only significant issue I had with "Winter is Coming."  Pacing.  The episode shifts forward in time quite unexpectedly, often with the direwolves as the only barometer for determining how much time has passed.  The direwolves, however, are poor barometers, particularly since Catelyn Stark reminds us that they grow ever so fast, but never explains what that means.  How fast?  Twice as fast as normal dogs?  Three times as fast?  How long has it been since the announcement of the King's pending arrival in the previous scene to his actual arrival?  A day?  A week?  A month?  I have no doubt that many viewers don't care about these details, but I found myself being jarred from the story, which is never a good thing.  That said, the pacing seems less a problem now than it was weeks ago.  Perhaps this is so because I've come to love the series, having stuck with it through the second episode (which I think is one of the strongest of the series thus far), but I also think this is because I have seen "Winter is Coming" again and begun reading A Game of Thrones.
One of the final points that needs being made is to do with the issue of adaptation.  The writers must constantly work to maintain the delicate balance between being faithful to the source material and trying to adapt it to a visual medium.  "Winter is Coming" is relatively faithful to the book in part because the beginning of the book doesn't require much in the way of fiddling.  Other sections of A Game of Thrones will certainly require more trimming and narrative manipulation, but the first chunk which forms "Winter is Coming" is relatively straightforward (and it ends on one hell of a cliffhanger, by the way).  The only diversions seemed logical to me, such as the additional scenes with Tyrion Lannister, which go a long way to demonstrating who he is as a person -- an act that would be impossible to do adequately with nothing more than words (yes, even the famed "show, don't tell" rule applies to the visual medium, as odd as that might sound).  The rest of the episode, however, is practically identical to the book, with little pieces trimmed here or there and scenes cut back to give the audience the "idea" rather than banging us over the head with it.  Future episodes will likely fair less favorable in this department.

Overall, I'd say this is a good start for a series.  I suspect fantasy fans will love it to death, especially if they're GRRM devotees.  Even non-fantasy fans might find something fascinating in this show.  So much of HBO's A Game of Thrones is devoted to the characters and the politics surrounding them.  There is little magic or silly swordplay (serious swordplay, of course, is welcome) or fantastic creatures here (with the exception of the White Walkers who live beyond the wall, who may or may not be as fantastic as they seem (we're never quite sure of it), or the dragon eggs, which only remind us that dragons used to live in Westeros, but have perhaps gone the way of the dinosaur -- a very big perhaps, I am told).  There's nothing wrong with fantastic creatures and magic, but that's not the kind of story being told here, and I suspect that anyone willing to set aside their anti-fantasy attitude long enough to see what is being done with A Game of Thrones may find that they actually like HBO's adaptation.  Then again, such folks may not be inclined towards an HBO series that fulfills an HBO standard:  blood and sex, both of which are restrained, but still very much present.

If you haven't started watching HBO's A Game of Thrones, you should, particularly if you're a fan of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings or Martin's book.  The show may not be perfect (as my reviews of later episodes will make clear), but it is the kind of show fantasy fans should rejoice to see hit the tiny screen.

Directing: 4.5/5
Cast: 5/5
Writing: 3.75/5
Visuals: 4.5/5
Adaptation: 5/5
Overall: 4.55/5

(More reviews:  Episode TwoEpisode Three; Episode FourEpisode Five; Episode SixEpisode Seven; and Episodes Eight through Ten.)

P.S.:  I actually began reading the book again after seeing the first two episodes.  The verdict so far?  Love it.  That is all.

Related Posts by Categories

Widget by Hoctro | Jack Book

1 comment:

  1. I would have to say that the show getting you to read the book series is one of my top ten favorite things about what HBO has done. Or ... well, actually ... top twenty favorite things? Top fifty? Well, it's up there.

    I've never seen The Pacific or Band of Brothers, but maybe I will now. I haven't grown to distrust your TV recommendations yet. But mostly, The Wire built HBO's track record for me. The Wire alone is pretty much good enough to make me watch anything HBO ever.

    There's not much for me to comment on for this review. I loved the first episode, of course, but I'm a GRRM convert already, so I'm more interested in the opinions of people who've never read GRRM at all, because the show will rise or fall based on their interest and subscriptions and DVD-buying and ... okay, I won't worry about that for now.

    I originally had complaints about the White Walker scene not being scary enough, but then I realized that was mostly because I was too giddy with excitement to be scared.

    Let's see ... in answer to your question about how much time passed, I'm pretty sure Cersei tossed in a "we've been riding for a month, my love" line when they arrived in Winterfell after the time jump, but of course, it was one line, and that was probably a hit or miss. Pacing is definitely my biggest problem with the series so far, more than the sexposition.

    I look forward to reading the rest of your reviews, although I don't know how much I can debate with you on anything when my justifications are all spoilerific. I'll just pretend that you'll some day come around to my side.