When the book was released (1996) I was an immediate and huge fan. Since that time, I’ve been eagerly awaiting each subsequent book release and for the last year the planned HBO mini-series adaptation.
The series is a low-fantasy epic concerning a war fought in the fictional Seven Kingdoms and of impending additional calamities coming with the winter and the reemergence of dragons.
While there are many, many aspects of the book I enjoy the two most notable are the plot and characters. Unlike most epic fantasy the master plot for Game of Thrones is neither a Quest nor a Coming of Age story. Instead it is structured much more like Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The oncoming war, its executions and its denouement is examined from several different points of view that cross age groups and social class. In GoT, those POVs are mostly done by the 6 of the 8 members of the Stark family with two additional POV characters. (In future books of the series, the POV characters are added to and removed.)
While GoT isn’t as ambitious or well-execute as War and Peace it does add an additional hook to the plot by having more than two sides to the conflict. GoT has three active sides by the end of the book. By the end of the next book in the series there are at least 5.
The second is that the author writes complex characters. It would be easy to say he writes everyone with shades of grey, but that is inaccurate and boring. He does do the following:
- Even minor characters are rarely just stock characters. Each at least has their own motivation.
- There is a clear divide between the good guys and the bad guys.
- However, the good guys almost all have a very Shakespearean fatal flaw. Generally this flaw is a side effect of their greatest virtue.
- And the bad guys all have at least one admirable trait. Often this trait provides their motivation in their reprehensible deeds.
How is this series actually translating to the small screen? 5 episodes of the 10 episodes mini-series have now aired and approximately half the material in the book has been covered. In general, the mini has been very faithful in adapting the book, but this is not always the best approach. (Look at the failure of the Watchmen movie with its slavish devotion to the original text.)
GoT is tailor made for HBO adaptation. The complexity of the story is similar to other period stories the network has done like Rome and Deadwood. The book also has graphic language, shocking and sudden violence and a frank and vivid approach to sex. Unfortunately thee items, which set the book apart in print seem both exploitative on screen and imitative of previous HBO successes.
In the book, I find that the strength of the plot and characters shines through these lurid items (not that they bother me). It is an approach that is novel in epic fantasy. On screen, it seems anything but and an end unto themselves.
The two largest problems though are the huge breadth of the cast and the glacial progress of the plot. In the latest episode two major POV characters do not even appear. The series is doing its best to introduce the cast a few characters at a time. It took me three episodes to tell all the Starks (and Theon) apart. I’m not sure how people who are unfamiliar with the base material are coping. The progress of the plot is odd. It works fine in the book, but on TV I notice that half of it is over and the largest turning points have not occurred yet. There has been 5 hours of build up, but only a little payoff.
Those are three large criticisms, but I’d still say that overall I am well satisfied with the series. The latest episode introduced three major scenes which were not in the book and I was on the edge of my seat for them all. The scope of the production is impressive and surpasses many motion pictures. The acting is varied, but the performances by Lena Hedey, Sean Bean and Peter Dinklage are really incredible. And the two elements I like both about the source material are present and executed well in the series.
Like all HBO series, I only recommend it with caveats… it is for those who like that sort of thing. (except for the Wire – the Wire is great). But for those who do like the books or like the HBO period piece work like Deadwood or Rome, there is a lot here to enjoy.