Thursday, June 23, 2011

Game of Thrones Review: New and Improved?

"Why does this keep happening to me?"

There have been numerous great books (and even mediocre books) made into great movies over the years. In my life, however, I have only seen one film that successfully managed to capture a book both in spirit and in fact.  That film, Lonesome Dove, a mini-series made from the book of the same name by Larry McMurtry, took liberties with its source material, as every filmed adaption must, but it was, by and large, eminently faithful to the text from which it came.  A great number of scenes were transferred from page to screen mostly intact, while at the same time the spirit and character (and characters) of the story were exponentially increased simply by the seemingly simple task of thoughtful and talented people taking great care to make sure every image and characterization to be filmed was laden with as much subtlety and subtext as can be packed onto a television screen.  It took every one of 384 minutes, but a talented cast, working from a detailed script, managed to convey all but the barest handful of elements and themes---the spirit, if you will---of a massive, sprawling literary work.

The thing about book to film adaptations that has always mattered to me is spirit.  This has changed over the years, as cable stations such as HBO have been able to spend dozens of hours adapting novels of various genres, but, by and large, what I am looking for in any adaptation is that it remains faithful to the spirit of the novel, regardless of whether it need take liberties with the text.  Characters can be excised and/or combined; events can be skipped or compressed; locations can be added or deleted with abandon---but if the show/film sticks the tone and message of the source material, then I am usually inclined to judge it favorably.  Slavish recreation rarely is a virtue in and off itself, while massive changes carefully wrought can often convey the themes and subtext of a novel as well, if not better, than the book itself did.  Certainly the early Harry Potter movies, with their maladroit beat-for-beat recreations, are an example of the former, while Lonesome Dove, or The World According to Garp, another long time favorite and one of Robin Williams first movies, are excellent examples of the latter.  

The question here is, which of these is HBO's Game of Thrones?  And the answer just may be that it is both at once.  It may just combine the best of both mediums.

The first book of George RR Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series is a much more limited view of the events taking place in the kingdom of Westeros than is the series, while at the same time being a much more detailed portrait of many of the characters living in the kingdom of Westeros.  Told in alternating first person, point-of-view chapters, the novel cannot provide anything like the scope of events we see in the television show.  For instance, neither King Robert nor Queen Cercie, who are central characters in the television series, are first person characters in the book.  Nothing of them can be seen without one of our handful of main characters being present to relate it, and so there is nothing like the wonderful scene in the show when they sit around and rehash their marriage and it's effects on them and their kingdom. Yet the book, being a book, gets much deeper into a double handful of characters' psyches than any television show ever could, or perhaps would even want to.  Sansa, the daughter of our nominal lead, Ned Stark, for example, cannot but help coming across much better in the book than the simpering fool she appears to be on the show.  The book allows you access to every thought in her head, rather than limiting you to a bare handful of her most craven utterances, and this humanizes here much more quickly in print than would ever be possible onscreen.

And so a book is one thing, obviously, while a film is something else entirely.  This sounds obvious, perhaps, but a quick perusal of message boards and the ire they contain will show you it is not obvious at all.

Only the best adaptations can manage to find a fusion of both styles that utterly satisfies, which it would appear, for the most part, that Game of Thrones has absolutely managed to do.  Indeed, not a few devoted readers of the series have pointed out a number places where the television show improves considerably upon the book, beginning with the portrayals of the aforementioned King Robert and Queen Cercei, both whom come off as little more one dimensional ciphers in the novel, as opposed to the multi-layered characters they have became in the series.  While a visual medium runs into a host of limitations and practicalities when it comes to depicting both fantastical elements, such as the direwolves, and intensely personal elements, such as the detailed interior thoughts of a character, a television show can conversely lord it all over the printed word when it comes to depicting secondary characters into whose heads a novel never enters.

Therefore, while Sansa can seem a much flatter character right up until nearly the end of the series first season, thanks to those missing interior thoughts, numerous characters, from Robert and Cersei, our always watchable King and Queen, to Tyrion's companions (Bronn, the cunning warrior, and Shae, the complicated whore), gain untold levels of depth in a medium where a picture truly is worth a thousand words.  So while it may take hours to give a girl such as Sansa the type of depth the book could give her right away, it takes only minutes for the show to give a host of secondary and tertiary characters, such as Robert and Bronn and Shae (not to mention Jorah, Tywin, Littlefinger, Viserys, and on and on), far more depth than the book itself ever managed to give them over the course of a hundreds of pages.

You might say, for every one thing lost in Game of Thrones, ten things were gained.

And so, when measuring the negatives and positives of wholly different mediums, we again find ourselves coming back to nebulous words such as "spirit," "tone," and "meaning."  Going back to our earlier examples, Harry Potter and the Sorcerers' Stone can slavishly recreate scene after scene while remaining lifeless and dull, sacrificing, as it must, most of the wit oozing from the book's long passages of descriptive text, while adding none of the depth or nuance that such a visual depiction can convey.  By reducing itself to a paint-by-the-numbers effort, The Sorcerers' Stone comes of as clunky fan service rather than an attempt to make an actual film.

On the other hand, a film such as Garp was able to jettison vast stretches of the book while managing to convey a hundred pages worth of meaning via a handful of complex, subtext-laden looks during a five minute scene between three characters discussing men and women and sex and love over coffee and pie at a diner.

When you decide to "create" your own material, as Garp does, as a way of condensing story, you must necessarily use each and every tool and trick that a visual medium affords you in order to give each moment on screen all the subtext that your excised text would have made clear only over those one hundred written pages.  But when you decide to simply "recreate" material, as the early Potter films did, then it's easy to simply allow the actors to hit their marks and deliver their lines without giving any real thought to what it all means.

Of course, the best of both worlds would have a filmmaker filming scenes exactly as they happen in a novel, while still investing all the time and thought it takes to create a shorter scene from whole cloth that would have conveyed the same.  While this is becoming increasingly possible in the world of cable television, it's still nothing like practical, especially when dealing with stories containing fantastical elements and period detail beyond imagining.  Even my gold standard, Lonesome Dove, had to sacrifice a great number of subplots and characters in order to squeeze 800 pages into 7 hours, and it had nothing like the task of creating a fantastical world from scratch, with magic and armies and hundreds of characters---oh my!

So while Game of Thrones suffers occasionally from the weaknesses inherent in trying to cram too much stuff into too small a space, it would seem to me that there can be no doubt it is one of the truly few near perfect amalgamations of screen and page.  It belongs up there with any book-to-film adaptation of which I can think, and any limitations from which it suffers seem merely inevitable and unavoidable sins of omission rather than deliberate sins of commission.  In truth, no film can ever truly "capture" any book of length and substance.  Game of Thrones, however, likely gets as close as is humanly possible.


  1. Lonesome Dove, that takes me back. I remember everyone I know stopping dead in their tracks to watch that every single night. Might be the last true "Event" television that I can think of. Game of Thrones is great, but it truly has nothing on Lonesome Dove. In fact, you made me knock GoT down a notch just by reminding me of that great miniseries. I had GoT as an A show, but now I realize it's just a B made into an A because there is so much crap on television today.

  2. Yeah, I have Lonesome Dove up on a pedestal myself. Ranks in my top ten movies of all time.