As a GRRM skeptic, you'd wonder why I'd bother watching HBO's latest series. Well, truth is, I don't hate A Song of Ice and Fire - or, at least, A Game of Thrones. Martin's a good writer, there are some really interesting elements to the series, there are some fantastic chapters, and I even liked some of the characters. I certainly appreciate the straying from the common threads in recent fantasy being little more than shallow Tolkien clones. However, I don't think it's the Greatest Piece of Fantasy Fiction Of Our Times either. I don't think the infusion of profanities, gore, violence, incest, and Machiavellian court conspiracies is anything unique to Martin by a long shot. I think the world's setting has a lot of fundamental issues which aren't really addressed in favour of the court intrigue. Even the appropriation of historical events, individuals and cultures isn't some fresh, original idea. Thus, my biggest problem with Martin isn't necessarily with his fiction, but the fact that it's being lauded as some great, paradigm-shifting renaissance that's never been done in the history of fantasy.
So it gets a mite irritating where moronic pundits allege that incestuous royals, morally ambiguous protagonists, grim and gritty settings and frank depictions of violence and sexuality somehow didn't exist in fantasy prior to 1991. Even Tolkien dealt with those themes in The Silmarillion. Don't even get me started on people who think that making everyone a bastard-with-a-dark-past-sordid-flaws is inherently superior to making everyone clear-cut heroes and villains.
However, let's forget all of that. Let's forget all the idiots calling Martin the greatest fantasy writer in history, or the morons who think sex in fantasy was trapped between Patronising Escapist Fairy-Tales and Puerile Adolescent Wish Fulfillment until Martin came along, or the people who think adding sex and violence automatically makes your setting very grown up. On its own merits, away from the hype colossus of its followers and the ill-judged opinions of infinitely uninformed journalists, A Game of Thrones is... a pretty good book.
And, wouldn't you know it, a pretty good book looks like it's going to be made into a pretty good series, if the first episode of HBO's Game of Thrones is anything to go by.
There are already plenty of reviews of at least the first episode of the series, running the gamut from "lol, LotR with boobies and cussing" to "my goodness, this is nothing like that childish LotR nonsense" and everything in between and beyond. Hopefully I'll offer a different perspective on the show from the dyed-in-the-wool GRRM fans and the fantasy virgins.
So, I'll start with a non-spoiler overview. Game of Thrones is absolutely gorgeous to look at. It's like a better version of Jackon's Lord of the Rings (which was already beautiful): some scenes have all the colour, composition and depth of paintings. The wild forest, any establishing shot of the cities, Ned cleaning his sword, Daenerys stepping into her bath, Drogo and Daenerys consumating their marriage - honest-to-God paintings. You could just sit and gawp at the show with the sound off, and still be enthralled at the imagery. The depictions of Winterhold, King's Landing, the Wall and Pentos were every bit as spectacular as Minas Tirith, Edoras and Rivendell - and with better colour filters to boot. The acting is fine across the board: Bean, Addy, Dinklage. The child actors were stronger than half the leads. The costumes, special effects, production design, music, sound effects - all great. Special mention should be made of the beautiful opening titles, which made use of a map of Westeros being made three-dimensional with a sort of pop-up papercraft aesthetic that looked just lovely.
Ironically, my biggest disappointment was the Dothraki. I imagined them to be the Mongols from Hell: each one should look like they could be the villain of a slasher movie about a Mongol ghost who comes back from the dead to visit vengeance on young teenagers. The Dothraki here reminded me more of the rabble of crazed post-apocalyptic bikers of Mad Max or Doomsday, and there were certain parts that reminded me a bit too much of the Hercules and Xena series, mostly the really overdone sound effects (whooshes when an arm swings, far-too-loud impact sounds for punches, cartoonishly exaggerated movements). Momo did an excellent job - but again, he's just too damn handsome for my liking, even with the scars and beard. Drogo always seemed, to me at least, to be this nightmarish figure of savagery and terror: a hulking, monstrous, terrifying being, the distilled myth and legend of the Dark Barbarian used to frighten the civilized when they go to bed. This Drogo was Conan: I imagined Drogo as Gorm.
Still, that's the beauty of these criticisms: they're personal and subjective. For all I know, this is exactly what Martin fans expected of the Dothraki and Drogo. The point is, that most of my criticisms before going into plot points are purely based on this being not what I imagined the characters to look or act like, not that they're inherently wrong. Would that this be the only sort of criticism I'd have for other adaptations.
Now we get into plot elements...
I'm the sort of guy who thinks the book's always better, with few exceptions. Well, I don't know if it's because of my problems with the book, or because the screenwriters have picked out the best bits... but I enjoyed this a lot more than I enjoyed the book, or at least the part of the book that comprised the first episode. I only cared for a few people in the book, and most of them ended up dead. Somehow - I don't know if it was the actors bringing humanity to the roles, or that the choice of which parts to bring to screen made them more likeable to me - I found myself liking a lot more of the characters, and the characters I despised seemed a lot less repellent to me. Strange how that worked out.
Now, it wasn't perfect: the opening sequence north of The Wall wasn't as atmospheric or outright terrifying as it was in the book, for me. This is compounded by the breathtaking stupidity of the Watch commander straight out of a mediocre horror film: so you see one of your men running in terror, talking about a pile of corpses, in a place where you know there are bloodthirsty savages... and you decide to investigate? With three men? And you dismiss your mens' caution as nervousness? I was actively waiting for the Others to come kill him. Then they brush off the idea of a supernatural race that use the undead as footsoldiers as the "ravings of a madman" despite the fact that this is a supernatural race that uses the undead, and they have historical knowledge of them. And they're guarding a wall specifically built to hold said supernatural forces at bay. Then Ned finds a brood of Dire Wolves. Dire wolves are native to the land north of this hundred-league wall of ice, and don't come south, because of the hundred-league wall of ice. Does Ned think "Oh man, how did they get here - is there a breach in the wall? Better check it out" - no, of course not. Just that cryptic "winter is coming" shibboleth.
(warning, tangent ahead)
This cavalier approach to magic irritated the hell out of me in the book, too. It's one thing to be dismissive of magic if you don't know if it really exists. It's quite another when not only do you know magic exists, or at least existed, but it's a fundamental part of your history. When irrefutable evidence of dragons, ogres, the undead and all manner of monsters can be found in your historical archives, the idea of just assuming that they're all dead or wiped out when there are signs of their return seems less like logical scepticism and more like blind idiocy. Reports of a race of supernatural creatures which devastated the land in eons past are brushed off as being unrealistic, ignoring the fact that this is a race of supernatural creatures that utilize the freakin' undead - which isn't exactly a finite resource you can run out of? A species of creature that's only found north of a several hundred league wall of ice constantly guarded by an elite corps of soldiers turns up significantly further south, and they don't bother to investigate the possibility of, oh, I don't know, a freakin' breach in the wall? And this is the people of Winterfell, who should know better!
Of course, if I'm shooting from the hip in regards to this, please feel free to correct me. Heaven knows it's been a while since I read the books, so I could well be incorrect. However, I distinctly fail to remember anything about this coming up, and those that do are quickly dismissed as paranoid idiots. The old X-Files formula: we know Mulder is right, so when Scully's being a skeptic, we just want to smack her upside the head.
There are similar moments of, if not stupidity, then somewhat patronizing narrative convention. When Jon angrily asks what Tyrion could possibly know of his pain as an outsider rejected and shunned by his family, he seems to forget that he's talking to a dwarf. Tyrion shouldn't even have responded to such an idiotic assertion. Similarly, the introduction of Robert to Ned was painfully unsubtle. "Ooh, a frosty reception, the king even called Ned fat, I guess the king and Ned don't get a- OH HO HO HO, they're actually bestest friends forever, what an amusing twist!" Argh.
However, there are parts of the show that I felt were handled a lot better than in the books. Tyrion's first meeting with Bran, for instance: in the book, he does a preposterous leaping cartwheel and dismount, like he was some sort of circus dwarf. Tyrion is supposed to be a nobleman: why the hell is he acting like a sideshow clown? Annoyed me no end. Worst introduction for an interesting character I can think of. So that is removed in favour of a low-key walk-on. I liked it a lot better.
Similarly, while Jaime still comes across as a scoundrel, you can actually see why he has a bit of a fan following in the performance. Same with other characters I didn't like: the Stark sons seem like prats, but not entirely loveless prats; Cersei's ambition is tempered a bit with a certain barely-discernible fragility; Caitlyn has a strength and weathered resolve I found lacking in the book. The characters I liked weren't quite what I imagined, but they were watchable, to the point where I - shock - cared about what happened to them, even knowing the eventual fate of most of them. In particular, I love wee Bran: great actor they got for him.
Daenerys and Drogo's consummation was a lot less tender and a lot more painful than I remember. I seem to recall Daenerys actually got into it, as she recognized the unexpected tenderness of the Khal. Here, while we did see this, Daenerys wept. I will say it was handled more artfully and aesthetically than the book, where it read like a bad Harlequin Romance: just a shame that they put off the two's mutual attraction. Hopefully this'll still come to pass later in the series. So while I disliked some aspects of this scene, I liked others.
Anyway, I think that's all I have to say on Game of Thrones. I will continue watching, as I've found it a much more enjoyable experience, all in all, than reading the book. A rare thing indeed.