HBO's new series, Game of Thrones, premieres on Sunday. This week, we're featuring five different takes on the show, which is the first foray into fantasy for a network that has built its programming on grimly realistic stories like The Sopranos and The Wire. Atlantic correspondent Alyssa Rosenberg began the conversation, and The American Prospect's Adam Serwer continued it. Now, Mother Jones' Nick Baumann picks up the thread:
As fans of the Lord of the Rings books and movies can attest, it's always cool to see the pictures in your head faithfully (or mostly faithfully) reproduced on-screen. So like most fans of George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire novels, I knew I would probably enjoy a high-budget on-screen rendering of Game of Thrones. When HBO announced that it was making one, I was psyched.
Still, fantasy is a challenging genre for television. It relies on suspension of disbelief, and suspension of disbelief becomes a lot harder if television or movie sets seem cheap or out-of-scale. If you can't get the sets right—especially the large-scale outdoor shots—even the best actors are going to struggle making fantasy seem real. Martin's novels take place in a huge variety of interesting settings, and he has said he wrote the books in part as a reaction to his television writing career. In a novel, Martin said, he could create scenes that could never be reproduced on screen. Proving that instinct wrong by reproducing Martin's settings and characters in a way that rings true was the most important hurdle the producers of the television series faced.
MORE ON Game of Thrones:
Adam Serwer: 'Game of Thrones': When Fantasy Looks Like Reality
Alyssa Rosenberg: 'Game of Thrones': HBO Shows the Ugly Edge of Fantasy
Alyssa Rosenberg: 'Game of Thrones': HBO Ventures Into Fantasy
Overall, HBO did very well on this score, and they know it. The series' much-hyped opening sequence jumps from location to location around Martin's fictional world, highlighting the different settings. The opening changes from episode to episode to reflect where the action is taking place, and it looks, as blogger Anthony Rogers writes, "like the coolest boardgame ever." A show that highlights its sets in its opening sequence is a show that is confident in their believability.
The vast majority of the sets are great. The shots of the Wall—an ice-and-gravel structure that protects the "civilized" Westeros from ancient, frosty threats out of the far north—are highlights, as are the zoomed-out shots of icy Winterfell (home of the Starks, one of the central families in the series) and the somewhat Mediterranean King's Landing (the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, the realm where most of the action takes place).
Unfortunately, there are other scenes where the sets don't quite make the grade. The scenes that take place inside Winterfell's city walls but outside of its buildings have the feel of a sound stage, and some of the outdoor scenes in the rolling hills just outside Winterfell seem too cramped and zoomed-in. The most glaring problem, as Adam noted, is that the Dothraki wedding scene seems far too small-scale for a man who is his world's equivalent of Genghis Khan. The whole Dothraki storyline is almost certainly the books' most challenging (some would say "silliest"), and it deserved more—not less—attention from the producers, set designers, and actors to compensate for its shortcomings. Like Adam, I've only seen the first four episodes (Alyssa has seen six), but if the producers messed up the wedding, I worry about what they're going to do when they have to render dragons. They did a good job with the giant direwolves (easy enough when they're puppies who can be played by dogs), but an unrealistic creature can make the rest of the show seem fake.
The real test for Game of Thrones, of course, is whether it can gain an audience beyond fanboys and fangirls. One problem, as Alyssa and Adam noted, is that epic television series with lots of characters can take a while to get going. It doesn't help that the book itself starts slowly. My girlfriend is reading it now, and she needed 50 or 100 pages to get hooked. This problem isn't unique to Game of Thrones—I know several people who watched one or two episodes of The Wire and then stopped. (HBO hasn't really changed that much. They've gone from "Omar's coming!"—practically a tagline for The Wire—to "Winter is Coming," the motto of the Stark family that serves as a tagline for Martin's whole series.)
I didn't have trouble getting into the TV version Game of Thrones: As soon as I finished an episode, I found myself wanting to watch the next one. But I always knew what was coming next, and was wondering how the producers were going to handle it. I'm really curious to read what Eleanor, who has never read the books, thought of the episodes she saw. Did it suck you in? Were you curious about what happened next, or just confused about who people were?
I worry that many folks who haven't read the books, or don't read fantasy generally, won't find the moral ambiguity and general brutality of Martin's world particularly appealing. Part of the draw of Game of Thrones for fantasy readers is how different it is from the rest of the genre. But if you don't read fantasy, you might not care about that. Variety's Jon Weisman complains about the "complete joylessness in this world," and he's only seen the first three episodes. It doesn't get any more joyful—but, as The Wire proved, and Weisman acknowledges, a great story can make up for a lot of joylessness. The story picks up as the series goes along—especially as the characters spread out across their world. But by then, it might be too late for some folks.