Game of Thrones: Will Non-Fanboys Care That “Winter Is Coming”?

The third in a five-part series about HBO’s new show, which premieres this weekend


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 Joness 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.

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.

Another potential hurdle for all viewers, newbie and veteran alike, is going to be the sex. There's a lot of sex in Martin's book, including incest and the rape of young girls. HBO made the very wise decision to “age-up” some of the characters, but it's still a lot more uncomfortable to watch a character who you know is “supposed” to be 13 get fondled by her brother and then raped by her husband than it is to just read about it.

It's not just that the sex in Game of Thrones is transgressive—it's also that we're so used to movie and television censors that lots of frontal nudity can seem cheap or fake. Bad sex scenes seem to be an especially glaring problem in fantasy, science fiction, and comic-book television and movies, which often show more skin than, say, romantic comedies. The sex scene in Watchmen—a mediocre movie adaptation of a classic comic book—was almost uniquely awful. Even Battlestar Galactica, a science fiction television series that was widely praised for its acting and special effects, never seemed to be able to get the sex right.

I worry that Game of Thrones is going to have the same problem. Sex, especially sexual violence, is hard to write about, let alone show on screen, in a way that seems real. Would we even want the incest and rape in Game of Thrones to seem real? I know that boobs probably sell HBO subscriptions, but sometimes less is more. (It's clear the producers understand this to a certain extent—they've taken one particularly notorious scene of public sex from the book and put it inside a tent, behind closed doors. We still see it, but the characters who aren't involved in it don't. I don't really know what to make of this yet.)

The race thing could also turn into a real issue for viewers. Adam nailed it on this:

The decision to make the Dothraki miscellaneous brown people rather than model them directly after the Mongol warriors on whom they seem to be based reinforces the problematic 'noble savage' stereotype. The nobles across the sea in Westeros are, of course, hardly any more civilized—but the false contrast is even less evident early in the series than it is in the books.

I suspect we'll be talking a lot more about this as the season progresses.

If you can get over some cheesy sex scenes and the “miscellaneous brown people”/“noble savage” problems, there's a lot to like here. The acting is solid. Peter Dinklage is superb as one of the books' best characters, Tyrion Lanister. He steals every scene he's in, just as Tyrion does in the books. I also liked Kit Harington as Jon Snow, Ned Stark's illegitimate son. Emilia Clarke even did okay with the basically impossible job of portraying Daenerys Targaryen,  the least believable character in the books. Aidan Gillen (The Wire's Tommy Carcetti) is a lot of fun as Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish, a character who shares a lot of similarities with Carcetti, but it's going to be very hard for fans of The Wire to see Gillen as anything but out-of-place. And as Adam noted, Maisie Williams does an admirable job with Arya Stark—but everyone loves Arya, so Williams’s challenge is not as great as, say, Dinklage's or Clarke's.

Martin's greatest strength is his plotting. Every major character is caught up in the intricate webs of alliance and betrayal, lies and treachery, love and lust and hate that Martin weaves. And the stakes are high: Martin's books have bodycounts, and it's not just bit players who pay the price. This gritty realism, more than anything else, should be the strength of the television series. The producers' almost total lack of squeamishness and general faithfulness to the books in the first few episodes suggests that they may yet be able to reproduce Martin's realism on screen. But the greatest tests for characters and producers alike still lie ahead. Just like the readers of the books, many rookie viewers will guess at some of the characters' secrets before the characters themselves find out. What readers could never guess—and what has them eagerly awaiting Martin's next book, which is due out in July—is what the characters will do to each other. That's the fun part. So if you're a newbie, I'll plead with you: tell your friends who have read the books to shut up. Winter is coming. You wouldn't want them to spoil it for you.

Read all of The Atlantic’s Game of Thrones coverage.