|Posted on June 22, 2011 at 12:59 AM|
It can be damn hard to do fantasy in a medium outside of literature. I’ve found that fantasy, often associated with the words “sweeping” and “epic” and, usually, “just damn long,” is often found in either rich detail and depth on one end and the other being stark simplicity, usually artwork that is likely inspired by those things with rich detail and depth. As much as I love their work, where would Lee, Naimsith and the Hildrebrandts be without those rich and detailed worlds described to the point o minutia in various works of fantasy fiction?.
Then you have the medium of it all. Film and television has to somehow find a balance. It can’t be as detailed and in-depth as a book, nor should it dare be a simple visual slideshow either. When it comes to adaptation especially, the creators of a film or tv show have to transform a novel into a different form of artistic expression. Not an easy task. Not only do you have to strike the balance of depth and streamlined storytelling, but you also have to balance faithfulness and alterations to the source material that wouldn’t transition well to a visual medium.
Of course, I’ve said a million times on my various blogs that I don’t care about “faithfulness.” That’s more for the understanding that, most likely, those directors, writers and producers are having that in mind when adapting. I honestly don’t care how faithful something is as long as it doesn’t demean it and is able to tell a story in its own way in the process. My theory is, as long as something is done well, whatever “faithfulness” you have in the back of your mind will become irrelevant. Judge based on its own means, I say, in whatever form it may come in.
Game of Thrones came in an interesting form, one that was a bit unexpected but we graciously accept as the only course it could ever have gone. Based on the first of the George RR Martin books A Song of Ice and Fire, a series I admittingly haven’t read a page of, it wasn’t as concerned in attempting some sweeping score of epic proportions. Whether it was due to budget or not, it took a far smaller approach to a grandiose tale of political power, elements of honor and the love of a family. Perhaps the books were that way as well, I’m willing to bet they are, which made it far easier to write a story about characters in a fantasy world than try to make the fantasy world itself a character. In other words, it took a far smaller and subtler approach than I think many were expecting.
It also took a very gritty and real approach, keeping a lot of “fantasy cliché” out of the spotlight and its feet firmly grounded a sense of realism. The world is expressed visually through simple, effective set design and amazing costume design on top of that. It’s dialogue-heavy, allowing the characters to grow and their personalities to shine, and minimal on action which just makes the time when action does come into play that much more meaningful to the story. Despite it playing it small, you still get that “sense” of scope to it all.
I suppose what I love best, other than the impeccable writing and characters of the show, is that it doesn’t try to bombard you. So many fantasy pictures are too often concerned with special effects and exposition. Here you have something thoughtful. Something intellectual. Something...well something adult. It’s not a child’s take on fantasy, it’s an adult drama in a fantasy world.
Fantasy is hard to do right. I think I mentioned that alraedy. Actually I should rephrase that. It's hard to do "respectably." As a fan of fantasy in books and games, my feelings being that those offer the best sensation of what fantasy is about, movies and television can be hit or miss, often being way too cheesy for their own good. As a genre in cinema, fantasy is often looked at on the low-end of the totem pole mainly because that's how it's been treated and presented: b-movie fare. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, whether you liked the films or not, really helped bring some credibility to the genre for visual mediums outside of those Hildebrandt and Lee paintings, the same way Star Wars and Star Trek helped legitimatize space operas (and Star Wars itself being some great, sweeping fantasy). Once a genre picture of that nature wins an Oscar, you don’t need any more validation. You just have higher expectations from the genre from that point on. Game of Thrones not only meets it, it exceeds it.
I figured the show would be a hit or miss before it even aired. Fantasy can be so damn hard to predict quality on. To my surprise, it was all about characters, kept things easy to follow while detailing its richness in subtle visuals and believable dialogue. I was more impressed with the execution of it all, the brilliant way it unpretentiously presents itself, than even the world or mythology to it all which is already rich with backstory and a “lived in” sensation. Multiple plot threads can be hard to tackle. Even harder to make all interesting enough to where you care about what’s going on. Though some took a bit to get going, every single plot thread with these amazing characters is telling one remarkable story after another. You WANT to know what’s happening in each one. Not only can it make all these stories clear and told well, they make you want to know what happens next in each one. Fantastic writing through and through.
My favorite storyline? Well it’s hard to not be in love with Ned Stark. Damn, Sean Bean is such a good actor. He brings such a sure hand to a role that asks a lot of him, and...well if you haven’t seen the last couple episodes I shouldn’t say anything, but let’s just say that any story that does that has balls. Sean Bean size balls.
Character wise, Tyrion Lannister is such a pure form of “shade of gray” that I’m just blown away by him. Dinklage is a damn good actor, always has been, and good lord can he shine in this role. Jon Snow really grew and grew into something of a dynamic character with Kit Haarington emerging as the “Ranger archetype” and doing it extremely well in the process. Really, every Stark member is an amazing character. It focuses on the family. It’s like Dallas, only someone didn’t shoot JR. they just chopped off his head.
The best television out there isn’t found on networks and is only occasionally found on cable (Namely just AMC with Breaking Bad and Mad Men and sometimes FX though they haven’t found anything of The Shield’s quality yet and sometimes TNT with Southland one of the best cop shows ever). Despite the fact they might pull the rug from a show from time to time (Deadwood, Rome), the best television of the past few years is found on paid channels with HBO and Showtime as the frontrunners. The writing is impeccable, the acting always top-notch and everything giving you a sense of “craft.” - as in “we’re going to take our time, tell a story, and think about every single line, scene and story before doing a thing, then we’ll make it a show.” They also take the most risks, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire and Deadwood are proof of that – period shows and costume dramas would never fly on an ad-ran channel.
I feel there's no hyperbole in my saying that the first season of Game of Thrones is nearly perfect. It's a tightly-written and purposeful show that never makes you feel there's a minute wasted. Sure, you might dislike a certain story here and there, or a character in one section, but overall I don't see how anything is necessarily "bad" in it. Everything feels like there's a point, even if it's just to enrich the feel of the world. There might have been scenes I didn't like however they still had a point to them, usually through dialogue and you simply must pay attention. For example, I hated one storyline where we meet Lady Stark's sister, her overgrown infant and my favorite character gets thrown in the a dungeon. Sure, I didn't like this entirely, I felt it was far less subtle than what the show had proven to be thus far and nearly out of character in terms of "mood." However, it was incredibly important to have happen because it shows how far Lady Stark's sister had fallen, nearly to madness, and that there are areas of this world that are just outside normalcy. Not everyone is in line to bow to a king, afterall, and if it means you have to grind the show to a halt for a moment or two, then so be it.
"Mood" is a hard thing for a show to be consistent on, but when it is it can really lift a show from a "good" one to a "great" one. Sometimes, when you have different writers and directors, things can jump around a bit. Game of Thrones feels ever consistent. It's mood is one of constant anticipation blended with human emotion, a hard thing to keep going for an entire season. A lot of shows break up their stories, some might be lighter, other episodes will be more serious and be a "canon" to something. Some will just have throw away episodes entirely that have nothing to do with anything and are irrelevant the next week. Shows like Game of Thrones make television worthwhile to never miss an episode and really care about "previously on" and "next week on" bumpers at the beginning and end. Like I said, a mood of anticipation does wonders, and to have it all the time even more impressive.
I anticipate a lot for the next season. A bigger budget, I'm sure. Even grander writing and directing. I also anticipate that Game of Thrones as a series will likely kill any other fantasy series that might try its hand. It's set a bar incredibly high for only one season, and every show that might offer us a new tale of knights and dragons will automatically be compared to it. Even if that's unfair, and it is, I anticipate that should some studio try, they wouldn't grasp it quite as well as Game of Thrones has been able to. Enjoy this show while it lasts. It's a rarity, especially for something so rooted in genre and, more importantly, treating fantasy as a genre to be taken seriously as both fanboy/niche love and mass market consumption and, especially, mass-market acceptance outside of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. It found the median, and it got it absolutely right.
"What did you say? I'm the King, bitch."