Game of Thrones: A Master Class in Adaptations.
By Amy Reith
Film and television adaptations of well-loved novels are notoriously difficult. For every Lord of the Rings there is an Eragon, for every Hunger Games there is a Legend of the Seeker, every Harry Potter a John Carter. When done right it fulfills every fan’s dream: to see the characters that previously only existed in their mind’s eye in flesh and blood on the big or small screen. When done wrong however, oh my does it breed contempt, cause internet rampages and has even been known to destroy careers. I know I’ve certainly never gone back for a second viewing of The Golden Compass: a story I adored as a child. For me, and millions of others the film simply didn’t live up to Phillip Pullman’s beautiful His Dark Material books. Pullman famously objected to the removal of key plot elements to make it accessible to younger audiences and avoid controversy and as expected the finished product was something quite different from the original story. Game of Thrones, thankfully was never subjected to this censorship.
What is most definitely an adult text has become an 18-rated television phenomenon in the hands of HBO (Band of Brothers, True Blood, Boardwalk Empire). And the best part? George R. R. Martin, the man whose mind has brought us Westeros and the Seven Kingdoms loves it. In fact in the second season he brought the battle of Blackwater to the big screen, writing the teleplay for the penultimate episode. He is an executive producer of the series and frequently involves himself in press evenings and premieres. Only months ago he led a panel for the show at Comic Con in San Diego, supporting the actors and writers that have brought his imagination to life. Since it premiered in April 2011 the show has gone from strength to strength. A second series was commissioned only two days after the pilot episode went out, an impressive feat by any means and a year later a third season was commissioned almost as fast.
For anybody reading this who hasn’t yet ventured into the dangerous land of Westeros, the set up is simple: seven kingdoms, one throne, and numerous Houses vying for their own chance to sit upon the iron throne. That’s where any simplicity ends, as alliances are formed and betrayed, leaders born and executed, houses empowered and broken down. As Cersei Lannister (Lena Headley) tells Ned Stark (Sean Bean) as the first season barrels towards it’s gripping conclusion: “When you play a game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” Sounding too severe? Too brutal? Well prepare yourself for a rollercoaster of explicit violence, the strongest language English can offer and frequent graphic sex scenes, but also prepare yourself for witty, involving stories and plots that will make you laugh more than you wince. Prepare yourself to shout at the screen, stamp your feet when the plot takes a twist you just didn’t see coming and viciously vow to kill Joffrey yourself if you have to (watch the show, read the books, you’ll understand, I promise!). Prepare yourself to invest in the characters as if they were as real as your own family: cry when they die and cheer as they draw closer to victory.
The characters are central to the success of both the A Song of Ice and Fire books and the Game of Thrones television show. Martin has a beautiful gift: with just a paragraph introduction he can create a character so rounded and three dimensional that you would swear you had known them for years. Some authors will spend chapter upon chapter trying to define and attribute realistic emotions and reactions to characters, but with Martin they are there before your eyes, qualities, flaws, strengths and weaknesses. Some of the finest television and film has built itself upon the power of morally ambiguous characters: and this is where the power comes from in Game of Thrones. There are characters you love, and characters you hate, but fully expect to sympathise with an enemy and berate a friend as their actions spiral and bend to the will of the ever moving plot that runs like a giant, violent game of chess throughout the series. Ned Stark, with whom the audience begins their journey through Westeros is understandably a favourite, but I dare you not to root for Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) as she vows to avenge her father and remove Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), Ned’s close friend from the throne. Yes, expect your own allegiances to divide more ways than you thought possible, and you’ll share your contempt just as widely.
The fantastical element and setting to Westeros is an important part of the story, by the end of the second season we have witnessed dragons, sorcerers, illusion and witchcraft, but if fantasy isn’t your thing, don’t let it put you off. Whilst one episode will be enough to remind you you’re a long way from Kansas, it is the people, their stories and the pursuits of their hearts and minds that drive this series. Despite their setting, their rank and of course the fact they’re fictional, I can guarantee you will get emotionally attached to at least one character and with the risk of spoilers I must warn you that you may end up wailing at the screen as they meet an untimely demise. It happens. A lot. I was fully prepared to wear mourning garb for a week after one particularly upsetting second season episode.
Despite it’s accessibility I don’t want to detract from the fantastical setting, you do enter a whole new world with this franchise, but my, it’s an enthralling one. Another of the show’s many strengths lies in the perfect recreation of Westeros’ many landscapes. Northern Ireland perfectly represents the sweeping greens of Winterfell, isolation of Castle Black and the fruitful planes of the Stormlands whilst Iceland brings the ‘land beyond the wall’ to a freezing reality. These exterior shots in particular will blow you away: the cinematography works perfectly to highlight the fear and danger of the desolate land. Malta and Croatia also bring the warmer, softer Southern sets to life, capturing the luxury of King’s Landing and the exotic aura of Quarth.
As I’ve already mentioned, the show and the books belong to the characters. The casting on Game of Thrones is one of the show’s many triumphs. The cast ranges from household names like Sean Bean and Charles Dance, to recognizable faces such as Liam Cunningham and Iain Glen, and finally up-and-coming young actors like Richard Madden, Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington. It’s a winning combination, enough to draw the viewers in, but not enough to weigh the characters down with preconceptions about the actor’s past roles. Each member of the cast embodies the essence of their characters carried over from the book. It feels very much like a labour of love from the writers, directors and actors to bring them so carefully to life on screen, and it most definitely pays off. It’s difficult to choose a stand out character, or performance, but Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister is certainly edging out into the lead with a Golden Globe and Emmy for his troubles, and it’s clear that Martin and the screenwriters love writing his character.
With the whirlwind success of Game of Thrones and the continued best-selling status of George R.R. Martin’s books it looks like the franchise is here to stay. A video game, shot glasses, t-shirts, and replica props make up just some of the merchandise on offer from the official HBO store, so there is plenty to keep fans happy whilst they wait. This third season premiere has been announced for March 31st 2013 and Martin has confirmed two more books, but as of yet there is no publication date for us to countdown to. So with roughly seven months left until we get lead willingly back into the danger, blood lust, betrayal and fear that is Westeros, there is only one thing for it. On this warm September evening I’m off to grab the first book once more and curl up on the sofa with my season one DVD playing in the background. Oh, and hope for the future of all adaptations, fantasy or not, that they really do take their lead from the extensive, beautifully executed master class that is Game of Thrones.
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