Thursday, July 14, 2011

game of thrones ... the joy of adaptation

I watched the first season of HBO's Game of Thrones and loved it. I tuned in initially for Sean Bean and the medieval vibe, but kept watching for the great acting and wheels-within-wheels intrigue. I hadn't read the series of books by George R. R. Martin that the series is based on, and didn't really intend to.

Once the first season drew to its emotional and startling close I found myself actually missing the characters. So one day I found myself staring at a picture of Sean Bean seated on the Iron Throne in a paperback reissue of the first book of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Game of Thrones, and picked it up. I literally have a stack of books next to my bed that I have to read, but I pushed them all aside as soon as I cracked the cover. It was nigh impossible to put down. Not only is Martin's book as good as all and sundry have claimed, but as each chapter progressed it was clear that HBO had done a fantastic job of adaptation. [Note: after reading A Game of Thrones, I have re-watched the first few episodes on-demand and I am really impressed on how much they packed in and that I missed the first time around viewing the story as an uninitiated newbie.]

How did book differ from television? While reading A Game of Thrones it was nice to have a lot of the characters more fleshed out. There were also many subsidiary characters that there was clearly never time for in a 12-episode television series. Martin writes very well and the settings, characters and supernatural histories are meticulously rendered. The character of Jaime Lannister was also a strong, but frequently shadowy, character in the book. His actions, or potential actions, influence a lot of the other characters, but he was rarely seen.

Obviously the show creators were also big fans as they managed to convey much of Martin's world. Through the power of the visual, a lot of the details that work so well in the book — the explanation of Dothraki power structure and Khal Drogo's blood riders, a deeper explanation of Catelyn and Littlefinger's early days, how remote the Eyrie actually is, etc. — still work as well, or even better when shown in images. Eddard "Ned" Stark's character and ultimate fate is actually more emotional onscreen than in the book, not just because of the visceral nature of images, but because in a filmed close-up the audience can get closer to Ned, feel with him. And Sean Bean was right-on in hs portrayal of the honor-bound, out-of-his-league ex-soldier.

Martin has worked as a screenwriter in the past for the television shows Beauty and The Beast and Twilight Zone. He also wrote the script for the Game of Thrones episode "The Pointy End," which was one of the best of the season. While reading A Game of Thrones the sense of visual is also there, but at no time does one feel as if they are reading a spec script. Martin creates a world, with a complicated history. The geography of Westeros is extremely well depicted. As much as there are the inevitable comparisons to J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of the sore points for me while reading those books was that for all of Tolkien's endless descriptive prose about the places the Fellowship was walking through, I never felt the reality of the geography. I never "saw" it. Martin's Westeros not only feels like a real country, but from Martin's descriptions of terrain, from The Wall to Winterfell to King's Landing to the Eyrie to Vas Dothraek, I had a real feel of the land. The mysterious creatures that live in these places seemed real as well.

The book is structured by character, with the story being told progressively through various people. This deepens all of the characters, because we get to see Ned, for example, not only through his eyes, but also through the eyes of his wife, his children, his enemies.

Did I mention direwolves? They are in the television show, but in the books the reader gets a better sense of how important the wolves are to the Starks, and how immense and powerful they are. Martin's inclusion of all of the various Westeros ruling families and heraldry gives the reader a sense of how medieval knights might have chosen their emblems.

There is sex in the book, but nothing near as gratuitous as in the series, which added some HBO After Dark-like encounters that were totally unnecessary. As this was the most consistent complaint from viewers, and practically the only real complaint anyone could have with the show, it will be interesting to see if HBO tones it down a bit next season, or at least depicts sex as Martin does in the book — as serving the story, not just for titillation.

Favorites in the television show also were favorites in the book. Tyrion Lannister, or the Imp, as he is more frequently called, is just as sympathetic and witty as Peter Dinklage's wonderful portrayal of him. It is as great to read about Daenerys going from an abused-by-her-brother meek bartered bride teenager to the kick-ass woman that she becomes once she realizes her true potential as a Khaleesi of the Dothraki people, a lover of her husband, Khal Drogo, and the last dragon of the Targaryens. If Daenerys is the heroine of A Game of Thrones I suspect that Jon Snow, Ned's bastard son, will become the hero. We will see how things play out as Daenerys makes her way west across the sea and Jon goes up against the Others and whatever else lurks beyond The Wall. Because winter is coming.

I loved A Game of Thrones as much as I did its televised adaptation. But now I have a real dilemma. It is so tempting to dive into the next book in the series, and Martin has even recently released the latest entry, the fifth book (of seven), A Dance with Dragons. But do I want to spoil myself for what is to come before the series next airs (in Spring 2012)? And what about my neglected stack of to-read books?
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