by Yasmeen Khan
HBO’s new adaptation of George RR Martin’s novel “A Game of Thrones” begins by opening a gate onto one of the most memorable sights in the Seven Kingdoms – the Wall. We’re led into this new world by the men of the Night’s Watch. They take us through a cramped tunnel, lit only by the flames of their torches. When the panoramic view of the bright, ice-blue Wall opens up, the contrast makes its vastness all the more impressive. (I have no intention of calling this a birth metaphor, don’t worry). Later we’ll see the Wall in different weather, different moods, but for now, it’s an icy blank, a manmade glacier stretching across this new world.
The opening tells us what this story is about – the grand sweep of the landscape and the tunnels of detail human activity makes within it. The whole of the prologue is almost wordless, and almost monochrome – snow and trees, ice and black robes. Blood is black. Even the eerie blue of the wights’ eyes is a subtle contrast, rather than a glaring one. The otherworldly is part of this world. No need to draw attention to it. You’re in good hands, the opening says. Hands that have the confidence to show and not tell, that expect us to be intrigued and hooked by the setting alone. It’s a promising start. And an appropriate one. Weather is integral to the story of “A Song of Ice and Fire”, as the characters’ repetition of the words ‘Winter is coming’ will constantly remind us.
By the time we get to the opening credits of Game of Thrones, then (they’ve dropped the article) we have some idea what we’re dealing with. (It takes a while. We don’t get there before a beheading, which is not even the only beheading of the episode. The contrast between the two is meaningful – one is the act of a supernatural monster, one is the consequence of the law, both are equally horrifying). The credits are beautifully made, something we’ve come to take for granted from HBO. They’re clever, too.The credits take the place of the map you expect to find at the start of any decent fantasy novel. I think these maps act as two-dimensional intermediaries between the text and our mental interpretation of the landscape. The credits of Game of Thrones show these maps becoming three dimensional, just as the space they describe does in the imagination of the reader. It’s not ‘realistic’; the towns are made of clockwork, which is perfect. it’s a lovely visual metaphor that works for reading and for adaptation.
The defining characteristic of epic fantasy, for me, is the landscape it creates. The terms can be simple. Any narrative that just tells us that the river is here, the town is there, the mountains are far away over there, is creating a virtual space by describing the things in it and the distances between them. This operates not only to describe the setting of the narrative but also to define it in terms of genre. So a fantasy novel like “A Game of Thrones” occupies a particular kind of landscape – its territory is the panoramic, the immense mountain ranges sparkling in the sun or buried in a blizzard, the endless ocean, the interminable desert. Martin’s world is vast and full. We understand this genre. It’s grand; it needs a whole world to contain it. Westeros, the theatre of war, stretches from the frozen wastes of the north to the desert of the south, covering every variety of landscape inbetween, and it’s not even the biggest continent on this world.
The way the setting is constructed – or reconstructed – in the reader’s imagination is key to the experience of reading a novel like this. This is where we engage with the story. We can allow the narrative to live in a space that’s defined by the text but also entirely personal. I was once lucky enough to participate in an online chat with Ursula K Le Guin, and I asked her if my visualisation of Earthsea had anything in common with hers. It turned out that it didn’t, much. That’s not to say mine’s invalid – just that even within a described, mapped out space, if it’s not ‘real’, we are free to fill in the gaps and each of us is likely to do it in our own way. We’re very used to this process, I think. It’s part of reading. It may also be a part of what puts some people off the genre of ‘fantasy’ – the infinite possibilities offered by an imaginary world with invented rules feels to them like ‘cheating’, perhaps.
We’re used to the way adapting literature to TV or film works. It (usually) takes one possible set of visualisations and fixes them, more or less, into an organised, linear form. I think as viewers we’re all aware that adaptation is an art, like translation, and that it can bend or break the rules and we’ll still have a feel for whether or not it ‘works’. We’re free to agree or disagree with the overall scope and the detail. So how does the HBO Game of Thrones visualise its setting? In a surprisingly subtle way, so far. Apart from the grandeur of the Wall, the landscapes are understated. There’s soft fog, asymmetrical, gently sweeping hills, muted colours. Look at how the mist shrouds the hills behind the execution scene. It’s beautiful. There’s a real feeling for place, too. Look at Pentos – the Dothraki riders riding up the small passageway to Illyrio’s house, and the cramped, low-key introduction of Drogo and Daenerys. Something about this scene anchored the sense of place far more strongly for me than something much grander would have. It might be too early to judge the way Game of Thones is constructing its setting – we haven’t seen the Eyrie or the Dothraki Sea or a hundred other places. But on the evidence of the first two episodes, it’s going about it in a low-key way. It’s putting the narrative at the front, maybe, relegating the background to the background, and it’s entirely up to you whether this works. For me, it’s promising.
In terms of the narrative foreground, the best adaptations are usually the less literal ones – just acting out scenes from a novel rarely works, because it doesn’t take into account the complex relationships between text and the reader’s experience of narrative. One second-long shot can convey as much information as ten pages of a novel. And one sentence can provide more insight into a character than minutes of screen time. It just depends. Game of Thrones has followed the novel fairly closely so far – possibly too closely. Its adaptation seems to me to work like a camera panning along the narrative. Time is limited, so it has to choose where to focus and where to pull back. It zooms in on a line of dialogue here, a descriptive detail there, and then relies on these focal points to anchor the retelling. It’s analogous, maybe, to Martin’s own technique of having each chapter in the books focus on one of the characters while the story happens around all of them. I think we’ll have to hope that Game of Thrones is finding its way towards a little more looseness. If it can make more departures from the text and get them right, that will lift it more than anything else could.
Some specific elements of the first two episodes stand out for me as examples of success or failure. Some symbolism translates well onto the screen – the direwolves, for example. (How cute are they?!) Some of the dialogue is beautifully subtle. The bickering at breakfast between Jaime and Tyrion, Catelyn and Cersei’s conversations at dinner and over Bran’s sickbed, Jon and Tyrion talking on the way to the Wall – these scenes show people talking about things by talking around them. They reveal their characters and motivations in a way that doesn’t feel forced. Then there are the reinterpretations of the text that serve the story better than literal adaptation would have done – look at the arrival of the King at Winterfell, which adds colour to the characterisations of Robert and the children in a beautifully economical way. Not all the dialogue shines like this, unfortunately. It’s not that it’s bad so much as unmemorable, perhaps. I’m struggling now to remember anything Ned Stark said, or Robert, for all his profanities.
And there are disappointments in the details. The terrible wigs. You’d think they could afford better wigs. Tyrion doesn’t have his trademark mismatched eyes. The dragon eggs are so much duller than Martin’s descriptions. Then there are the narrative details that at first glance are beautifully realised straight from the page – the colours of the weirwood tree at Winterfell, Daenerys’ preference for a too-hot bath, her brother’s exact words about the future, the entrails in the dust at her wedding, the way Drogo lifts her into the saddle of her silver filly. But time and again the adaptation stops short, robbing these details of their full implications. The weirwood tree has no face. Viserys fondles Daenerys’ breast, but doesn’t hurt her. Her words to Drogo about the horse – ‘Tell Khal Drogo that he has given me the wind’ – are replaced with something much less meaningful – Ser Jorah’s ‘There is no word for thank you in Dothraki.’ It’s an attempt at demonstrating ‘foreignness’ that is much weaker than Dany’s genuine thanks. And the final scene of episode one is quite crude, I thought. It left out the overheard scheming and chose to show some rough sex rather than the kissing that’s in the novel. Then again, the main impact of the scene is still there. Maybe the sex is shorthand, their way of showing the complex mixture of love and loathing Jaime feels for Cersei. And the way he doesn’t even look at Bran as he pushes him off the ledge is great. It’s frustratingly close to perfect. I hope that when they do choose to be lovingly faithful to the text in the future, they’ll have the courage to follow the details all the way through.
Here’s a thing that sums up my frustrations with the adaptation. The most disappointing thing for me when I watched the first episode was the portrayal of Dany and Drogo’s wedding night. The sunset is beautiful, subtle, not garish. The atmosphere is just perfect. And the beginning of the scene is just right. Then they changed the text. They left out Drogo’s gentleness and patience and instead made it obvious he’s about to rape her, and this sat wrongly with me. But I judged it too quickly. The second episode makes it clear they’ve decided to retell this relationship. Probably, this is partly to bring the titillation of Dany’s sexual relationships with her slave girls in early. But perhaps they did it more because they felt it was truer to the characters to show the marriage evolving this way. Let’s hope so, whether or not they’re right. The frustration for me came from the combination of literal adaptation followed by departure from the text. And yet both these elements work individually. If the writers can figure out how to make them work in combination, everything will fall into place.
There’s some stand-out casting in Game of Thrones. Maisie Williams as Arya, Michelle Fairley as Catelyn, Peter Dinklage as Tyrion. Two of the best performances in the first episode were wordless, or almost so. Jack Gleeson tells us everything we need to know about Joffrey Baratheon without speaking at all, and Jason Momoa is fantastic at portraying Khal Drogo’s blend of brutality and humanity. Joffrey doesn’t disappoint in episode two, either – he’s delightfully sadistic and creepy, standing out in a cast full of sadistic creeps. I’m looking forward to seeing how they develop the Hound, too – Rory McCann looks able to bring a lot of depth to him. And I can’t wait to see Aiden Gillen as Littlefinger. I think we can all agree that he’s going to be great.
The strongest impression I got from the first two episodes of Game of Thrones was one of unrealised potential. The setting, its landscape, is still under construction. And the way it tells the story within it is getting some things right, but for me it’s lacking a vital spark. It needs a little bit more originality and a little bit more faithfulness to the novel. The good news is it seems capable of both. It wouldn’t take so much to make “A Song of Ice and Fire” sing. But we’ll have to wait and see if it will.
“Game of Thrones” is currently being broadcast on Sky Atlantic
Yasmeen Khan is a writer for the award-winning digital fiction company Failbetter Games.