BY YASMEEN KHAN
WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE SERIES OF GAME OF THRONES
“What you suggest is treason.” “Only if we lose.”
Ten hours of TV from an 800-page book. Put like that, it doesn’t sound so arduous. Allowing for credits and an average episode length of 55 minutes, that’s about a page and a half per minute. Sure, you’d have to keep the pace up, but it’s doable, right? But adapting George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones sounded like a daunting task. The epic scope, the long history, the complicated politics, the vast geography, the cast of hundreds. And yet, after a flawed but promising start, HBO’s first series of Game of Thrones turned out to be a remarkable achievement in storytelling and adaptation. A lot happens on a George RR Martin page, but it doesn’t feel like the book’s been filleted, and the result was a show that appealed to newcomers and aficionados alike. It’s kept expanding its world and scope, and it’s managed to do it without feeling rushed. So how did they pull it off?
The pages to minutes calculation is facile, of course. Rigid adherence to a novel’s sequence of events usually leads to stilted, unconvincing filmed drama. The skill is in creating the illusion of faithfulness with just the right proportion of creative licence. Fans in particular want both; the measure of success is in the balancing. And Game of Thrones did this extremely well. The narrative was consistently engaging precisely because the show allowed itself the time to linger on the details within its grand sweep. And the strangeness and intimacy that comes from these details is what hooks the imagination. The series allowed dialogue that was faithful to the novel to blend with its own design to create the narrative. It had a grand, myth-making ambition that extended to the creation of the Dothraki language especially for the series, and also the complementary confidence to let a lot of what’s best-loved about the books remain at the centre.
The production design is a good place to look to examine this balancing act. It’s outright gorgeous in places: the stained glass at King’s Landing, the weirwoods, the autumnal colour palette of most of the production contrasting so well with the cold blue colours at the Wall. There’s the beautiful visualisations of the Iron Throne and the dragon skulls, there’s Tywin Lannister’s field of crimson tents. But these grand artistic details succeed because they accentuate settings that are remarkably intimate, even understated. As noted last time, the characteristic grand scale of epic fantasy is realised not by endless panoramic vistas but by cramped halls, small courtyards, the wide expanse of the Dothraki Sea narrowing down to claustrophobic paths hemmed in by trees. These settings feel real, idiosyncratic, personal. The obvious exception is the Wall – this impossible structure that symbolises the divide between the known and the unknown, the natural and the supernatural. Even then, though, its grandeur is most indelibly demonstrated by Tyrion pissing over the edge.
Then there’s the credit sequence and the way it develops as the series goes on. Its view of the world roams with the sun, chiming with the story’s central prediction that a real and metaphysical winter is coming. Two-dimensional maps become three-dimensional forms (a comment in miniature on the process of adaptation from page to film). These evolving forms establish the geography of the world and the story in time as well as space, letting us know that we can never be sure how much we have yet to see. The result is the creation of a sense of narrative possibility: we can’t know what to expect for more than an episode at a time. Again, faithfulness is balanced with confidence in the medium of the TV series.
This fluidity is especially notable in the series’ approach to symbolism, which is used not only to deepen the narrative and add meaning, but to economise on details and tell several parts of the story at once. Symbols help explain the narrative, and act as a means of self-definition for the characters. When Viserys sees himself as a dragon, it’s both a key to his upbringing (his clan, the Targaryen, have the dragon as their sigil), and a measure of his personal ambition to rule the Seven Kingdoms (itself once ruled by dragons). Countervailingly, when Viserys fails in his ambition, Daenerys chooses the Dothraki horse as her symbol and claims her son is the long-prophesised stallion who will mount the world. By the end of the series, Daenerys has merged the symbols of dragon and stallion – the greatest achievement of any of the characters. Symbols’ mutability is also key – the crows that portend battle and death, but also appear as three-eyed spirit guides in Bran’s dreams show us the power of fluidity in creating metaphors that feed into and from one another.
The series’s confident economy in storytelling extends further than metaphor. Perhaps even more impressive is its use of conversation. Dialogue works in marvellously clever ways to stock the narrative with detail and make exposition vital and relevant to the current scene. But it’s also used to explore characters’ shifting perspectives and, by extension, give insight into the politics, psychologies and codes by which these people live. Most importantly, no bit of dialogue is allowed to only serve one purpose. Lessons to children convey backstory and define character: Petyr Baelish’s explanation of the name Littlefinger to Arya and Sansa; or Bran’s lessons with Maester Luwin as a means of understanding Westeros and Theon Greyjoy’s ambition. Conversation is also effective manipulation: see how Littlefinger whispers the story of the Mountain and how the Hound got his scars to make Sansa do his bidding – sealing her complicity by making her keep the secret.
While the dialogue is often explicit and contextual, the narrative tends to the elliptical. One strand allows the other to work, and the ellipses are beautifully judged. When you see Dany eating the heart, you realise we don’t need the complete anthropological explanation of the ceremony. The same applies to the allusions to the old gods and the Seven, and the dragons of the past. We see enough to understand in the moment, and very often the series will turn back on one of these glimpsed moments and give it new force and point. So when Arya’s desire to learn fighting leads to Ned discovering a plot to kill him, we are transported to Ned’s earlier auditory hallucination of battle sounds when watching Ayra train with Syrio.
Many of the characters in the series were complex and subtly drawn from the start – Catelyn, Tyrion, Ned, Jon Snow. But even the minor characters were fleshed out deftly and fast – Pyp and Grenn of the Night’s Watch, whose stories Tyrion tells, or Daenerys’s handmaids Irri, Jhiqui and Doreah. The cleverness of the dialogue allows even the most cartoonish villains or lunatics to have depth – Joffrey, Tywin, Lysa Arryn and her horrible son Robert, even Viserys. Look how nuanced Joffrey’s glee at the jousting is, or how subtly Viserys is drawn in his bathtub sex scene. Look at the odd fraternal loyalty Jaime and Cersei feel for Tyrion, so at odds with political convenience and personal distaste.
Game of Thrones often works, in fact, by drawing parallels between the characters. When Catelyn calls for the loyalty of the men of the different houses at the Crossroads Inn, it foreshadows Danerys doing the same to Drogo’s khalesar after his death. Both women are widows, alone and in danger, and must seize power to save themselves. There’s Littlefinger’s jealousy of Ned and his dead brother Brandon, and Cersei’s of Ned’s dead sister Lyanna. These parallels serve the story effectively, because each instance fleshes out and adds nuance to the other by virtue of the comparison.
They also reinforce the telling of motivation; they demonstrate that the political is the personal. Drogo promises to go to war for Dany, nor for power or conquest, but for love of her and a need to punish those who would harm her. Petyr betrays Ned out of love, Cersei and Jaime are willing to change the succession of the kingdom for it. Even Tyrion, the dwarfish outsider at the heart of everything, claims a love for ‘cripples, bastards and broken things’. This raises his own infirmity to a political principle and is perhaps his only moral guide.
Not all of Game of Thrones is taut and economical: it has its share of whimsy and pure fantasy. There are moments of humour, well timed roses amongst the thorns. Syrio’s explanation of ‘water dancing’ is unusual in not serving a double narrative purpose, but it functions as an imaginative hook in the viewer’s mind. Balanced against this is a lot of bloody violence and sex. Fights are short and vicious, but the violence is often shocking, especially the frequent beheadings of men and horses. And there is a lot more sex than violence. The relationship between the ephebic Ser Loras and Renly Baratheon is only alluded to in the novel, but the TV series gives us longing looks, an explicit reference to it by Littlefinger, and in case those weren’t enough, a blowjob. Game of Thrones is quite delightful in its need to emphasise its own daring.
Some of the series’ attempts to shock are more successful than others. The young Robert feeding from mad Lysa’s breast is very effective, an instant encapsulation of their characters and relationship. Littlefinger instructing his whores whilst expounding his motivation works so well to explain his character – obsessed with sexual metaphor, uninterested in sex. Only sometimes, trying for shock value breaks the fiction. It would have been much better not to show us Theon’s cock at all, rather than have it appear censor-appeasingly but impossibly flaccid the moment he finishes having sex.
Game of Thrones shines with great, subtle, brave performances. I knew Aiden Gillen would be fantastic, and he is. Kate Dickie is amazing as Lysa. Peter Dinklage is a wonderful Tyrion. Jason Momoa’s Khal Drogo and Jack Gleeson’s Joffrey continue to live up to the promise of the first episodes, as does Michelle Fairley as Catelyn. But one thing that stood out for me was Dany’s transformation to khaleesi over the course of the season. It’s beautifully drawn. From her nervous assertions at the beginning to becoming the Mother of Dragons at the end, Emilia Clarke is utterly convincing at showing us how she has to push herself to fill role and conduct the power struggle with her brother.
In considering economical storytelling, we should think finally about foreshadowing. No one (except maybe George RR Martin himself) knows how this epic is going to end. He’s got two more books to write, plus some prequels planned. The TV show is doing a great job introducing the storylines that fans know to be important in later volumes.It’s had to find room in the massive story to keep the way open for the future stories, told and untold, and it’s done so. Perhaps this is its most impressive achievement of all.