One of the most interesting ways I’ve encountered of thinking about words-to-moving-pictures adaptations was articulated by Mary Gentle, in a discussion about the merits of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. “In some ways,” she wrote, “I’m not watching it as an adaptation of Tolkien any more. It’s as if Middle Earth is as factual as, say, 15th century France, and I’m watching yet another film-maker’s take on the Joan of Arc story.” What I like about this way of looking at things—which feels particularly useful to me for secondary-world fantasies—is that it mutes the primacy of the book and asserts the value of considering the adaptation as its own thing, which, in quite a lot of discussions I’ve had about the merits of Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, has felt like something that needed doing.
As it happens, in the case of HBO’s Game of Thrones, in the circle of people I discuss television with everyone has been very keen to make sure I consider the adaptation as its own thing, since I’m almost the only one who hasn’t read George R. R. Martin’s novels. I’ve been the control subject, in other words, the one for whom all the surprises have yet to be sprung. Of course, I’m not a perfect control; I’ve read enough fantasy novels (Martinesque subvariant and otherwise) to be familiar with their conventions, and I’ve watched enough HBO series to be familiar with their conventions. So I did have expectations: a medievalesque fantasy story on a grand canvas, done seriously and with some sophistication; good production values, respectable acting, and plenty of sex. A series, in other words, that (for better or worse) would be for TV fantasy what Battlestar Galactica was for TV SF. And that is (for better and worse) more or less what I got.
The opening of the first episode, “Winter is Coming,” is atmospheric and promising. A few men, leaving a great icy stronghold, encounter a strange being and their doom. The beautiful opening titles brilliantly adapt the staple maps of epic fantasy novels and efficiently give us the information we need to navigate a large and varied world. Then, not surprisingly, we get a parade of scenes intended to introduce us to various characters, first the various Starks of Winterfell—Lord Eddard Stark, his wife Catelyn, and their children Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran and Rickon (and Ned’s bastard, Jon Snow)—then some Lannisters in King’s Landing—twins Jamie, a knight of the king, and Cersei, wife of the king—and then the king himself, Robert Baratheon, as he visits Winterfell to make Ned Stark the new Hand of the King. So far so good. Then, atmosphere slowly ebbing away, we meet another Lannister, the dwarf Tyrion (and Ros, a prostitute of Winterfell), then get yet more introductions to an entirely separate set of characters, on a different continent, the exiled Targaryen heir Viserys, his sister Daenerys, and the horselord to whom the latter is to be wed, Khal Drogo. Then back to Winterfell to meet Ned’s brother Benjen and the king’s heir, Joffrey. And then, 45 minutes into an hour-long episode, the message that kick starts the season’s plot is delivered to Ned and Catelyn: the previous Hand, Jon Arryn, didn’t just die, he was murdered; and apparently by Lannisters, at that. Then we get the wedding of Daenerys and Drogo (and a gift of dragon eggs), and finally cut back to Winterfell just in time to see Jamie push Bran out of a tower window, for catching him having sex with his sister.
The problem with the episode as an episode is not that it has to introduce a lot of characters and information; it’s that after the initial Stark family scene, so much of it is so artless. An awful lot of relationships are introduced via dialogue, rather than the way in which the characters are interacting, giving much of the episode a desperately slow and functional feel. After the news of Jon Arryn’s death, Catelyn tells Ned, “I know he was like a father to you”; Jamie makes sure to introduce himself as Cersei’s brother in their first scene together. But although this is disappointing, it’s forgivable as teething troubles. The problems with the episode as the start of an ongoing story are, I think, more serious.
Pretty much everything set across the Narrow Sea is a disaster. Perhaps the kindest thing that can be said about the portrayal of the Dothraki horselords, as the only darker-skinned characters in the series, is that it’s deeply unfortunate. They are introduced as “savages”—by the admittedly bigoted Viserys, but with nothing in the first episode up to and including Khal Drogo’s wedding-night rape of Daenerys to counteract his assessment—and never become much more than that, their culture little more than an exotic backdrop for the Targaryen family saga. As Drogo, poor Jason Momoa surely has the most thankless role in the season, partly because his dialogue doesn’t even get subtitles until we’re half-way through, and partly because he has the misfortune to be stuck acting against the two worst performances in the ensemble. Harry Lloyd is unable to make Viserys’s whining anything more than cartoonish, while Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys is almost entirely affectless except when she’s portentous: at the end of “A Golden Crown” (1×06), for instance, when Daenerys declares of Viserys that “He is no dragon,” I couldn’t help thinking of Halle Berry’s infamous misdelivery of Storm’s dialogue in X-Men (2000). On top of all of this, from the moment Daenerys receives her wedding gift, it’s clear what the final shot of the season will be. Never put dragon eggs on the mantel in the first act, etc.
Much of what happens back in Westeros also feels like it’s a long time coming. It’s rather obvious from the get-go who Prince Joffrey’s parents must be, which means we not only know who killed Jon Arryn but why, which in turn means that watching Ned spend several episodes investigating is rather tedious. Other than providing the excuse for the introduction of yet more characters, which it admittedly does serviceably, all the investigation—or rather, the manner in which it is carried out—tells the viewer is that Eddard Stark is hopelessly out of his depth, which makes it very hard to see how he’ll avoid Jon Arryn’s fate. Indeed most of the large scale movements of the story are fairly explicit: we start with a unified kingdom, so it will fracture; we follow a good man, who is transparently doomed; winter, as they say, will come. What’s left to generate narrative suspense is timing: when will Ned work out the truth about Joffrey’s parentage? When will the Targaryens make it back to Westeros? When will the White Walkers appear in strength? And so on. This works pretty well, except when events are too-obviously extended beyond their natural life by a thumb on the scales, as in the case of Bran’s tremendously convenient amnesia, or a spanner in the works, as in the Lannisters’ clairvoyant decision to move against the king just before Ned solves his mystery.
And yet, particularly on a second viewing, there are things to enjoy even as the tectonic plates of narrative grind away fruitlessly, plenty of individual scenes or lines of dialogue that light up the screen. Any scene featuring the spirited Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) is worth the price of admission, for instance; the one that sticks in my mind is from “Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things” (1×04), when Ned tries to sell her on the merits of giving birth to princes and lords as a life choice. “No,” she says, quite simply, quite determinedly. “That’s not me.” You don’t doubt her. Then of course there are her “dancing lessons” with swordmaster Syrio Forel. Miltos Yerolemou seems to have been cast for a different and rather more camp series, but is extremely watchable; and the shift back to Ned’s point of view at the end of Arya’s first lesson, with the gradual fade-in of battle sounds, is excellently judged. Most scenes featuring Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) also enliven the proceedings, although sometimes as much for the opportunities he offers those playing against him (his arrest by Catelyn Stark at the end of “Cripples” is one of the more powerful scenes in the first half of the season) as for his quips (I do love his attempts to explain to the jailor at the Eyrie that “possession can sometimes be an abstract concept”). Mark Addy’s King Robert Baratheon is much of the time too exaggeratedly grizzled for my taste, but gets a wonderful scene with Lena Headey’s carefully controlled Cersei in “The Wolf and the Lion” (1×05)—perhaps the season’s best single episode—that shifts elegantly from the political to the personal and back again, as they consider how their marriage has held the Seven Kingdoms together. And in the last few episodes, Richard Madden’s Robb Stark starts to come into his own, his brief confrontation with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s Jamie in “Baelor” (1×09) a particular highlight, showcasing a sense of reality lacking in his father: “If we do it your way, Kingslayer, you’d win. We’re not doing it your way.”
What I’m arguing, in the end, is that what interests me about Game of Thrones isn’t the story. There aren’t many real surprises, and I find it hard to care very much who ends up on the Iron Throne: almost all the potential candidates are horrible human beings, and if by some miracle a non-horrible human being ended up there, it would still be a perpetuation of a grossly unjust system of governance that deserves to be swept away. (A cheap shot, perhaps, but Game of Thrones has managed to raise my political hackles in a way few Euromedievalesque fantasies do. Perhaps more egalitarian politics will start to flower in later seasons; or perhaps the success of Game of Thrones will open the door for more adventurous fantasy tales to be told on TV.) Moreover I don’t think the many threads are being particularly skillfully orchestrated. What does interest me—and it is, in the end, enough to keep me watching, although it was touch and go for a while—is the texture of the world, the details and moments that reveal what it means to live there. So my highlight of the season finale was not the appearance of Daenerys’s inevitable, strategically-placed dragons, was in fact neither epic nor fantastical: it was Grand Maester Pycelle’s performance piece for Ros on the nature of kings.
Any adaptation from book to screen requires a significant narrative switch from internal to external focalization; description that might take paragraphs in writing can be achieved in a single shot, while character insights born of the way this description is couched have to be conveyed through dialogue and visible reaction. Fantasy Wars of the Roses saga A Song of Ice and Fire, on whose first volume the recent HBO series Game of Thrones was based, presents acute problems in this regard; the original novels are told entirely through close-in point-of-view narration, the limitations of which—coupled with communications technology centered on ravens and oh-so-perishable human messengers—are frequently mined for storytelling effect. Characters frequently must make choices based on incomplete or just plain wrong information, or else their prejudices blind them to vital details. These limitations also feed into the saga’s broader thematic points: most of the ever-growing cast of point-of-view characters assume that they are the centre of the story, and present what they see and experience accordingly, when in fact the question of which of the great houses of Westeros captures the Iron Throne after the ignominious death of King Robert Baratheon—the central plot thrust of both book one and season one—is far from the most pressing issue for the future of the land. Time and again, the powerful slaughter each other in pursuit of greater power, while those caught in their wake—the vassals, the poor, the wives and the daughters—can only suffer, and much bigger threats gather over the horizon, largely unnoticed.
Structurally, the TV series preserves this aspect of the books, with the apparent climax of the first season—the violence and grief of Ned Stark’s execution, and the outbreak of open war between House Stark and House Lannister as a result—giving way, at the end of episode ten, to two final scenes that emphasize how much the real story is happening elsewhere: beyond the great ice-bound Wall in the continent’s north—in the semi-legendary shape of the zombified White Walkers—and across the Narrow Sea—with the emergence of Daenerys Targaryen from her husband’s funeral pyre, bearing a trio of hatchling dragons. This final scene in itself represents the end point of a season-long bait and switch; Dany, last of the lineage from whom Robert wrested the Iron Throne seventeen years before, began as little more than a numb device in the schemes of her peevish, half-mad brother Viserys, and then as bearer of the son of her formidable Dothraki horselord husband, Khal Drogo. That Dany is the protagonist of her story is perhaps obvious sooner in the book, where she is the only point-of-view character on her side of the Sea; in the TV series, the viewer could be forgiven for assuming that Dany, like the Stark daughters Sansa and Arya, is more pawn than power player. (The fact that Dany’s inner monologue of borderline panic and fragile self-assurances is replaced, in the TV series, with Emilia Clarke’s beautiful expressionlessness, helps boost this impression, intentionally or not.)
The other difficulty faced by Game of Thrones the TV series is the sheer amount of backstory, some related directly to the action and some more for the color and depth of the world, that has to be put across. Sometimes this is done elegantly. Two highlights of the type come in episode three, “Lord Snow.” The first sees a half-drunken King Robert reminiscing about first kills with his long-suffering Kingsguards Jaime Lannister and Ser Barristan Selmy, in the process goading Jaime into discussing his murder of the previous king (an exchange Jaime wins rather effectively by noting that Rhaegar’s last words were “the same thing he’d been saying for hours: Kill them all”). The contrast between the coarse Robert, gone to seed in privileged boredom with only casual abuse of his skinny, nervous squire (another Lannister, Lancel) left to make himself feel manly, and his lean, alert, and self-possessed Kingsguards, speaks volumes of all three characters and of Robert’s posturing and wasteful regal style. In the second example, Westerosi exile Ser Jorah Mormont and Dothraki Blood Rider Rakharo bond over the differences between weaponry on the two sides of the Narrow Sea; here is mutual respect, personal anecdote, humor, and concrete information about contrasting forms of warfare, all in a convincingly broken bilingual conversation.
This being HBO, however, the writers much prefer the idea of combining explanation with nudity. While the sexposition, as fan circles have dubbed it, is both labored and ripe for parody, it does nonetheless show us much about how gender and power, and gendered power, work in this world. There is no such thing as simple sex; power differentials shape every aspect of life in Game of Thrones, and intimacy is ineluctably shaped and distorted by them. Viserys’s hot-tub session with Dany’s slave girl Doreah, in “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things” (1×04), for example, gives us a sense of the long history of dragons’ involvement in Westeros and with the Targaryens, and foreshadows Viserys’s demise through the image of molten material meeting skin that, unlike his sister’s, is all too susceptible to heat. But this also is one of a succession of scenes in which sex is portrayed as something perfunctory and clumsy and endured by women, and which is used to remind them of their subordinate place. Initially Doreah appears to be enjoying the foreplay, but then Viserys pulls rank, puncturing the illusion that this is a mutually-pleasurable interlude, and emphasizing a clear hierarchy of power that dictates who gets what from the encounter, based on both gender and the exalted social status to which the male head of a great house—the great house—feels entitled.
Dany’s relationship with Khal Drogo begins with a wedding-night rape, one that preserves the outline of the book’s version of events, but shifts its emotional tenor considerably. In the book, Dany comes to realize (or chooses to believe) that Drogo’s repetition of the word “no”—the only Westerosi term he knows—is not a denial of her agency, but an assurance that she can call a halt if she wishes; put at ease, Dany replies with “Yes.” In the TV series, however, there is no such comfort to be had; the word is meaningless noise, and Drogo has no interest in Dany’s feelings. This change feeds into the problematic othering and exoticisation of the Dothraki, the show’s only non-white characters (to date); but it also sharpens the focus of Dany’s growth from victim to purposeful leader of men. Dany’s subsequent decision to take an active role in her marriage bed, and thus win Drogo’s fascination, has echoes beyond her own story, however. These are evoked primarily through the visual language that the series uses for sex, which underlines the hierarchical nature of the act in this patriarchal world through the relative positioning of man (standing) and woman (generally on all fours). Dany and Drogo, it turns out, are one of the few couples on the show who actually face each other in bed, and look each other in the eyes. Peter Dinklage’s infectiously snarky Tyrion Lannister, too—the most vivid and sympathetic character in both book and TV series—always faces (and frequently laughs with) his partners. This is a reflection both of necessity—as in the rest of his life, his physical disabilities prevent him from expressing his masculinity and social status in the way of other men—and the fact that Tyrion is a character who genuinely enjoys the company of women, and delights in subversion. There are further layers, of course, of both symbolism and artifice; the women concerned, after all, are being paid to laugh with him.
Much of the time, though, women do not get paid; they are the payment. The series underlines the point with a pair of exchanges in the first episode: first, Viserys shoots down any delusion Dany might have entertained about having a say in her marriage prospects, when he tells her that he would let every single Dothraki in the horde rape her if it would win him back his throne; we then immediately cut to Sansa Stark, watching in a mirror as her mother Catelyn dresses her hair, agonizing over whether or not Prince Joffrey will think her pretty enough to marry. Sansa, beseeching but still not completely hiding her inner spoiled brat, describes this (improbably) as “The only thing I’ve ever wanted,” but the truth is that she, too, has little choice in the matter; her betrothal to Joffrey was decided in a private deal between their two fathers, without either party in attendance. The difference is that Sansa has far more illusions than the brutalized Dany does, although in the TV series Sansa tends to come across as sullen and hormonal rather more often than she does as starry-eyed.
Sansa is arguably the character who suffers the most from the TV series’s shift away from the point-of-view structure. In the book, we are shown very clearly how Sansa’s actions and attitudes are justified within the terms of how she sees the world (chiefly: good and bad are entirely black and white categories, beauty reflects virtue, chivalry is real, and good things always come to good girls), and also see through the exasperated but envious eyes of her sister Arya how well Sansa performs obedient femininity. In the series, however, her defining scenes showcase her petulance and wheedling—the incident in episode two, “The Kingsroad,” in which Arya’s direwolf Nymeria bites Prince Joffrey, for example, and the subsequent showdown that ends in the death of Sansa’s own wolf, Lady—rather than her romantic naivety. It is not until Joffrey brings her a gift and all the right words, in “A Golden Crown” (1×06), and the pair share a first kiss backlit by the most golden sunlight seen west of the Narrow Sea all season, that we get a clear sense of how strongly Sansa believes she is living in a courtly love poem, and how much joy it brings her. There is no equivalent to the book scene in which Sansa meets the King’s Council, and its invitation to us to share both her nerves and her glow of achievement as she puts her training—to be witty and flattering to great men—to use for the first time in her life.
By contrast, Arya is simply adorable. In this, viewer sympathies are led partly by Ned, who has far more interaction with the two girls than does Catelyn, since early in the season he takes them south with him to the capital, King’s Landing, when he is summoned to become Robert’s right-hand man. Petulant Sansa is a mystery to gruff Ned; tomboy Arya is much easier for him to relate to, though, with her enthusiasm for swords, and the pair share a number of delightful and touching exchanges in episodes three, four and five. For audiences long since conditioned to enjoy the sort of plucky, kick-ass girl who fires a mean arrow (in episode one, “Winter is Coming”) and snaps “Seven Hells!” when her fluffy sister moons over the pretty-but-insufferable prince (in episode six), there is no contest between the two; the script, moreover, gives us little grounds to understand why Sansa acts as she does, besides Ned’s after-the-fact—and frankly rather charitable—rationalization of her betrayal of Arya in the direwolf incident.
As this somewhat scattershot discussion—which doesn’t even go into the whiny entitlement of Jon Snow, the fine foil provided by plucky Samwell Tarly, or the excellent use of Robb Stark (rather neglected in the book, being the only Stark bar the youngest without a point-of-view to call his own)—illustrates, Game of Thrones is packed with detail and with characters to love and hate. But the pace, at least for the first four or five episodes, lags. Compared to shows like Deadwood or The Wire, which simply expect viewers to keep up, Game of Thrones is perhaps overly cautious when it comes to explaining who everyone is and how they fit into the overall picture. Is it really necessary, for example, to hear Theon Greyjoy’s backstory not once but twice? He will be important in season two, it is true, but here he is only a supporting figure, whose personality and relationship with his host-captors, the Starks, is established with eloquent economy in a couple of moments in episode one (his silent, obsequious presence at Ned’s shoulder during the execution of the Night’s Watch deserter, and his sneering remark to Jon Snow at the finding of the direwolf pups), and his failed attempt, in “You Win or You Die” (1×07), to bully the imprisoned wildling woman Osha, who effortlessly skewers his pretension and his insecurity with a single question (“Why?” when he tells her she should address him as “lord”). This last exchange is an enjoyable moment for another reason: it is one of the few times that anyone steps outside the hierarchical, combative assumptions of this world, and openly questions the importance of all the posturing and the pageantry that occupies so much of the series’s running time. Osha, after all, has fled from beyond the Wall; she can tell the real story from the merely loud one, and she wants no part of either of them.
Nic Clarke lives in Oxford, U.K., where she lectures on medieval Islamic history, and continues her project to assemble the world’s largest pile of books-to-be-read. She also reviews for SFX, Vector, and Cascadia Subduction Zone, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve’s Alexandria.