25 July 2011

When the page hits the screen: Game of Thrones

Ned Stark, played

 by Sean Bean

Image (c) HBO
HBO television series created by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss


First novel from the fiction series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin


It's been a little over a month since the final episode of the first season of Game of Thrones premiered and I'm STILL going through withdrawal.

Though the Emmy nominations have been a nice piece of info to snack on (Game of Thrones got 13 Emmy nominations! Peter Dinklage, I'm rooting for you!), as well as some neat info coming out of this year's Comic Con, my appetite for more Game of Thrones isn't sated.

The easiest thing for me to do to fix this problem would be to read George R. R. Martin's series A Song of Ice and Fire and then I'd know more about what will happen to the characters I've grown to love (Tyrion Lannister, for example) and hate (Joffrey Baratheon, anyone?).  
  • The author side of me is telling me, "Yes, read the books. An author's livelihood is dependent upon readership. And there's always much more going on in fiction that simply cannot be transferred to the screen."
  • The audience side of me says, "Hold off. The show packs plenty of punches. If you know what's coming, does the element of surprise diminish? If you read the novels before the rest of the seasons air, will that change your opinion of the show? How will that change the viewing experience? "
If you haven't seen season one or read any of the books, here come the SPOILERS!!!

Let's take a look at the penultimate episode in season one, "Baelor."  This made headlines across the entertainment world and criticism erupted all over the Internet supporting (and slamming) the series creators' decision to stay true to the novel by executing a beloved character, Eddard (Ned) Stark.
Again, let me emphasize: Hollywood decided to stay true to the novel! This almost never happens!

Of course TV/movie adaptations of books can't be 100% faithful to the original work. The mediums are completely different, as well as their audiences. What works for film doesn't always work for novels and what works in the book  doesn't always work in film. But most of the time, it's very easy to conclude that Hollywood ruins books.

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys

Image (c) HBO
Although George R. R. Martin does have some opinions about the changes HBO made when they adapted his novels for screen, overall he seems pleased with the work they've done. I haven't read the novels yet and I'm pleased with the work they've done! Because...

HBO could've kept Ned Stark alive. They could've said, "Screw it, audiences will be pissed, and all we care about is ratings."  They could've ignored the fact that Ned Stark's death is the event that catapults Westeros' seven kingdoms into war. Of course the White Walkers are a factor, the death of Robert Baratheon is a factor, and Daenerys Targaryen is a factor--all of them are enough to start wars among the kingdoms. But the point is, Ned Stark's death is the "shot heard round the world". It propels the entire story. It takes the two most powerful houses in Westeros--House Stark and House Lannister--and pits them against each other...which opens up numerous opportunities for enemies to swoop in, form alliances, and seize power.

And most importantly, much like the real world, nothing is black-and-white in Westeros. The good will not always be rewarded; they can be punished. The bad will succeed, as it often does. Doing the "right thing" may in fact not be the best decision when others rely on you. And does loyalty to your family have a greater cost than loyalty to your king? If Ned Stark was allowed to live because he was honest and good, and believed in doing what was right...well, then the story would be like every single Hollywood fairytale. Good conquers evil, justice is done, and the stakes are never uncomfortably high. Booooooring!

Could the HBO series' creators, no matter how talented, be able to come up with good reasons to keep Stark alive? Reasons for him to be relevant? Could they write new backstories sufficient enough to logically motivate the rest of the major plot points of the series, or would that set off different courses of events entirely? If they kept Ned Stark alive, what else would be game for major revision?

My thoughts--Game of Thrones, with Ned Stark's life spared, would probably suck a bit. It would suck for Martin's faithful readers, and probably for Martin himself. And it would make the moral grayness of the series a little less opaque. Even if keeping Ned Stark alive turned out to be as successful as keeping True Blood's Lafayette alive, it's hard to make a "dead" character come back to life and stay relevant to the story (as in, not make them a simply plot device, but make them central to the plot).   It's too difficult for me to imagine a Game of Thrones with a live and breathing Ned Stark.  And haven't you heard? Sean Bean is really, really good at dying!
Isaac Hempstead-Wright as Bran

Kit Harington as Jon Snow

Image (c) HBO

My entire family is united by our love of HBO's series. Not a single one of us has read the books yet...so imagine the passionate reactions we felt when we watched Joffrey the Asshole order Ned's beheading for treason. We were emotionally invested. We were angry.  We were blindsided!

Except for two of us. Someone blabbed to my sister before the episode aired that Ned Stark was done for. Whereas I was a moron and accidentally read too far into a wiki page about the Starks (this was several weeks before the "Baelor" episode aired). I learned about Ned's demise that way (and another spoiler about Sansa) before tearing myself from the website.

Since we knew what was going to happen, did our reactions differ when we witnessed Ned's death on-screen?  I'd say yes. My "WTF! What?!?" happened when his death nonchalantly popped up in his bio. I'm sure my sister exploded with rage when she heard what was to come. And as much as I tried to suppress that knowledge from my brain, it wouldn't go away. Instead of "are they gonna kill Ned?" it became "When are they gonna kill Ned?" Which was a different type of suspense entirely (and the least effective of the two).

When the episode aired and they had Ned executed, I was still emotionally invested in the scene due to the strengths of the performances (the young actors who portray Sansa, Arya, and Joffrey are to be applauded), the visual prowess of the scene (screen shots, the setup), and the fact that there was still tensions between characters present in the scene (Cersei Lannister very audibly said "No!" when Joffrey ordered Ned's execution, which is an interesting detail).  Despite all of this, I do regret having read about Ned's death well before the episode aired. Because the death was so integral to the plot, I never suspected HBO to not follow it, so there was never any tension for me--no "will they? won't they?" At the end, HBO did the right thing and they should be commended. 
Lena Headey as

Cersei (Lannister) Baratheon

Image (c) HBO

Until more seasons of Game of Thrones air, I'm going to have to sit on my hands and hold off reading the series. That's not to say I will never get around to it, but right now I love the fact that I can make several well-educated guesses about show's plot and characters, and still have a high chance that I'll turn out to be wrong. I love the element of surprise. And I love that things are never cut-and-dry in this show, and that everything has a cost.  I'm sure these very same things are present in Martin's writing, but in order for the television series to work for me, I'm gonna have to hold off on reading.

Wish me luck, 'cause it's going to be hard.

Work Cited:

Benioff, David, and D. B. Weiss, prods. "Game of Thrones." Game of Thrones. Home Box Office. HBO, 17 Apr. 2011. Television.

1 comment:

  1. I have wanted to see this. but had no clue it was a book series.....conundrum.


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