Review: A Game of Thrones: 1.01

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Unlike what a recent reviewer in the New York Times might have you believe, there are women who like fantasy books and some of us have read A Game of Thrones (a nice rebuttal to the fantasy-is-for-boys piece is here). I have read all of the novels in George R.R. Martin’s series, since they were first released in the 90s, and have found them one of the most exciting epic fantasy series of the past couple of decades. As such, I come to this show with an inherent bias, but also with a built-in functionality that other viewers may lack. This is good and it’s not-so-good. I shall explain.

When the first movie adaptation of Dune was released, legend goes, viewers were handed maps pointing out the different planets where the characters came from so the poor, lost ticket-buyers could understand what the heck was going on. I don’t know if this story of star maps is true or not, but I have seen many puzzled reviewers and viewers wondering who is whom and what is what in this show.

Martin’s novels are good. They’re also intricate, thick tomes filled with multiple POV characters, jumping through locations and situations, and weaving intrigue, violence, sex, and adventure amidst a really big map. There are seven kingdoms, and that’s not counting the Free City of Pentos, the Iron Islands and the area beyong the Wall. If you thought The Tudors had too many characters, wait till you get a load of this one! And while fantasy books like The Lord of the Rings have a stable cast of characters and an easy-to-follow path (take the Ring from points A to B), the books fork, meander, split, and run around in what is an interesting and realistic fashion, but one which may prove too difficult for certain viewers to grasp.

That, I fear, may come to be the problem of the show. I’ve already encountered puzzled viewers and our own editor here at Innsmouth was none-to-thrilled with the first 15 minutes of the premiere. This is understandable. While a basic smattering of Arthurian legend (which many viewers probably already have) can bring you up to speed on who Morgana and Merlin were, it’s going to take some serious effort  to unravel the threads of this show. The casual viewer may not have the stomach for that and switch to The Borgias who, thankfully, number less than the Stark clan.

However, if the viewers hang in there (and I think the show gives people enough to keep watching till next time), they should be in for a cool ride. The premiere is very faithful to the novels. As much as it can within the context of a show, of course. It follows the exact same structure of the books. Considering people were having flame wars over the colour of Sean Bean’s eyes (They don’t match the character’s eyes from the novel), this was probably not such a bad idea. From a narrative point of view, it does sometimes seem like the pace gets bogged down, but hey, I watched the five-hour, self-indulgent Mildred Pierce. Thrones is not that self-indulgent. It is dense due to the source material and tries to keep a fast pace, but it’s hard when so many characters are walking on screen and you’re mimicking a novel.

Watching it in high-definition, the show looks nice. The costumes are okay; the camera work is decent (Borgias has better lighting and more creative use of framing. Thrones could use some of that flair); the actors look fine; and it should, by those virtues alone, be able to reel in enough people to keep the show going for a while. Even non-fantasy viewers may be attracted due to the fact that this is more Sopranos-with-chainmail than Conan the Barbarian.

But I’ve talked good and well about the show and have told you little about what happens. Well, if you’re a newbie, here’s a brief primer (Skip the spoilers below if you’re not keen on that…and what are you doing reading this if you are spoilerphobic, hmmm?): The show opens in the northern part of the Seven Kingdoms. The Starks rule there and watch over the Wall, which is basically Hadrian’s Wall and divides the nice, civilized folk from the uncivilized wildlings that live there. The Wall is watched by the brotherhood of the Night’s Watch, who are kinda like knights. Once upon a time, the knights and everyone else had to keep their peepers open for the dangerous, mysterious Others, but the Others are gone. Or so everyone thinks…and that’s where I’ll leave you at, because that point is a loooooong thread in the novel, once Jon Snow, bastard son of Lord Eddard Stark, heads to The Wall.

Ah, yeah, Lord Stark. He’s married, and has five legal kids and that one bastard (Jon Snow). He’s quite happy to live in his cold, medievalesque kingdom (The seven kingdoms are all different, by the way, so don’t expect supermedieval all the time, as we shall see soon) until the day King Robert Baratheon, his childhood friend, journeys to his castle to ask Eddard to become Hand of the King. The position was recently vacated…by murder. Tan-tan!

With the King comes his queen, Cersei Lannister, along with her brothers Jaime and Tyrion. Jaime is HOT. Tyrion is a dwarf and thus, not so hot in the eyes of the whole kingdom, but he’s the brains of those three.

Eddard doesn’t want to go, but feels duty-bound to follow Robert. Robert probably needs all the help he can get because he’s a super-chubby drunk and not good at managing his own land (hence why he had a Hand). Plus, SUPER DUPER MEGA SPOILERS, his wife is sexing her own brother (the cute one). And one of the Stark kids gets thrown out a window when he discovers that li’l secret.

Pasted to the side, almost like an afterthought that must be glued to the main narrative, are Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen. They live in the Free Cities, which are Mediterranean-looking, or maybe it’s East Asian. They’re superroyalty, from a line of incestuous kings and queens who were able to control dragons. Dragons are extinct, but the family continued to rule…for a while. Viserys and Daenerys’s dear-old papa was the rightful king of the Seven Kingdoms until Robert killed ‘im, took the throne and the crown. The kids fled, but Viserys hopes to raise an army and defeat Robert. In order to get himself an army, he marries Daenerys off to Attila the Hun…err, I mean Khal Drogo. Before that, however, Viserys has time to paw his sister’s titties and send her to the sauna. This is HBO and this is A Game of Thrones, so be sure to tune in for many more sex and nekkid scenes.

That’s pretty much what happens in the premiere. Lots of setup, lots of characters. Some of those characters look awesome and compelling, like in the books. Jaime and Tyrion are major players in the novels, and they’re looking and acting great. Tyrion, in particular, was lovely to watch.

Sansa Stark, the prim and dim-witted daughter of Lord Stark, is well-played by the young actress in the role. However, Robert’s son, Prince Joffrey, appeared less convincing in the few glimpses we had of him. And boy, Lena Headley shouldn’t be playing Cersei. She should be Eddard Stark’s wife. Lena Headley was great as Sarah Connor and would have made a terrific Catelyn. As Cersei, she’s just not sexy enough. Cersei really is like a blond Angelina Jolie. Everyone wants her. Except for her husband, who is sick and tired of her scheming family. Since Robert is Henry VIII by any other name, he’s busy sexing everyone in town, so he doesn’t need a supermodel wife when he can have six girlfriends on the side. Headley ain’t ugly, but she just doesn’t have the mix of sexy, regal and dangerous the role requires.

As far as Daenerys Targaryen is concerned, she was a big Mary Sue in the books (and I don’t hate the character, but purple eyes, white hair and superpowers? You’re asking for it, George) and I didn’t think they could do much with her in the show. The actress in the role manages to interpret this difficult character as best she can and they cut away before we got an explicit icky, sexy, deflowering, kinda-seduction scene from the book. They also aged all the characters, which is very good, because one reason why the damn deflowering-verging-on-rapelacious scene was so icky was because the character was a whopping 13 (not that it’s not icky with what we see on screen now, but there was a whole extra layer of ick with the minors). Here she’s older, as is Sansa (13, as opposed to 10? 11? I don’t want to pull the books out right now) and I appreciate that. Martin himself has said he ought to have made his whole cast older. Believe me, A Game of Thrones has some bad shit happening. It’s one thing to read about kids getting sorta molested and it’s another to have the molestation on screen.

If you stick with A Game, though, it’s not all disturbing sex. The books are smart, detailed stuff. If you like intrigue, boy, it’s a buffet which the show will also serve, dish by decadent dish. What the show currently lacks is a more cinematic flair, which, like I said, The Borgias has (courtesy of Neil Jordan). In contrast, this show is more static camera, point-and-shoot the actors in the costumes and let ‘em talk. Nothing wrong with letting people talk, but there are missed angles and missed chances there.

If you want a faster pace and lots of action, with the incestous Targaryens swooping in for war, you’re out of luck, since this is a court drama (Battles will rear their head, but not really until later books). If you can’t handle a large cast, this one is bound to give you headaches. Oh, and if you want sparkly magic and elves (One reviewer thought there was a race of dwarves…no, there’s one dwarf and he’s human, not a special race): none. Game of Thrones has very little in the traditional magic department. Wizards don’t go chanting spells and Ladies of the Lake don’t toss out swords. But stuff happens. Aha, I won’t tell. Not now, at least.

If you can live with the above and you like costume dramas, politics and scheming (and naked, beautiful people! Sean Bean is taking off his clothes, right?), you should be watching this show. I’m not going to lie to you. For the newbies, this one requires a pad and paper to keep notes and track of everything. But you shall, I think, be rewarded for that effort. Then again, there are The Borgias and Camelot as alternatives.

I’ll be reviewing Game regularly during its run. If you don’t mind my sense of humour, we should have a good time, hmm?

Silvia Moreno-Garcia

About Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia lives in beautiful, rainy British Columbia with her family and two cats. She writes fantasy, magic realism and science fiction. You can read her stories in Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing, The Book of Cthulhu, Evolve 2 and Tesseracts 13. She is the co-editor of Candle in the Attic Window, Future Lovecraft and Historical Lovecraft.

Silvia Moreno-GarciaReview: A Game of Thrones: 1.01