As the dust continues to settle on the 2nd series of Game of Thrones, I’d like to congratulate my esteemed colleague in his commitment to providing critical updates and reviews of each episode. A balanced view is to his credit, but I might suggest that the focus and obvious adoration of this long and rambling fable is somewhat misplaced.
Why I hear you cry?
Because it’s not really that good. Okay – it is good. But just how good?
As an adolescent, fantasy literature was my read of choice, with Terry Brooks’ Shannara series and Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy being my favourites. But I left it all a long time ago. My frustration with the lack of cinematic reproduction of this genre was bordering on painful at the time. In the 80’s Fantasy highlights on the big screen came in the guise of the likes of Dragonslayer, Legend and Ladyhawke. Not exactly great fodder for those lapping up the epic tales on paper. In the 90’s the bar was lowered even further with Connery’s talking dragon in Dragonheart.
As clichéd as it sounds, it wasn’t until Peter Jackson’s mighty Lord of the Rings trilogy hit screens in 2001, with The Fellowship of the Ring that things took a turn for the better. Suddenly alien landscapes, cultures and languages were done justice, with the scale and budget they truly deserved. It’s only a pity I’d left my fantasy obsession behind me the best part of a decade before. Still, I watched and appreciated with interest. Jackson’s Tolkien trilogy was good, but, they weren’t perfect, and the same problems that Game of Thrones suffers from, were evident here. Narrative. It’s all down to the writing. And as hard as screenwriters may try, epic fantasy is never, ever going to suit the big or small screen. And it’s the small screen which causes Game of Thrones to frustrate even more. But more on that later.
Television drama (in the US) has been reinvented in the last 15 years, attracting stars previously only willing to grace Hollywood and the big screen. The reason? Writing. Some of the best screenwriting in any format has driven the success behind the likes of The Wire, The West Wing, The Sopranos, Californication and one of my own personal favourites, Huff. Each of these series framed their characters (and what characters) in unique, but earthly and recognisable situations, providing a backdrop to the individuals telling the stories, while allowing some ongoing (and sometimes incidental) stories to roll along. In some ways the locations are backdrops only – allowing the small scale and intimate details of the characters to play out. Mcnulty is the main draw, not the crimes he investigates – true dat. Okay, so the West Wing is a fantasy of sorts – but there are no goddamn dragons.
It’s the writing which lets Game of Thrones down. Not that it’s bad – in fact some of the one-liners given to Tyrion Lannister in particular, are gems. It’s just the characters are rendered bit parts in a fantasy world that looks good – but not great. Because despite budget and scale – this world is not entirely believable. Why? Because too much time is spent framing characters who, too often, are stereotypes of the genre. Joffrey and Jaime Lannister are nothing more than pantomime villains, Cersei a poor man’s Lady Macbeth and Littlefinger the archetypal scheming villain. Tyrion is the one true character that intrigues. And he is the talk of the town by fans of the show. And by the way, Eddard Stark was Boromir-lite.
As my honourable colleague fairly pointed out – the plots of Jon Snow and Daenerys in this second season were irritating distractions – pulling us from any plots we might care about. No doubt in the novels, they were major draws, but for them to work on the small screen, you’d be better off taking all their individual scenes and editing them together for an hour long episode each acting as an epilogue to the whole series and it would have been better. For this is the problem with epic fantasy, and why it works on the page but not on the screen. Too much is going on. It’s what made the multi Oscar-winning Return of the King the weakest of Jackson’s trilogy, and The Two Towers the strongest. More of the latter was based in reduced locations, before the characters split off on their own epic journeys, which stretched viewing patience beyond acceptable levels. Game of Thrones Series 2 suffered from fragmented stories that diluted their characters beyond anything of any substance.
Game of Thrones looks good on telly, and it’s well acted with some nice dialogue. But it’s too ‘big’ for the small screen, or for itself. It’s ‘wow factor’ is wearing thin. How many people will persevere with it, who knows?
But in the meantime let’s save our celebration for the writing of truly great drama, which needs no massive budget to distract us from what we care about when committing hours of our lives to television – and that’s the characters, for it is they who are the true draw on any TV series. We care about them and grow with them, and for the most part, want to see them based in some sort of reality, because it means more. Game of Thrones is all style, spectacle and shock value, but increasingly often rings hollow.
Having said all that, I suddenly feel massively protective of one of my all time favourites – the re-visited Battlestar Galactica.