Tuned In

I Have Seen 15 Minutes of Game of Thrones

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I’m not at TCA press tour where it was screened, but had a chance to stream the very, very impressive 15-minute preview reel of Game of Thrones that HBO put together. (No sharing permitted, alas; above is a preview featurette that HBO aired.) After the jump, a few impressions—don’t call this a “review,” because anyone can make nearly anything look good in a selection of clips. Nothing particularly spoilery, though some of it may make less sense to those who haven’t read the original books:

* Visually, the thing looks fantastic, start to finish–keeping in mind that I watched the video streaming on an iPad, so can’t vouch for how the finished product will look on TV. The art direction is going to be very important to creating the context the show needs—i.e., somewhat familiar yet recognizably other—and the Westeros they’ve created feels in keeping with the A Song of Ice and Fire novels. It looks vaguely European, medieval rather than Renaissance in its details, but with the occasional and natural reminders that this world has a different cultural and historical background: for instance, the recurrent imagery of the number 7, for Westeros’ concept of a god in seven parts, and the details which seem to borrow from Mediterranean and other influences as well as European.

* One visual quibble: a couple of scenes look particularly green-screeny, a flaw which could be corrected in the for-air version. Also, while no adaption is going to match anyone’s mental image of a novel, I always pictures the ASOIAF universe as looking a bit grottier and dirtier than what I see here. (And for whatever reason, Jaime’s Kingsguard armor is not white—at which point of criticism I need to get off the Nerd Patrol before someone gives me a swirlie.)

* Though I’ve read the books, the trailer re-impressed on me just how damn much story there is in them. Even the vast Lord of the Rings boiled down to: evil spirit thing threatens to take over the world, powerful ring has to be destroyed to kill him. Here, you have to introduce a multi-part power struggle, a murder mystery, a supernatural threat and a story of a royal exile playing out on a separate continent—and that’s just the first book/season. (In retrospect, it was a smart move taking the series title from the first book, which gives everyone the most basic thumbnail idea of the story: a military/political/psychological struggle for power.) Still, the 15 minutes (which I believe covered more than the pilot) did a good job of connecting the Daenerys storyline with the bulk of the action.

* The preview was a mix of trailer-style clips and extended scenes. So far the more impressive performances (besides Sean Bean and Mark Addy, who seemed rather no-brainers for casting) include Emilia Clarke as Daenerys and Michelle Fairley as Catelyn. Light on representation were Peter Dinklage (whose role, if he plays it as well as one expects, should be a series breakout) and the various Stark kids, who, assuming the adaption is as faithful as it looks to the story, will each become key. (Arya, in particular, will be an especially challenging role, and we saw almost nothing of her.)

* Not yet sold on Lena Headey as Cersei, though that may have been scene selection; as Jaime, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau—for R’hllor’s sake, are there no easy names to spell in this production?—is nicely oily as Jaime, though (quibble again) his haircut looks oddly contemporary.

* My biggest concern going in were the Eastern Continent scenes, which (though to me they’re among the most fascinating parts of the books) ran the biggest risk of hokey Orientalism. I was most pleasantly surprised: Clarke is really commanding and conveys Dany’s transformation well. (That is: she can read a line like: “I am a khalessi of the Dothraki! I am the wife of the great khal, and I carry his son inside me!” without it sounding ridiculous.) And the scenes felt more thematically connected than I expected—though, again, that’s tough to really assess in a trailer.

* The political struggle aside, ASOIAF has a vast backstory, mythology and ongoing supernatural stories to rival LOTR or Lost. For non-fans, in a nutshell, a previous empire hundreds of years ago (think ancient Rome before the Dark Ages), pushed magic too far and brought on a “Doom” that destroyed it and threw the seasons out of whack; now men believe that the days of magic, and creatures like dragons, which once existed, are past. They may not be; for one thing, there are mysterious stirring in the far north, beyond a massive wall built ages ago to keep out an invasion of various inhuman beings. The 15-minute preview keeps all this mythology to teasing glimpses and references, and if the first season does as well (as the first book did, to an extent), it may not be a bad move: better, perhaps, to draw people in first with the recognizable power struggle, sexual intrigue and murder mystery, before the story scales up.

* Speaking of scaling up: the Wall? Wow.

* My fanboy perspective aside, GoT will have to impress viewers who haven’t read the book. What I suspect they’ll see is something a bit different for HBO: a series without the gritty realism of most of the channel’s dramas (in that even Carnivale took place in recognizable Depression America) but without the camp of True Blood. The challenge—amid a milieu that is obviously fantastical and some sets that look unavoidably stagey—is to give the series the grit and stink of real life, and to sell itself seriously without seeming self-serious. (Some of the exchanges feel stiff and drawing-roon-drama-esque, which the series should avoid.) That will depend not on special effects but performances and George R. R. Martin’s story, which has the advantage of being very HBO-like in sweep, themes and content. A line like “The King shits, the Hand wipes” (the Hand being, essentially, a prime minister or head of government) does a lot to both convey the political reality of Westeros, and to let you know that this is not Gandalf talking. So far, so good.

Any specific questions? Put them in the comments and I’ll see if I can answer.