Game of Adaptations…..

I’ve been reading fantasy novels for most of my adult life, though in recent years, my tastes have moved away from fiction towards travel books and historical biographies.  Even so, something will cross my radar now and again – such was the case last December when I was visiting my late father in hospital.  He had been moved to (essentially) a nursing facility in Daventry and as a non-driver, this presented something of a challenge in terms of access.  In the end I figured out a convoluted bus and train route that got me there and back OK, but with a good deal of hanging around.  Specifically, I had to wait around quite a lot at Daventry’s  ‘bus station’ – essentially part of a public car park, divided into bus bays.  When doing my regular visits to Dad, I always ensured that I was well-equipped with distractions – iPod, book, newspaper, water bottle, sandwich etc.

Even so, a local charity had opened up a second-hand bookshop in what looked like a disused office right next to the bus bays, so I wandered in one day, emerging  in time to get my bus with a well-worn US paperback edition of George R R Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’, which I’d picked up for £1.  I’d become aware of ‘Game of Thrones’ thanks to a fairly modest publicity campaign launched by Sky TV to publicise the fact that they were screening HBO’s adaptation of the book; an adaptation whose promo posters featured a photo of a rather grim-looking Sean Bean staring out at us and looking for all the world like Boromir with a serious hangover.

Sean Bean  looking grim as Eddard Stark on the novel’s front cover

Dipping into ‘Game of Thrones’  on the way home, I was immediately hooked and have subsequently acquired a DVD box of the aforementioned (first) HBO series as well as systematically working my way through all of the ‘Westeros’ novels currently available.  So, you might say that I’m a fan, though I am some way from being an uncritical one.  I’ll return to the novels later, but I just wanted to pause long enough to express my admiration for the HBO adaptation, which is beautifully ‘dressed’ and well-acted and a worthy addition to all the other excellent HBO series of the last ten years.  Martin is actually involved in the adaptation of his own novels for TV, but only as part of a team of writers, directors and producers.  Collectively, they have done a great job in bringing Westeros to life .  However, not all such adaptations are handled so deftly…..

Back in 2009 I wrote about how,  among the sober volumes of Nevil Shute and   J B Priestley on my parents’ bookshelves, there was one glaring anomaly; a luridly purple hardback edition of ‘Thuvia, Maid of Mars’ by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  I  knew Burroughs’ name from the better-known ‘Tarzan’  books he wrote, but they somehow failed to capture my imagination in the way this one did.   I worked through  ‘Thuvia’ at top speed, then headed off to the local library in search of the remaining volumes in the series.

In 2009, I wrote about the dreadfully lame movie based on Burroughs’ Martian series:  ‘A Princess of Mars’ ( ‘Watching……’Princess of Mars’……..‘ – Dec 2009) Recently, I caught up with the new ‘John Carter’ movie, based on the first novel of the series, but haven’t bothered to blog about it, mainly because I didn’t really know what to say. 

To say that the movie received mixed reviews would be an understatement and whilst I wish I could refute all the negativity………in all conscience, I can’t.  I would have loved it to be a great movie, but sadly it’s just average, rather than really bad.  For me, the main problem with it is that director Andrew Stanton is like the kid who wants to set off all his fireworks at once.  The movie leaps from set piece to set piece without too much regard for pacing, character development or mood.  It’s just one long breathless roller-coaster ride where some aspects of the plot aren’t adequately explained at all, whilst others  are done to death.

Green Martians try to shoot down a Red Martian flyer in Andrew Stanton’s hyperactive ‘John Carter’

Such are the perils of adapting your story from an existing text;  by contrast, George Lucas was able to take his ‘Star Wars’ characters wherever he wanted at whatever pace he chose because the storyline, though a bit derivative and occasionally somewhat cheesy, was essentially his own.  The downside of this of course was that the cheesy element remained right to the very end with the ghastly Ewok ceilidh at the end of ‘Return of the Jedi’.  Tom Bombadil would have fitted right in with that.

Talking of which, in recent years, we’ve seen Peter Jackson and his New Zealand-based team of  actors, technicians, writers, designers, modellers, armourers, builders, costumiers etc, etc at WETA  take down the really big beast on the block with his adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’.  I don’t think I’m alone in believing that Jackson did a pretty good job in re-inventing Middle Earth for new millennium audiences; get rid of Tom Bombadil and some other fringe passages, turn the relationship between Legolas and Gimli into something of a comedy routine and turn down some of the folksiness of the novels, crank up the CGI for the battle scenes….OK,  maybe Sauron and the Nazgul weren’t that scary, but Andy Serkis’  Smeagol/Gollum was inspired and the core cast members were generally first-rate. 

Jackson et al had some trouble with what were generally referred to as the ‘Tolkienistas’  – in summary,  elvish-speaking, self-appointed ‘Defenders of the Faith’ who quibbled with Jackson about plot details and character nuances, locations, elvish script and armour design plus a million other technical details  throughout the lengthy production.  By and large, though, I think most people would say that the action moved briskly along without those big chunks of Tolkienesque exposition to weigh it down and that the attention of the experts (like artist Alan Lee) and the quibbling Tolkienistas ensured accuracy and an attention to detail that surely made the whole trilogy the ‘best-dressed’  series of fantasy movies ever.

The great thing for would-be fantasy directors is, of course, CGI, whether that means stuff that is completely ‘rendered’ on computers, stuff that mixes miniature models and computer-rendered images or men in latex suits covered in lots of sensors, as per Andy Serkis as Gollum in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and both the returning Gollum and Benedict Cumberbatch as the dragon, Smaug, in the forthcoming ‘An Unexpected Journey’, the first part of Peter Jackson’s take on ‘The Hobbit’.   Predictably, it’s becoming very fashionable to raise one’s eyes to the heavens whenever CGI is mentioned and there is no doubt that if used injudiciously (I’m afraid ‘John Carter’ is guilty of this) it does start to look somewhat fake. 

(Spoiler warning…beyond this, there is some discussion of the storylines of George R R Martin’s  Westeros novels , so if you are currently working your way through them, it might be an idea to stop now unless you want some surprises spoilt for you)

 I’m not sure how much CGI is used in ‘Game of Thrones’ – a minimal amount, I would think – because whilst the action of ‘Game of Thrones’ undoubtedly takes place in an invented location,  much of what passes for everyday life in Westeros has more in common with medieval European culture than anything else.  There are no elves or orcs or suchlike – just men, who – at the top end of the food chain – are kings and lords and knights in armour, complete with their retinues of squires and retainers, their fiefdoms and castles, their serfs tilling the fields and so on.

The main ‘fantasy’  (and CGI) element in  ‘Game of Thrones’  concerns The Wall, a monumental structure built by the men of Westeros from huge blocks of ice at some time in the indeterminate past.  The Wall is built across a neck of land in the far north of Westeros with the express intention of keeping out those living to the north of it in what seems to be a sub-polar wilderness of forest and mountain.  There are men here, too, usually referred to as Wildlings, but there is the hint of something else, supernatural beings of enormous potency known as ‘The Others’ , who seem to be growing in strength as Westeros’ lengthy cycle of seasons turns again towards winter.

Riders of the Night’s Watch head north of The Wall in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’

The Wall is – nominally – guarded by The Night’s Watch.  This is a ragtag band of criminals, unwanted bastards and sundry riff-raff, committed to the defence of The Wall for life,  who are hopelessly unequal to the task that seems to be heading their way.

To the south lies Winterfell, the home of the Starks, who are allied to the King and control ‘the North’ for him.  Things start to fall apart when the King heads north to Winterfell with the express intention of recruiting Lord Eddard Stark – Sean Bean’s character in the HBO series  – as the latest ‘King’s Hand’  or chief counsellor.  King Robert and Eddard are old friends and recognising that his enemies – notably his wife and her relatives; the Lannisters – are intent on deposing him, he turns to one of his few remaining trusted allies.  

The Starks are our way into the world of Westeros – Eddard and his wife Catelyn, their children – Brandon, Robb, Sansa, Arya and little Rickon plus Eddard’s bastard son, Jon Snow.  They seem as solid and immutable as the rocks of their Northern hills and a refreshingly down-to-earth antidote to all the politicking and posturing that goes on further to the south in the capital, King’s Landing.  Yet by half way through the first novel, the family is already starting to fragment – Eddard is accompanying the King south to become his Hand and has taken his two daughters with him.  Brandon has been pushed out of a tower window by Jaime Lannister  – because he witnessed him having sex with his sister, Cersei, who also happens to be Robert’s Queen – and is hovering on the brink of death.  Jon Snow has decided to ‘take the black’ and is travelling north to join the Night’s Watch.   Before the novel ends, Eddard is executed , the Starks are scattered to the winds and the whole kingdom is descending into the chaos of Civil War. 

It gets worse for the Starks, too.  Robb takes over from his father and  becomes ‘King of the North’ but is murdered at a wedding feast.  His mother is also attacked at the same feast and left for dead but somehow survives as a ghastly revenant.  Brandon is crippled but is rescued by some kindred spirits.  Sansa is kidnapped and compelled to assume a new identity, Rickon’s fate is unknown and Arya ends up on another continent with a new identity and some potentially lethal skills.  In the most recent book  ‘A Dance with Dragons’, Eddard’s bastard son, Jon Snow, who has risen to become Commandant of The Night’s Watch, is stabbed by multiple assailants and presumably killed.

Is nothing sacred?

It seems to me, using ‘The Lord of the Rings’ as a model, that what Martin has done here in narrative terms  is effectively to assemble his equivalent of Tokien’s ‘Fellowship’, then kill them off  piecemeal before Mordor is ever in sight.  Like George Lucas and his ‘Star Wars’ characters, he is of course entitled to do what he wants, but it is rather disconcerting for the reader to engage with a set of characters only to have most of them killed off in such a way. 

There are two things that make matters worse here; firstly, with the death of Robert Baratheon and the execution of Eddard Stark, Westeros plunges headlong into civil war with about 5 competing ‘Kings’ fighting each other for the right to rule the Seven Kingdoms.  The picture is necessarily confused and readers may struggle to keep up with all the twists and turns.  In addition, the regular demise of major characters means that Martin has to introduce new ones or develop existing ones, with whom we are clearly less familiar.

In this specific regard, Martin is also not helped by his insistence on adhering to an internal structure whereby each chapter is delivered from the specific point of view of one of the characters.  All of which is fine until said characters are killed off or until Martin needs to introduce a major new subplot.  In the latter scenario, we are sometimes asked to absorb major new plot developments as seen through the eyes of a character with whom we are largely unfamiliar.  This sometimes works  OK (Theon Greyjoy & the Iron Islands) but other times works less well (the whole subplot revolving round the court of the Martells in  Dorne.)

Then there is Martin’s wild card;  Daenerys Targaryen, the girl Queen and her three dragons who are now loose and ready to create havoc.  Her subplot concerns her efforts to gather an army on the adjoining continent of Essos and return to Westeros with her reptilian game-changers to reclaim the throne taken from her family by Robert Baratheon.  As things stand , she appears to be stranded in the city of Meereen, learning how to be a Queen.  Her dragons have made her a magnet in terms of men who would seek an alliance with her via marriage or treaty and her story and the destiny of her dragons may well be key in what Martin has said will be the remaining two books in the cycle.

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’

HBO have now made a second series of ‘Game of Thrones’ and such has been its success that further series seem likely.  What may concern HBO is that the whole Westeros saga grows increasingly fragmented and dark as it progresses.  Parallels with Tolkien’s work are tenuous at best – often, events in Westeros are more reminiscent of The Wars of the Roses as interpreted by Lucrezia Borgia. 

There is no doubting the fertility of George R R Martin’s imagination nor indeed his willingness to confound reader expectations by killing off major characters at regular intervals.  Nonetheless, the fragmentation of the Westerosi  kingdoms into anarchy and mayhem and the emergence of major new characters and  narrative threads have pushed Martin’s ‘point of view’ chapter structure beyond the point where it is useful.  Once the story progressed beyond the first two books, Martin was dealing with a geographically dispersed narrative and levels of detailed plotting that required manuscripts of unwieldy size and length if he was to adhere to this structure.  His decision to split the stories of certain characters into separate books  rendered an already complex storyline even more so.  I can’t help but feel that the overall impact of the novels has been diminished as a consequence.  The next novel in the cycle,  ‘The Winds of Winter’  is allegedly due this year and I will freely admit to a fervent hope that he is going to be able to start pulling the threads of this enormous and complex saga together. 

‘Game of Thrones’ and its sequels undoubtedly represent the most high-profile sequence of interlinked fantasy novels for years – probably Stephen Donaldson’s cycle of Thomas Covenant novels were the last cycle which exhibited such ambition.  However, whereas Donaldson painted himself into corners by virtue of  the complexities of his plot,  Martin’s bête noire seems to be the internal management of his storylines.  Hopefully, it will all work out well for writer and readers alike in the end.

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