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George R. R. Martin

HIS DARK MATERIALS: a slick adaptation lacking in magic (Season 1 – Review)

Until the BBC, in league with HBO, decided to tackle Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, it remained one of the greatest, unfilmed epic adventure stories in modern literature.

There was, granted, an attempt in 2007 with The Golden Compass, directed by Chris Weitz, but despite starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and a host of talented thespians in support, it failed to capture enough critical acclaim & audience imagination (and crucially box office) to warrant adapting not just Pullman’s first novel, Northern Lights, but the subsequent two sequels – not to mention launch the career of star Dakota Blue Richards, playing central heroine Lyra Belacqua. On the face of it, His Dark Materials should be a slam dunk as a success story; a plucky heroine, a quest narrative, magical realms, talking bears, witches and megalomaniacal villains. Except it isn’t quite that simple.

Though this kind of genre may lend itself to family friendly entertainment, a Harry Potter-esque story of good vs evil, Philip Pullman’s books are incredibly dense, complicated and challenging pieces of world-building crammed with the kind of philosophical ideas that your JK Rowling’s or George Lucas’ do not touch. His Dark Materials, over the three books, goes to some seriously dark places – the climax of Northern Lights is built on such a moment. Adapting these books is not nearly as easy as they may look from the outset, bucking convention in the ideas Pullman presents. The Golden Compass proved one film was not enough space to pull this off. The BBC’s His Dark Materials suggests even an eight-part television series might not be up to the challenge.

As despite the fact Jack Thorne’s scripts put everything from the first novel (and a bit from the second) on screen, the first season of His Dark Materials lacks the key component present in Pullman’s writing: magic.

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Game of Thrones – ‘The Long Night’ (8×03)

It would be remiss of me, as an enormous Game of Thrones fan, to let the final season go by without sharing some thoughts week on week.

I’m conscious, however, that full and in-depth critical analysis won’t truly be possible until the finale has aired, at which point I’ll be going back and starting to tackle Season 2 and working back toward the end. I have already deep dived Season 1, as you may remember, and they will probably get a polish once the entire show is completed.

My plan then, in the spirit of George R. R. Martin’s books, is to write up thoughts on each character journey and use them as a prism to explore each episode. With a show like this, built heavily on theory, escalation and payoff, this feels like one of the best ‘in the moment’ methods of reviewing the show – indeed I did just that for Season 6 in my days writing for Flickering Myth.

Right then! Grab a flaming sword, head to the ramparts, and let’s face the inevitable… while BEWARING HEAVY SPOILERS!

Game of Thrones – ‘Fire and Blood’

DAENERYS TARGARYEN: I am Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, of the blood of old Valyria. I am the dragon’s daughter, and I swear to you that those who would harm you will die screaming.

The first season finale of Game of Thrones starts with the sight of blood, and ends in a vision of fire. Living up to its title, ‘Fire and Blood’ sees the culmination of the beginning of A Song of Ice and Fire on screen. The scene is set. The players have been introduced, at least the initial core who will carry through until the very final season – Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Arya Stark, Bran Stark, Sansa Stark, Cersei Lannister, Jaime Lannister and Tyrion Lannister – and Game of Thrones has fully established itself as a TV phenomenon in the making.

What these final two episodes of the first season, both directed by Alan Taylor, establish is that Game of Thrones also will not cleve to a traditional TV narrative structure. Besides only running for ten episodes a season, a trend show runners David Benioff & D.B. Weiss would set off across the burgeoning range of cable networks and streaming services over the next decades, Game of Thrones’ final episodes of a season are always structured much like epilogues. Traditionally, the finale has been where the biggest shocks take place in television, where character’s fates are decided, and often cliffhanger endings (hence the colloquial TV term which slipped into popular-culture) which will be resolved in the premiere of the following season. 

This structure feels like a hold-over from continuing drama or soap opera, whereas Game of Thrones always, appropriately, structured its seasons like a novel. ‘Fire and Blood’ ends where George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones ends, with the world established and the characters all heading down roads that will define them next season and beyond. ‘Baelor’ contained the biggest jaw dropping moments – Ned Stark’s execution, the Battle of the Green Fork (even if we never saw it), the death of Khal Drogo – whereas ‘Fire and Blood’ is about consolidating these points of no return and placing the chess pieces in this broad game in place for Season 2, and the show’s adaptation of Martin’s A Clash of Kings. It is very much a prelude for the war to come.

Game of Thrones – ‘Baelor’ (1×09)

NED STARK: You think my life is some precious thing to me? That I would trade my honor for a few more years… of what? I grew up with soldiers. I learned how to die a long time ago.

Numerous precedents are set by Game of Thrones with ‘Baelor’. It is the first episode to be directed by Alan Taylor, who would make his name as one of the key, signature directors of the first two seasons. It is the first penultimate episode of the series to establish the show’s unique narrative style of delivering a blockbuster climactic tale just before the season finale. And it is the episode which killed off not only the biggest name actor in the series, but the character everyone began watching Game of Thrones convinced was the protagonist. By now we knew Game of Thrones had its own set of rules. ‘Baelor’ confirms it.

As I’ve discussed in my breakdowns of the previous episodes this season, Ned Stark has been heading for the chopping block since the moment he arrived in Kings Landing, and there has always been a sense in Sean Bean’s weight-of-the-world performance that Ned knew it. This was a noble character in a world without nobility, a feudal system which may ostensibly be ridden with stories of dashing, daring, brave heroes, but is shot through with a realistic, cynical modern day sensibility in George R.R. Martin’s world-building which often heaps scorn on the kind of characters who would try and live by rules of courtly, honourable behaviour.

Cersei Lannister told Ned just a few episodes that you either win at “the game” or you die, but Ned never really knew how to play that game at all. He was a character straight out of a different world, which was precisely the point; the moment he concedes he may have to start playing, not to win but rather to survive, his life is quite ceremoniously cut short. It’s just one of the stark (pun intended) ironies of Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones – ‘The Pointy End’

VARYS: Ah, the children. It’s always the innocents.

One of the interesting aspects of ‘You Win or You Die’, which I failed to mention in my analysis of that episode, was how the children were completely eliminated from view, at least the younger children who will prove so crucial to the central narrative of Game of Thrones. ‘The Pointy End’ redresses this balance by re-framing the episode from the perspective of a future generation who will shape the future of Westeros, so it is perhaps quite appropriate this is the first script to be written by George R. R. Martin.

Martin is, of course, the creative force behind this entire mythological world. As writer of A Song of Ice and Fire, he has devoted over the last twenty years of his life to the vast, sprawling narrative which began in A Game of Thrones in 1996 and will likely conclude with A Dream of Spring sometime, you would hope, before the Sun exhausts its fuel and the Earth crumbles to dust. Martin is a notoriously slow writer, even for someone putting together such a magnum opus at this – a short A Song of Ice and Fire novel tends to run at around 600-700 pages. Indeed one of the reasons Martin didn’t write an episode of the TV series after Season 4 is precisely because fans were hounding him, day and night, to finish The Winds of Winter, reputedly the penultimate book, which as of writing still remains to be published.

Game of Thrones – ‘You Win or You Die’

CERSEI: When you play the game of thrones, you either win or you die. There is no middle ground.

If ever you wanted to point to an early episode of Game of Thrones which would serve as a mission statement for the iconic series to come, outside of ‘Winter Is Coming’, you could do worse than point to ‘You Win or You Die’. It is, in many senses of the word, a game-changer. The episode firmly establishes the key, central ideological concept at the very heart of George R.R. Martin’s opus, and it’s one we may already have strongly suspected: we are watching a very powerful and very deadly game in progress.

Though it contains a number of extra elements, ‘You Win or You Die’ can be seen as a clearer successor to ‘The Wolf and the Lion’ than ‘A Golden Crown’ was to the developing narrative. It takes many of the political and Machiavellian ideas established in the fifth episode and builds on them, moving the season firmly toward what would constitute a climactic end game which will play out over the final three episodes, depicting in broad strokes the ending of the book A Game of Thrones and leading very clearly into the adaptation of sequel A Clash of Kings, which will form the basis of the second season. Fates are sealed in this episode with more certainty than they have been for some time, yet the majority of what happens feels inevitable. David Benioff & D.B. Weiss’ script simply brings into focus many more thematic concepts that have been gestating since the season began.

Game of Thrones – ‘A Golden Crown’

VISERYS TARGARYEN: Who can rule without wealth, or fear, or love?

As we move into the second half of Game of Thrones’ debut season, two of the most central concepts of George R.R. Martin’s saga begin to assert themselves in deeper ways: children and lineage. ‘A Golden Crown’ is an episode filled with the lingering shadows of lost childhood and assumptions, or presumptions, of birthright.

David Benioff & D.B. Weiss present, of course, probably Game of Thrones’ first true watershed, “OMG they just did that!” moment with the horrendous death of Viserys Targaryen, given the titular ‘golden crown’ by Khal Drogo when he finally pushes his luck a little too far with the Dothraki, who take his demands just a touch too literally. Game of Thrones would of course top this many times over – Ned Stark’s shocking execution in ‘Baelor’ at the end of the first season would be the next, and the one the series will forever be immortalised for is the so-called ‘Red Wedding’ in the third season’s penultimate episode ‘The Rains of Castamere’ – both examples of which cement the idea of the penultimate episodes of Game of Thrones always provide the biggest shock events or battles, before a calmer, scene-setting finale. We’re some way from that yet. Right now, Game of Thrones just pulled a flanker in the sixth episode.

Game of Thrones – ‘The Wolf and the Lion’

NED STARK: “Jon was a man of peace. He was Hand for seventeen years, seventeen good years. Why kill him?”
VARYS: “He started asking questions.”

Halfway into the first season of Game of Thrones and establishment is beginning to give way to narrative momentum. ‘The Wolf and the Lion’ may not, on the face of it, be as action-packed as some of the previous episodes, and certainly not many of those to come, but in many respects it serves as the lynchpin of the first season and the core of David Benioff & D.B. Weiss’ adaptation so far. Once again, the title says it all. Wolf and Lion. Stark and Lannister. The Dragon will form the culmination of this triptych, but not yet. We don’t see any sign of a Targaryen at any point in this episode.

That doesn’t mean, of course, they are not central and crucial to the conversations and conspiracies swirling around King’s Landing. We spend more time in the Westeros capital in this episode than we have in any other, principally because Benioff & Weiss are beginning to pull the threads of George R.R. Martin’s novel ‘A Game of Thrones’ which lead directly to his next book, ‘A Clash of Kings’, which would form the basis of the second season of the show.

At this stage, their adaptation is faithful. The majority of beats are being followed, characters being established, and storylines being developed, with the odd exception of creative license for television purposes; Littlefinger & Varys’ sparring, the much lauded scene between Robert Baratheon & Cersei Lannister for example, or bulking out the homosexual relationship between Ser Loras Tyrell & Renly Baratheon, more suggested in Martin’s novels.