Apollo: Watch the Throne

Apollo is Woroni’s regular column in which our reviewers offer comment and opinion on cultural questions beyond our individual reviews.


Fantasy fans can be divided into two camps: those who think George R.R. Martin is better than J.R.R. Tolkien and those who concede that he is just as good. Doubtless the Machiavellian-muddled plots of A Song of Ice and Fire have reinvigorated the genre, dispensing with the customary elves, goblins and an easy-to-spot tussle between the goodies and villains, in favour of nuanced characterisation and labyrinthine political intrigue.  The once familiar disparagement that fantasy was somehow nerdy, childish and regressive could at last be put to rest as Martin gave the world its first truly adult fantasy series, splashing in a healthy dose of moral ambiguity and character deaths to keep the over-18s glued to the page. It also helped that the books are actually crack: while you could probably climb up the perilous walls of Storms’ End by stacking each current volume of the series atop one another, the bloodcurdling bays for more are still the constant stuff of Martin’s nightmares and email account.


So thank god for the television show, the nicotine patch for every fan of the books as they await Wind of Winter, and the gateway drug for newcomers who would otherwise have wrinkled their noses at the fantasy genre or decided that blinding themselves over thousands of pages wasn’t exactly their idea of fun (more fool them!). The show is typically cable-slick, with great production values, great directing and uncompromised violence and nudity. Directing for Game of Thrones must be like a second-best dream come true for directors (the best dream being actual movies of course), filming in locations from Iceland to Morocco, the camera bounding across distant kingdoms and foreign lands, zooming in with professional zeal to capture the internal conflict of the characters.


But as seminal TV critic Clive James once said, “it’s the words that count,” and regardless of its cinematic sheen, or for that matter the constant titillation that could keep even the most fitful, hyperactive 13-year-old boy nailed to his chair, if the scripts were flat then the whole apparatus of the show would tumble to the ground. Fortunately with Martin’s books as your bible it’s a mug’s game, the showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss often directly transposing dialogue from the books and making sure that most of the best scenes make the translation onto the screen. Their own stuff, and the stuff of the other writers, is generally good enough to fill in the gaps and even if the dialogue in Martin-penned episodes tower above the other writers’ efforts, there are usually one or two great lines in every episode (‘Blackberry Jam!’, ‘God bless Bessie and her tits!’ and practically everything else Mark Addy’s King Robert said during his brief stint on the Iron Throne).


However that’s not to say they’re completely successful when it comes to adapting the books; often they struggle with the characters’ motives, such as in the first episode of the new season when Tywin starts off calling his diminutive son, Tyrion, a whoremongering wastrel, before telling him not to expect praise for a job well done. Or they become so eager to rush events along that characters will often pop up in the middle of castles without so much as a grappling-hook sequence. And don’t even get me started on the Ros character …


But I’m a fan of the books, so naturally I’m churlish when the show fails to be as good as the books at being the books; and the show is generally pretty good at that too. Surprisingly enough most of the characters burst onto the screen with more vigour then they ever did in the books. Bronwyn, Tywin, Osha and Ser Jorah Mormont are much more rounded and complex then their ideographic counterparts, and Peter Dinklage is magisterial as the troubled black sheep of the odious Lannister clan, even if, as my sister constantly objects, he is too good looking to play the part. Where the characters falter the troublemaker is usually among the twenty-something crowd, Emilia Clarke sparing us any acting as she makes one stentorian yelp after another. And Kit Harrington’s face is so dour and impassive you begin to suspect the cold gales of the North have frozen it in place.


So what to expect from season 3? No doubt the showrunners will remain stolidly committed to George R.R. Martin’s overarching theme that Everything You Ever Loved Will Burn Around You, but viewers should also expect bigger dragons, more magic, more brooding, more character deaths and more of everything they’ve come to love about the show. At least now that the showrunners have decided to only cover half of Martin’s massy third volume, A Storm of Swords, we can hopefully spend less time shifting through all that fantastical trapping and finally get down to the heart of the story: the characters. Oh and fingers crossed that Vargo Hoat and his Bloody Mummers turn up somewhere down the line …


It’s said that we are living in a “golden age” of television; but since critics are already forced to compare the soapy melodrama of Mad Men with The Sopranos, or to place The Good Wife on the same pedestal as The Wire, we can probably tuck away these Augustan days of the cathode-ray box as a brief final fling of the Noughties. But at least while Game of Thrones remains on the air we will still have something truly worth watching every Monday night.

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