Friday, July 29, 2011

Taking Out the Improvements: "Game of Thrones" & HBO

I had a lively a post-mortem conversation about Game of Thrones, the recently concluded HBO mini-series, over dinner with my friend Neil last night. Afterward I thought about a meeting I took at a Hollywood studio many years ago. They were looking for someone to adapt a certain well-known thriller to the screen.

“What’s your take on it?” the executive asked me, after we had settled down on the couch with our spring water and coffee. In other words: discuss your vision of the film, and the changes you plan to make that will brand it as your own project and the unique product of this company.

I had heard this same question too many times; or maybe I’d just had too many cups of coffee that morning.

“My take,” I said. “Is to be true to the book and not fuck it up.”

“Excuse me?”

“You spent millions of dollars to buy this book. Smart move. It’s well written, it’s well plotted. It’s exciting and it makes sense. I suspect the author knows more about story telling than I do and I’m certain he knows more about story telling than you do. The architect who designed this building probably knows more about how it was built than the tour guide who strolls past it every day. So I’d respect that.”

You guessed it: I didn’t get the job.

And they filmed the book and, put their stamp on it and ruined it, as they so often do. I was right in that meeting but it’s hard to make the case in any positive way because so few adapted films show any fidelity to their source material. “The book was better than the movie” has become a cliché for good reason. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Looking back to films as diverse as Women in Love, The Lord of the Flies and The Godfather, or more recently, the filmed versions of a variety of books, from Darkly Dreaming Dexter to Lonesome Dove, you can see the benefits of trusting the original author.

Of course those last two projects were mini-series, multi-part productions devoted to presenting a single work. If you want to avoid tragic cuts and drastic re-structuring, this is clearly the way to go.

Which brings me to A Game of Thrones.

I had heard about George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire but dismissed as one more tedious sword and sorcery epic, a Dungeons and Dragons drone for the reading impaired. I watched the first episode on HBO because I trust the cable network to make interesting shows. It soon became clear that this was no ordinary Tolkien retread. There was sex in it, for one thing; and many of the most interesting protagonists were children. I assume they’ll grow up as the story continues.

Westeros, the world presented in this ten-hour version of Martin’s first volume, is harsh and brutal and unforgiving. A King’s last will and testament is torn up like last week’s shopping list by the usurpers taking the crown; the foreign born queen carrying a king’s baby is blithely informed, as the King succumbs to festering wounds “If he dies, you’re nothing.” Characters who try to act decently get beheaded for their trouble. In many ways Westeros resembles the New Jersey of The Spopranos far more than Middle Earth or Narnia. There is magic but it only manifests itself as terrifying wraiths from the northern lands beyond the great wall. There were dragons once, but all that remains of them are some calcified eggs. Winter is coming and it can last for decades.

What illuminates this grim landscape, what makes this bleak narrative so exhilarating, is the characters, and the tough choices they make in the face of the ruthlessness and desolation around them.

Eddard Stark, the noble and well intentioned second-in-command to the bulging, blunt and boisterous King, Robert Baratheon; his children … Robb., the eldest, not quite ready to become a King in The North, as his ancestors called themselves; his younger half-bother, the bastard Jon Snow, committed to the Night’s Guard and a life of isolation and chastity guarding the wall; fourteen year old Sansa, madly in love with the creepy Prince Joffrey; eleven year old Arya, a classic tomboy studying fencing and determined to live her own life; and Bran, nine years old, irrepressible human fly, crippled after a being pushed from the wall of high tower after overhearing Queen Cersei Lannister and her awful twin brother Jaime plotting treason. There are other Lannisters, including the dwarf Tyrion, played by Peter Dinkelage in a show-stealing, emmy-grabbing tour-de-force performance. There are Tullys, too and Targarayens, including puny Viserys, who sells his sister Daneyris to the Dothraki Horse Lords in hopes of using them as an army to reclaim his throne. That doesn’t work out too well, at least for Viserys, who gets ‘the golden crown’ he longs for, Wars of the Roses style: a tub of molten metal poured over his preening, conniving little head.

The show is brilliantly cast, with actors -- even in the most minor parts -- attentively chosen, with one eye on the text. Yes, yes …Tyrion is described as ugly, and Dinkelage is astonishingly handsome, but I’m sure George Martin doesn’t really mind. Apart from anything else I’m sure there are thousands and thousands of readers just like me, brought to his books by the series, and multiplying the sales of A Song of ice and Fire exponentially with every new episode.

Reading the first volume now, I’m continually amazed by the rigor of HBO’s fidelity to the written word. Martin himself must be stunned, watching the series, at the precision and detail, from the look of Arya’s little sword, 'Needle', to the choreography of her fencing master’s last stand against the King’s Guard. Martin must approve – he even wrote one of the episodes himself. David Benioff, the main writer, is a novelist himself. That might have something to do with it.

Hard as it might be for the average film executive to understand, no ‘take’ was required here. Playwright George S. Kaufman famously sent telegrams to his cast from the back of the theatre. I suppose he’d text them today. “Am standing at the back of the theatre. Wish you were here.” One of the most famous of his acid messages went: “Dress rehearsal at 10:00 A.M. tomorrow, to take out the improvements.”

Well, no improvements were made here; no ‘fresh ideas’ or studio notes. No characters were softened or made more lovable or given better ‘arcs’. And the mini-series, which trusted its source material so completely, succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, almost tripling its audience in the course of its run.

Naturally, such success has its own built-in liabilities. “I can’t believe I have to wait two years to find out what happens next,” Neil said to me last night.

But he doesn’t.

There are four more volumes available right now at every bookstore in America,

The next one is called A Clash of Kings.

I’ll be starting it tomorrow.

No comments: