Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Game of Thrones

Not since "Rome" and "The Tudors" wrapped have I felt so strongly about a dramatic series set in a time long gone. Unlike the two series mentioned, the new drama on HBO, "Game of Thrones," is not a real world or historical period drama, but an adapted drama based on the construct of an imagination that was born to tell a grand, great yarn.

I came to this as a George R.R. Martin virgin, never reading his written word.

This series will just grab you and not let go. Creator and author George R.R. Martin is a son of Bayonne, New Jersey, a working class kid who penned a genre of fiction that never hooked me as a young reader. His prose - and the fantastical fantasy fiction world in general - was never on my reading list. As someone who lives for "Justified," "Sons of Anarchy" and "Dexter," my kind of televised fare is bathed in gritty realism, noir humor, dense story with superb casts.

Yet after watching six episodes of this HBO masterpiece, I shall now go and find everything he has ever written to savor.

"Epic" and "enthralling" are overused words in reviews, yet feel dead-on accurate to describe the emotions and feel of this lush yet stark (how can a cinematographer achieve this feat?) cool filtered layered study in power and honor, human kindness and cruelty, and all the foibles and flaws of humanity wrapped up in the "Houses" of the mythical Westeros realm.

There are good, bad and ugly characters in Martin's bestselling fantasy book series "A Song of Ice and Fire," that "Thrones" is based upon, and the producers carefully filled these larger than life roles for the HBO effort.  In a phone interview this last week, I asked George R.R. Martin about this feat in casting, and about some of the standout players: Kit Harrington as Jon Snow, Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister and Sean Bean as Lord "Ned" Stark.
"The casting of those two characters in particular were very different. When I had that initial meeting five years ago with (David) and (Dan), we kicked around some casting ideas. You know, some of the usual dream casting and some of the people that we’d had in mind. And there were two characters that we were all in perfect accord there, even five years ago and that was Sean Bean as Ned Stark and Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister."

"These were our first choices. Really, our only choices far and away for those roles. So we never even auditioned for the part of Tyrion Lannister. When we got the (green series) they just went out and got Peter Dinklage. And he was the only one we ever wanted. We knew he would be great for the role and, thankfully, we landed him. And he’s magnificent. He’s a fabulous addition to the show and he’s a joy to work with."

Martin continued. "The part of John Snow was much different. We kicked around a few names for it, but we really didn’t have anyone strongly in mind. And it’s younger role so you need an actor who’s relatively new. And we looked at a lot of young British actors for that part. Some of the actors who are playing other roles in the show - you know, smaller roles - initially came to our attention because they read for the part of John Snow."

"So we looked at many people and Kit Harrington really, really stood out. He was one of the strong contenders right from the first. He had a great look for the character. His performance was wonderful. And, of course, most of his prior work - his biggest thing was the British stage play, a thing called War Horse which I believe has just come to Broadway as well. And he was very acclaimed in that and we knew about that. And he was another fabulous find for us."

"So there were many people involved in the casting process. But I was certainly one of them right from the beginning on pretty much every role. I had a voice," concluded Martin.

Unlike other fantastical tales where ladies in lakes rise arms up bearing swords and Hobbits abound with hairy feet, chased by one-eyed monsters, this fantasy is very human and real, and the character development and execution is so amazingly well done, many showrunners and writers need to watch and take notes.

Everything in Thrones excels: Costuming, makeup, production design, storytelling, astoundingly good acting and great visual effects. No missteps or wasted frames.

Writers and executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss did exceptional work in collaboration with Martin. Director Tim Van Patten gives us a visual feast of extremely beautiful exteriors (Ireland and Malta).The story of "Thrones" at the outset seems daunting but is easily shaped and presented so you have a clear understanding of how they interrelate, and their histories.
House Stark dominates the North, where the great wall is their charge, to protect the rest of the kingdom. "Winter is coming" is their salvo, and means much more than just bone breaking cold. Stark has married into House Tully through Ned's (Sean Bean) wife Lady Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), Catelyn's insane sister Lady Lysa (Kate Dickie) now heads House Tully of the Riverlands.

The platinum blond family of House Targaryen is a kingdom without a home, the last of the ancients who were the dragon masters. Princess Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) is given up by her pervy sadistic brother (Harry Lloyd) in a strategic marriage to warlord Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) as the battle to rule the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and reclaim the Iron Throne is afoot.

House Baratheon and House Stark are joined together, with Ned (Bean) serving King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy). House Lannister is married to House Baratheon by Queen Cersei Baratheon's (Lena Headey) marriage to King Robert. Cersei is the evil, duplicitous wife of Robert, and she absolutely hates the Starks. The standout Lannister is of course Tyrion Lannister, played so beautifully by Peter Dinklage, it will be always considered one of the best roles of his lifetime. Tyrion's lack of height is dwarfed by his enormous sex appeal, and capacity to think on his feet and strategize, but not in such a wholly evil and conniving way his incestuous brother and sister do.

Tyrion's got a soft spot for things broken and less loved. Dinklage owns every shot he is captured in. Bravo.

With expert writing, pace and precision you are introduced to these unforgettable characters. It will not confuse, but pull you headfirst into a wonderful drama that makes you wish HBO aired this series in three hour blocks.


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