Winter Is Coming (Unless You Live in LA)
James Killough reviews the first season of Game of Thrones.
by James Killough
I started on a riff about Game of Thrones yesterday, bouncing off the subject of British accents and how they can make a film seem foreign to the ears of American plebs—i.e., the people who keep flocking to Hollywood dreck and thereby supporting the Great Crap Machine—even if it’s in English. Including the riff meant the Attack The Block review grew to be two reviews in one, and at around three thousand words became seriously tangential and messy, even for a PFC post. So it’s been broken into two.
And now, part deux:
The nuances of British accents are used to pleasing effect—albeit in an esoteric way pleasing to Anglophiles—in HBO’s TV adaptation of Thrones. It’s doubtful that most American viewers, even the non-plebs who can afford premium cable, understand the fact that the dour northern Stark of Winterfell clan and its supporters speak with Mancunian/Liverpudlian accents from the north of England, while the louche, venal southerners from Kings Landing and Castlery Rock speak with ‘received pronunciation’ (RP) accents, or the so-called posh tones of BBC news readers, the royal family and the regions around London, not including thugs in council estates and the like.
The Stark family motto, “winter is coming,” and the whole bleak world of northern Westeros, the fictional land of Thones, is clearly an extended play on the common British expression “it’s grim up north.” To wit, the massive, three-hundred-foot-high ice Wall that separates the Seven Kingdoms from the wild tribes of the north is patterned on Hadrian’s Wall, which was built to protect England and Wales from the barbarous Scottish clans.
The Henrys Higgins among us, who are hung up on esoteric Anglophilia and accents, must be wondering how they are going to react to the series in the UK because one of the leads, the dwarf Peter Dinklage, who has been nominated for a best supporting actor Emmy, is so way off the mark with his RP that I sat there through all ten episodes grimacing every time he opened his mouth, despite the fact that I enjoyed his performance tremendously. But that’s also because the dwarf lord Tyrion Lannister is one of my favorites of many fascinating characters in Thrones. For those of us who have read beyond the first book, and thus the first series, we know that Tyrion isn’t really a supporting role, he is more of a lead, but that will become apparent next two seasons.
Indeed, I have made it through all four paperback books, so I’m taking a breather right now from George RR Martin’s world. I did sit down and watch the entire first season immediately afterwards while the books were fresh in my mind and have the following observations:
I loved Cersei and Tyrion: Despite the problems with his accent, the dwarf exceeds what I imagined him to be in the book in terms of depth of character, and fascination. I’m not just fastidiously quibbling about the accent; well, yes I am, and no I’m not; Dinklage has made up his own posh British accent, and it might be such a problem that HBO should consider bringing in a dialect coach and having Dinklage re-loop the entire performance before its release in the UK.
Or, in keeping with the HBO budgets, they could just tack a disclaimer on the front of each show:
The following program contains an American actor doing an extremely shaky impersonation of a British aristocrat. However, you will appreciate the fact we did find you the sexiest dwarf on any agent’s roster in the United Kingdom and her former colonies, and that we didn’t shrink some normal-sized guy down in post-production like Peter Jackson did with the hobbits in LOTR. If it still bothers you, remember: Westeros is a fictional country only somewhat like the UK, but not entirely, and who’s to say what the equivalent of a Welshman in the Middle Ages sounded like anyway?
At first Cersei’s placid, unctuous indifference was annoying, but she is so evil, and will become progressively worse in later seasons the more she is threatened, that I doff my hat to Lena Headey and her interpretation of the role. Hers is a pitch-perfect, subtle, aristocratic RP accent; well, she’s British. So naturally I thought, surely she must have heard Dinklage running around the set butchering the dialogue. Until you realize she was probably never on set with him despite the fact they are brother and sister, or at most it’s for a couple of takes in one feast scene. Dinklage was left to his own devices with a bunch of northerners and an American director who knew no better, and by the time his father, played by Charles Dance, came on the scene, it was too late, the accent was cemented. Or else Dance just didn’t give a shit; he’s all about the paycheck, anyway.
Everyone is too old, by at least ten years in some cases. In the book, Catelyn Stark (played by Michelle Fairley in the series) ponders that she is only thirty-five, still capable of having a child with Eddard (Sean Bean), who is only slightly older than she is. Both look like they’re in their early fifties in the series. Their daughter Arya is meant to be eight, she looks fourteen (they’ve even had to strap her budding boobs down), son Robb is fifteen in the books, looks twenty-five in the film, and on and on. The biggest offender for the age discrepancy between book and film is Daenerys, who looks physically like the girl described in the book when she is filmed in wide or mid-shot, but in close-up it’s pretty clear she’s in her late twenties, which isn’t a problem per se because she’s a gorgeous woman and a decent actress who gives credibility to perhaps the most outlandish role in Thrones, but in the book she’s supposed to be thirteen. Of course, there would be a legal problem or two having a thirteen-year-old being roughly mounted doggy style every night by Jason Momoa, no matter how historically accurate this work of medieval fantasy tries to be.
The Scripts are by and large sturdy and worthy of the book. They manage to cram it all in there, and apparently without losing any of the meaning or confusing people, while at the same time avoiding too much expositional ‘butler and maid’ claptrap in the first episodes. This may have something to do with the fact that George RR Martin himself is a seasoned TV writer. He has lead writer credit on one of the later episodes of the first season, and this segment absolutely jumps and crackles compared to the rest, which is unusual because, to quote a William Morris agent regarding novelists adapting their own work, “it’s the kiss of death.”
The most miscast: Aidan Gillen as Littlefinger; I’m just not buying him, yet, but it took me a while to get used to him as the young mayor in The Wire, too. However, much as I admire Thrones, it ain’t The Wire in terms of writing and direction, not a patch on it, so I’m not sure how the performance is likely to change given what I know of the character’s progression in the books. Also off the mark are Michelle Fairley as Catelyn—again, too old, and too un-gutsy in general—and Kate Dickie as Lysa Arryn, Catelyn’s sister, who is supposed to be portly. Also, Lysa is meant to be “touched,” but Dickie just makes her look ravenous, a common mistake when you’re performing insanity; i.e., just look bug-eyed at the camera like it’s a rosemary and garlic roast chicken and you haven’t eaten for days. Having said that, those Castle Eyrie scenes with the weirdo son still breastfeeding at nine are really hard not to make campy.
But most miscast of all is Danish actor Niklaj Coster-Waldau as Jamie Lannister. Or it’s his hair that’s miscast. Maybe I read a different book, but I was convinced that Jamie had the same light hair as his twin sister, Cersei, and that it was long. That’s basically what Jamie is, a bad Prince Valiant, not a Just For Men (Light Ash Brown) model like Niklaj.
Best casting: Sean Bean as Ned Stark, but he’s off the show now, unfortunately. Although, one of the best things about Thrones is the fact all the good guys end up in bad ways, so good riddance to good Lord Ned. The next best is Emilia Clarke as Daenerys, and Peter Dinklage (deeply unfortunate last name for a dwarf to have) as Tyrion, again despite his grating accent. It’s a good thing they’re well cast because both characters really spring to life in the upcoming seasons.
Like Jamie’s, Tyrion’s hair is also just a bad dye job. I can’t believe HBO would skimp on real hair wigs. Or maybe Diva Dinklage just threw a fit and said, “No scratchy wig. I will be keeping my own hair and making up my own accent. Fuck you and take it up with my agent if you don’t like it.” At which point Tim Van Patten backed down, saying, “Shhhh. Let him have it. He’s so damned handsome for a dwarf, and everyone at HBO loved him in Station Master.”
Overall, I’m not as wowed by Thrones as others I’ve spoken to have been, but they all seem not to have read the books. There is a certain lack of grace in the production, which I feel is because Van Patten directed the first few episodes, which means he set the tone and the production style for the rest of the series. Knowing HBO, there were no doubt intense budget limitations, but if they’d just brought in a European to direct it, like maybe yanking Neil Jordan off the boring Borgias and putting him on this instead, it would have maintained a grander, more graceful and authentically regal atmosphere. Or maybe that’s just my Ameropean mind, which imagined a grander, more graceful and authentically regal atmosphere when I was reading it, and was inevitably a little disappointed when I watched it.