A Game Worth Watching

I think it was about 18 months ago, or it might have been even longer, that Timenn and I were chatting in IRC about books. It turned out we both share similar interests in fiction so were swapping titles to give each other a few new items for their wish list. I think I recommended Adrian Tchaikovsky’s (then new) series Shadows of the Apt – and I recommend it to anyone who likes good fantasy novels – and in return, he suggested George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series.

Somehow, I’d never heard of this guy, and I have to confess that after a couple of searches had informed me that he was known as “The American Tolkien”, my heart sank. I love J. R. R. Tolkien’s stuff. I got a copy of The Hobbit on my 11th birthday. I know this for a fact because my copy has the message “For Robert on his 11th birthday & for passing to L.R.G.S. 26/4/84, From your father and mother – We hope it will not be too hobbit-forming!” Unfortunately, this last hope proved false, because Tolkien was to prove hugely habit-forming over the years. Since then, I’ve read Lord of the Rings over 30 times, learned huge chunks of The Silmarillion by heart, read all the Unfinished Tales and every other book Christopher Tolkien released, and generally become a bit of a Middle Earth nerd – although not, I must emphasise, enough of a nerd to learn Elvish. The reason I mention this is not just to establish my nerdly credentials, but to help you understand why somebody described as a Tolkien has got a hell of a lot to live up to.

It doesn’t take you long to realise that the comparison is total rubbish. It always is. Whenever anybody is described as “The New X”, it’s merely lazy journalism. Lionel Messi is not “The New Maradonna”, Wayne Rooney never was “The New Michael Owen”, and George Martin isn’t “The New Tolkien”. He and Tolkien both write rather good fantasy novels, but that’s all they have in common – apart from the two “R”s in their initials. When I read A Game of Thrones, the first book in the series, I was impressed. A lot of fantasy books seem to have been written from a cliché checklist: ancient fight between good and evil? check; low-born character eventually saving everything? check; improbable love interest? check. Many books fall into the trap of thinking they’re mysteries, so we get sudden plot twists for no good reason. This isn’t necessary: was anybody really expecting Frodo would fail to destroy the ring, or that Harry would fail to kill Voldemort? An ending that you’re expecting isn’t a Bad Thing by default – a book is about the journey, not the ending.

Anyway, so the books were good. That’s not why I’m writing this. The point is that the books have been made into a ten-part TV series on HBO called Game of Thrones after the first book. For once, we can see it in the UK with only a 24-hour delay instead of the usual months or years, but only if you subscribe to Sky Atlantic. Obviously, if you don’t subscribe it would be totally wrong to download the episodes using BitTorrent from the huge number of sources that appear within minutes of the program ending on Sunday evenings (US time).

The series gained a lot of hype on the Internet, and when you see the sort of clips that were released ahead of time, it’s not difficult to see why. It stars Emperor Martin Boromir Sean Bean, who gives a typically good performance as Lord Ned Stark. A lot of the other cast members are British too, the locations are all in Europe (Ireland and Malta, mainly), which raises the question “Why can’t the bloody BBC make stuff like this?” Unlike most of the BBC’s output these days, which seems to target the 10-15 age bracket and hopes that adults will be interested too, Game of Thrones sets out its stall from the first moments as Adults Only. After about ten minutes of the first show, the corpse count is already in double figures and we’ve had two beheadings. That’s not even the most outré moment, the award for which probably goes to a scene where a dwarf is in bed with four naked prostitutes. Yup, this isn’t for the children. Now I’m not advocating sex and violence for the sake of sex and violence. It’s just good to see a program that doesn’t set out to be safe for once. The disregard for safety can be felt in the story too. It doesn’t take long before you have three or four different stories all progressing at the same time. Too many films and TV shows assume that the audience can barely follow one story, so this is a major departure.

I’ve waited until three episodes have come out before saying anything because I wanted to make sure that the quality stayed high. So far, so good. If you don’t watch this program, you’re missing a real gem.

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