Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The Game's Afoot

Having watched "Winter is Coming" last night (after a intense half-hour panic after Sky Player refused to show the preceding documentary), I think a number of my (as admitted at the time) unreliable preliminary fears about the show have been allayed.  On the other hand, at least one new concern has raised itself.  More after the jump.  There are spoilers, but only for the first episode.

First up: I really enjoyed the show.  I was pretty deeply enthralled the whole way through, and given I was watching it in a slightly chilly beer garden next to a humming ventilation system, that's saying something, headphone clad though I was.  It certainly worked as a companion piece to the first ten or so chapters of the book.

So I walked home feeling pretty happy about it all, and texted The Other Half to say so. 

Her response got me thinking.  Her first question was this: was it as good an adaptation as The Walking Dead?

Regular readers (with good memories) will know that this is not an easy question for me to deal with, mainly because The Walking Dead followed three exceptional episodes with three reasonably mediocre ones (and from now on, there'll be spoilers for TWD.  If we try a more fair comparison of "Winter is Coming" and "Days Gone Bye" (from now on, there'll be spoilers for that as well), the answer is: absolutely not.

Even in this comparison, though, we run into problems.  As far as I can see, the most important two questions when considering an adaptation (beyond "Did you enjoy it") are a) did it manage to do the source material justice and b) did it manage to stake out its own territory.  In both cases, the answer to a) is "Yes".  Perhaps that's immediately a point in favour of "Winter...".  As much as I love TWD as a series, it doesn't hold a candle to ASoIaF, even when we allow for it being so totally different in tone, structure, story and medium.  Looked at it from that angle, you could argue that the better something is in its original form, the more credit you should get for not fucking that up.  On the other hand, the better something starts off as, the harder it might become to not bastardise it. So let's call it a draw.

It's the second issue that leaves "Winter..." behind "Days...".  What made the latter such a remarkable slice of television was how expertly Frank Darabont confounded our expectations.  A zombie story with no (on-screen) deaths?  When the only times the main character is in direct danger (as oppose to "zombies on approach") are at the end and the beginning (and that was a highway shoot-out rather than undead attack)?  This, it told us, was a new kind of zombie tale, something the comic didn't manage for at least another dozen issues.

Further, the additions to the story weren't just tacked on, but essential in their own right.  Darabont took Morgan and Duane, two characters in the book that are barely anything beyond expositors, and uses them to ask one of the most important - and heart-breaking - questions the show must deal with: how do you put down the zombies who were once your family?  The brief conversation between Rick and Shane regarding the state of the former's marriage is just as vital - the first hint of what is to come.

In short, Darabont took a slow, almost ludicrously decompressed comic book, and span it out into a glorious hour of television. Van Patten, Benioff and Weiss, in comparison, seem to have essentially compressed the events from the prologue through to Bran's fall, and attempted to record them as faithfully as possible.

Obviously, that's not exactly a terrible strategy.  We also know from Martin himself that the creative team had pushed for twelve episodes rather than ten, which would have allowed an extra twelve minutes for something other than touching base with the key plot points.  Even so, the end result is something that's more workmanlike than anything else.  Of the entire first episode, only the White Walker ambush in the Haunted Forest struck me as anything more than perfunctory.  That still holds up as an excellently-crafted scene (though I think Jamie was right about the blue eyes being too neon, there's also a bit too much of Peter Jackson's Army of the Dead about them), which contrasts with the rest of the episode.

In fairness, everything south of the Wall was essentially talking heads (bonking aside, and aside from anything else, Peter Dinklage is absolutely perfect as Tyrion), so perhaps I'm expecting the impossible.  There are other things to recommend it, too, like the occasional flashes of familial connection between the characters (Stark trading good-natured barbs with King Robert, Arya pushing Bran aside and winding up Sansa).  These are quite lovely, and very different to the brief impression gained from the preview.

So, yes.  Generally speaking, pretty damn good.  I'm just hoping that as the weeks go on the show starts to become its own entity, rather than just 95% CliffsNotes to 5% fornication.


Jamie said...

Sigh, I wish I could be discussing this with you, but I will only be able to watch the first four episodes when I'm back in the country. Very much looking forward to it though!

Anonymous said...

What options are there for those of us who abjure Murdoch-owned enterprises? Will it be out on DVD soon do you think?

SpaceSquid said...

It will be out sometime between the end of S1 and the start of the now-confirmed S2. That's all I know right now.

Jamie said...

HBO tend to be pretty tardy with their dvd releases, so it will probably be out very shortly before the second season starts airing.

Of course, there are other options, though none of them exactly legal... pretty easy if you are that way inclined though.