Random Analysis: Game of Thrones Poster

As a fantasy devotee, an incisive critic of media inspired by literature, and someone hungry for a quality show to cover on a weekly basis that I can follow from Day One, I’ve naturally been thrilled for the upcoming launch of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Based on the first volume of the legendary fantasy series by George R.R. Martin, “Game of Thrones” is a series that seems primed to follow the success of “Boardwalk Empire” and “Treme” and continue HBO’s drive to once again sit at the top of the cable TV drama pantheon. I’ve been trying my hardest to avoid any sort of exposure to the show, because I want my experience going in to be as clear-eyed as possible – no cast information, no stills or trailers, nothing.

(To clarify, I am currently working my way through the first book and I will have it read in time for the series launch, but won’t be going any further than that until at least the season finale. For something this sprawling I believe a little context is important, but I don’t want to spend my reviews needling what shockwaves every little change will mean four books from now.)

That said, even I was unable to resist the siren song of the reveal of HBO’s official poster for the first season, which the network unveiled today. After taking some time for the appropriate geek fawning, I wanted to talk about what it’s done to gear me up for the series premiere next month.

Pretty, isn’t it? From a general perspective, this definitely cements that HBO is going for a very cinematic, epic feeling for this show. It has the appropriate dark lighting, the ubiquitous black bird in the Corvus genre perched on the throne, and the series’ definitive saying (beyond “Winter is coming,” which will be the pilot’s title) in medieval themed font.

And from the adaptive critic’s perspective, the titular throne is masterfully rendered. King Robert Baratheon complains about how “damned uncomfortable” the throne is early in the book, and it certainly looks it: forged from the swords surrendered by enemies of the monarchy, purposely kept sharp to keep the king from sitting complacently. It definitely matches the haphazard yet imposing mental image I had when reading the book, and it reaffirms some other reports I’ve heard of just how much time and effort the team is spending to make sure this show looks like the real thing.

That said, the poster does illustrate one comment I do have about the show. It’s not exactly a complaint, but a minor concern that could easily hamper my enjoyment of the series: the selection of Sean Bean as Eddard “Ned” Stark. This is no criticism of Bean, as I think he’s a terrific actor and I’ve loved him in every role he’s done – I’d argue he was the best Bond villain of the last 20 years, and even in limp films like “Troy” you’re guaranteed a certain degree of gravitas.

The problem though, is there’s one role of his I loved in particular, and one that has an almost uncomfortable resemblance to his new position as lord of Winterfell: Boromir in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Look a little too close to comfort for anyone else? And beyond the cut of clothes and facial hair, the characters themselves have their fair share of personal similarities: more than competent fighters, a similar drive to do what must be done themselves rather than delegate, and a streak of pride and honor that quite easily turns into a tragic flaw.

My problem here isn’t that I think Bean is a bad choice for Ned – indeed, a friend of mine whose contagious excitement got me to read “Game of Thrones” has informed me Bean’s been the front-runner for that role amongst a not-insignificant group of Martin readers. And certainly, Bean’s performance as Boromir was a solid one in a very solid cast – you could see the pride and loyalty to Gondor that led him to clash with Aragorn, the affection he had for Merry and Pippin, and the tension giving way to rage that led him to try to take the ring from Frodo. (Though he did lack the foresight to bring his shield along at all times – seriously, his forgetfulness was even more damning than his pride.)

But I digress. The problem here isn’t that he’s playing this iconic fantasy character, it’s that he’s playing a fantasy character who looks and at times behaves almost identically to the fantasy character he’s most identified for. “Game of Thrones” has a lot riding on it as a series – first major fantasy epic on TV in ages, ridiculously expensive and heavily promoted – and I’m not sure that the best way to start is to work on the side of those who might dismiss it as “Lord of the Rings” on TV. Yes, as fantasy credentials go, you can’t get better than that, but it’s just too close for comfort for me starting out. (I’ve also always pictured Ned with darker hair, but now we’re just nitpicking.)

But as I said above, I’m purposely withholding my major judgments on the show until I see a completed episode start to finish (and you’ll be able to read those judgments starting April 18, as I’ll be recapping the previous night’s episode for the full first season here at A Helpless Compiler). And the overall impression of the poster is certainly positive enough that I’m willing to work harder on cognitive dissonance.

Plus, if Ned remembers when to carry a shield, that alone will tip the scales.

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About Les Chappell

The Mad Hatter of media criticism. Co-founder of This Was Television, contributor to The A.V. Club, founder of A Helpless Compiler and The Lesser of Two Equals.
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2 Responses to Random Analysis: Game of Thrones Poster

  1. Lou Kream says:

    Great post – I’m likewise pleased with the imagery of the Iron Throne. The art directors absolutely nailed it. The throne itself is a fantastic metaphor for how power corrupts and even harms those who wield it, especially for leaders like Robert who grow lackadaisical (or “sit complacently”).

    Bean’s LoTR credentials are a cause for concern. It’s easy to dismiss those concerns by maintaining that any and all fantasy media will forever be compared to LoTR, but his Ned looks a lot like Boromir, and that forms an uncomfortably direct link.

    My take is that (1) He is indisputably the best actor for the roll, and (2) His casting will motivate the writers to put more effort into distinguishing the show from LoTR, which is a promising thought. I am as big a LoTR fan as anybody, but as a fantasy devotee, what I love most about “Song of Ice and Fire” is how dramatically it departs from the conventional mold. The threat of Bean’s Gondorian past undermining GRRM’s unique flavor means that there must be a lot in the show to continuously remind us that this isn’t LoTR. HBO and the writers are smart enough to recognize this threat, and they will counter appropriately.

    What will this translate into onscreen? Grittier violence, lots of sex, moral ambiguity amongst principal characters, the employment of limited amounts of magic in a believable and non deus-ex-machine role, and not-necessarily-happy endings. In this sense, casting Bean was a huge asset, not only because he’s a competent actor, but because his presence is a red* herring. The layman viewer is going to note his presence and assume this is a conventional fantasy series….and they will never enjoy being wrong more.

    *Good of you to note that they got Ned’s hair color wrong. Bean’s Ned has reddish-brown or auburn hair. In the books, GRRM is big on pointing out that Ned has darker hair. Jon Snow and Arya have Ned’s darker features, whereas Sansa and Robb have auburn hair like their mother, Cat Tully. This is an important distinction and a mouth-wateringly good foreshadowing.

  2. Pingback: Back and Forth: On Game of Thrones, Season Two and Spoiler Culture (with Andrew Daar) | A Helpless Compiler

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