I Am DB

February 19, 2017

Oscars 2016: And the Nominees Are…

Filed under: Movies,Oscars,TV — DB @ 6:15 pm
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(Class of 2016 photo from Annual Nominee Luncheon. Click image to enlarge and actually see who these people are.)

Complete List Of Nominees

With everything going on in the world, it seems particularly frivolous to spend the kind of time I do writing about, reading about, and thinking about the Academy Awards. But I’m much better equipped to talk about this than I am about the more important things going on, and since there are countless people vastly more qualified to discuss and dissect and spotlight those things — some of those people in my very own family — I’m going to stick with what I’m good at and focus on something that makes me happy, since every day there are a dozen reasons to cry.

Actually, that may not be the most ideal way to draw the line, since looking at recent movies also gives us a dozen reasons to cry. Lion, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea — which delivers one of the most devastating scenes of this year, or last year, or 1983, or 1971…I could go on — these are just some of the movies that lately gave us reasons to cry. But these are cathartic tears, the kind made possible by art’s capacity to move us. Good tears, in other words.

Once again, I’m pretty late with this post – external forces are partly to blame this time — but Oscar voting only started last Monday and closes on Tuesday, so somehow I feel like that lets me off the hook a little bit. I’m not sure why voting didn’t start much sooner after the nominees were announced, but oh well. We’re here now. Phase Two of awards season began at the unfathomable hour of 5:18am on Tuesday, January 24, when the nominees were unveiled in a two-part video produced by the Academy. This was a departure from the tradition of having the nominees announced live by the Academy President and an actor or actress in a room full of journalists and publicists at the unfathomable hour of 5:38am. The video featured past Oscar winner and nominees — including Marcia Gay Harden, Ken Watanabe, Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and writer/director Jason Reitman — talking about their experiences, interspersed with a lady robot reading off the nominations in each category. It was a nice experiment, but maybe could be adjusted in the future, as it wasn’t entirely successful. The interviews included some trite, “most amazing moment of my life” kind of recollections, and the revelation of the nominees themselves were even more dry than they typically are in the live format. At least with an audience you get some gasps and cheers. Here, just that alarmingly neutral female voice. There weren’t even pictures of the films or actors as each nominee was read. There’s got to be a way to have a little more fun with this kind of format, and to maybe get a couple of those participating actors to actually read the nominees. Filming ahead of time obviously makes that difficult since the nominees can not be revealed until that morning, but making magic is what Hollywood does. I believe in you, Academy! And whatever you do, bring back Gabourey Sidibe, cause she was the best part of this thing.

As for the nominations themselves, I was a pretty happy man that morning, as much as I can be at the unfathomable hour of 5:18. Not only did I do pretty well with my predictions, but there were several cases where I might have missed a call but found one of my personal picks nominated instead. There were at least three times where I audibly exclaimed, and I don’t remember that happening in many an early Oscar morning. Of the 19 categories in which I made predictions, I went 100% in five (Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Animated Feature, Best Makeup and Hairstyling), and missed by one in 11. I’m good with that.

Here are some thoughts I had on certain categories…

BEST PICTURE
These Best Picture numbers keep getting the best of me. After three years of nine nominees beginning in 2011, I continued predicting nine, but the last two years yielded only eight. So this year I went with eight…and they nominated nine. I did get those eight correct, and right up until publication I was debating whether to add Hidden Figures —and whether to add it as a ninth, or slide it in and take out Fences or Hacksaw Ridge. I decided to stick with eight and keep my initial list intact, but it was great to see Hidden Figures included. It’s a satisfying crowdpleaser bolstered by terrific reviews and genuine social and historical significance that hit its stride at exactly the right time, in the middle of the voting period. The rest of the line-up went as pundits seemed to expect. I could have seen Fences or Hacksaw Ridge having lost enough momentum to be passed over, but they held on.

BEST DIRECTOR
As is usually the case, the Academy’s picks did not perfectly align with those made by the Director’s Guild of America (DGA), and I was correct that it would be Lion helmer Garth Davis who missed the cut. I thought Martin Scorsese might get the fifth slot, but instead it went to another previous winner, Mel Gibson. This seemed to surprise many people, but not me so much. The industry’s warm embrace of Hacksaw Ridge since its early November debut, and Gibson’s inclusion in the award season melee — from Golden Globe and Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA) nominations to a seat at The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual roundtable of directors — were high-profile evidence that the industry had accepted Gibson back into the fold and moved on from the public displays of bad behavior that so damaged his reputation over the past decade.

Then again, Gibson was never quite the pariah during these past years that everyone seems to think he was. He’s always had A-list friends in his corner — like Jodie Foster and Robert Downey, Jr. — who stood by him and expressed their firm belief that the person who did and said those things is not the person Gibson is at heart. Beyond that, he continued to find employment. Foster directed him in the The Beaver; he starred in the Warner Bros. revenge thriller Edge of Darkness, which was a modest hit in 2010; and he took on the antagonist roles in the popcorn action flicks Machete Kills and The Expendables 3. They aren’t exactly Hamlet, but they have an audience. So Gibson never fully went away; he just hasn’t been this openly welcomed in a long time. Perhaps the applause that greet his name when this category comes up on Oscar night will be a bit quieter than that of his fellow nominees; surely not everyone in the room will have forgotten past events. Or maybe his name will be greeted as enthusiastically as the others. The fact that he got the nomination is a victory.

I also need to mention Arrival director Denis Villeneuve and how great it is to see him score his first Oscar nomination (he directed 2010 Best Foreign Language Film nominee Incendies, but that award goes to the country, not the filmmaker, so although he would have accepted the prize had the movie won, he wasn’t the nominee). I’ve been high on Villeneuve since he landed on my radar with his 2013 kidnapping drama Prisoners, and he was among my personal picks in this category last year for Sicario. This guy is a fantastic director, fully in command of the medium and the stories he’s telling. He wasn’t among my personal choices this year, but I only recently had the chance to watch Arrival for a second time, and I definitely got more out of it this time. I might have included it personally in several categories if I’d had a chance to see it twice before the nominations. Whether I would have included him or not, I’m excited by his nomination.

BEST ACTOR
Of the five nominees, Viggo Mortensen was the one who felt the most vulnerable going in, even with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) nomination under his belt. But he made it, along his four fellow SAG contenders, and I have to acknowledge it, because Viggo Mortensen is awesome. A great actor and class act all the way (scroll to the end of this recent interview for his story about the dinner he organized for his Captain Fantastic kids after the SAG Awards). He’s one of those actors — Sigourney Weaver, Ed Harris, Bill Murray and Michael Keaton are others that come to mind — who I really really want to see win an Oscar, so with every new role they take on that sounds like it has that sort of potential, I get excited for them and hope that the movie and performance are good enough, and catch the right wave of attention and bring them into the award season orbit. He’s not going to win, but I love that he got the nomination.

I was also happy to see Andrew Garfield score his first nomination. It should have been his second, but he missed out in 2010 for The Social Network. His character is Hacksaw Ridge is a tricky one, so unflappably earnest and pure that he could have come off as laughable. But Garfield found his way into the character’s core and sold the role 100% and then some. It’s been great to see him celebrated for it throughout the season.

BEST ACTRESS
The biggest surprise of the morning in terms of an expected nomination that did not come to pass was easily Amy Adams’ absence from the Best Actress list. It’s perplexing for a couple of reasons. One, as I mentioned in the previous post, the Academy adores Adams. Two, the movie was obviously embraced across the Academy, with recognition above the line — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay — and below the line, from Cinematography to Sound Mixing. Given how central her performance and her character’s emotional state is to the entire fabric of the movie, her omission is rather stunning. With nominations not only from nearly every critics organization during Phase One, but also from key bodies like the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (distributor of the Golden Globes), BFCA, SAG and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), Adams was considered nearly as sure a thing as sure things Natalie Portman and Emma Stone.

We have to remember, though, that each branch nominates its own, so looking at all the other mentions Arrival earned doesn’t ultimately matter. One hand doesn’t know what the other is doing, and although Adams missed out amongst her peers, I’d wager she collected plenty of votes and came awfully close to making the list.

The question of who took Adams’ perceived spot has a different answer depending on how you saw the nominations going. Some might say it was Elle‘s Isabelle Huppert. By this point in the season, however, I felt Huppert was a good bet. So to me, the surprise is Ruth Negga. She didn’t came out-of-nowhere, having remained consistently in the mix since Loving‘s early November release (in fact the buzz for her and the movie really started last May at the Cannes Film Festival). But given the number of compelling performances that could have been nominated this year, Negga had become a longer shot, and she represents the only nomination received by Loving. I was thrilled to see her recognized, as she was one of my personal picks, but it was a fiercely competitive field, and any number of actresses deserved a spot only to miss out. Chief among them in my eyes are Rebecca Hall and Annette Bening. It was never expected to happen for Hall, unfortunately, but Bening was firmly in the running, so her omission is tough to take. She’s wonderful in 20th Century Women — dry, relaxed, introspective…I’ve never seen her play anyone quite like the character she plays here, and I’m sad she wasn’t honored for it.

I certainly would have preferred to see Bening over Meryl Streep, who earned her 20th nomination, breaking a record previously held by Meryl Streep. I love Meryl as much as anyone, and I enjoyed Florence Foster Jenkins quite a bit — more than I expected to. I have nothing bad to say about Streep’s performance; there was just stronger work this year that deserved recognition.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
One the most pleasant surprises among this year’s nominations was Michael Shannon, recognized for his intense, oddly comedic and sad portrayal of a West Texas detective working a case sometimes outside the boundaries of the law. Shannon earned strong reviews and awards buzz when the movie came out, but as the season unfolded it was his co-star Aaron Taylor-Johnson who took people by surprise with the most visible recognition (though Shannon was nominated by the BFCA). Taylor-Johnson was nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA award, and pulled off a huge upset by winning the former. That had led most pundits to expect that if anyone from Nocturnal Animals managed a nomination, it would be him. So it came somewhat out of left-field when Shannon’s name closed out the Academy’s list of Supporting Actor nominees. It’s the actor’s second nomination — his first was in 2008 for Revolutionary Road, opposite Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet and Kathy Bates — and in both cases he came up from behind as a long shot. Many people thought he’d be in the running last year for the drama 99 Homes after he earned Golden Globe, SAG and BFCA nominations. It didn’t happen, but his peers celebrated him this year even without any of those accolades boosting his visibility. The nomination is even more surprising because it represents the only one collected by Nocturnal Animals, a film which several other organizations honored in multiple categories. BAFTA was especially high on it, citing it in nine races.

If anyone is seen as missing out at Shannon’s expense, it’s probably Hugh Grant. He received career-best notices for his work opposite Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins, and odds looked good for him to receive his first nomination. Some pundits seem to think that category confusion may have cost him the honor, as his Golden Globe nomination came for Best Actor (Comedy or Musical) while his other nominations – SAG and BAFTA among them – were for Supporting Actor. I’m not convinced this was a factor. The Golden Globes have a bit more room to play with given their separation of drama and comedy, but Grant’s role pretty clearly is a Supporting one, and I’d be surprised if those Academy voters who did include him on their ballots did so in the Lead Actor category vs. Supporting.

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BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Cheers to the writers for honoring the bizarre and imaginative screenplay for The Lobster, by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou. It didn’t pick up any other nominations, but its premise and execution had to earn it a place here. Hell or High Water, La La Land and Manchester by the Sea were all favorites, but it was tough trying to surmise what might get the fifth spot. I guessed Captain Fantastic, and I know that was a popular choice among other players of this game. I’d have been pleased with that, but I was also happy to see Mike Mills nominated for 20th Century Women, which begins with the great idea of a single mother enlisting the help of two other women in her life to help educate her teenage son in how to be a good man. Mills’ mother was the inspiration for Annette Bening’s character, just as his father inspired the character that Christopher Plummer won an Oscar for playing in Mills’ previous film, Beginners. His script is personal, warm, and generous to all of its characters. Terrific choice by the branch.

It’s also worth pointing out that Hell or High Water writer Taylor Sheridan got his first nomination, a year after missing out for Sicario, which as mentioned above was directed by Denis Villeneuve. That movie should have brought nominations for both of them. Nice to see them both here this year.

BEST FILM EDITING
I was a little surprised to see Manchester by the Sea miss out on this. This category tends to include the leading Best Picture nominees whether or not they seem to feature the most effective editing, but Manchester does take a somewhat non-linear approach to its story by withholding details of the event that defines Casey Affleck’s character when we meet him. It isn’t until midway through the film that we learn what happened to him, and even then the story is doled out in small fragments within a single sequence.

One nomination of note: Joi Mcmillan, co-editor of Moonlight, becomes the first African-American woman nominated for an Oscar in this category. With the #OscarsSoWhite movement still active in calling attention to the scarcity of women and people of color in behind-the-scenes positions, this recognition is great to see.

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Another of my audible exclamations on the morning of the nominations came when Passengers was nominated for Best Production Design. Not only was it among my five personal picks, but I specifically made a point of praising the movie’s design and wondering why no one was talking about it as a contender in this area despite the Academy’s frequent recognition of more traditional “spaceship” movies. Too often, movies that aren’t seen as the Academy’s cup of tea are overlooked in areas where they nevertheless stand out, and not given the consideration they deserve. Although it was released at the height of awards season, Passengers was always a commercial play more than an awards one, but good for Academy voters who gave it a look and recognized its achievement in specific areas, regardless of its overall reception or its intended audience. Further demonstrating the movie’s achievement in this realm: The Art Directors Guild handed Passengers the prize in their Fantasy category, where it topped Arrival, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Doctor Strange and Rogue One.

This is one of two categories where my predictions were off by two; I got Arrival, La La Land and Fantastic Beasts; I missed Jackie and Silence. But those two slots went to Passengers and another of my personal picks, Hail, Caesar! (its sole nomination), so I have no complaints.

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BEST COSTUME DESIGN

The nominees here include Jackie, a movie I would have nominated in several categories (sorry, Aunt Geri). This, however, was not one of them, even if it was among my predictions. I would agree that Jackie boasts some of the most striking and beautiful costumes onscreen this year, but when many of those costumes are re-creations of already famous outfits — even iconic, in the case of the pink suit from the day of the assassination — then it irks me to see the results, however impressive, honored over work that didn’t have the benefit of countless photographs and even film footage to guide the design team. While clothes that Mrs. Kennedy wore in more private moments might have had to be imagined, many if not most of the outfits in Jackie are based on things actually worn by the former First Lady and those around her. I don’t want to minimize the difficulties, challenges or ultimate achievement that go into re-creating the design elements — be they costumes or sets — of true-life events, but when you’re singling out the five best achievements of the year, it has always seemed unfair to me when films that had the advantage of historical evidence are celebrated over original works.

Original work like the kind featured in Kubo and the Two Strings, whose vestiary praises I sung in the previous post. Failing to nominate the exceptional work in Kubo — which would have made it the first animated film to receive such an honor, though not the first to deserve it — was a huge missed opportunity for the Costume Design branch. I would love to know if it got a lot of votes and lost by a small number, or if there weren’t many voters who gave it serious consideration. I have to believe the former, because I don’t see how anyone who works as a costume designer and takes their craft seriously could fail to pay due attention to such sumptuous work.

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BEST ORIGINAL SONG
In the previous post I mentioned that with so many strong contenders in the mix, the category probably couldn’t handle three songs from La La Land, which would mean the exclusion of John Legend’s contribution, “Start a Fire.” However I had forgotten the current rule that no more than two songs from a movie can get nominated, so as it turned out the category really couldn’t handle three. But the two expected tunes from La La Land — “City of Stars” and  “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” — made the cut. With 91 songs to choose from, there are obviously a lot of ways for this category to go, but I’m pretty disappointed by the absence of Sia’s “Never Give Up” from Lion and especially “Drive It Like You Stole It” from the sadly underseen Sing Street – omissions that are all the more frustrating when they were partially kept at bay by Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” from Trolls. Okay, everyone loves JT, and the song was an instant hit when it came out last May (seven months before the movie’s release, to capitalize on its summery vibe). It was the best-selling song of the year in the U.S., and it’s fun and energizing and will probably make for a great production number on Oscar night that will have the crowd grooving. But c’mon, this song is the the sugariest stick of bubblegum you could imagine. I’m not saying a song has to be deep or particularly substantive to deserve an Oscar nomination, but “Drive It Like You Stole It” is just as infectious as “Can’t Stop the Feeling” — more so, to my ear — and definitely more interesting lyrically. It doesn’t strive to be much more than a catchy pop song either, but it has a little bit more to say than “feel the music, get up and dance.”

Oh well. What’s done is done. But you should go watch Sing Street. Right now.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Another of my most pleasant nomination surprises came in this category, and once again it was for Passengers. I mentioned Thomas Newman’s score in my predictions post, but didn’t think it had much of a chance. I even lamented that I pushed it off of my personal picks, but it was right there for me, essentially on even ground with the five scores I did pick as my own choices. Newman is Hollywood royalty (his father Alfred is one of the most famous film composers of all time, whose work includes this brief but iconic piece) and a beloved composer who has been nominated in this category 12 times before (and maddeningly, is still seeking his first win). Whether or not his stature among his peers helped him this year or they just dug the music, it was a nomination I was happy to see. Ditto for Mica Levi’s Jackie score, which was also one of my personal picks, but one I thought might be too odd and untraditional to penetrate deeply enough into the ranks of the music branch. Happily, they surprised me. Less happily, they also surprised me by passing over Abel Korzeniowski’s lush, romantic Nocturnal Animals score, which has a classic, old-school Hollywood feel that I thought would be a big appeal to this crowd. Maybe it was, but not enough so to crack the final five.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Most people with an interest in visual effects were probably surprised by the inclusion of Deepwater Horizon, and I would have been too had I not attended the branch’s Bake-Off event, as I discussed in the previous post. Hearing the VFX supervisor talk about his team’s work made me realize how deserving the movie was, and I was glad the voters felt the same way. The bigger question mark was whether or not they would honor the stop-motion animated Kubo and the Two Strings. I wasn’t sure they would, as my predictions showed, nor was I sure they should, as my commentary expressed. But despite my mixed feelings, I have to say that seeing the movie show up on the list of nominees brought me a big smile. Even though I didn’t include it among my personal picks, I knew what a triumph it was for everyone up at Laika Entertainment to receive this nomination — only the second ever for an animated film.

I thought the spot that ended up going to Kubo would be given to Arrival, given the branch’s frequent tendency to nominate at least one “prestige” film. Among the ten films left in the running when the Bake-Off was held, Arrival was the only one in serious running for Best Picture and other top awards, so history led me to expect it among the final five. The movie’s visual effects look great, but in a tough year that also could have resulted in deserved nominations for Passengers and Captain America: Civil War, I think the final picks represent a terrific array of work.

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BEST SOUND MIXING AND BEST SOUND EDITING

When discussing the sound categories in my predictions post, and the wide array of films from which they could come, I named 16 titles that I thought represented the field. Even with that many, I still left one off that ended up getting nominated for Sound Mixing: Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, a movie that came out way the hell back in January 2016, the day after last year’s Oscar nominations were announced. I was an idiot not to have kept this movie on my radar; Bay’s movies tend to do well in the sound categories, and had I remembered it, I definitely would have had it among my list of movies to consider, whether or not I’d have ultimately predicted a nomination. So that was a glaring oversight on my part.

I didn’t include La La Land in my predictions for Sound Editing because musicals and music-centric movies never get nominated here. Sound Mixing, yes. Sound Editing, no. I knew this movie could potentially be the one to change that, but I went with precedent. Sure enough, it came through, pushing La La Land to a record-tying 14 nominations, and ruining all future chances when making predictions in this category of saying, “Musicals never get nominated for Sound Editing.” So thanks for that, Academy. As if this isn’t hard enough…

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
As usual, I didn’t make predictions in this category, having not seen any of the films in the mix. But I was aware of the movies in the running, and aware that one of the most frequent winners from critic’s groups was O.J.: Made in America, a nearly eight-hour sociological deep dive into the life, professional career and downfall of O.J. Simpson. The project was created for television as part of ESPN’s acclaimed 30 for 30 series, but because it was briefly exhibited in movie theaters in New York and Los Angeles, it qualified for Oscar consideration and made the cut. Count me among the contingent that finds this unfair. Yes, technically the movie qualifies. But this was not created to be a theatrical documentary, and it’s not right that other films — which were intended to be films (not epic television projects) and had to work within a traditional theatrical running time — should have to be measured against a piece that had hours more to explore its subject and tell its story. Regardless of how good it is – and by all accounts it’s an incredible piece of work – it shouldn’t be considered alongside other films whose directors had to make harder choices about what to sacrifice and what to focus on. The movie is considered the frontrunner, but if I were one of the other nominated filmmakers, I’d find it extremely frustrating not to be judged on a relatively even playing field.

On a more positive note, the great Ava DuVernay — who should have been a Best Director nominee in 2014 for Selma — is a nominee now for her doc 13th, which argues that the mass incarceration of African-Americans is effectively the continuation of slavery. Hopefully this is the first of many Oscar nominations DuVernay will collect in time. (By the way, 13th‘s distributor Netflix has addressed the disparity in running time with O.J.: Made in America by putting out billboards and banner ads that highlight its more traditional length.)

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Now then…I can’t wrap this post up without commenting on one aspect of this year’s nominations that has already been frequently-discussed. Much of the reporting in the minutes and days after the announcement centered on the inclusion of several actors of color among the nominees, as well as three films in the Best Picture category focused on African-American characters. Many outlets were quick to declare #OscarsSoWhite a thing of the past. This year’s nominations indeed take us in the direction we should be heading, but let’s not be too quick to declare Hollywood a post-racial paradise of inclusion.

First of all, none of these movies — Moonlight, Fences or Hidden Figures — arrived in theaters as a reaction to the past two years’ unfortunate lack of diverse stories and performers nominated for Oscars. Movies take a long time to make. They take a long time to write, a long time to gestate and develop, and a long time to land financing. That’s all before the cast and crew takes shape and the movie actually gets shot and then edited and assembled in post-production. It doesn’t happen in a year’s time. It seldom happens in even two years’ time. That means these movies were already in the works. If anything, they may have been put on an accelerated track for release to ensure they hit theaters within a year of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, but whenever they were going to arrive, the important thing to remember is that they were going to arrive.    Whether or not they would have gained traction with the Academy in a different year would be subject to all the other movies in the mix, but you can safely bet they would all still have been in play. The fact remains, however, that the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag will be hiding in the wings, ready to be dusted off and displayed again anytime the year’s most celebrated movies do not reflect the diversity of the real world.

Of course, directing that rallying cry at the Oscars was misguided from the start, as the problem is not with the Oscars but with the studios and producers who decide with their millions of dollars what movies get made. The more movies depicting varied cultural, racial and sexual characters and experiences, the more likely that audiences will find those movies, that critics will champion those movies, and that award-giving bodies will honor those movies. It’s all about what gets made. That’s where the focus should be. The Academy has been making big moves toward diversity for longer than the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag has existed, and as positive and important as those moves are, they’re not going to solve the problem of more diverse representation at the Oscars. So by all means, enjoy the representation featured among this year’s  nominees, but don’t yet claim the battle for diversity is won. Let’s see how things look in two years, four years and beyond. That’s the test.

Now with that said, let’s end things on a fun note…assuming that you find any of this fun. Each year in my Favorite Movies of the Year post, I put forth some nominations for Oscar categories that don’t exist but are fun to consider. Unfortunately I haven’t managed to complete one of those posts since the 2013 list, so I’m transferring my fake Oscar categories here instead. From my one-man Academy, which is not bound by the five-roster rule, my categories and nominees are:

BEST POSTER

[Larger Versions: The Birth of a Nation (Noose); The Birth of a Nation (Flag); Patriots Day; Certain Women; 13th; The Handmaiden; Jackie; Pride & Prejudice & Zombies; De Palma]

BEST TRAILER
Fences (Teaser #1); La La Land (City of Stars Teaser); La La Land (Audition Teaser); Zoolander 2 (Teaser)

BEST CASTING
Captain Fantastic – Jeanne McCarthy
Hell or High Water – Jo Edna Boldin, Richard Hicks
Indignation – Avy Kaufman
Little Men – Avy Kaufman
Loving – Francine Maisler
Manchester by the Sea – Douglas Aibel
Moonlight – Yesi Ramirez
Other People – Allison Jones
Silence – Ellen Lewis

BEST ENSEMBLE
20th Century Women; A Bigger Splash; Captain Fantastic; Fences; Hidden Figures; Manchester by the Sea; Moonlight; Nocturnal Animals; Other People; Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

BEST BREAKTHROUGH PERFORMANCE
Julian Dennison – Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Alex R. Hibbert – Moonlight
Madina Nalwanga – Queen of Katwe
Sunny Pawar – Lion
Lewis McDougall – A Monster Calls
Angourie Rice – The Nice Guys
Trevante Rhodes – Moonlight
Ashton Sanders – Moonlight
Neel Sethi – The Jungle Book
Hayden Setzo – The Edge of Seventeen
Theo Taplitz – Little Men

BEST BODY OF WORK
Mahershala Ali (Free State of Jones, Hidden Figures, Moonlight)
Michael Shannon (Complete Unknown, Midnight Special, Loving, Nocturnal Animals)
Michael Stuhlbarg (Arrival, Doctor Strange, Miles Ahead, Miss Sloane)
Rachel Weisz (Complete Unknown, Denial, The Light Between Oceans, The Lobster)
The Woods (Captain Fantastic, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, The Jungle Book, The Lobster, Pete’s Dragon, Swiss Army Man, The Witch)

BEST SONG SOUNDTRACK
20th Century Women; Deadpool; Everybody Wants Some!; La La Land; Sing Street

BEST OPENING CREDITS
10 Cloverfield Lane; Deadpool; Nocturnal Animals; A Monster Calls

BEST CLOSING CREDITS
A Bigger Splash; Deadpool; The Jungle Book; Kubo and the Two Strings

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July 16, 2016

“Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture”

Filed under: Books,Movies,TV — DB @ 4:45 pm
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“Great literature is not great literature until it’s been made into a movie.” – Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, June 7, 2013
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There’s a deleted scene from Pulp Fiction (included in the published screenplay and among the DVD’s special features) in which Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace first meets John Travolta’s Vincent Vega and videotapes an interview with him, with the intention of getting to know him before they head out for the evening. She explains that one of her standard questions in these interviews is whether the subject is a Beatles person or an Elvis person. “Now Beatles people can like Elvis, and Elvis people can like The Beatles,” she says. “But nobody likes them both equally. Somewhere, you have to make a choice. And that choice tells you who you are.”

I feel the same way about books and movies. You can like both, but you can’t like them equally. Maybe you think you can. But you can’t. You’re either a book person or a movie person.

Way back in 2011, while I was putting this blog together and getting familiar with WordPress, I came across a post titled, “Why I Hate (Even Good) Movies Based on Books,” in which the blogger, R.H. Culp, expressed his frustration with books being adapted so often to film. As a writer of books himself, Mr. Culp is clearly a book person, and was asking why a book couldn’t be allowed to simply exist as a book. I wanted to leave a comment, but my thoughts were too long and my time too short, so I decided I’d just save it for my own eventual post on the topic.

Six years later…

I love to read, but it’s obvious to anyone who knows me and most who see me pass them on the street that I’m a movie person. And as a movie person, I have to start by pointing out just some of the movies we wouldn’t have if books were never adapted for the screen. The Godfather. The Wizard of Oz. Gone With the Wind. Jaws. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Silence of the Lambs. The Princess BrideApocalypse Now. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The Shawshank Redemption. Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Die Hard. The Lord of the Rings. The Graduate. Blade Runner. Mary Poppins. Dracula. Frankenstein (and by extension, Young Frankenstein). Brokeback MountainThe Exorcist. Nearly every film made by Stanley Kubrick, including Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining. More than half of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, including Rebecca, Psycho, Vertigo and Rear Window. The entire James Bond series.

I could pretty much rest my case right there and feel that I had more than justified the practice of adapting books into movies. The topic, however, merits more than that, and my intention is not to deliver a glib rebuke of Mr. Culp’s position. I understand his feelings. After all, this is a popular and enduring debate that dates back to the Stone Age, when an ambitious caveman first took the symbols chiseled on a stone tablet and translated the text into a cave drawing.

A book person might look at the list of titles I offered and stand their ground that we would all be just fine if these stories existed in print only, never having made the jump to celluloid. But come on; show me a person who wants to live in a world without The Godfather and The Princess Bride on film, and I’ll show you a person without a soul. Also, before we get too far along, don’t we have to expand the scenario to television? Legendary miniseries such as Roots and Lonesome Dove are based on books, as are some of today’s most popular shows, including Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and Outlander. Even The Wire, regarded by many as the greatest TV series of all time, grew out of the David Simon books The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood — itself the basis of an HBO miniseries that preceded The Wire — and Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which also inspired NBC’s critically adored series Homicide: Life on the Street.
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THE RIGHTS STUFF
In fact, David Simon offers a fine jumping off point for this topic. Because the answer to Mr. Culp’s question about why books can’t just remain books begins with the authors themselves. No matter how much Hollywood wants to buy, if the author doesn’t want to sell, the story ends there. Some writers are involved in the adaptation process and some stay away, but all of them have to sign on the dotted line. And there are practical reasons for them to do so. In a Q&A session with a class at Eugene Lang College, which is included among the extra features on The Wire‘s third season DVD set, Simon addresses this:

Why do it? It’s gonna get done. If somebody wants to do it, the author will always sell. Or invariably. It’s very rare when the author will not, because it’s hard getting paid as a writer. In the beginning, what it is, is you’re really just trying to extend the shelf life — literally the shelf life — of your book. It’s so hard to sell books in America, because people don’t read. I mean, Homicide sold 30,000 in hardback, maybe, and another 20 in trade paperback, and then the show came on the air. And by the time the show finished its run, it had sold like, 400,000 paperback. It’s like, ‘Oh, if there’s a TV show about it I’ll read it.’ So that’s the economy of scale as a writer. So if you can get your stuff made, if you can get a bad movie made about your book, you’re gonna do it. Anything will go from print to screen if they pay you money.

Tom Perrotta, the writer whose books have been adapted into films Election and Little Children and the HBO series The Leftovers, said in an interview with New York Magazine that even the decades-long, unsuccessful efforts to turn his first novel The Wishbones into a film paid him more money than he’d made doing anything else. “It went from a frustrating thing to an insurance policy,” he said. All six of Perrotta’s novels have been optioned for film or TV development. He collected an Oscar nomination for co-writing the Little Children screenplay, and along with Damon Lindelof of Lost fame, he is the co-creator and co-showrunner of The Leftovers, which enjoyed a well-regarded second season last year.

Simon is also correct that to a certain extent, the release of a movie or TV show based on a book does drive people who haven’t previously read the source material to check it out. Mr. Culp’s main concern seems to be the opposite: that the existence of a movie deters people from reading the book. That is undoubtedly true for many people, but it’s also undoubtedly true that many people will read the book because a film is coming out. Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel Gone Girl was a massively popular best-seller right out of the gate, and director David Fincher’s 2014 film version (adapted by Flynn herself) renewed the book’s popularity. It was back atop best-seller lists in the paperback categories when the movie came out, and while this is hardly a scientific statistic, I’ll just toss out there that at the time of the movie’s release, there were 273 copies of Gone Girl across the entire Los Angeles Public Library system, and every single one of them was checked out or on a hold shelf awaiting pick-up. Granted, Flynn’s novel was already a popular hit and the involvement of talents like Fincher and Ben Affleck assured high awareness of the movie. Not every book that gets adapted is a huge hit, and not every adaptation gets the kind of high-profile release of Gone Girl. But does anyone think the book would have been in such demand at that time if there weren’t a movie about to land?

Another reason authors might be willing to see their work translated for the screen is for the opportunity to dive even deeper into a world they created. This tends to be true more for TV adaptations than films, since TV’s ongoing, episodic structure more closely resembles that of a novel, and allows more time for story and character development than a movie limited to a few hours. After years of futile efforts to adapt Jonathan Franzen’s award-winning 2001 novel The Corrections into a film, super-producer Scott Rudin brought the project to HBO for development as a series. Franzen, who had not been involved with the attempts at a film adaptation, came onto the project to work alongside Rudin and Noah Baumbach, who was brought on to direct the series and co-write it with Franzen. The author enjoyed the process of re-visiting the book for a new medium. “Minor characters in the book are becoming very substantial characters in the show,” he told New York Magazine. “It’s fun. I’m coming back to the book as a stranger, essentially twelve years after I wrote it, and I’m filling in blanks that were deliberately blanks, but I’m having the pleasure of filling them in.” The creators planned a four-season run of ten episodes each, and shot the pilot in 2012 with a sterling cast featuring Chris Cooper, Dianne Wiest, Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans and Greta Gerwig. Unfortunately — or fortunately, for those who feared another beloved book being corrupted — HBO decided to pass on the series, feeling that the narrative structure — which frequently shifted between time periods and required different actors playing different characters at different ages — was too complicated. Having been deemed unfilmable, The Corrections stands as a feather in the cap for purists. Still, the fact that Franzen was enthusiastically involved in the attempt is exciting to consider.

Another author who is immersed in the TV adaptation of his work is The Walking Dead‘s Robert Kirkman, a writer and executive producer on AMC’s gargantuan hit. And the interesting twist here — which also applies to the equally popular Game of Thrones — is that the series on which the show is based has not yet concluded. Kirkman’s Walking Dead comics launched in 2003 and are still going strong. Fans of the comics who also follow the show are well aware by now, as the show’s seventh season is in production, that Kirkman is not afraid to change things up between page and screen. While the overarching plot of the show has followed that of the books, some characters who have died on the page remain alive on the show, and vice versa. Things that happen to one character in the comics might happen to a different character on TV. In an interview with TV Guide following a Season Three episode in which a main character on the show was killed despite still being alive in the comics, Kirkman said:

I think fans of the comics recognize that this show is a different animal…There are going to be differences from time to time and some big differences. People know the comic still exists, and I want people to experience both and get a somewhat different experience. I think it’s cool that there are differences that are going to make the show as dramatic, startling and unpredictable as the comic book was the first time you read it. That’s really what we’re going after.

The timeline of The Walking Dead comics is far beyond the events currently playing out on the TV show, but the same can not be said for Game of Thrones. As I’ve covered in some of my posts about that series, the TV show has now caught up to the novels, with the newly concluded season being the first to venture into new territory unfamiliar to readers. Like Kirkman with The Walking Dead, author George R.R. Martin is an executive producer on Game of Thrones; unlike Kirkman, he isn’t involved in the day-to-day running of the show. He has a producing credit, but other than writing the teleplay for a few episodes, he leaves the show in the hands of its creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

I always find it fascinating when novelists adapt their own material for the screen. Flynn’s script for Gone Girl faithfully follows the book’s plot, with the film version featuring the necessary trims and adjustments that must be made to accommodate the medium’s time constraints. There’s some valuable material that gets excised, and some that has little effect on the film. On the whole though, Flynn doesn’t do anything radical to her source material. The same can not be said for Scott Smith, who wrote the 1993 novel A Simple Plan and then adapted it into a 1998 movie directed by Sam Raimi and starring Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton and Bridget Fonda. What’s so intriguing about Smith’s adaptation is how wildly it veers from his book. The film actually follows the book quite closely up to a certain major event that occurs in the middle of the story. From that point, the film radically diverges from the book, and although they eventually come back around to the same place for the climax — with one significant difference resulting from that mid-story divergence — the pathways are shockingly different. I’ve always wondered why Smith deviated so markedly from his novel, and whether the decision was based on how the novel’s events would come across on film vs. his own desire to try something different. Was the film’s direction something he considered for the novel but ultimately abandoned? I’d love to know, but have never been able to find any interviews with Smith discussing his adaptation.

So whether their reasons are financial or creative, authors seem to have no problem, for the most part, allowing their work to be translated to the screen. Furthermore, there are no shortage of filmmakers looking to bookshelves for great stories they can bring to life. I mentioned Stanley Kubrick at the beginning of the post, noting that almost every one of the director’s films was based on a book. He was a voracious reader, consuming all kinds of genres and styles, and was always reading with an eye toward what might make a good film. Diane Johnson, who co-wrote the screenplay for The Shining with Kubrick, said in a 1998 interview with film historian and critic Michel Ciment, “Kubrick always said it was better to adapt a book rather than write an original screenplay, and that you should choose a work that isn’t a masterpiece so you can improve upon it. Which is what he’s always done, except with Lolita.” People can argue about whether Kubrick’s films were always improvements upon their source material, but whether they were better than their books or not, his filmography boasts one classic after another. Perhaps his choice to adapt rather than start from scratch had to do with high standards for coming up with a great story. In a 1972 interview with Ciment, following the release of A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick said:

A good story is a kind of a miracle, and I think that is the way I would describe [Anthony] Burgess’s achievement with the novel. A Clockwork Orange has a wonderful plot, strong characters and clear philosophy. When you can write a book like that, you’ve really done something. On the other hand, writing the screenplay of the book is much more of a logical process — something between writing and breaking a code. It does not require the inspiration or the invention of the novelist. I’m not saying it’s easy to write a good screenplay. It certainly isn’t, and a lot of fine novels have been ruined in the process.

“THE BOOK WAS BETTER”
For book fans, that’s the concern: that the movie will ruin the book. Or if not ruin — since the book is still there to be enjoyed — the movie will be a disappointment. “The book is always better.” Isn’t that the most common statement made whenever this topic comes up? Well let’s be real…it’s not always better. We all know that. Right now, I’ll bet you can think of at least one example of a movie or TV show that you think is better than the book on which it was based. Go ahead. Mention it below in the comments section. I have a few that come immediately to mind. Field of Dreams, adapted by Phil Alden Robinson from the book Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella. Wonder Boys, adapted by Steve Kloves from the book by Michael Chabon. Never Let Me Go, adapted by Alex Garland from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. The English Patient, adapted by Anthony Minghella from the novel by Michael Ondaatje. The aforementioned A Simple Plan. These are movies that, for me, surpass the books they’re based on. (With the exception of Never Let Me Go, I read all of them after seeing the movies, and in all fairness, I do wonder if I’d still prefer the adaptations had I read the books first.) I never read The Bridges of Madison County, but from what I heard, it was a cheese-fest of the first order. Yet somehow screenwriter Richard LaGravenese and director Clint Eastwood turned it into a beautifully nuanced film with great performances from Eastwood and Meryl Streep. And good luck finding someone who will tell you that the novels Jaws or The Godfather are anywhere near as impressive as the films they became. I haven’t read The Godfather, but its reputation as a trashy beach read is well-known. I’ve read Jaws, and what’s most interesting about it is seeing how it’s different from Steven Spielberg’s film. (Lest you think I’m insulting authors Mario Puzo and Peter Benchley by maligning their books, bear in mind that both novelists co-wrote the respective screen adaptations.)

It may be rare that the movie or show is better than the book, but more often than people probably admit, the truth is that the book and the adaptation are both good. Different, but good. I could cite countless examples, and I’m sure you could too. One that comes quickly to mind is Misery. A faithful adaptation, but there are enough differences to make both worth your time. Chunks of Stephen King’s novel are comprised of the manuscript that the character Paul Sheldon is being forced to write by his rescuer/captor Annie Wilkes. So we get to taste the world of Paul’s book series which has inspired such demented devotion in Annie. Legendary Hollywood screenwriter and raconteur William Goldman wrote the script for Misery, and to open up the story beyond the confines of Annie’s house, he created the characters of Buster and Virginia, a married sheriff and deputy who work the case of Paul’s disappearance. In the novel, there is only a state trooper who shows up at one point to look for Paul. One of the biggest differences — though not really too big — is the punishment Annie exacts on Paul when she learns he has managed to escape his bedroom and wander the house while she was out. The punishment is essentially the same — she takes his legs out of commission through a process called hobbling. But the method changes. In the novel, armed with a blowtorch and an axe, she chops off his feet. In the movie, she smashes his legs with a sledgehammer. Goldman, in his book Four Screenplays, writes about first reading Misery and his reaction to the hobbling. “I could not fucking believe it. I mean, I knew she wasn’t going to tickle him with a peacock feather, but I never dreamt such behavior was possible. And I knew I had to write the movie. That scene would linger in audiences’ memories as I knew it would linger in mine.”

Goldman goes on to explain, however, that George Roy Hill, director of The Sting and Goldman’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who was set to direct Misery, left the project because he felt chopping Paul’s feet was too extreme. He couldn’t do it. Goldman, convinced that the scene was the key to the whole movie’s success, refused to take it out. Rob Reiner, initially just a producer on the film, stepped in to direct after Hill departed. But everyone connected to the film — other than Goldman — was now having second thoughts about the hobbling scene. Goldman couldn’t believe it, and held fast. He says that Warren Beatty, who was in talks to play Paul, articulated the problem with the scene as King and Goldman had written it. “Beatty’s point was this,” Goldman explains. “He had no trouble losing his feet at the ankles. But know that, if you did it, the guy would be crippled for life and would be a loser.” Once a scene like that comes to life from the page, it’s visceral in a different way, and the filmmakers’ fear was that while cutting off Paul’s feet works in the book, movie audiences would reject it. Ultimately, despite Goldman’s vehement protestations, Reiner and co-producer Andrew Scheinman did some script revisions and replaced the hobbling scene of King’s book with the one that made it into the movie. Goldman was livid. He writes:

The lopping scene was gone, now and forever replaced by the ankle-breaking scene. I hated it, but there it was.

I am a wise and experienced hand at this stuff, and I know when I am right.

And you know what?

I was wrong. It became instantly clear when we screened the movie.

What they had done — it was exactly the same scene except for the punishment act — worked wonderfully and was absolutely horrific enough. If we had gone the way I wanted, it would have been too much. The audience would have hated Kathy [Bates] and, in time, hated us.

If I had been in charge, Misery would have been this film you might have heard of but would never have gone to see. Because people who had seen it would have told you to ride clear. What makes a movie a hit is not the star and not the advertising but this: word of mouth.

Goldman’s story — and Beatty’s point contained within — gets to one of the main reasons that things often change between page and screen. Readers use their imagination to fill in the details provided by the writer, but once characters and situations come to life and no longer reside in the mind’s eye of the individual, everything from tone to performance can necessitate a change. Alexander Payne’s film version of Perrotta’s novel Election features a different ending than the book, which Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor addressed in a 1999 interview with Scenario Magazine. “We loved that ending in the book, and we shot it and it’s fine,” Payne said. “But the book is more ruminative and quiet and allowed that ending more. The movie came out too funny and too fast-paced and too cynical, and that ending just felt wrong.”

“Which is ironic,” Taylor added, “because the ending is one of the things that I love most about the book and was what convinced me that it was worth making as a movie. Because in spite of all this comedy, there was this beautiful moment of grace at the end…” After the movie was edited and shown to preview audiences, the production company offered Payne and Taylor the chance to come up with a new ending if they wanted, so they took the time to figure out what they would have devised had it been an original script. What they came up with is a perfect fit for the movie they made, and the change speaks to how a story takes on a life of its own when it makes the transition from page to screen.

Scott Frank, the screenwriter behind two of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations — Get Shorty and Out of Sight — also speaking to Scenario in 1999, discussed how a character who died in the book Out of Sight remained alive in the movie…though the change came late.

Right up until the very last draft. He was killed in the script, and at the last-minute [producer] Danny DeVito said to me: we just can’t kill this guy. You like the character so much, it’s such a left turn to kill him, given the way the movie’s evolved. It’s also for no reason…It’s one of those things where I was kicking myself for not having thought of it earlier…I just felt that audiences, having invested so much in these people, to get the rug pulled out  from under them was too much. And on-screen, they’re alive in a way that they’re not in the book.

MAKING IT WORK
That last point connects back to what Warren Beatty was trying to say about the Paul Sheldon character in Misery, and why chopping off his feet in the film would have been a mistake. Movies come alive in a way that books do not, and sometimes changes need to be made to compensate for that difference. On the other hand, changes often happen for more mundane and practical reasons involving budget, logic and time constraints. In Goldman’s novel The Princess Bride, Inigo and Fezzik must make their way through the Zoo of Death — an underground cavern with multiple levels, each containing some of the world’s most dangerous animals — in order to rescue Westley from Prince Humperdinck and Count Rugen. But the setting was too elaborate for the film’s budget, so it was replaced with the more modest Pit of Despair. Similarly, Game of Thrones faced budget limitations when realizing the second book/season’s massive Battle of Blackwater, and while they were still able to create a spectacular sequence that had no problem conveying the scope and scale of the clash, fans of the book missed the massive chain which is pulled from the water as a defense against an invading fleet. The effect was simply too expensive to include.

In the same interview with Scenario previously referenced, Out of Sight‘s Scott Frank explained how the need to streamline certain elements of the book for logic’s sake led to some of his decisions in adapting it. Almost all of the main characters in the film serve time together at the same prison, but in reality, given their varied crimes, they would not have been in the same place. “Even though it’s not real, a white-collar criminal wouldn’t have been in jail with those guys. But I thought there were too many different prisons in the story, and people were in prison at different times. It was hard for me to keep it straight, in the book. I thought the only thing to do was to visually see them there, in one prison, all together.”

Then there’s the issue of time. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final book in J.K. Rowling’s series, spends a great deal of time examining Dumbledore’s past and how it impacts Harry’s current mission. Yet even with the novel translated across two movies, not all of that history and backstory could be covered, partly for time reasons and partly because it’s material that Harry is wrestling with internally. The flow of the movie would be interrupted if we kept flashing back to a younger Dumbledore as a way to include what seemed like crucial intel, not to mention that in doing that, we would lose the filter of Harry’s perspective on his mentor. So instead, screenwriter Steve Kloves — with one simple line of dialogue from Harry — erased the need for all of that. One character challenges Harry to confront all the ways in which Dumbledore may have failed him and all the secrets he kept from him. Harry responds, “I trust the man I knew.” That’s it. Harry can move forward toward accomplishing his goal, and the film is freed from having to address chapters worth of material that would not necessarily work on film. There is a cost to this, of course. We wind up with a less intriguing, less enjoyably complex story than what Rowling offers on the page. But the movie can forge ahead with thrills and pleasures of its own, and the books are there for our enjoyment anytime we want to dig deeper.

Logic and time tend to be the primary concerns that necessitate streamlining a novel into a movie. Screenwriters often talk about finding the central idea or theme around which the movie version of the story can be built, and how that often boils down to their own interpretation. In his Scenario interview, Scott Frank explained this as it pertained to Get Shorty and Out of Sight:

I think that the key to any adaptation is to find out what the running theme of the book is. The thing with [Elmore] Leonard’s books, and the challenge of adapting them, is that it’s all so delicious. When you begin the process, you just love everything you read. It’s so much fun that you want to keep it all in the film. So you need some sort of template, and the only template you’ve got is: what does this mean to me? If you’re just trying to preserve the book, you get a real flat version for the movie. So you have to filter it through your own point of view and make it your own, to some degree; otherwise it has no shape. My first pass with his books has always produced long drafts. I would begin with a 180-or-so-page-long draft, where I would have virtually everything that’s in the book, in the script.

So you find out what the book is about for you. Everything else has to fall away. In Get Shorty, it was the idea of everyone coming to Los Angeles to reinvent themselves. This is a city of reinvention. Whether you’re a waiter who wants to be an actor, or a writer who wants to be a director, or, in the case of Get Shorty, a coke dealer who wants to be a producer. It’s about how people are constantly looking at themselves as something other than who they are. So it’s very simple — anything that isn’t about that idea just falls away. In the case of Out of Sight it was about a road not taken. It was about a guy who thought: what if I hadn’t been a bank robber? I could be with a woman like this, I could have that kind of life…In adapting the novel, anything that was not about “the road not taken” fell away.

This approach will often eliminate parts of a book that readers might love — Peter Jackson’s Frodo-centric approach to The Fellowship of the Ring meant that fan favorite character Tom Bombadil had to be jettisoned — but asking people to sit down and watch a story unspool on a screen is not the same as asking them to read it at their own pace. Onscreen tellings require a forward momentum; the page can take its time.

PROSE AND CONS
There are two things books can do that screen adaptations will never replicate: they can take you inside the head and the thought-process of a character (something no amount of voiceover narration, however skillfully deployed, can truly match), and they can revel in the power of the written word. If a novel is wonderfully written, that particular characteristic can not be translated to the screen. Not that people don’t try. Bryan Fuller, showrunner of Hannibal, explained that he and his writing staff would sometimes repurpose Thomas Harris’ prose as dialogue. “We put it in actors’ mouths because it was so beautifully written and we wanted the DNA of Thomas Harris to be present in all of the episodes…The text and the fetishization of the text was really all about the want to honor Thomas Harris in this adaptation.” Still, good writing itself logically can’t make the jump from page to screen, a point well made by essayist Calum March in a 2013 Paris Review piece about an attempt to bring J.G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise to the screen (an attempt which was just realized this year). He uses some brief examples from the book to illustrate how certain things Ballard is able to convey with words do not have an equivalent in the language of cinema. Yet just because stirring prose can’t be replicated onscreen doesn’t mean there can not still be value in an adaptation of the material. Several of Ballard’s works have been brought to the screen, the most notable examples being Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun and David Cronenberg’s Crash, both of which succeeded on their own merits, whatever may have been — as Marsh titled his essay — lost in translation. Marsh humorously contrasts his Ballard examples with excerpts from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, where the writing is flat and descriptive, leaving the filmmakers to do little other than cast appropriate actors and follow the direction of the action.

Seeing as the pleasure of exquisite writing is nearly impossible to carry over in adapting a book to the screen, filmmakers who adapt books are likely responding to a great story that they want to see brought to life. Studio executives vying for the rights to the Harry Potter series probably saw dollar signs, but producer David Heyman, screenwriter Steve Kloves and director Chris Columbus were surely drawn to Rowling’s story and its cinematic possibilities. Or perhaps the response is to a great character, above all. In discussing Appaloosa on film critic Elvis Mitchell’s podcast The Treatment, Ed Harris — who directed, co-wrote and starred in the 2008 Western — said that he had brought Robert B. Parker’s book on a family vacation for some pleasure reading, and asked his agent to inquire about the rights after reading only a few scenes, so taken was he by the easygoing friendship between the two main characters. He also estimates that 85% of the dialogue in the movie came right out of the book. (It’s certainly easier to carry that from book to film than it is the kind of descriptive writing that March examines in his Ballard essay.)

Conversely, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen — also on The Treatment — talked about the need to eliminate much of the dialogue when adapting Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, particularly for the character of Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem. Chigurh doesn’t say much in the movie, whereas in the book he speaks quite a bit. But Joel points out that McCarthy offers little-to-no physical description of the character on the page, which creates a sense of mystery to him. Once an actor is cast, that mystery goes away. In order to preserve the character’s enigmatic nature for the film, the Coens stripped away much of his dialogue, allowing his ghoulish physicality to accomplish on-screen what his dialogue did on the page. (Give the full half-hour interview a listen for some terrific insight on the process of adapting McCarthy’s book.) This is also a reminder that we don’t have to make a choice between the book and the film. Chances are the two will be different enough to offer distinct rewards. Here, we have one character — Anton Chigurh — made equally yet uniquely compelling in the hands of two different storytellers in two different mediums.

FROM SCREEN TO PAGE
In my college screenwriting class, our professor had us examine the adaptation of Michael Tolkin’s novel The Player. We started by reading the book, then read the screenplay which Tolkin wrote, then watched Robert Altman’s film. It was the traditional way to experience the adaptation trajectory. I had already seen (and loved) The Player, however, so as I read the book, the movie was in my head. It was not the first time I’d read a book after seeing the movie it became, but it was the first time I realized doing it this way might well be the key to loosening up about books making the jump to the screen. This isn’t the order in which it’s usually done, and it’s an unrealistic scenario for the avid reader who is likely to have finished a book long before its movie comes out; maybe long before they know it’s even going to be a movie. But for those of us who move more slowly, and who might be inspired to finally pick up a book they’ve heard good things about because they know the movie is coming and they want to read the book beforehand, I would suggest trying it the other way around. When you read a book after seeing the movie, the story opens up instead of closing in. Movies are a purer distillation of story/plot and character arc, where a book allows you to swim in the details…and as March would point out in the case of something like High-Rise, enjoy high-quality writing. Even though you’ll still see the story unfold differently, somehow it doesn’t seem so problematic when things are expanding rather than contracting. We tend to be unforgiving toward the movie when it veers from the source material, yet when we go from screen to page, those same alterations are more easily accepted. The differences make the book seem more like an interesting alternative than a bastardization.

Admittedly, this approach has its downsides. What if you don’t like the movie? Are you going to invest the time to read the book — which you might find more enjoyable — if the movie didn’t satisfy you? More significantly, reading the book after seeing the movie undoubtedly robs you of the imagination you bring to the experience. I tried to read The Shining years ago, but Jack Nicholson’s performance from the movie loomed large in my mind. Knowing that Stephen King’s book was quite different from Kubrick’s film — and that one of King’s chief complaints about the adaptation is that Nicholson seemed off-kilter from the get-go, whereas the character was supposed to be a decent man who succumbs to the hotel’s forces — the vision of Nicholson became distracting, so I put the book aside. For many active readers, the great pleasure of sitting down with a book is conjuring the world and the characters in their own imagination. If you read the book after seeing the movie, you’re sacrificing some, if not all, of that experience, and that’s understandably too big a price to pay for someone who loves to read.

I’ve never pictured deeply detailed images of characters while reading, so this is generally less of an issue for me. Being a movie person, my imagination more often manifests by casting the book in my head. Even at age 15 or so, while reading Jurassic Park (I don’t remember if I knew it was movie-bound when I read it), I was assigning actors to the parts. For what it’s worth, my Jurassic Park featured Nick Nolte, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ron Silver, John Heard, Hume Cronyn and Mercedes Ruehl. (Such a movie nerd. Seriously, how many 15 year-olds knew John Heard, Ron Silver or Hume Cronyn by name?) The screen first/book second formula has generally worked for me, and I’ve been championing it ever since that experience with The Player.

In fact, my first encounter with the differences between books and movies also came about in this manner, and it happens to connect with another central concern Mr. Culp’s blog post expressed, which is the idea that kids in particular might be less inclined to read if watching the film is an alternative. But I think his fears for that demographic are unfounded. There are such omnipresent efforts to promote literacy and reading amongst children — campaigns conducted through schools, daycare, and libraries — that when kids have the opportunity and ability to read, they appear to do so with great enthusiasm. When I was in third or fourth grade, the class was assigned a book report, and I decided to read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I chose it because I loved the movie, The Secret of NIMH, and was curious about the book. What I found in the pages of Robert C. O’Brien’s novel was a story vastly different from that of the film. Characters from the movie were portrayed differently in the book, events were different, entire elements were missing…and none of this bothered me. On the contrary, those differences fascinated me.

 

LOOSELY ADAPTED
That brings up another important point to remember when considering adaptations, which is that plenty of movies adapted from novels are barely adaptations at all, but rather nearly original concepts that are only loosely tied to or inspired by their source material. I encountered an excellent example of this around age 11, courtesy of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It was another movie I loved enough to eagerly seek out the novel from which it was adapted, Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, by Gary K. Wolf. I was surprised to discover that the book told an entirely different story in which not even the concept was the same. The cartoon characters of the movie were, in the book, stars of comic strips. When they opened their mouths to speak, a word balloon would rise above them; their words had to be read, not heard. All the book and the movie have in common are characters named Roger Rabbit, Jessica Rabbit, Eddie Valiant and Baby Herman. Nothing more. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is, for all intents and purposes, an original screenplay.

The same is true of the Jason Bourne series. Although each of the existing films does take its name from one of Robert Ludlum’s novels, there is almost zero connection between the books and the films. Writer/director Tony Gilroy, who wrote all four films in the series prior to this summer’s Jason Bourne, had this to say on The Treatment in 2007, after the release of The Bourne Ultimatum: “The first 15 minutes of the first film is sort of around the book, until you get to a safe deposit box in Switzerland. And after that, it has nothing to do with anything, anything to do with Ludlum. So once we’d finished the first film, no one ever thought that there would be a sequel…there was no intention of having it go forward, and by that point we were so far afield of the whole cosmology of what the books were about, there was no relationship whatsoever. So it’s pretty much original material all the way on out.”

Variety recently published a 10th anniversary retrospective on the making of The Devil Wears Prada, which details that Fox 2000 bought the rights to Laura Weisberger’s book before it was published, based on the first 100 pages of the manuscript as well as an outline of the full story. It’s not at all uncommon for studios or individual filmmakers to purchase the rights to a book before it hits shelves, but in the case of Prada, the adaptation process began particularly early, before Weisberger had even finished writing. Once it was released and became a bestseller, more details from the book’s plot were worked into the script. Yet the movie still shifted direction from the book, which is a revenge fantasy about a put-upon assistant striking back against her oppressive boss. Fox eventually hired David Frankel to direct the movie, partly because they were impressed with his idea that the material should be less about retribution and more about the sacrifices made by the women working at the story’s iconic fashion magazine. Frankel and Fox brought in Aline Brosh McKenna to write a new draft of the script, and the result is a movie that tells Weisberger’s story filtered and reshaped through the vision of the filmmakers. It goes back to what Scott Frank (and so many other screenwriters) say about determining their own take on the story. In the case of The Devil Wears Prada, it was less about finding the book’s through line than it was looking at the story from another angle, but the adaptation process follows the same course either way. The filmmakers have a strong response to the material and a desire to see it brought to life, but need to find a way for that material to work cinematically while perhaps also integrating their own ideas. (In a post a few years ago, I brought up a book called The Manikin, and how I think it could be a terrific movie even though I would make a couple of significant changes in order to deal with plot developments that I found hard to believe.)

Stories like Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings or The Hunger Games are very specific narratives that are obviously going to result in reasonably faithful adaptations that translate the original story for the screen, but many movies use their source material as a mere inspiration or jumping off point for something almost entirely new. Examples like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the Bourne movies demonstrate that this can work out perfectly well.

BUT DON’T TAKE MY WORD FOR IT
For anyone who likes to read and watch movies, and finds this topic at all interesting, the best examination of the adaptation process may be John Irving’s memoir, My Movie Business. Irving’s books have been adapted into the films The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, The Door in the Floor, Simon Birch and The Cider House Rules. That last title is the focus of My Movie Business. It’s the only one of his novels that Irving adapted for the screen himself, and in My Movie Business he delves into the experience of translating the book over the course of a decade, as it evolved dramatically each time a new director came onto the project. At 170 pages, it’s a slender volume that serves as a quick read and an indispensable glimpse into the art of adaptation. Irving also talks a lot about the genesis of Cider House the novel, because it was a personal story inspired by the work of his grandfather, and therefore his investment in the material and his feeling about what was lost and changed in reshaping it for the screen took on additional significance and informed his thoughts on how it was brought to the screen.

Interestingly, Irving says that of the four major iterations the story went through during years of development, his favorite was the one that strayed furthest from his novel. When the director he was working with at the time would propose changes, he was rarely open to them at first. But he always came around to trying them, and often found that the story and the characters became stronger. The movie that eventually got made more closely resembled the novel, and Irving admits that he loves the finished film, but he was ready to take it in another direction. If the guy who wrote the book was open to radically changing it, can’t we the readers be more open to the idea?

Look, I’ll be the first to say that Hollywood is sorely in need of more original stories. But I’m much less turned off by a movie or show based on a book than I am by remakes, reboots, reimaginings and sequels. There are good examples in all of those categories, but the bad and unnecessary far outweigh the good and worthwhile. The translation of a book into a movie doesn’t strike me as nearly the bankruptcy of creativity as launching the third iteration of Spider-Man in a decade, or continuing to churn out Transformers movies, which somehow keep making millions of dollars even though no one seems to like them.

So as far as I’m concerned, books are fair game. I want them to be adapted with thought and care, but I try to be understanding about the necessary changes that will allow them to work onscreen. Adaptations are always going to involve loss. It’s unavoidable, and that’s a starting point we have to accept. To those like Mr. Culp who would say we don’t need to start in the first place, I’d counter that something new and uniquely enthralling can be born out of the disassembly and reconstruction that goes into adapting a book for the screen. A book and its filmed adaptation can both be terrific despite their inevitable differences. Sometimes the book will be better, sometimes the movie or show will be better, and sometimes they’ll both be pretty damn good. Just because a novel has the luxury of diving into details that wouldn’t work for a movie, or is written with a flair for description or language that can not be re-created on film, that doesn’t mean the movie is an inferior method of delivering the same story. The movie version might offer indelible performances, a breathtaking visual realization, or a soaring music score. Instead of automatically proclaiming that the book is always better, you need to shift your expectations. Adjust your perspective. Open yourselves up to the new interpretation that doesn’t replace, but rather compliments, the source material. To the book people among us: you need to adapt. Admit it: the world is a better place with Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly, Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone, Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya, Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister, Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka, Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates, Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins…

April 24, 2016

Game Without Frontiers

Filed under: Books,TV — DB @ 2:00 pm
Tags: , , , ,

This post is intended for those who are up-to-date on Game of Thrones. If you have yet to start watching the series or are not caught up, fly away to safety like Drogon flew from the Sons of the Harpy.

The arrival of every new Game of Thrones season is highly anticipated, but my guess is that none of have been more eagerly awaited than tonight’s kick-off of Season Six, thanks to the downer of a cliffhanger we were left with last June: the death of Jon Snow. In the 10 months that have elapsed, speculation of Jon’s fate has been a constant presence on the internet. I don’t think a single day went by in all that time when I didn’t see something about it online. So this premiere should bring with it an especially acute wave of relief. And lest we forget about all the other big developments awaiting resolution — or at least exciting continuation — here’s my annual stroll down memory lane to catch us up on where things stood when last we danced with the dragons.

Many characters were in particularly interesting places last time we saw them, beginning of course with Jon Snow. He was dead. That’s pretty interesting. He was murdered by a band of Night’s Watch brothers that included his nemesis Ser Alliser Thorne and his squire Olly, for what they deemed the betrayal of making peace with the wildlings and allowing them to pass through Castle Black into Westeros. He wasn’t inspired by generosity, of course, but rather the recognition that only by fighting alongside the wildlings would they stand any chance against the growing army of White Walkers — a lesson crystallized when the Walkers attacked the wildling base at Hardhome and added huge numbers to their Army of the Dead.

Still in the North, but a bit further south, Stannis Baratheon is also dead, having met his end after a series of bad luck and bad decisions. Challenging weather conditions, along with a calculated strike on Stannis’ camp by Ramsay Bolton and a small group of his men, left Stannis significantly handicapped in his mission to defeat the Boltons at Winterfell. At Melisandre’s convincing, he made the harrowing decision to sacrifice his daughter Shireen to the Lord of Light, burning her at the stake in front of his full army. Although the weather turned more cooperative after this, Stannis’ wife Selyse hung herself, and half of his army abandoned him, taking all the horses with them. Stunned by this turn of events that contradicted her supposed visions, Melisandre quietly slipped away. Stannis pressed on all the same, but his reduced army was roundly defeated outside Winterfell by Team Bolton. Badly wounded, Stannis himself was killed not by Ramsay or his men, but by Brienne, who had long awaited her moment of vengeance for Stannis’ murder of Renly.

Brienne had been just outside Winterfell, keeping watch on the highest tower for a lit candle in the window — a sign that Sansa needed help. Moments after Brienne learned that Stannis was approaching Winterfell and went off to find him, that candle was finally lit. On her way back to her room, Sansa encountered Theon, along with Ramsay’s paramour Myranda, who nearly shot an arrow into her until Theon finally stepped up and shoved her ass over the balcony wall. Myranda plunged to her death in the courtyard below, just as Ramsay and his men were returning from their victory against Stannis. With the die cast, Theon and Sansa jumped over the outer battlement to escape…though it looked like a deadly jump.

Further south still, the power structure in King’s Landing had been turned upside down. Cersei mobilized an order of religious fanatics known as the Faith Militant and granted power to their leader, the soft-spoken, seemingly incorruptible High Sparrow, hoping she could use them to deal with her enemies. It worked for a while; she managed to get both Loras and Margaery thrown in jail, where they remain as they await trial for their sins — Loras for engaging in intimate acts with men and lying about it at a hearing before the Gods, and Margaery for lying about her knowledge of his behavior. But a similar fate awaited Cersei, when confessions to the High Sparrow by her cousin Lancel — now a Brother in the Militant — implicated her in murder, incest and adultery. King Tommen, kind but weak, proved ineffectual against the Faith Militant and withdrew to his chambers after the arrests of his wife and his mother. Cersei finally confessed to incest, but denied the other charges against her, including sleeping with Jaime. (She admitted only to bedding Lancel.) The High Sparrow allowed her to return to the Red Keep while she awaited trial, but as her atonement, she had to walk there from the Sept of Baelor, naked, through streets packed with less-than-admiring citizens. Upon her arrival back at the Keep, she was greeted by her uncle Kevan, Maester Pycelle and Qyburn, who covered her with a blanket and introduced her to The Mountain 2.0, disguised as a member of the Kingsguard. As the hulking zombie carried her off for cleaning and treatment, Cersei’s expression hardened into what could only be described as Sweet Vengeance Will Be Mine, Motherfuckers.

Sadly — or not, depending on your feelings for her — things are going to get worse for Cersei before they get better. Jaime is on his way back from Dorne, but Myrcella is dead, victim of a poisoned kiss by another vengeance-minded lady of power, Oberyn’s lover Ellaria Sand. Accompanied by Bronn, Jaime had gone to Dorne to save Myrcella after a threat on her life was sent to Cersei. Doran Martell, Oberyn’s brother and the ruler of Dorne, had no intention of going to war with the Lannisters, and struck a peaceful resolution with Jaime that would see his son Trystane — Myrcella’s intended — return to King’s Landing with her and take a place on the Small Council. When Cersei learns that Myrcella is dead, Doran’s intentions may well be rendered moot.

Across the Narrow Sea, on the continent of Essos, the third Lannister child has been tasked with keeping the peace in the divided city of Meereen. Tyrion was accepted into Daenarys’ circle of advisors, but they have had little time together so far. At the Great Games of Meereen, the insurgent force known as Sons of the Harpy staged an audacious attack, which Dany escaped by flying away on Drogon. Wounded in the arena attack, the dragon settled down to rest in a patch of rolling green hills far from the desert city. Exploring on her own, Dany encountered a Dothraki Khalasar, and those hardcore warriors weren’t about to let her continue wandering alone and free. Back in Meereen, Daario Naharis took charge, assigning Tyrion to draw on his skills and past experience to govern the city along with Missandei and Grey Worm, who was still recovering from an earlier attack by the Sons of the Harpy that left Barristan Selmy dead. Tyrion has an additional ally as well, now that Varys finally made it to Meereen. Meanwhile, Daario and Jorah — who has been accepted back into Dany’s good faith after saving her life in the arena — set off to find her. Unfortunately, Jorah is now contending with an affliction of Greyscale, which he contracted when he and Tyrion were attacked by Stone Men while passing through the ruined city of Valyria.

For now, Jorah’s condition doesn’t seem much of a hindrance. Doubtful we’ll be able to say the same for Arya, who faces a new handicap of her own. When she discovered that Meryn Trant was in Braavos, she abandoned the mission that had been assigned to her by Jaqen H’ghar and instead tracked the movements of the Gold Cloak who killed her beloved dancing master Syrio Forel. She stole an identity from the Hall of Faces and exacted a brutal revenge killing on Trant. But the cost of her disobedience was the loss her eyesight.

Hmmm…who else? Prior to Jon’s murder, he granted Sam permission to leave Castle Black with Gilly and journey to the Citadel to begin his training as a Maester. But Jon wasn’t completely without friends at this time of his death. Ser Davos had been sent by Stannis to seek supplies from the Night’s Watch, so he is currently at Castle Black, as is Melisandre, who returned there after leaving Stannis to defeat. She took quite the liking to Jon, and she may have the power to bring him back to life.

Last but never least, there’s Littlefinger. The last time we saw him was in King’s Landing, meeting in secret with Lady Olenna Tyrell, with whom he had conspired to kill Joffrey. What exactly he was promising Lady Olenna was not clear. He had met with Cersei earlier, prior to her incarceration, and revealed that Sansa was in Winterfell, about to be married to Ramsay. It’s hard to say at this point whether he has any genuine desire to protect Sansa, after leaving her to be Ramsay’s plaything…though he claimed to not know much about Ramsay, and therefore might not be aware of his psychotic predilections…even if it seems unlikely that anything so significant could elude Littlefinger. Still, I have to assume that revealing Sansa’s location to Cersei and promising to deliver the girl in exchange for being named Warden of the North is yet another example of him playing his own game that isn’t what it seems on the surface.

Oh, and there’s one more story thread yet to be mentioned, but we have to jump back to Season Four to pick it up. That, of course, is Bran. The crippled Stark child, along with his companions Hodor (Hodor) and Meera Reed, finally made it to the Three-Eyed Raven, where apparently he has spent the time covered during Season Five learning how to control and harness his powers. He’ll be back, and hopefully with a big impact on events to come.

LET IT SNOW
Whatever those events are, non-book readers are no longer the only ones in the dark. The show has now caught up with George R.R. Martin’s novels, so we are in completely uncharted territory as Season Six gets underway. Things are said to pick up right where we left off last year, which means Jon Snow is lying in the courtyard of Castle Black in a pool of his own blood. Ever since Season Five ended, the question that’s been asked ad nauseum is if Jon Snow is dead. Which has always been the wrong question. Of course he’s dead! The guy was stabbed in his chest and abdomen six times, and that final blow from Olly was, if not in the heart, pretty damn close. Jon Snow is dead. The question should be, does he stay dead? The season was barely over before Kit Harrington was seen at Wimbledon still sporting his Jon Snow locks and facial hair, and it wasn’t long after that when he was spotted around the Ireland locations where portions of the series shoot. In this day and age, there was little-to-no chance that Harrington could have been on set without evidence getting out, but considering the desire for proof of his return, it’s impressive that no one managed to ever get a shot of him in costume or to provide any concrete, irrefutable proof that he was filming. At this point, we know that he was on set and in costume, if for no other reason than to play Jon’s corpse, which has been seen in trailers for the new season. An article after the recent Season Six premiere event in Hollywood confirmed that Harrington’s name appears in the first episode’s opening credits, though the same was true of Charles Dance and Jack Gleeson — Tywin and Joffrey, respectively — when they appeared as dead bodies in the episodes following the demise of their characters.

In November, HBO made the rare move of unveiling an early teaser poster for the new season, and they put Jon Snow and the question of his survival front and center.

Teaser Poster

 

The network just recently released the log line for the first episode: “Jon Snow is dead. Daenarys meets a strong man. Cersei sees her daughter again.” (Interestingly, the description I see on DirecTV is slightly different; it says, “The fate of Jon Snow is revealed.”) That official word on Jon from HBO sent The Internet into a tizzy, as if the mystery had been addressed at long last. But again, “Is Jon Snow dead?” was never the right question. The question is what happens after he dies? There’s the theory that he turns into one of the White Walker’s wights and joins the Army of the Dead. There’s the theory that he suddenly developed warg-like abilities akin to Bran’s, and that his consciousness was transferred into his direwolf, Ghost. But the prevailing theory — and the most likely and logical — is that he will be restored to life by Melisandre, who will call upon the Lord of Light just as fellow priest Thoros of Myr did the six times he brought Beric Dondarrion back to life. (See my previous Thrones post for clips of one such resurrection, and of Thoros explaining the circumstances of these revivals to Melisandre.)

One thing the latter scene makes clear is that Melisandre has never done this herself, so if she does attempt to revive Jon, it will be a first for her. Assuming she does, will it go smoothly? Her faith is clearly shaken with everything having gone wrong for Stannis. She wasn’t looking like her usual confident self when she returned to Castle Black. Will her more fragile state impact a possible attempt to bring Jon back? Or will she pull it off and be reinvigorated by her success? What are the potential side effects to Jon? Beric stated that each time he’s been brought back, he’s a bit “less” than he was before. Jon could surely be revived once and still be the badass fighter he was, but are there other unknown risks to Melisandre attempting to bring him back to life? Is timing an issue? I’m not sure how long a body can be dead before the Lord of Light can revive it. When we saw Beric Dondarrion cut down by The Hound, Thoros sprang quickly into action to try and bring him back. It doesn’t appear that a potential revival of Jon will happen that fast.

I just hope we know by the hour’s end whether Jon is alive again or not, and that we aren’t left with his possible return still to come in a subsequent episode. The premiere is titled, “The Red Woman,” so we can assume that Melisandre factors in prominently, and the trailers have already suggested that Davos is right up in the thick of this as well. Whatever awaits Jon, it can’t be dragged out too long. The Night’s Watch brothers who stabbed him will surely be looking to handle the body and move on with their business, and they might not be so keen on the continued occupancy of Davos and Melisandre. (Is that why Davos is seen drawing Jon’s sword at the end of the first full trailer?) So I’m highly curious to see what awaits not just Jon, but also Alliser Thorne and Olly. And speaking of Olly, the biggest clue to Jon’s fate may have been out there in the open all this time, teased by the writers in the scene from “Hardhome” when Olly talks to Sam about Jon’s mission to make peace with the wildlings. “Try not to worry, Olly,” Sam says. “I’ve been worrying about Jon for years. He always comes back.”

THE ODD COUPLES
Sansa’s storyline in Season Five was tough to endure. The internet certainly lost its collective shit when Ramsay bent her over and took her on their wedding night. But to be fair, the internet loses its collective shit whenever Taylor Swift makes a veiled allusion to an ex-boyfriend, or the latest in-production comic book movie reveals the design of its hero’s costume. So that’s not the most reliable gauge. (It was legitimately controversial though, with critical reactions coming from more than just angry bloggers. Bryan Cogman, a producer on the show who wrote the episode, addresses it on the DVD commentary.) When Littlefinger first tells her that he’s bringing her to Winterfell to wed Ramsay, she is livid and refuses, but he implores her to see it as an opportunity. “You’ve been a bystander to tragedy from the day they executed your father,” he tells her. “Stop being a bystander, do you hear me? Stop running. There’s no justice in the world, not unless we make it. You loved your family. Avenge them.” We saw, toward the end of Season Four, how Littlefinger’s cunning was rubbing off on Sansa and how she was starting to show some savvy. She seemed to cross a threshold and was poised to continue down that path, emboldened and clever.

Thing is though, the story didn’t follow through on that. Upon her arrival at Winterfell and her marriage to Ramsay, she became passive again; a victim of the very kind that Littlfefinger said she’d been all along. I suppose she did what she could, trying to light that candle in the tallest tower, which an ally had told her to do if she needed help. But was that really her only card to play? We wanted to see her put Littlefinger’s tutelage to use and take steps to ruin the Boltons. Littlefinger, before returning to King’s Landing after a summon from Cersei, spoke to Sansa in the Winterfell crypts, and told her she could wrap Ramsay around her finger and make him hers, though she said she doesn’t know how to do that. Fair enough. Using her sexuality as weapon, like Melisandre does, probably doesn’t make sense to someone who’s never experienced sex. But Sansa better figure out pretty soon what her way is, because to watch her storyline backslide so jarringly after the progress it seemed to make was a shame. It’s hard to see what there is to be gained, story-wise or character arc-wise, by putting her in this situation. As if things haven’t been bad enough for her, do we really want to see Sansa impregnated by Ramsay, something that’s bound to happen if he’s raping her every night? As I noted in my previous Thrones post — and as Cogman mentions in that DVD commentary — this is not Sansa’s storyline in the books. Ramsay marries Sansa’s childhood friend, and these events play out with her while Sansa remains back in The Eyrie. Knowing this, I assume that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will ultimately bring her story to the same conclusion that George R.R. Martin intends. Benioff and Weiss can kill supporting characters like Mance Rayder and Barristan Selmy who are still alive in the books, but I gotta think that with the main players, they’re going to follow Martin’s lead. So that’s why I ask what is gained by these events. Why is this a good story for Sansa, if Martin is getting her to the same endgame by other, non-rapey means? Let’s hope that Benioff and Weiss’ long-term plan justifies this problematic detour.

As for Ramsay’s part in all of this, even considering what a vicious asshole he is, it doesn’t seem that making life so miserable for her can be good for him. He’s not Warden of the North yet. His father still holds the title, and may have a true born son on the way. Isn’t it in Ramsay’s interest to handle Sansa a little more carefully? Or is he just too much of a raging sadistic psychopath to help himself from torturing her? And why does Roose allow it? He must have some sense of what’s going on, especially if Sansa spends her days locked in her room, and shows up with fresh bruises whenever she is seen outside. Roose is repeatedly chastising Ramsay for his aggressive behavior, and he understands — even if Ramsay doesn’t — how crucial Sansa is to the Bolton’s position in the North. You’d think he would step in and bring Ramsay into line.

The biggest question mark in this thread is Littlefinger. He’s always the biggest question mark, isn’t he? We never really know what angle he’s playing, and that’s never been more true than in this particular scenario. In that Winterfell crypt scene, he says that he’s betting on Stannis to defeat the Boltons. Presumably, the plans he makes from there depend on that outcome. Or do they? He later tells Cersei to let Stannis and the Boltons fight each other, and then to attack whichever one wins. He volunteers the Knights of the Vale as the fighting force, and in return asks to be named Warden of the North if they prove victorious. He also promises to deliver Sansa to Cersei, who still believes her to be a co-conspirator in Joffrey’s death. Later still, in that aforementioned secret meeting with Olenna Tyrell — now at odds with Cersei over the arrests of Loras and Margaery — Littlefinger promises her a gift. “The same kind of gift I gave Cersei,” he says. “A handsome young man.” This was the last we saw of Littlefinger or Lady Olenna for the season. And I have no idea what he’s talking about. What handsome young man? Ramsay? Robyn Arryn, and more accurately the fighting force he now technically commands? Or someone else? The new season’s trailers have offered only glimpses of Littlefinger, in snow-covered forests that suggest he’s back in the North. How will the games he’s playing with the Lannisters, the Tyrells, the Boltons and Sansa Stark all pan out?

STATE OF THE UNION
That’s all I have regarding where the story stands. What about where the show stands? For a while now, there’s been no question that the show will conclude before Martin has completed his books, but there was some hope last summer that his sixth book, The Winds of Winter, would make an early 2016 release, in time for fans to catch up before the show returned. But that was not to be, and Martin posted a message about it on his blog in January, explaining earnestly where things stand and apologizing to those disappointed by the slow progress. I felt bad that Martin felt so bad, and that he felt the need not just to update, but to apologize. He began A Song of Ice and Fire years ago, and should be allowed to complete it at his own pace without having to endure the vocal frustrations of fans, most of whom have no idea what it takes to seriously write anything, let alone write an epic tale of a wholly imagined world. Sure, it’s unfortunate that the show will finish before the books, and that Martin will have many of his plot resolutions revealed by Benioff and Weiss before he gets the chance to reveal them in his own way, but as he talks about near the end of his post, he seems to have a good attitude about that, and about the pleasures of both reading a novel and watching its adaptation, no matter the order in which they are consumed. And if Benioff and Weiss are to be believed, the show is going its own way even more now than it already has, and it’s gone its own way quite a bit of late. The two showrunners, along with Martin, all seem in sync that when fans finally do get to read the last two books, there will be plenty of surprises in store that will not have occurred on the show.

Another timing question that has cropped up often in the past couple of years is how much longer the show will air, and sadly, it looks like the end is in sight. Benioff and Weiss recently speculated that after Season Six, there are probably about 13 more hours of story to tell. They concede that nothing is set in stone, and HBO certainly wants to clarify that talks are still ongoing. (The network has already renewed the show for another season.) Thrones always runs 10 episodes per season, but the idea would be that the remaining 13 — if that is indeed the number that sticks — would be told over two shortened runs, with more time being spent on each episode. As Benioff and Weiss explain, at this point the show — already a massive logistical undertaking that films with multiple crews on multiple continents — is more on the scale of a mid-size movie than even a typical high-quality episode of television. The behind-the-scenes scope of the show is daunting, and necessitates that directors helm two consecutive episodes in order for the production to run efficiently. To give a sense of the complexity involved: one of this year’s directors is Jack Bender, whose long list of credits includes being Lost‘s most frequent man behind the camera. This will be Bender’s first experience with Thrones, and his two hours of story required him to be on location for over four months.

But I digress. Whenever the show ends, whenever the books end, the focus for now is on Season Six, which arrives as the reigning Emmy Award winner for Best Drama Series. In fact, the show set a record at last year’s Emmys when it captured 12 awards — the most ever for a drama series in a single year. It nearly swept the main categories in which it was nominated, with wins for Best Directing and Best Writing (both for season finale “Mother’s Mercy”), and a second Best Supporting Actor win for Peter Dinklage. It’s other eight wins came in the Creative Arts categories for achievements such as Production Design, Editing and Casting. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had slightly mixed feelings about the Emmy victories. I’ve been waiting since the beginning for the show to win the top award, and yet I couldn’t help being a little disappointed that when it finally happened, it was for the show’s most problematic season. I loved Season Five overall, but as I detailed in my previous Thrones post, there were a few storylines that stood on shaky ground. I wish the show had triumphed for a year in which, to my mind, no such problems existed. And while it was great to see a win for Best Directing, it was for the wrong episode. How was “Hardhome” — one of the best and most spectacularly directed episodes in the history of the show — not nominated in that category??

But again with the digressing. Back to Season Six. HBO usually sends the first two-to-four episodes of the season to critics in advance so they can write their reviews, but this time, no episodes were provided ahead of time (except to President Obama, apparently.) There was a premiere in Hollywood a few weeks ago, with a large number of the show’s cast members in attendance…but not Kit Harrington. Some members of the press were there as well, and while they all swore not to reveal any details (only the first episode was shown), the reactions were extremely positive, with word circulating that the episode is full of shocks and surprises. The screening was followed by a new trailer showing what’s to come. Among the clip’s most intriguing images are the return of Red Wedding co-orchestrator Walder Frey, not seen since the Season Three aftermath of that slaughter; Podrick being grabbed from behind; several shots of the Night’s King and the White Walkers; and a new Red Priestess visiting Tyrion and Varys in Meereen. (This will be interesting. The usually confident Varys has a look of concern on his face as this new character walks away, and he has previously expressed his loathing for those who practice the sort of dark magic that a servant to the Lord of Light could conjure. See: Melisandre and her crazy, Renly-killing Shadow Baby.)

We also get a quick glimpse of the great Max von Sydow, who joins the cast as Bran’s mentor, the Three-Eyed Raven. I love that von Sydow is joining the show; hopefully he’ll be better utilized than he was in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, where his brief role in the opening sequence made little use of his talent, presence and all-around awesomeness. (von Sydow was previously heard, but not seen, as the narrator of the season’s first teaser trailer, which highlighted such prominent past incidents as the deaths of Ned, Robb, Joffrey, and Jojen; the massacre at Hardhome; Jaime’s behanding; and perhaps most out of place and therefore most telling (?), Littlefinger kissing Sansa. Past events were also recalled in a subsequent teaser trailer, set in the Hall of Faces.) Other notable actors who will appear this year in undisclosed roles are Ian McShane and Richard E. Grant, and the new characters we’ll meet include Theon’s uncle, Euron Greyjoy, as well as Sam’s entire family. How will the Tarly clan factor into his Citadel storyline, I wonder?

All will be answered soon enough. Need some things to tide you over in these remaining minutes I’ve left you? Here’s something from the special features of Season Four’s DVD: a roundtable conversation with actors whose characters were killed off that year: Pedro Pascal (Oberyn), Charles Dance (Tywin), Jack Gleeson (Joffrey), Sibel Kekilli (Shae), Rose Leslie (Ygritte), Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Jojen Reed) and Mark Stanley (Grenn).

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If you prefer focusing on beginnings rather than ends, here’s a compilation of moments from the cast’s audition reels. I’d have hired Kristofer Hivju (Tormund) on the spot.

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In this clip, members of the cast try to differentiate between the names of GoT swords and 80’s metal bands. No easy task…

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And here’s another amusing trivia game to test your knowledge of the show. It’s called, “Why is Sansa Frowning?” (To be fair to our put-upon red-headed Stark, those aren’t all frowns…but it’s still a good reminder of things Sansa has gone through.)

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Here’s something crazy: a guy who makes snow art, and offered up this massive salute to the Starks. Must be seen to be believed.

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And finally, in tribute to the character who gives tonight’s episode its title, here’s what happens when Melisandre attends a baby shower.

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With that, there’s nothing left to do but wait for the witching hour. Whatever happens, at least we can be grateful that we no longer have to endure any more questions about whether Jon Snow is dead. Seriously…every day for the last 10 months.

 

July 3, 2015

“When You Play the Game of Thrones, You Win or You Die” (But Mostly You Die)

Filed under: Books,TV — DB @ 9:00 am
Tags: , , , ,

This post is intended for those who are up-to-date on Game of Thrones. If you have yet to start watching the series or are not caught up, turn away, for this post is dark and full of terrors.

It’s always hard to reach the end of a Game of Thrones season, knowing that you face a ten month wait for the show to return. But this season’s finale was especially hard, as it concluded with such a devastating scene. None of the previous finales have ended on such a down beat. Consider each year’s final shot. Season One: Daenarys arising from the ashes of a funeral pyre with three baby dragons. Season Two: Sam hiding behind a rock as an army of White Walkers marches past. Season Three: Daenarys being lifted and embraced by a horde of slaves she has just freed from bondage. And Season Four: Arya sailing for Braavos. In a world as notoriously bleak as the one presented in Game of Thrones, three of those are downright hopeful. The fourth, while not the most pleasant note to end on, is at least exciting, and the beloved character depicted is safe despite his proximity to danger.

THE SNOW MUST GO ON?
Season Five’s final moments did not send us so gentle in that good night, any more than they did the character enduring them. Having arrived at the difficult decision to make peace with the wildlings and offer them passage into Westeros through the gates of Castle Black, all because he knew the threat of the White Walkers would require the combined efforts of all the living — whichever side of The Wall and wherever in the Seven Kingdoms they were — Jon Snow was betrayed by a band of his own men, stabbed repeatedly à la Julius Caesar, each of his killers repeating, “For the Watch” as they plunged their daggers into his torso.

There was no last minute savior, no Ghost to intervene and protect his keeper. (In fact, I wondered if the mutinous brothers also harmed Ghost, to ensure the direwolf wouldn’t be a problem?) The attack was made worse by having to watch Jon’s long-time nemesis Ser Aliser Thorne get the better of him, and because Jon’s squire Olly delivered the final blow. A lot of attention had been paid to Olly this season, particularly to his displeasure with Jon’s decision, given that his entire village was cut down in a wildling attack led by Tormund and Ygritte. Olly talked with Sam a few episodes before the finale, and Sam explained Jon’s actions by saying that sometimes men have to do what they believe is right even if no one else can see it. I could tell at the end of that scene that Olly took away the wrong message. There was something palpably ominous about his reaction to Sam, and I was sure that Sam’s words would motivate Olly toward some ill-advised action, though I didn’t know what, and couldn’t imagine it would be participating in Jon’s murder. (He wasn’t just one of the attackers, after all; he was the one who lured Jon outside and into the trap.) Of course, I couldn’t imagine that Jon would die at all. Not yet, certainly. No death since Ned’s felt as shockingly premature as Jon’s. But Ned’s death did much to set the tone for what the series was, and once we had a chance to absorb it, we could understand it. Making sense of Jon’s death is more difficult. So much so, that few people (if any) actually believe that Jon will remain dead, despite the morbid finality of the season’s closing image.

I admit that in the shock of the moment, such ideas didn’t enter my mind. There was no part of me that watched Jon fall and thought, “No, we’re not done with him.” I took what I saw at face value, and it was like a kick to the gut. Then right after the closing credits, the friend I watched with all season shared his theory with me. Maybe some of this would have occurred to me once I got over my grief and had more time to think about it. Maybe not. But his theory is one that I’ve since read in several places, and it seems entirely plausible. With Stannis defeated and presumed dead, Melisandre returned to Castle Black, clearly distressed by her king’s loss. This hasn’t been discussed much on the show — it’s more explored in the books, I think — but Melisandre believed Stannis to be Azor Ahai reborn. According to R’hllor — the foreign religion she brought to Westeros — Azor was a storied warrior who, thousands of years earlier, led a defeat against The Others — a.k.a. the White Walkers — by driving them out of Westeros and into the far north. Prophecies foretold the return of The Others, however, as well as the rebirth of Azor, who would lead a final war against the enemy that would decide the fate of the world. Now there’s a lot more to all this, and I don’t want to go too deep here, but that’s enough to address where Season Five left us. Melisandre now knows that her faith in Stannis had been misplaced, and we know that she took an interest in Jon. We also know that another priest of R’hllor — Thoros of Myr — has summoned his deity’s power to revive his friend Beric Dondarrion. Six times Beric has died, and six times Thoros has brought him back, crediting R’hllor, a.k.a. the Lord of Light.

And we know that Melisandre knows this. (Skip to the 2:40 mark.)

All of this is to say that we’ve seen the Lord of Light’s power to revive the dead. Melisandre is at Castle Black, Melisandre sees something in Jon Snow, and Melisandre will now be searching for a new embodiment of Azor Ahai. My understanding is that her interest in Jon, and his possible connection to Ahai, is given more attention in the books than in the show. This may or may not be telling. The show is deviating from the books more and more, with several incidents this season — including certain deaths — playing out differently or not at all in the novels. Jon’s death is the closing scene of George R.R. Martin’s fifth and most recent novel, A Dance with Dragons, just as it was the closing scene of the season, so what happens from here is pure speculation on the part of book readers and non-book readers alike. Co-showrunner D.B. Weiss and finale director David Nutter have stated that Jon is really dead, as has actor Kit Harington, explaining that he has been told he’s done and not returning to the show. But doth they protest too much? No other death on the show has led to so much reassurance from the cast and crew that the death is final. Yet no other death on the show has necessitated such emphasis. Even if we had a hard time emotionally accepting the deaths of Ned, Robb, Catelyn, Tywin or whichever characters you were sad to see go, we readily accepted them as part of the story, without questioning whether there was an open door. Not so with Jon’s death. Fans have long speculated that Martin’s story would build to Jon and Daenarys coming together to defeat the White Walkers. After all, his saga is called A Song of Ice and Fire, and Jon and Dany are considered the embodiments of those two elements.

Plus, it’s widely known that when Weiss and David Benioff approached Martin about obtaining the rights to adapt his novels for television, he tested them with the question, “Who is Jon Snow’s real mother?” Indeed, the question of Jon’s true parentage is maybe the most discussed topic in Martin’s fandom, and for Jon to die now would seemingly render all that talk moot. I suppose Jon’s lineage could prove important somehow even if he’s no longer around, but that seems like a stretch. He has no children, no full siblings (or so we assume, based on what we currently know of his family and what the prevalent theory entails), so what impact on the larger story could the answer have if Jon isn’t around to receive it? Maybe Martin has just been screwing with us, and the question about Jon’s mother has been a massive red herring all along, goaded by the author himself. Seeing how merciless he is with his characters, you couldn’t put it past him. And yet…it just doesn’t seem probable, does it? None of the characters we’ve lost to date, no matter how impactful they were to the show, feel as necessary to its ultimate destination as Jon. You could argue for Tywin, perhaps, but his death fuels the story arcs of Tyrion, Cersei and Jaime, and perhaps for an eventual collapse of House Lannister. Every other death, no matter how major the character, was understandable for the plot points and/or character development it set in motion. To be fair, other deaths may have seemed abrupt or premature at the time, without the advantage of hindsight, but I would argue that when a character dies, you can consider then and there how it could fuel other storylines. Jon’s death, if it sticks, could fit that pattern too, but it’s a more difficult path to envision.

So if there’s any truth to the rumors, what else can Harington, Weiss, Nutter and everyone else with the show say other than “Jon is dead,” “Kit is off the show,” etc.? The death is certainly presented as if it’s definitive, so if the character is to be revived and Harington is coming back, they clearly need to conceal that until the moment of revelation comes. That will pose quite a challenge to the production, ensuring that no leaked set photos hit the internet. And unless they want his return to be included in previews, like Gandalf’s was in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, it means omitting Jon from all trailers and marketing materials next year, and keeping Harington away from all pre-season press.

Some final thoughts on this before moving on. The idea of Melisandre reviving Jon is the one I’ve seen most frequently over the past couple of weeks, but other speculation — drawing from Martin’s description of Jon’s murder — is that he could be a warg who somehow sends his consciousness into Ghost. His half-brother Bran is a warg — and then some — but while the books may have hinted at a connection between Jon and his wolf, the show certainly hasn’t played that card. Again, the show is breaking away from the books more frequently and more substantially, but if Martin intends Jon to be important to his series endgame, I don’t imagine Benioff and Weiss would stray too far from that. For all the time I’ve already spent on this topic, there’s so much more to be found out there — more details to the theories I’ve mentioned, alternate versions of those theories, and other theories altogether — about how Jon could come back, or why Jon is definitely dead, or how Jon could come back but not played by Kit Harington. Other clues from the show, other clues from the books…it’s all a bit overwhelming, frankly, so I’ll leave you to prowl the internet for clues on your own. You probably have already, considering that this post comes nearly three weeks after the finale. I’ll close the topic with this: after my friend shared his theory with me in the immediate aftermath of the episode, I did become hopeful that we haven’t seen the last of Kit Harington’s Jon Snow, even if the rest of my night remained shrouded in the kind of faux-yet-real depression that can only come from the death of a beloved fictional character. But the reading I’ve done since then has left me more uncertain that there’s a happy ending to this situation. Whatever happens, watching Jon’s murder was among the show’s most devastating moments to date for me, ending the season on an upsetting note that will make the wait for new episodes even harsher than usual.

CASUALTIES OF WAR
Alright, enough of this morbid, Jon Snow-death talk. We have entirely different morbid death talk to get to. Jon wasn’t the only casualty of the finale, so let’s talk about Stannis. It was a big season for the man who would be king, as he plotted his path to the Iron Throne despite the fact that the whole reason he went to The Wall in the first place was because Davos and Melisandre realized that the threat of the White Walkers was more urgent than securing his crown. Unfortunately, things did not go well for Stannis, whose fate seemed sealed when he made the decision — difficult though it was — to sacrifice his daughter Shireen to Melisandre’s Lord of Light (our buddy R’hllor, discussed earlier). That choice didn’t sit well with his men. It cost him half his army, and the life of his wife Seleyse, who hung herself. Realizing hope was truly lost and that her flame visions of Stannis’ success had been snuffed out, Melisandre deserted him, leaving Stannis and his ragged, reduced army to make a futile stand outside Winterfell against Team Bolton. But after that inevitable defeat, it was Brienne who came upon the wounded Stannis, to exact the revenge she had desired ever since Stannis and Melisandre’s shadow baby killed Renly. Given all the build-up, their encounter — and Stannis’ entire unraveling — felt a little hasty and anti-climactic. This was my main problem with the finale: there was so much plot to get through that we didn’t get many of the character moments that felt so necessary. Brienne came to execute Stannis, but there was an abrupt, jarring cutaway as she swung the sword. Did she even do it? Is Stannis dead? Or did she maybe see some vulnerability in his final moments that gave her pause? That doesn’t seem likely, and yet the fact that we don’t see Stannis’ body or linger with Brienne casts a shadowbaby of a doubt. Assuming she does kill him, it would have been nice to stay with her for a few moments after finally carrying out that long-desired vengeance. How did she feel about it? We didn’t need to see a brutal image of the kill, nor did we need Podrick to show up and talk to Brienne about her feelings. But it would have been nice to see her face after that, to watch her take in the emotion and see what she did next, even if that was just turning around and walking back to her Sansa-watching perch.

And how about Sansa? Unwilling to bide her time any longer under Ramsay’s thumb, she stood up to Myranda even as she was threatened at arrowpoint. Thankfully, Theon finally stepped up, pushing Myranda over the wall to her death. With nowhere else to go as Ramsay and his men were returning from their defeat of Stannis’ army, Sansa took Theon’s hand and the two leaped over an outer castle wall. We didn’t see them land, nor did we revisit them, but the brief glimpse down over the wall we got reveals an awfully long drop, with no discernible soft or easy landing. It appears they’re jumping onto solid — albeit snowcovered — ground from an extreme height; as high, if not higher, than Myranda fell. So what did we miss? How are we supposed to believe they survived that jump? It won’t be long before Ramsay realizes they’re gone. Where can they go for safety before he can catch up with them? Will Brienne find and help them?  The cliffhanger was as frustrating as Sansa’s entire storyline this year. After spending so much time with Littlefinger last season, Sansa finally started to play the game with some smarts, and this season began with the promise of where that would go. Unfortunately, it went into the sick, twisted hands of Ramsay, where she became a victim all over again, even more so than she’d been in Joffrey’s court. Obviously we don’t know where Benioff and Weiss are taking this (Sansa does not marry Ramsay in the novels; she’s still in The Eyrie), and ultimately I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt since I recognize that we’re still in the middle of an unfolding story. But it was disappointing to see Sansa’s arc move backwards. Whatever happens, I would have liked to see Ramsay — high on his victory over Stannis — be jolted by the sight of Myranda’s bloody, broken body and the absence of Sansa and Theon. Another character moment that would have been great to witness.

But back to the pile o’corpses. Let us not forget Myrcella, who died in Jaime’s arms after a sweet moment in which they happily acknowledged each other as father and daughter for the first time. Ellaria Sand’s about-face in the previous episode, when she talked to Jaime about his relationship with Cersei and then admitted that Myrcella and Jaime were innocent of Oberyn’s death, felt like it was a step too far toward healing and reconciliation, considering how single-minded she had been in her desire to punish the Lannisters…even though Oberyn was not murdered. (I wish she would have addressed that fact at some point and actually explained her viewpoint, since interpreting his death as “murdered by the Lannisters” was so clearly off-base.) When she delivered Myrcella a goodbye kiss on the lips, I suspected there was poison involved, and so there was. Myrcella’s death doesn’t have much of an emotional impact on us since we spent so little time with her, but obviously it will have major ripple effects on Cersei, Jaime and everyone in Dorne. Cersei is already in a revenge frame of mind (we’ll get to that) but when she finds out her only daughter is dead, that dial is gonna crank to 11.

Then there was Ser Meryn Trant — a minor character, but one whose death was among the most brutal the show has ever presented. Seriously, Arya killed the fuck outta that guy. Trant’s death was so hideous and horrible that it actually felt disproportionate to the crime for which Arya had so long uttered his name — that being his role in wiping out the Starks at King’s Landing, and especially killing Arya’s dancing master Syrio Forel. Trant’s prediliction toward young girls was a new reveal, and one that made his demise a bit more satisfying, but still…the brutality of it felt more like the kind of death we wanted to see for Joffrey, or that we hope will befall Ramsay. Not that I wasn’t cheering and clapping when Arya butchered him, just because it was the first person she really went to town on and for so long now I’ve wanted that for her. Alas, I should have known Martin wouldn’t let her off the hook for disobeying Jaqen’s instructions and abandoning her assignment to kill the corrupt Thin Man. Any pleasure we derived from seeing her extract her revenge was short-lived, with Jaqen informing her that she stole a life from the Red God and would have to pay a price. I admit things got a bit confusing for me here, but it appears the girl who had sort of been Arya’s keeper at The House of Black and White died for Arya’s offense, and then Arya herself went blind. Is that permanent, or can the Red God restore her eyesight if she makes the proper penance? I don’t know, but it was a blow to see Arya debilitated in such a major way.

There were plenty of other deaths throughout the season, and we can’t linger on all of them. I mentioned Stannis’ wife, and of course his daughter Shireen. Burning that sweet little girl at the stake was just the worst, but it was just the kind of bold storytelling we’ve come to expect from this series. Ser Barristan Selmy’s death was a tough one for me; he’s been one of my favorite secondary characters from day one. Janos Slynt, the former Gold Cloak turned cowardly brother of the Night’s Watch, was decapitated after insulting the newly elected Lord Commander. It was great to see Jon step up and behead that prick. A less welcome death among the Watch was Maester Aemon, one of the few characters we’ve seen die of natural causes. And don’t forget all the way back in the first episode when Stannis executed Mance Rayder. I thought Mance’s role would expand this season, but that was not to be. Too bad. A good character, played by the terrific Ciarán Hinds.

BUMPS IN THE ROAD
Reflecting on the season, I have to keep it 100 and say there were some problems that needled at me. Let’s start with Dorne. When Season 4 ended, one of the earliest pieces of intel we heard about what lay ahead was that we would visit Oberyn’s homeland and meet his daughters, collectively known as the Sand Snakes. The introduction of Dorne was hyped up bigtime as the season approached. Unfortunately, the show largely failed to deliver. Considering all the buildup, there weren’t actually many scenes there, those we got were too spaced out across the season, and they weren’t that well executed from a storytelling point of view. It all seemed like a bit of an afterthought…except for the scene with Bronn and the Sand Snakes in jail. That was great, and not just for…well…obvious reasons. (I was worried for Bronn from the moment Jaime approached him about going to Dorne, but I was so happy that he was not among the season’s fatalities.) With Myrcella’s murder hanging in the air, I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of Dorne and its new set of characters, but I hope they are better handled going forward.

The rise of the Faith Militant was another of the season’s awkward subplots. Where did they come from, and how did they exert so much power so quickly? I loved the way Lancel Lannister was reintroduced as this newly pious zealot, and the High Sparrow was an excellent addition to the show. But the Militant as a whole and the way they were able to run unchecked played false to me. I know Tommen isn’t a strong ruler, but I just didn’t buy that he would be so impotent in dealing with them. If you’re a 12 year-old boy, or however old he is, and you’ve just gotten laid for the first time — with no less a sex goddess than Margaery Tyrell, who is now your wife and queen — you’ll do whatever you have to do so that your woman stays happy and you can continue getting laid. He’s the king, with an army at his disposal, and it was hard to believe that he wouldn’t unleash that force when Margaery was arrested, and then Cersei on top of that. So the meteoric rise to power of the High Sparrow’s flock, and their ability to retain their might, felt problematic from the start. The Sparrow himself was great, but the story around him could have fared better.

Something else which sat ill with me when a friend pointed it out (I didn’t think about it initially) was the apparent skill of Meereen’s mystery rebels, the Sons of the Harpy…especially when pitted against the Unsullied, who are supposed to be one of the best armies in the world. We don’t know who the Sons of the Harpy are, but our initial assumption was that they were members of Meereen’s wealthy class; slave owners who lost their slaves when Dany came to town. So as my friend pointed out after the episode in which the SOTH killed Barristan Selmy and badly wounded Grey Worm, slaughtering several Unsullied as well: how do a group of rich fat-cats display not just the fighting prowess but also the attack strategy that made the SOTH such an effective force? Wanting to play devil’s advocate and defend the show, I countered that they might not be rich Meereenese at all, but perhaps an outside army brought in to deal with Dany by those who oppose her. Yet they do seem like an insurgent force, don’t they? Perhaps that’s what they are, but not from Meereen. Maybe they’re from Yunkai or Astapor, the slave cities Dany freed before coming to Meereen. If they were outsiders, that might explain why their attack in the huge arena saw them killing indiscriminately, murdering even Meereen’s wealthy. Why would the rich in Meereen kill their own, after all? You may recall a scene from Season 3 in which a representative of Yunkai’s slavers met with Dany in her camp and told her that if she pursued an attack on the city, she would run afoul of their “powerful friends who would take great pleasure in destroying you.” Those powerful friends turned out to be the Second Sons, an army of sellswords who counted Daario Naharis among their leaders. Daario and the Second Sons now fight for Dany of course, but perhaps Yunkai had other powerful friends. Or perhaps some of the Second Sons have broken ranks.

Even if we assume that the SOTH are not just a bunch of wealthy rebels but rather a skilled fighting force with plenty of experience on their side, there’s still the question of why the Unsullied proved so ineffectual. Sure, in the alleyway attack that would be Barristan’s last stand, the Unsullied were outnumbered, and they put up a good fight. But from everything we’ve heard about them, shouldn’t they be more of a match for the SOTH? What about that aforementioned surprise attack in the arena? Jorah spots a SOTH assassin from the middle of the arena and hurls a spear to impale the attacker, but we could see Unsullied soldiers posted behind Dany’s coterie. Why did none of them, so much closer than Jorah, spot the would-be killer? And given their massive numbers, shouldn’t they have been able to overwhelm the SOTH? There are like, 8,000 Unsullied, aren’t there? Minus those who’ve died along the way, but still, they must outnumber this enemy, right? So it’s hard to accept the Sons of the Harpy inflicting the level of damage they did given the fighting force Dany has in her corner.

Shifting elsewhere in Essos, Arya’s experience at The House of Black and White posed one problem for me. Back when she and Jaqen parted ways at the end of Season 2, he invited her to come with him to Braavos and learn to be a Faceless Man. “A girl has many names on her lips,” he said to her. “Joffrey, Cersei, Tywin Lannister, Ilyn Payne, The Hound…names to offer up to the Red God. She could offer them all, one by one.” He said this after killing at least two Lannister guards in order to help her escape from Harrenhal, and those two men exceeded the three he had offered to kill for her in exchange for saving his life and two others back at the caravan. So once Arya makes it to Braavos and comes under Jaqen’s tutelage, why is she constantly told that she has to let go of being Arya Stark and become no one? He encouraged her with the promise of being able to sacrifice her enemies. When she takes action — prematurely, granted; she had another assignment and she cast it aside — she is punished for it. Back at The House of Black and White, Jaqen says, “That man’s life was not yours to take. A girl stole from the Many Faced God. Now a debt is owed. Only death can pay for life.” Did he owe a debt when he killed those soldiers at Harrenhal? Why is she not able to carry out the revenge with which he tempted her? Why would killing her assigned target have been an acceptable murder to the Many Faced God while Meryn Trant’s was not?

The combination of these issues made Season 5 a little less satisfying than the others…but only a little. Don’t think my confidence in the show has been shaken in any fundamental way. It remains my current pop culture obsession, and if I could fast forward to next April right now, pausing only for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I would do so without hesitation. No discussion of the season would be complete without talking about the epic awesomeness that was Episode 8: Hardhome. The Army of the Dead attack on the wildling camp was not only a highlight of this year, but one of the best sequences in the show’s history. For me, much of what made it so impactful was the complete shock of it. It wasn’t something that happened in the books, so no contingent of viewers was waiting for it. It had the thrill and tension of the Red Wedding, without the potential for being spoiled, hinted at or telegraphed. More importantly, none of the previews or commercials for the season revealed it. The initial trailers for the season showed some quick shots of a battle in the snow, but if we made out anything from that, it was assumed to be a skirmish between the wildlngs and the Watch. And personally, none of those shots were on my mind during the scenes where Jon made his case to the wildlings to accept his offer and come south of The Wall. Those scenes were engrossing enough, so when the attack began, it carried the thrill of surprise. Then the escalation, the intensity…I don’t want to spout clichés, but it was literally heart-pounding, edge-of-your-seat stuff. Under the direction of Miguel Sapochnik, it was executed supremely well, right through to the final staredown between Jon and the Night’s King, and the quiet, unsettling sound effects — sans music score — over the end credits. (That silent yet loaded exchange between the two commanders, and indeed Jon’s entire performance at Hardhome, is one of the many reasons that his death feels so unlikely. Those two have to meet again, don’t they?)

Another of this season’s highlights, though it was brief, was the meeting of Tyrion and Daenarys. In fact, their two meaty scenes together came in Hardhome, helping to make that episode a standout this season. While a massive action sequence like the one at Hardhome has the ability to rock us, most of Game of Thrones best scenes involve characters talking. Tyrion and Dany are among the show’s more eloquent speakers, so their conversations were bound to be good, and then of course what Emilia Clarke and especially Peter Dinklage bring to them elevates the already fine material. Seriously, how great is Peter Dinklage?

The actor behind Tyrion is the cast’s standard bearer at the Emmy awards, and assuming he earns another nomination this year, it’s possible he’ll be joined by Lena Headey. She had a lot to work this this season as Cersei, culminating in that humbling Walk of Shame. When Cersei went to visit Margaery in her cell, playing the concerned ally, Margaery was having none of it. “Lies come easily to you, everyone knows that,” she said to Cersei. “But innocence, decency, concern — you’re not very good at those, I’m afraid.” It was those traits Cersei tried to access when confessing to the High Sparrow, and though her lack of true remorse or desire to repent was obvious, the High Sparrow agreed to let her return to the Red Keep. Little did she know what it would cost her. That long, dreadful walk — wisely and powerfully presented in its entirety — brought Cersei to a low she’s never experienced, but genuine piety is not in her toolbox. With Qyburn’s introduction of FrankenMountain, the look of steely resolve returned to Cersei’s eyes, and it’s safe to assume that her wrath will be more fiery than ever. (By the way, why no Littlefinger at the Red Keep awaiting Cersei’s return along with Qyburn, Pycelle and her uncle Kevan? He’s still in King’s Landing, as far as we know, and he’s still a member of the Small Council. Seems odd that such a skilled player wouldn’t make the calculated move of being there with a show of support — emphasis on “show” — for Cersei.)

A DANCE WITH DEADLINES
No one knows what her next move will be, or what anyone’s next move will be, since we’ve pretty much reached the end of Martin’s published material. He is hard at work on Book 6, The Winds of Winter, and has even suggested that it could be published early next year, potentially offering time for readers to consume it before Season 6 premieres. That’s his hope, at least. “Maybe I’m being overly optimistic about how quickly I can finish,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “But I canceled two convention appearances, I’m turning down a lot more interviews—anything I can do to clear my decks and get this done.” That said, he also knows that his number one obligation is to the quality of the books, not to the ticking clock imposed by the show. Speaking at the U.S. premiere of Season 5 in April, he said, “There is more pressure every year. The main thing is to make the book as good as I can possibly make it. Fifty years from now nobody is going to care how frequently the books came out. They will care if the books are as good as they can possibly be, if the books stand the test of time. That’s what I struggle with as I write.”

During a talk at Oxford Union, Benioff addressed the crossroads that everyone connected to Thrones has reached, from Martin all the way down to the fans.

Luckily, we’ve been talking about this with George for a long time, ever since we saw this could happen, and we know where things are heading. So we’ll eventually basically meet up at pretty much the same place where George is going [in Book 7, A Dream of Spring]. There might be a few deviations along the route, but we’re heading towards the same destination. I kind of wish there were some things we didn’t have to spoil in terms of the books, but we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. So the show must go on.

He added, “[A]t the same time, George has his process. And if it takes him 20 years to finish the series, that’s what it should take him. He’s writing, to my mind, the great fantasy epic of our time. So we can’t rush him and I wouldn’t want to rush him. [But] at the same time, we can’t put the show on hiatus.” Benioff also pointed out — as this season made abundantly clear for those who’ve read the books — that the degree of deviation from the source material which is now occurring on the show ensures that Martin doesn’t lose readers just because the show will finish before he does:

I think the thing that’s kind of fun for George is the idea that he can still have surprises for people even once they’ve watched the show through to the conclusion. There are certain things that are going to happen in the books that are different from the show, and I think people who love the show and want more — want to know more about the characters, want to know more about the different characters who might not have made the cut for the show — will be able to turn to the books.

Martin reinforced this in the same Entertainment Weekly interview mentioned above, wherein he talked excitedly about a new plot development he has devised for one of his characters that the show can’t replicate because of other choices that have already been made:

I’m still weighing whether to go that direction or not. It’s a great twist. It’s easy to do things that are shocking or unexpected, but they have to grow out of characters. They have to grow out of situations. Otherwise, it’s just being shocking for being shocking. But this is something that seems very organic and natural, and I could see how it would happen. And with the various three, four characters involved… it all makes sense. But it’s nothing I’ve ever thought of before. And it’s nothing they can do in the show, because the show has already — on this particular character — made a couple decisions that will preclude it, where in my case I have not made those decisions.

I would add that given how long it takes Martin to write the books, by the time he gets around to finishing A Dream of Spring it will probably be at least a few years after the show ends, allowing for a renewed excitement about returning to the world and characters he created after we’ll have missed them for a prolonged stretch.

And with that, let us ease the difficulty of another season gone with a new round of Fun with Thrones. All this talk of Martin finishing the books makes me think of this Robot Chicken segment, depicting the horror facing the author everytime he has to leave the house.

Anyone who enjoyed the bizarre web phenomenon Too Many Cooks last year might enjoy this GoT version of the mega-meme. I can’t say for sure, since I have yet to go down the Too Many Cooks rabbit hole myself.

The highest profile bit of Thrones comedy this year was probably from Red Nose Day, a charity event that aired on NBC recently and which, despite a reasonable amount of promotion, left me utterly clueless as to the cause for which it was raising money. Whatever it was, the powers behind it managed to draw a large number of GoT stars to participate in a segment about Coldplay attempting to create a Game of Thrones musical. Seeing is believing.

On a slightly more serious note — okay, a significantly more serious note, but still kinda fun — I stumbled upon this short animated examination about the economics of Westeros. This is surprisingly enjoyable.

Artist Mike Wrobel has continued his series of GoT characters dressed in 80s/90s garb

…and the Beautiful Death series lives on as well, as the mounting body count inspires more excellent work from artist Robert Ball. These can be seen at the Beautiful Death website, or on Ball’s personal site, where the images are a bit bigger. The little details of these are great, so bigger is better. (Note the third image below, by the way. It represents Stannis’ death…but again, no body. And there was no Beautiful Death art for Jon. That would be an unbelievable oversight, if he’s really dead. Just sayin’…)

Comic-Con comes a few weeks early this year — next week, in fact — and there will once again be a Game of Thrones panel, though for the first time, Benioff and Weiss are not attending. I’ve read some speculation that they’re skipping in order to avoid those tricky Jon Snow questions. Who knows. The panel will be mainly cast members, as well as an HBO executive. Without any key behind the scenes personnel, I don’t know if we’ll get any decent hints about what to expect next year, but maybe they’ll throw us a few bones. Emmy nominations will land shortly after Comic-Con wraps, and hopefully Thrones will be represented. I don’t see the show taking Best Drama this year — an award it has yet to win, but hopefully will before the end – but certainly Miguel Sapochnik deserves a directing nomination and arguably a win for Hardhome. Looking further ahead to early next year, we’ll see if Martin and Bantam Press can get The Winds of Winter out before April. And I really hope that the show returns to IMAX venues. The last week of this past January, Game of Thrones became the first TV series to be shown in IMAX theaters. The last two episodes of Season 4, which included the wildling attack at Castle Black, were converted into the large-screen format and presented at several IMAX locations around the country for a limited engagement. Just a week, I think. It didn’t sound worth it to me when I first read about it, but a friend wanted to go, so I figured sure, why not. And it was fantastic. The image quality was superb. Despite being filmed for a television screens, the visuals completely stood up to the demands of a giant screen. The episodes looked and sounded excellent, and the experience was totally worth the ticket price. It turned out be substantially more successful than either HBO or IMAX expected, and Benioff and Weiss were impressed with the results, so I’m hopeful it will happen again. The obvious choices for Season 5 would be episodes 8 and 9, rather than 9 and 10. I mean, Hardhome on IMAX will be phenomenal, and the following episode offers the arena sequence in Meereen that climaxes with Drogon’s arrival and Dany’s flight. I have to think all parties involved will make this happen. They’d better. I’ll need every bit of Thrones I can get to hold me over until the show comes back and Jon Snow rises from the dead…hopefully in better shape than these poor bastards.

April 11, 2015

Let the Game Begin

Filed under: TV — DB @ 5:30 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

This post is intended for those who are up-to-date on Game of Thrones. If you have yet to start watching the series or are not caught up, steer clear. There are more Season 1-4 spoilers to come than there were pots of Wildfire stored in King’s Landing.

So…where were we?

This game’s board continues to broaden, but before tomorrow night’s Season Five premiere, let’s see if we can catch up with where things stand for its many players. Before we begin, a statement of intention: there are many recaps available around the web, and most of them are probably more succinct than this one. But as I talk to people who are excited about the return of the show, I’m stunned by how few of them can even name the major characters. I hear things like, “Yeah, the chick with the dragons,” or “What’s his name, the brother whose hand got cut off, or “You know the one, oh, what’s his name, kid with the broken legs who can possess the giant.” I don’t understand how someone can be invested in a show, watch it week after week — even if only for ten weeks out of the year — and not know the names of the characters. I admit that I have a good memory for characters, story details, etc. (a knack which helped make me an effective recapper of Lost, thank you very much), but I don’t expect people to know the name of every Lannister soldier. Really though, you can’t name Dany or Cersei or Arya right off the top of your head? If that’s you, then you probably need a recap as detailed as the one I’m about to dish out. It may not be as entertaining as, say, this one…

…or as elegant as this one…

…but it will better prepare you for the new season. That I promise.

Having been accused of killing Joffrey (the title of Bill O’Reilly’s next book, FYI), Tyrion opted for a trial by combat rather than let dear daddy Tywin determine his fate. Wanting to ensure her brother’s death once and for all, Cersei chose as her champion the enormous Gregor Clegane, aka The Mountain Who Rides, aka The Mountain, aka That Crazy Motherfucker Who Chopped His Horse’s Head Off After Losing a Joust – a man who Tyrion’s sellsword pal Bronn would accurately describe as “freakish big and freakish strong.”  With Jaime unable to fight due to the loss of his hand, and Bronn unwilling to put his life on the line against The Mountain, Tyrion found a surprise champion in Dornish prince Oberyn Martell, who had journeyed to King’s Landing with his special ladyfriend Ellaria Sand for Joffrey’s wedding. Oberyn’s sister Elia had been married to the Mad King’s son Rhaegar Targaryen, but he left her for Ned Stark’s sister Lyanna, even though she was betrothed to Robert Baratheon. When Tywin and his army — allied with a rebelling Robert — stormed King’s Landing right around the time Jaime was earning the nickname “Kingslayer,” The Mountain killed Elia’s children and then raped her before killing her too. Oberyn has long sought vengeance on The Mountain, and on Tywin, who he is convinced gave the order. So Oberyn fought for Tyrion and appeared to mortally wound The Mountain, only to find his massive opponent had a few moves left…like the move where he crushed Oberyn’s head to a pulp with his bare fucking hands. Tyrion was condemned to death, but Jaime and Varys plotted his escape. Jaime got him out of his cell, and on his way to meet Varys, Tyrion couldn’t help but take a detour. He went to Tywin’s chambers and found his ex-lover Shae in his father’s bed. She went on the defensive and tried to kill him, but he choked her to death. Then he found Tywin sitting on the toilet, and put two arrows in him. By the time Varys got him to the ship that would carry him across the Narrow Sea to exile and maybe safety, the toll of bells signaled that Tywin’s death had been discovered. Varys knew he could not return to court, so he took a place on the boat alongside Tyrion.

In other King’s Landing news, Joffrey has been succeeded by his brother Tommen, a sweet, decent kid who is almost certainly doomed and who doesn’t to deserve to die the horrible death that will probably befall him eventually as the competitors for the Iron Throne close in. For the time being though, Tommen is king, and with Tywin dead, Cersei is now the true power in King’s Landing, answering to nobody. Margaery Tyrell, who was married to Joffrey for all of a few hours before he was gloriously poisoned — by her grandmother, the supremely awesome Olenna Tyrell, as it turned out — is now set to wed the much younger Tommen. This puts Cersei in a difficult position, since she detests Margaery…though in point of fact, Cersei detests almost everyone who isn’t a Lannister. And almost everyone who is a Lannister, really. But she also seems to recognize the need for an alliance with the Tyrells, the wealthiest family in the kingdoms second to her own.

Olenna’s murder of Joffrey was conducted in cahoots with Westeros’ schemer extraordinaire, Lord Petyr Baelish, aka Littlefinger. He arranged to have Sansa Stark unwittingly wear a poison-laced necklace to the wedding, where Olenna would have access. As Joffrey gasped his last breaths, Littlefinger had an accomplice whisk Sansa away and deliver her to Littlfinger’s ship anchored in the mists of the bay. The two sailed to the Vale and made for the fortress of the Eyrie, where Littlefinger married Sansa’s aunt Lysa Arryn, sister of her late mother Catelyn Stark. Lysa has always been a little crazy, however, and was convinced that Littlefinger had romantic designs on Sansa. She might have been right; he’s always been creepy, but the way he looks at her takes it to a whole other level. With Lysa unhinged by jealousy, Littlefinger decided the best thing for everyone would be if she weren’t alive anymore, so he pushed her ass out the moon door. Under Littlefinger’s tutelage, Sansa finally began to display some cunning, spinning a story to a small tribunal that held Littlefinger responsible for Lady Arryn’s death. Sansa convinced them that Lysa had killed herself, and that Littlefinger was her kind, brave savior and protector who rescued her from Joffrey’s clutches. Recognizing the creepy fixation he has on her — perhaps because she’s the daughter of his lifelong object of desire — Sansa began to use his feelings to her advantage. Considering the revelation that Littlefinger convinced Lysa to poison her husband — an act which set the whole game in motion back in the very first episode — it will be fun to see if Sansa can get him to lower his guard…and if she can play his own game better than he can.

Meanwhile, north of The Wall, Bran Stark continued his journey to find the three-eyed raven, accompanied by siblings Jojen and Meera Reed as well as faithful Hodor (Hodor.) Bran’s visions revealed their destination to be a weirwood tree, which they finally reached after a few setbacks — the last of which was an attack, just feet from their destination, by a band of wights — reanimated corpses with a connection to the White Walkers. They received help from a mysterious being who looked like a young girl — though she was probably something else entirely — but Jojen didn’t survive the attack. Once safely inside the tree, Bran, Meera and Hodor meet the raven in his human form…or human-like; I’m not really sure what this dude is, all gnarled up and looking as though he’s growing out of the tree’s branches. He tells Bran that he’s been waiting for him a long time, and that although he will never walk again, he will fly. So there’s that.

At Castle Black, a badly outnumbered Night’s Watch made a valiant stand against the first attack from wildling leader Mance Rayder’s army. Jon Snow further demonstrated his leadership by taking command when Ser Alliser Thorne was injured by fierce wildling Tormund Giantsbane, who was eventually captured. The Night’s Watch won the day but suffered heavy losses, including Jon’s friends Pyp and Grenn, and of course his wildling lover Ygritte, who died in his arms after taking an arrow from a young boy whose father she’d killed in an earlier village raid. Silver lining: Jon’s best bud Samwell Tarly survived, and was reunited with Gilly, the object of his affection. Knowing that the Watch will not be able to hold off another wildling assault, Jon ventured beyond The Wall to Mance’s camp, hoping to either kill the leader and thereby scatter his army, or perhaps reach some kind of agreement. Their talk was interrupted when a large army appeared out of nowhere and rode on Mance’s ranks. Wanting to avoid more bloodshed among his group, Mance surrendered to the new arrivals: Stannis Baratheon, accompanied by Davos Seaworth.

Stannis had been back on his rocky island of Dragonstone trying to figure out his next move after his loss to the Lannisters at Blackwater Bay (all the way back in Season Two, people). That defeat heavily depleted his resources, but he finally made some headway when, at Davos’ behest, he sailed across the Narrow Sea to visit the Iron Bank of Braavos. The Iron Bank had been funding the Lannisters as far back as Robert Baratheon’s rebellion, and funded the crown in the War of the Five Kings as well. The crown and the Lannisters — if the two are even considered separate entities at this point — are deep in debt to the bank, and when its representatives initially decline Stannis’s request for a considerable loan, Davos convinced them that backing Tywin Lannister is not a profitable move. Now armed with the funds necessary to reinvigorate his forces, Stannis has arrived beyond The Wall, where he and Davos meet Jon and Mance. This move is a such a big one for Stannis that he’s even brought along his priestess Melisandre, his wife Selyse and his daughter Shireen. There’s no Westeros Disney World, so I suppose The Wall is as good a place as any for a family trip.

With me so far? Cause we ain’t done yet. Ramsay Snow — the bastard son of Stark bannerman-turned-Robb Stark murderer-turned Warden of the North, Roose Bolton — completed a total physical and psychological breakdown of his prisoner Theon Greyjoy, reinventing him as a loyal servant called Reek. So loyal that when Theon’s sister Yara led a mission to rescue him, he refused to go with her. Roose tasked Ramsay with capturing Moat Cailin, a ruined but strategically necessary fortress that was occupied by Ironborn soldiers fighting for Theon’s father, Balon. Fucking with his plaything’s head even further, Ramsay had Reek pretend to be Theon Greyjoy and enter Moat Cailin with terms of surrender on behalf of Bolton. The weary Ironborn accepted, and were promptly killed by Ramsay’s forces. As a reward for his success, Roose stripped away the bastard surname of Snow from Ramsay and allowed his son to take the Bolton name. Theon went back to being Reek, because the only reward he ever gets these days is a warm bath.

There were some other duos making their way across Westeros who were more endearing than vicious Ramsay and tragic Theon. Jaime sent Brienne in search of Sansa, intending to honor his promise to Catelyn Stark that her daughters would be returned to her in exchange for his freedom. Lady Stark is dead of course, but Brienne is sent to find Sansa anyway and protect her. Accompanying her is Tyrion’s squire Podrick Payne, who the imprisioned Tyrion released from his service and sent away from King’s Landing to save him from any harm that might befall him for being associated with Joffrey’s accused killer. Brienne had little patience for Podrick at first, but the loyal boy started to grow on her, and proved knowledgeable about things such as family connections throughout the kingdoms. This led him to suggest that Sansa might be in the Eyrie with her aunt Lysa, so off they went. Before that, however, they stopped to eat at an inn — the same inn that purchased Arya’s former traveling companion Hot Pie from the Brotherhood Without Banners. When Brienne told him of their search for Sansa Stark, Hot Pie confided that he knew an Arya Stark and had been in her company not so long ago. He tells them where she was headed when they parted ways, and that her traveling companions included The Hound. As Brienne and Pod get close to the Eyrie, who do they encounter but that very pair.

After barely missing the Red Wedding at Walder Frey’s stronghold The Twins, they too had been journeying to the Eyrie. The Hound hoped to sell Arya to her aunt, but they arrived three days after Lysa’s death. They were making their way back across the Vale with no clear destination when they met Brienne and Pod, who recognized The Hound, allowing Brienne to realize that she’d stumbled upon the elusive Arya. She told Arya of the promise she made to Catelyn, but with The Hound interjecting, her story didn’t come off so clearly. Brienne and The Hound launched into an epic fight that ended with The Hound bloodied and broken. Arya hid herself, so Brienne and Pod ran off in the hopes of finding her again. When they were gone, Arya approached The Hound, with whom she had shared a reluctant bond. But as he begged her to finish him off and take him out of his misery, she merely regarded him with indifference, finally stealing his money and leaving him to die. She made her way to a port where she found a ship bound for Braavos. In a moment I’ve been waiting for since the end of Season Two, she offered the Braavosi coin given to her by Jaqen H’ghar to the ship’s captain, securing herself passage across the Narrow Sea in the hopes of finding H’ghar, the assassin who once offered to train her in his art. (Unfortunately, if she does hook back up with Jaqen, his transformation means he can probably no longer be played by the awesome Tom Wlaschiha, who was so good in the part. I just hope they aren’t stuck with that goofy looking guy from the end of the clip. I hate his stupid face.)

Which brings us to our final set of major players on the board. Daenarys’ invasion of Westeros continued to take a backseat to her insistence on freeing every single goddamn slave on the continent of Essos. After liberating the city of Meereen, she learned that other cities she had freed along the way were not faring so well once she’d moved on. She decided to earn her right to the Iron Throne by spending time first ruling in Meereen. It wasn’t without its challenges. Not all the slavers were the monsters she painted them as, and not all the slaves felt victimized by their situations. As she grappled with the subtleties of the slave city dynamics, she also had to face the fact that her growing dragons were beyond her control, terrorizing the countryside. She finally had to put them in chains and lock them in a large, windowless chamber…though she was only able to do this to two of them, as the third was off on an adventure somewhere, maybe getting domesticated by a scrawny, clever Viking kid. Still, having to lock up her dragons wasn’t the biggest setback Dany suffered. She learned — through the machinations of Tywin Lannister — that her closest friend and adviser Ser Jorah Mormont had been spying on her in the early days of their relationship, reporting on her to Robert Baratheon, who wanted her killed before she could try and re-take the Iron Throne for the Targaryens. Though Jorah had committed himself to her before too long, even stopping her from drinking poisoned wine, she could not forgive him for this initial betrayal, particularly the fact that he had informed her enemies she was pregnant with Khal Drogo’s child. She banished him from the city and told him she would have him killed if she laid eyes on him again. But it wasn’t all depressing news for Team Targaryen. With no small degree of bemusement, Dany finally gave into the romantic overtures of Daario Naharis, the captain of the Second Sons, a sellsword company now backing her along with the massive Unsullied army. Grey Worm, the commander of the Unsullied, has taken an interest in Dany’s translator Missandei. Although his castration as a child would seemingly curb any stirrings of desire, he is clearly enamored of her, and she appears to be receptive to his attention.

So…that’s where we were. And now we arrive at Season Five.

Some fine teasing on display in those trailers, and as the new episodes begin there are plenty of questions about what’s to come for those like me who haven’t read the books. Cersei’s no dummy; will she figure that Jaime helped Tyrion escape, and how will that affect their relationship? After being rather cold to him throughout most of last season, she came around at the end, even coming clean to Tywin with the truth that his twins’ incestuous relationship was no rumor. Granted, throwing herself at Jaime surely had the ulterior motive of getting him to choose her over Tyrion, but he didn’t put one before the other. So where will that leave them?

Is there more to come with The Mountain? He was barely alive after his fight with Oberyn, but Cersei allowed Qyburn to perform some sort of vague treatment on him. Qyburn is the former Maester — like Pycelle or Aemon or Luwin — who was expelled from The Citadel for his radical ideas and experimental techniques. He treated Jaime’s wrist after the hand was cut off, and helped Cersei with some undisclosed issues as well. I only bring up his attempts to save The Mountain because the show seemed to place suspicious emphasis on what would seem a minor story point. He ominously tells Cersei that even if The Mountain can be saved, the process “may change him…somewhat,” also indicating with barely contained delight that whatever happens, he won’t be weakened. I don’t know what Qyburn’s deal is, but after this scene, you know that dude is just a few imprisoned rapists away from inventing the first human centipede. So something tells me this is going somewhere.

When last we saw Sansa, Littlefinger and Lysa’s oddball son Robyn, they were embarking on a tour of the Vale. I thought and hoped they might cross paths with Arya and The Hound, but might they still stumble upon the latter? We didn’t actually see him die, and while there’s zero hope he could survive, maybe the travelers will come upon his body, causing them to wonder what brought him to the Vale.

Seeing Jon’s world collide with Stannis’ should make for some great material. There was a loaded moment in last season’s finale when Melisandre locked eyes with Jon across a burning pile of corpses. Is the Red Priestess going to bust a move on Jon? How will Stannis exert his power at The Wall? How will Mance deal with this turn of events? And will we see more from the White Walkers? One of last season’s most chilling events was when the last baby boy born to Craster was taken by a White Walker into what some kind of ceremonial tableau, where a Walker with a different look from the others we’ve seen so far touched an icy fingernail to the baby’s cheek and turned him into…well, into a White Crawler I guess. This scene garnered a lot of attention for being a significant plot development that had not been part of the books.

One of the impressive things about this saga is how it expands even as it contracts. Tyrion, Varys and Arya are now on the same continent as Dany, Jorah and Ser Barristan, and you can bet that some of those characters will cross paths eventually. And with the Jon and Stannis stories now intertwined, the world of the show could be seen as getting smaller. But then we’ll visit a new locale this season: the late Prince Oberyn’s home of Dorne. There, we’ll catch up with Cersei’s daughter Myrcella, who was sent there back in Season Two, and meet a number of new characters, including Oberyn’s older brother Doran, and three of his daughters. The vengeful girls are known as the Sand Snakes, and word is they will not take the news of their father’s death with peaceful acceptance. We’ll also get to better know the Sand Snakes’ mother Ellaria, whose part last season was smallish. But the move to Dorne and the aftermath of Oberyn’s death should provide her more to do. As the show’s co-creator D.B. Weiss says about actress Indira Varma, “Once you have someone of her caliber, you want to double down on that casting strength.” (Incidentally, with the enlarging of Myrcella’s role, a new actress has been cast in the part, just as Tommen was recast last season. The actress who played the role in Seasons One and Two took the news with a sense of humor.)

Just as the world simultaneously expands and contracts by means of locations and merging storylines, so too does this occur through character additions and deletions. Many die, but new ones get introduced. Along with all of these Dornish figures we’ll soon meet, another key arrival to the story will be a King’s Landing-based religious figure known as The High Sparrow, who could make life difficult for Cersei and Tommen. Whatever he does, he should be intriguing to watch as played by the veteran character actor Jonathan Pryce, who starred in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and had major roles in such movies as Glengarry Glen Ross, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Evita and Tomorrow Never Dies.

And as we get to know these new arrivals, let’s not forget all the characters that are still out there, out of sight, but not out of mind. Not out of mine, anyway. The youngest Stark, Rickon, and his wildling protector Osha; Brotherhood Without Banners leaders Thoros of Myr and Beric Dondarrion; Robert Baratheon’s bastard son Gendry; Catelyn’s uncle Bryndyn “The Blackfish” Tully, who escaped the Red Wedding; Cat’s brother Edmure, who was the groom at that wedding and is apparently imprisoned by his now-father-in-law Walder Frey; Walder Frey himself, that treacherous lecher; and Benjen Stark, Ned’s brother, a ranger of the Night’s Watch who went beyond The Wall in Season One and hasn’t been seen since. Will any of these characters show up again this season? You can can be sure that at least some of them still have a part to play in the game, but when will they make their move?

One major character we won’t be seeing this year? Bran. In a bold move by showrunners Weiss and David Benioff, the clairvoyant Stark child, along with his companions Hodor (Hodor) and Meera Reed, has been benched for this entire season. One reason is that at this point, the show has apparently caught up with Bran’s storyline in the books, and from a standpoint of chronology, continuing would move beyond the timeframe that all of the other characters occupy. It may be worth noting here that Martin’s fourth and fifth books — A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons — take place concurrently and do not both feature each and every major character. Crows follows one group of characters, while Dragons follows another group during the same time period. While each season of the TV show thus far has roughly corresponded to a book — with the third novel A Clash of Kings serving as the basis for Seasons Three and Four of the show — this hasn’t been an exact science. Benioff and Weiss have introduced some elements into the show earlier than they appear in the books, and other elements later. As such, they must have jumped ahead with Bran’s storyline and drawn from book four or five (whichever one he appeared in; I’m not sure). They have still made it clear that by and large, Season Five is based on Crows and Dragons. So again, pushing ahead with Bran’s story would move him too far beyond the other story threads chronologically. (I’m left to assume that his events in book four or five weren’t too far ahead of other characters’ events in book three, allowing them to avoid the issue of timing last season that they’re encountering now.)

To complicate things further, I’ve heard that Sansa’s storyline had also pretty much caught up to the books by the end of last season, yet she and Littlefinger are not getting sidelined like Bran. Now maybe I’ve been misinformed and there is still more Sansa action in the published books. But it could also be that the gap between Sansa’s story in Crows/Dragons and wherever it picks up in the next book is easier to bridge than the same gap for Bran. To that point — perhaps — Benioff and Weiss have further justified holding off on the Bran story by explaining that he’s about to enter a period of training, learning from the Three-Eyed Raven how to use his powers. Benioff puts it in terms of Star Wars: “It would be far less interesting, after The Empire Strikes Back to have an hour-long movie in between Empire and Return of the Jedi where Luke is training. It’s so much cooler to cut from end of Empire to beginning of Return, where he’s become the Jedi.” He elaborates, “It made sense to stop where we did. He’s now entering a training period which is going to take quite some time, much of which isn’t particularly cinematic. So rather than being stuck in a cave for a year, we figured it would be interesting to leave him out for a little bit, so when you see him again…”

I have to disagree on this point. I’ll bet that if Thrones wanted to devote an hour-long episode to Bran’s experience tapping into his abilities, they could make it pretty dramatic and compelling. I think it would be interesting to watch him grow and learn about his gifts. Surely they could draw enough from this premise to visit it periodically over the course of a ten-hour season. But Benioff mentions “being stuck in a cave for a year.” So if that isn’t just a random time period he’s tossing out there, but rather the actual amount of time in the story it will take Bran to do what he’s got to do, I can go with the Chronology Explanation, as it’s a more valid argument to me. Such a training period would  believably be prolonged enough that it might move Bran too far ahead in time than the other characters.

Whatever the case, it will be a shock when Bran returns in Season Six having grown another few inches and looking like a young man far removed from the adorable boy who got thrown from a window by Jaime Lannister. Of all the young actors on the show, Isaac Hempstead-Wright is already the one whose appearance has altered most dramatically with age. By the time we see him again, it will be a jarring sight.

This all brings us to another much-discussed element of the new season: diversion from the books. It was confirmed a few months ago that the sixth book, The Winds of Winter, will not be published in 2015. This news seemed to erroneously give way to the idea that starting now, the show will be carving its own path almost entirely. I’m not sure where this notion came from. As mentioned above, this season is primarily based on books four and five — Benioff and Weiss confirmed this in an interview at the recent premiere event in San Francisco — with the understanding that yes, as always, there will be differences. Asked about taking detours from the books, Benioff replied:

I think every season has been a little bit more. The first season was extremely faithful. The next season had a few more deviations. Each season has had to go a little more. If we were to remain entirely faithful to A Feast for Crows, half the characters — the most popular characters — would be absent from the screen this season. It’s always been about adapting the series as a whole and following the map George laid out for us and hitting the major milestones, but not necessarily each of the stops along the way. It’s an adaptation, it will have to adapt in order to survive. There are always going to be some people who want everything to remain exactly as in the books. For us, it was never a choice.

Producer Bryan Cogman added, “This is the riskiest season, from a storytelling perspective, and certainly the most difficult. We were faced with adapting two huge books and following up on arcs and themes that — while certainly inspired by the books — were a little more our own thing.” Those differences between the books and the show will include some deaths, as Martin stated that there will be characters who die on the show this year but are still alive in the books. However he also explained more recently that the death of a character on the show can carry a different weight than the death of that same character on the page, since the show has fewer main characters to work with than the book does. When it comes to deviations between the source material and the adaptation, we also have to keep in mind that Martin has told Benioff and Weiss the broad strokes of how the story ends, and we don’t always know if things from the show that aren’t in the books — like that White Walker ritual with the baby, for example — were invented by Benioff and Weiss, or are in fact things that Martin is planning but hasn’t gotten to yet. And all of this of course bleeds into the issue of the show catching up to and overtaking the books. There are new comments on that too, from all parties involved, but I think it makes more sense to save those for our post-season check-in…though I will add that for the first time, Martin did not write the script for one of this season’s episodes, choosing instead to devote his time to the The Winds of Winter. I think he made the right call.

Now…on to the fun stuff. Being the cultural phenomenon that it is, there’s always plenty of Thrones-centric fodder in the pop culture stratosphere, and here are the latest additions to my collection. First, how about this interactive map of Westeros and beyond, which not only serves the basic need of helping clarify the geography, but even allows you to trace the paths of various characters — in either their book journey or their TV journey — and even follow them only up to the point you’ve seen if you’re not caught up yet. I haven’t played around with that more advanced functionality yet, but this was helpful of late as I wanted to see where Braavos was in relation to Pentos.

As a fan of visual effects, I always enjoy seeing breakdowns like this one, which show all the ways that effects are used to enhance the scenery and make the entire world of the show believable. This reel is put together quite nicely.

Nerdist offered up this parody of the Taylor Swift song “Blank Space” called “Blank Page,” in which George R.R. Martin sings of his tendency to kill characters. The song’s amusing, but really I just enjoy the guy playing Martin. I wasn’t familiar with Swift’s tune, but it’s worth a listen for a better appreciation of what the parody is riffing on.

And this…this was just begging to happen. I’m surprised it took this long. [Note: It didn’t take this long, as it turns out. Several hours after this post went live, I realized that I actually included a similar but different GoT/Princess Bride mashup in another post a couple of years ago. It’s not inconceivable that there are others out there too. Oh well. This is still good.] 

Plenty of other amusing videos have made the rounds. Things can get awfully grim on the show, and most of the characters don’t like each other very much, so it’s nice to see some moments of levity on the set. The bloopers here are more amusing than hilarious; mostly flubbed lines. But it’s still nice to see them all having fun. Earlier this week, Seth Meyers offered a look at what Jon Snow might be like as a dinner guest. Answer: not great. There was also this Sesame Street clip that wasn’t as funny as some other TV show parodies they’ve done, but still worth a look. Because it’s Sesame Street. Doing Game of Thrones. Oh, and after the requisite Thrones-inspired couch gag a few years ago, The Simpsons dipped into the Westeros well again this year in an episode when Homer is given the opportunity to be the new face of Duff Beer.

The Simpsons, Sesame Street…there’s nothing like some good pop culture cross-pollination, and these minimalist Thrones-style house sigils, courtesy of artist Miguel Lokia, are another fine example. The Starks have “Winter is Coming,” the Targaryens have “Fire and Blood,” and the Greyjoys have “We Do Not Sow.” But what about these prominent families? (See here for others.)


Also in the Art of Thrones files, illustrators Peter and Radu came up with these travel posters that almost make you want to visit Westeros. Almost. (See here for larger versions, plus additional posters inspired by Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.)

Finally, I came across an interesting story a while back that Martin has plans to republish a children’s story he wrote years ago called The Ice Dragon, which is set in the same world as his Song of Ice and Fire. If you’re anything like me, your reaction to that is something like, “George R.R. Martin wrote a children’s story???” Apparently so. In fact, now he’s even adapted Game of Thrones for kids.

And with that, I think I’d best go and emotionally prepare myself for the brutality, the distress and the bloodshed that shall begin anew tomorrow night. Gods, I love it.

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