Saturday, July 19, 2014

Choice of character

There was a post on the board a few weeks ago that sparked something in my mind because I'd considered it a number of times over the past 4 years, but after I wrote it down I filed it away to be finished later because I was (and am) currently struggling with another story. Now that I've decided I'm stuck for the evening, the question reoccurs. Said question borders on the tautological: Can you like a character better in one medium than another if the new version is done well enough? In other words, how do you separate the two? If I think Sandor Clegane is better on TV than in the books, is it because the character was actually done better or because the actor has not only lived up to my expectations for the character but has actually exceeded them? Does that make show Hound better than book Hound? Does it depend on the actor? Does it depend on the script? Does it depends on how attached you are to the character in the original medium? Furthermore, do the TV characters end up being superior in some cases simply because of the fantastic foundation upon which they rest? It's a lot easier to write someone when the original author has already done the favor of laying their groundwork for ~4500 pages. Does that make our central question moot? Is there any other reason to have the Internet other than to discuss unanswerable questions? Well, let's discuss.

Tyrion- As I noted in the episode 8 write-up, there’s a distinction that becomes much more prevalent in the characters that are written as quite canny and literate; Tyrion being one of those. In the show, we can’t read their thoughts, which deprives us of some of their eloquence. But in the books, we can’t see their reactions and facial quirks and it’s that aspect which often defines Peter Dinklage as an actor. His undeniable charm has sold Tyrion to an audience of even more millions, beyond even the fact that he gets many of the best lines. Furthermore, he’s far more good-looking than the Tyrion from the books, who was a fairly distorted dwarf with off-color hair even before he lost his nose (unlike the Margaery-pleasing scar he bears on HBO.) Those things play as they’re supposed to in the visual medium. Most humans respond more favorably to an attractive person than they do to one who falls below that common standard (there’s a lengthy discussion possible here about standards of beauty being societal or instinctive; I trend more toward the latter based on the reactions of children, but that’s going far afield right now.) However, even with Dinklage’s contributions, I think Tyrion is still a better character in the books simply because of the time and space he’s allowed to elaborate upon those inner workings that make him the character he is. If given the screen time necessary to more fully acquaint his audience with exactly who he is and the depth he has as a tragicomic figure, perhaps that would be different. This does nothing to detract from Dinklage's performance in the show and, indeed, this first choice is one of the more difficult because of the involvement of the writer. Martin has stated before that Tyrion is the character with whom he feels the most familiarity so there's little doubt that he'd be a more developed individual in the books. Furthermore, Dinklage has developed Tyrion as a different person in the show (he has not read the books) and there's plenty of argument to say that that difference is better, but not necessarily a better Tyrion.

Cersei- is absolutely a better character in the show, without question. Prior to Feast for Crows, Cersei was a device; a constant foil for a multitude of other characters. Martin wrote her with intelligence, certainly, but the personal depth took a long time to come to the fore. Lena Headey has had the opportunity to develop that depth from day one and she has excelled in doing so. She’s made Cersei into a sympathetic character for much of the audience even as she’s been utterly reviled (as intended) for the rest. Her defining moment was when Tywin informed her that she’d be marrying Loras and the cocky, evilly-gloating Cersei immediately crumbled to helpless daughter in the same fashion as her younger brother whom she’d been cackling at moments before. It’s tough to do that kind of transition as an actor. It’s tough to write it as an author and still maintain some kind of genuine reaction on the part of the majority of your audience. Headey sold it and then, even after creating that moment of sympathy, continued to be the ice queen in season 4, culminating with her self-satisfied smirk over the corpse of Oberyn Martell. I think having her wholly realized from the outset has led her to become a character of far greater complexity. You can't fault Martin for not making her a viewpoint character from the outset, as these things have a life of their own, at times, and he probably only realized that she had grown into that status as he began Feast. I realize there is some dissension out there over Headey's performance as being too sympathetic but I would urge those people to look at Cersei as a human and not simply Malificent with blonde hair.

Jaime- is an interesting question. Both versions show the transformation from elitist prig to thoughtful man and both versions use Jaime as one of the most obvious “shades of grey” examples that is one of the primary themes of the entire work. Interestingly, the show has allowed him to swing back and forth over the line at different points: the infamous rape scene next to Joffrey’s body was a significant departure from his path in the books (as the scene never took place), while his assistance in Tyrion’s escape in the book was a far more venomous scene between the brothers than the fairly heartwarming moment in the series. Overall, I’d have to say that he’s a “better” person in the show, but that assumes that you want him to be. Is he better in the show because the audience can more easily access Nikolai Coster-Waldau’s charismatic performance or is he better in the books because he’s still the grim, cynical persona arcing more toward the Hound as someone who has given up on the concept of knighthood or good people, in general? I think I’ve found him to be better in the show simply because Coster-Waldau’s rendition has been more entertaining but I’m not sure that he serves the story better than the book version (assuming that I understand Martin’s intent for the character.) Jaime in the book is still in that transformation and there's room to argue that Coster-Waldau's transition has been too complete at this point (although, again, the rape scene puts the lie to some of that.) I've become fond of Jaime as a character in the latter two books largely because he is a cynic, but I tend to favor the show version in many ways because of Coster-Waldau's sterling performance. How this guy went from a bit role in Kingdom of Heaven to this is a mystery to me, given his obvious talent, but it certainly does help to have good material to work with.

Daenerys- Daenerys, Daenerys, Daenerys… So, trying to play an innocent babe-in-the-woods who, in the books, is almost literally a child (she’s 14 when married to Drogo) and who becomes a queen with a distinct level of authoritah is a challenging prospect for any actor. I think Emilia Clarke has done a phenomenal job with the task, culminating in the Mask of Rage moment this season when she dismissed Jorah. That said, it’d be kind of difficult to do worse with the role because the book character has in many ways been something of a cipher. She’s delivering the Targaryen storyline and the depiction of Essos but hasn’t really been one of those characters whom you remember fondly for various moments (other than Dracarys.) Martin has had near-legendary problems with her storyline, which has faded out for lengthy periods of time (she has about 50 pages in Clash of Kings) and which has become difficult to move forward for fear of completely voiding the character’s consistency. There is no there there, when it comes to Daenerys. That changed to a certain degree in the latter part of Dance and we now have a clearly more interesting path for her to proceed upon, but I think the show character has had more opportunity to present Dany the person, as opposed to Dany the plot element, and I think that’s more worthwhile. However, again we're hampered here by not having access to her innermost thoughts which tends to demonstrate a bit more of her intelligence in the books in the same manner as Tyrion, so I think this is a closer call.

Jon Snow- Without question, I think the book character is better. As much as I appreciate Kit Harrington’s efforts, Jon Snow of the Page is simply far more thoughtful and deliberate than Jon Snow of the Screen, even when he was a novice at the Wall. Harrington has played him to his intended age and with all of the emotional turmoil that he endures playing out on his face. The book Snow is more guarded than that and his actions become more reasonable as a consequence. Harrington never sold me for a minute as the Wildling ex-pat. Snow in the book, even though I was in his head the whole time, put on a more believable performance for his new allies. Furthermore, Harrington plays him with a great deal more angst than the book character displays and I've carried a distaste for that particular human condition since I stopped reading the X-Men in the late 80s as a direct consequence of Claremont's overindulgence in it. While Harrington is a capable actor, I think his inexperience shows through moreso than any of the other younger people and he becomes a bit wooden in tough spots. One can argue that that actually reflects Jon Snow's personality to some degree but I think Martin has done a better job of depicting him as somewhat detached but still very human.

Bran- Likewise, I think Bran is better in the books, but this may be more of a method problem than anything done by the actor. Bran’s role is tough because a lot of what happens to him is completely beyond his control, such that he can only react, rather than act, not solely because of the magical events occurring that he doesn't understand but also because he depends on others for his survival and even mobility. In the book, we’re treated to a lot of Bran’s inner thoughts, which demonstrates more clearly how he’s adapting to the situation around him and why. We won’t ever get that in the show without an expository infodump that is bad for TV. Furthermore, the delivery problem rears its head. In prose, otherworldly things can come to life in a very reasonable manner for most people. It’s a lot easier to read about genuinely fantastical things happening and be carried along by the story than it is to see them on a screen in front of you because you don’t need a suspension of disbelief for your own imagination, which is providing the pictures as you read along. You still need that when it appears in front of you because it may not be your interpretation of how it should look and it will never look as good as it does in your mind simply because of that gulf. That makes Bran’s role more difficult on TV than it is in the books. Also, Bran's story suffers from the same problem that Dany's does, in that it's out on its own, largely unaffected by events elsewhere in the world, so it was possible for Martin to leave it for extended stretches which leaves the actors cooling their heels or engaging in relatively mundane stuff ("We're still traveling north...") that doesn't give Isaac Hempstead-Wright a great deal to work with.

Arya- Show. Show, show, show. Beyond doubt. Maisie Williams has been a revelation as Arya and is one of two characters that has so firmly embodied her role that it becomes difficult to tell whether she’s better because she’s better or better because she does the role to a level almost indistinguishable from the original character. I was not especially fond of Arya’s storyline until Storm of Swords, but I was blown away by Williams from the moment she appeared onscreen. I guess the real question will be if she can maintain that performance as the character transitions into the state in which she has become one of my favorites in the books. Interestingly, while Jaime, for example, seems to become more interesting on the show because he becomes more sympathetic, Arya wins out because she becomes less so. In both media, she becomes more brutal and less human to a degree, but the transition is far more stark in the show because it happens over a much shorter time. Furthermore, Maisie was a much more appealing person than Arya of the books, who was much more like a child who had been plucked from her home and dropped into quite dire straits. Am I saying that show Arya is better because her reactions may have been less genuinely human? I might be.

Sansa- Again, I think the show wins out here and really only from this most recent season. It took me a long time to warm to Sansa in the books, too, but I did eventually come to appreciate the strength that she displays as the completely powerless character that finally comes to realize how to play the game and how important she could be within it. That presence of mind is still kind of muted in the books, but she took control with a vengeance this season and had some of the greatest moments in its latter stages. Sophie Turner could easily be noted as the best actress of season 4 and making Sansa a more sympathetic character to much of the audience is part of that. It's also a total contrast to Arya, in that Sansa has become more sympathetic to me because of the very human nature of her reactions. Or is that just my more mature estimation of character than my first encounter with Sansa some 18 years ago?

Stannis- While I really appreciate Stephen Dillane’s performance as the man who insists he should be king (he was fantastic as Thomas Jefferson in HBO’s John Adams), I think Stannis has become less than what he should be in the show. In the original story, Stannis is the iron man: unassailable, unmoved, solely determined to gain what he thinks should be his. In the show, he’s far more vulnerable, which is everything Stannis is not. Granted, he’s not a perspective character, so we rarely see things from inside the eye of Stannis (i.e. Davos would not have been present while Stannis was nailing Melisandre on the Westeros table) but his reactions have also been more emotionally-driven than expected and it’s made the character not as imposing. Also granted, it’s hard as hell to be an actor and play someone who seems impervious to everything around him, so I don’t blame Dillane, but this is one area where I think that D&D may have taken it in the wrong direction.

Oberyn- I mention him here despite the brevity of his role because he's one of the outstanding examples of this contrast. The Red Viper was an interesting experiment in dramatic presentation. The character in the books is interesting but mostly because he was specifically designed to be so and not because he delivers an aspect of the story that's particularly deep. He’s an alpha male with a singular purpose: vengeance. The reaction of Tyrion and others to his presence makes that apparent from the moment he’s introduced. The audience is supposed to instantly understand him and, consequently, like him in the same way that they’re supposed to understand and like Omar from The Wire. In later years, many people have come to appreciate the other, deeper, more complex characters of The Wire moreso than Omar because of that depth. Same thing here. I appreciated Oberyn for fulfilling the role that he was intended for. Having said all of that, I think Pedro Pascal exceeded expectations of “coolness” for Oberyn Martell. He stole every scene that he was in and I think he improved upon the character.

Theon- Alfie Allen isn’t as smooth and arrogant as Book Theon nor is he as savaged and desperate as Book Reek. That said, he’s done a remarkable job playing the two sides of the very complex story that is Theon’s life. Still, without those extremes, I still feel like Theon has been more impactful in the book because we've been able to spend so much more time with his two halves. Oddly, though, I think that the show version has given us deeper insight into the character with small scenes like the burned letter to Robb and the clear transitions of emotion across Theon's face during the re-baptism and Reek's face when Ramsay dangles yet another temptation/threat in front of him in a fashion similar to Dinklage/Tyrion. Even with access to his inner thoughts, I feel like I understand the character better with Allen's depiction. I think that note about having the advantage of millions of words already written about these people is most prominent here. I don't think I can make a real choice.

Finally, we come to the Hound. I think that, like Williams, Rory McCann's depiction of his character has been so spot-on that it's difficult to separate the two. He basically is Sandor Clegane, down to telling fans to "Fuck off!". And, again, we circle back to those original quandaries: Can McCann be better because he nailed it or did he come to that natural level at which there's no point debating who is better because they both simply are?

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