It’s almost fall, so it’s a good time to be thinking of harvests. And what a rich harvest of fantasy! (I mean film, not books.) This year past has been a visual embarrassment of riches, if you’re a fan of video adaptations of fantasy. Four major series have streamed in the past year: HBO’s adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s House of the Dragon from Fire and Blood ; Netflix’s adaptation of The Sandman, and Amazon Prime’s versions of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Rings of Power, (loosely adapted from histories of the Second Age). I’ve watched three of the four, with no intention of watching the fourth, and thought tonight would be a good time for us to discuss what’s good and not-so-good about each.
The Wheel of Time
I plead the fifth. I confess, I did not much like the books and made it through the first episode, but no further. I could not enjoy it; I kept thinking of the book. The misogyny underlying the text got to me and I couldn’t choke past it. Which is weird, since I think of myself as a relatively forgiving reader; I can handle the patriarchy in Tolkien, maybe in part because it’s a century old, but bounced off Jordan’s, which is far more recent. Also, the chosen one trope is kind of old.
Prime is holding tight control over its content, so clips are out, but I did find a trailer that will play. I might not have liked The Wheel of Time, but there’s no rule that one has to like, or dislike, everything. If you liked it, let’s talk about what works for you and what doesn’t.
House of the Dragon
HBO is trying to replicate the success of Game of Thrones, minus the final season, but I’m not sure they can catch that lightning in another bottle. Martin mines history for his plots; in A Song of Ice and Fire it was the War of the Roses, generally. This time it’s the English civil war of 1135, when Henry I named his daughter Matilda as his heir, but her cousin Stephen of Blois (King Stephen, so abysmally bad that no king after was ever named Stephen) took the throne and chaos followed. Martin likes chaos (quick question: is chaos a pit or a ladder?). Take history, add dragons and — voila!
I’m reserving judgement about House of the Dragon, mostly so I won’t have to live down being wrong, but I don’t think the show will occupy the same cachet as Game of Thrones did. For one thing, at the time it aired, Game of Thrones was the only big-budget fantasy in the public eye. Therefore, it didn’t have to share headlines with other shows.
But there’s more. It’s impossible to judge HoD without comparing it to GoT, and GoT had a sense of humor and a freshness that HoD lacks. GoT Season 1 would not have worked without two things: the warm and anchoring relationship between Ned and Caitlin Stark, and the presence of Tyrion Lannister. HoD has neither.
Visually it’s gorgeous (and you should freeze the video during some of the palace scenes to get a load of the NC17-rated tapestries). Costumes are beautiful, the cinematography is what one would expect of a marquee HBO production. The scripts are not as carefully wrought as it’s predecessor’s, with lots of portenteous info-dump dialogue to fill in backstory and rush the action forward. In all, it misses some of the deep dialogue polish you would expect from a prequel.
Is it good? Yes. A hit? I dunno. Watchable? Yes. The brightest spark in the production is Matt Smith, whom I remember best from Dr. Who. The first time I saw Daemon, I thought, “That looks like Matt Smith if someone gave Matt Smith a boatload of steroids.” Instead of the thin angular Doctor, Smith looks like the broad side of a barn, although I think he’s very much enjoying playing a disreputable violent character. The rest of the cast: you’ve got the weak, the petulant, and the scheming.
There are times I really miss Peter Dinklage. At least his scheming was fun to watch.
The Rings of Power
Like every Tolkien nerd, I love the visuals even as I growl about the plot elisions and changes to the Legendarium. Which leads to a bipolar experience: oooh, pretty! vs you’ll bring up Fëanor but you won’t mention the freakin’ Silmarils? What the hell is this?
Tolkien in his literary form remains unfilmable, at least without serious abridgement, whether it be the murder of the Trees and the theft of the Silmarils or Tom Bombadil and the Scouring of the Shire.
But let’s take the series on its own merits (like I couldn’t do with The Wheel of Time — what? you’re looking for consistency? ha!).
Much of the Second Age material that Tolkien left is definitely high style and deeply serious, which makes for fun nerd reading but really difficult film viewing. So we have the addition of the Harfoots, prototypical hobbits, I suspect, to give those of us who are not obsessive geeks someone to identify with and root for. And they’re fun and charming, if a little twee in a dancing-around-the-meadow-to-a-reed-pipe sort of way. Arondir is earnest and stalwart as a sylvan elf warrior, Halbrand a cross between a smartass and a king-in-waiting, Elrond quick-witted and nimble, and his friendship with Durin is really quite lovely. And Galadriel — well, she’s obsessed and, in the first episodes, distant in a way that’s unlikely to endear. But she warms to the narrative and, four episodes in, she’s a strong figure shaking things up in Númenor. The overall cast is strong, with most of the supporting characters showing up and being familiar: wait, that’s Isildur? And that’s Elendil? What are they doing there? Hold it — Gil-galad? Are you kidding me?
Such is the influence of Peter Jackson’s films that the series can’t help but make reference to them and, through them, to Alan Lee’s iconic artwork. But it’s more than the scenery (filmed in New Zealand, natch). The Harfoots are less than a half-step removed from hobbits. The architecture of Númenor visually echoes the architecture of Gondor as imagined by Jackson; even the stranger’s whispers to the fireflies is, I’m 99.5% sure, a nod to the character’s actions in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Being a little derivative isn’t a bad thing: it gives viewers a sense of “home” and the reassurance of familiarity. Again: Prime and their copyright lawyers have been busy. We get a trailer.
Most fans of Neil Gaiman believed The Sandman to be unfilmable. I certainly thought so. Now, we said the same thing about Tolkien and Tolkien has been translated to film beautifully, but incompletely. Huge chunks of The Lord of the Rings were left out of the scripts that Peter Jackson wrote. It appears that The Rings of Power will experience similar elision. So yes, Tolkien is filmable, but changed.
That hasn’t happened with Season 1 of The Sandman. If anything, it’s better than the graphic novel, and by that I mean that, at least in the first volume, Preludes and Nocturnes, Gaiman feels his way through to find the story. He operates on the assumption that he has to pay homage to all the characters in the DC universe and connect every single dot. But something happens, and it starts sometime around “A Hope in Hell,” when Gaiman finds his through line. “The Sound of Her Wings,” with the introduction of Death, is the first real flowering of Gaiman’s mastery of the material.
That’s not to say that he always knew what he was doing, or that he was working from a carefully constructed outline. He’s written before, specifically in The Complete Sandman, that he planned month-to-month, and got better as he went.
Now fast forward to the Netflix version, which Gaiman exercised a great deal of control over (unlike Showtime’s American Gods, which was uneven and finally self-destructed, or the popular romcom Lucifer; Gaiman created the character, but that was the extent of his involvement.) The Sandman, like Good Omens, has Gaiman’s fingerprints all over it. The storytelling is masterful; there’s not a hint of indecision or wavering anywhere.
It has also not yet been picked up for a second season. But of the four series, and in fairness they’re all very different, I think it’s far and away the best. It goes to the heart of what fantasy is: a dream, a dream with its own logic and profundity. It doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is, and what it is is quite pure, quite perilous, and quite beautiful.
Those are my markers. If you’ve read this far, I’m pretty sure you’ve checked out, if not the video versions, at least the source material. Your thoughts?