Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Getting It Right: What We Can Learn From STARZ Camelot and HBO Game of Thrones

I should warn you: this is going to be a long one. Stop reading now before your eyeballs roll back into your head. Still here? Great, read on but you were warned.

I never thought I'd be a fan of fantasy, but I'm outing myself as one today. Since my friend Michelle Gregory introduced some of the best elements of the genre to me in her Eldala, I've started to understand why it appeals so much. Fantasy and my first love, historical fiction, share some features. Both require the writers to flesh out details and bring to life a world that does not exist in the present day. The details must be enough to the story vivid and real, but not so much that a reader is distracted by them. While fantasy typically has supernatural or magical elements, historical fiction can legitimately include them, if they were a part of the belief system of the era the author has written about; e.g. dragons and fairies in the Dark Ages or medieval period.

So, I was thrilled when Starz and HBO announced their respective new series, Camelot and Game of Thrones. I didn’t watch Camelot right away; can’t remember why, but I did DVR all the episodes so far. GoT premiered this past Sunday and I caught that showing. After GoT reminded me of why I’ve enjoyed fantasy thus far, I decided to view all the episodes of Camelot.

What can writers learn from both series? There’s a right way to engage your audience and a really wrong way. That really wrong way won’t be saved by throwing in a bunch of sex or fight scenes. It will just suck until you fix it.

Tell a great story with compelling characters who want something.

In Camelot, we’re introduced at the outset to Uther Pendragon, his wife Igraine, Uther’s daughter Morgan, the sorcerer Merlin and young Arthur. Without giving anything away, at the outset, it’s very clear what Morgan wants: to rule the land in her father’s place and get rid of her stepmother Igraine (more on that later!) Merlin wants Arthur to inherit Uther’s throne. At least in the first few episodes, Arthur’s little head in his breeches seems to do the thinking for him more so than the big one where his brain sits. So he’s looking to get laid at least in the first few episodes, be that his brother’s love interest or someone else’s intended. More on that later, too. Merlin’s arrival waylays some of that but more importantly, reveals Arthur’s true identity. Arthur then learns he’s supposed to want something more.

In GoT, the audience is introduced to Eddard Stark and his family, including a bastard son Jon Snow that Lady Stark isn’t too fond of, and King Robert who would have been Eddard’s brother in-law except for the unfortunate death of the woman he loved. Instead he’s saddled with Queen Cersei Lannister who’s really, really close with her brother Jaime. Then there's that unfortunate little imp of another brother, Tyrion (who is one of my favorite actors!) who really understands what it's like to be an outsider. Also, there are the brother and sister Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen, who are the last remnants of a house than once subjugated King Robert’s land. As for wants, Eddard would love nothing more than to continue as he is, ruling his lands in the north but Robert needs him as the Hand of the King. Having seen what happened to the last Hand of the King, this can’t bode well. Queen Cersei and Jaime want power above all else, as does Viserys Targaryen. Daenerys is less certain, though I bet she probably wants her new husband Khal Drogo to say something she can understand other than “No.”

Both stories are compelling. I wanted to see how far Morgan would go to achieve her ambitions. No, I can’t rely on my foreknowledge of the Arthurian legends; this Camelot is a bit different from what I have heard. Like I said, more later. And, Merlin is enigmatic as all hell. He’s got a past that I wanted to delve into and powerful means for shaping the legend that (I hoped in this instance!) Arthur would become. By comparison in GoT, Eddard’s devotion to the king seems like it will cost him a lot and I want to see just how much. Queen Cersei and Jaime are too amoral not to expect their actions to lead to disaster for everyone. Viserys and Daenerys’ personalities contrast so well that I have to wonder if or when she’ll ever get out from under his thumb. So far, Starz and HBO’s writers have done their jobs: they’ve made me care about the characters.

While we’re on characters, do you really want your audience unsure of your lead?

The answer to that should always be no - Khal Drogo would agree with me! Both Camelot and GoT have an interesting ensemble of cast members. But here’s where Camelot fails and GoT does not.

In all the adaptations of the story from Geoffrey of Monmouth right down to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon series, Arthur has played a strong, if not prime role. There’s a reason the stories are called the Arthurian legends. I think Camelot’s writers forgot that. Their Arthur is boring! Pretty to look at, maybe, but boring! And stupid – when King Lot’s forces come to confront him, this Arthur actually asks Merlin, “So, you’ve foreseen my destiny that I’ll be king in the end, right?” Merlin deigns to answer, “Destinies must be won.” I’d have said, “Look you little shit, you actually want to be king? Then, act like one and stop asking dumb ass questions! And stop telling your sister can’t we all just get along! She’s obviously not interested. Now man up, grab a sword to defend your kingdom and stop acting like a bitch!” And, remember when I said Merlin tells Arthur he should want to be king? Well, I haven’t seen any evidence that Arthur really wants that. Instead, he really wants Guinevere, even though she’s his friend Leontes’ (Lancelot?) betrothed. What? Yeah, that was my reaction. That’s probably why Starz wouldn’t employ me as a screenwriter – I’d be in the script meeting, like, “Are you flipping kidding me? You want to me write what? Uh, no.”

Starz has told me I’m supposed to care about Arthur, but I can’t figure why I should. I spent most of the episodes folding my laundry or tweeting when he was on the screen. Ok, that's not really fair. I tweet anyway. A lot. Moving on. When I did look up at one point, it was to see Gawain holding a knife to Arthur’s throat as part of an important lesson. I found myself wishing there’s been a little accident with that knife. Hell, King Lot, Gawain, even Kay at least kept my attention on them whenever they appeared. Merlin and Morgan have essentially eclipsed Arthur for me as the leads of this show, when they never should have. If this is supposedly Arthur’s tale, why do I care more about the OTHER characters? About the only thing I care about with Arthur is an understanding of why he was fostered out if he was legitimate in this version. Uther had married his mother by then. Why did Merlin take him away from his parents? Why did they let him? Good storytelling does not distract the audience with the details; they should be seemlessly blended so the audiences accepts them as fact.

By contrast, can there be any doubt that the lead of GoT is Eddard Stark? Beyond the fact that he is played by the magnificent Sean Bean who can do no wrong (I forbid anyone to mention his role in Golden Eye – it was one of the weaker James Bond movies anyway!), in every scene, he is the embodiment of nobility and power. Every other cast member is just as interesting, but I get it – I’m supposed to root for Eddard Stark and by extension, his family. Even if you have an ensemble of characters, something about your lead must place him or her in prominence above all the rest. Your audience needs to know who they should care about and just as importantly, why.

If you’re going to use well-known source material, stick to it. If you’re departing from the sources, make it essential and convincing.

Speaking of the Arthurian legends, I’d say the source material is pretty well known from the twelfth-century Geoffrey of Monmouth. There have been so many incarnations of Arthur that most of us can tell the story. Camelot kept some of it, but turned the rest upside down. Morgan as the step-daughter (not child) of Igraine and child (not, non-relation) of Uther? Excalibur the sword named after a tragic girl? The sword was made rather than having sat in a stone for centuries waiting for Arthur’s hand to pull it from its rocky prison? The Guinevere-Arthur-Lancelot (in this case, Leontes) triangle with Arthur as the other man? Gawain as a mercenary? Huh? Sorry, but I’m one of those readers who gets in a real tizzy when you mess with what I think I know of history and legend.

If you’re going to depart from major sources, as director Antoine Fuqua did in his Arthur, at least make it convincing. The movie takes the audience away from the common medieval setting and placed it at a time that is just as logical; the Dark Ages when Rome abandoned Britain and Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded. Arthur as a Romano-Britain? Ok, I’m buying it so far. Guinevere as a blue-painted warrior maiden? Hmm, not so much but it fits the period just before the Saxon invasions. Arthur’s knights as hard-drinking, hard-loving warriors from the steppes? As long as Ioan Gruffudd (Lancelot), Ray Winstone (Bors), Mads Mikkelsen (Tristan) and Dagonet (Ray Stevenson) are playing them, uh, hell yeah, I can dig it. Fuqua even kept the love triangle with Lancelot eyeing Guinevere every chance he got, even though it was obvious she and Arthur were going to end up together.

So far, I have heard GoT sticks very closely to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. I haven’t read the series, but will order it after the first season is completed. Hate to view something on TV only to read about it and learn that’s not the way it happened in the book. Obviously, HBO gets it with GoT by keeping the storyline faithful to Martin’s narrative, so far. I can only hope it will continue to honor the original work. If it does depart, let’s hope HBO creates a version whose re-telling is so compelling that it will satisfy even Martin’s true fans.

In the end, whether on film or in books, keeping an audience interested is essential to the art of good storytelling. You do that with world-building, crafting great characters, and an even better storyline. I’ll be sticking with GoT, which has impressed me from the outset. I hold out less hope for Camelot. Sorry, Starz. At least I'm still eagerly awaiting season 2 of Spartacus.


S.L. Stevens said...

I'll give Camelot a pass on the sword, since most people don't know (and I didn't know either, until I took an Arthurian literature class) that the sword in the stone and Excalibur are actually two different swords. Excalibur was given by the hand of a woman reaching out of a lake. I think this magical woman's name was Vivienne--in Camelot, she's Morgan's African servant instead.

While I appreciate the show's attempt to explain the origin of this myth (Merlin lies about his bad deeds), the whole situation was silly and pointless. I just kept thinking, Uh, hello, what happened to that sword you pulled out of the stone? Not good enough for you?

Great point about there being no main character. I'm having a hard time figuring out who I'm supposed to side with. The main candidates are Arthur, Merlin, and Morgan. But Merlin is amoral and too cryptic to sympathize with. Arthur is just an incredibly boring teenage boy who makes selfish choices. Who would follow him? Not I. Eva Green's Morgan is charismatic and complex. I'm on her side. She kills her father, but you feel like he had it coming. As a girl who was treated like dirt and passed over by her own father, I'm not too horrified by anything Morgan's done so far. In fact, I'm cheering her on.

Lisa Yarde said...

Thanks for teaching me something new - I had no idea Excalibur was not the sword pulled from the stone.

I truly had high hopes for the series. It's Arthur after all, how could anyone get Arthur wrong? I'm actually on Morgan's side in this incarnation too, because she is the strongest character and has justifiable motive for what she wants. Without perhaps intending to, I believe the show has made her a character you can relate to and sympathize with. Crazy, yes, but there's a good reason for all her mania.

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