Game of Thrones

Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO. Four episodes into the second season.

The challenges in adapting George R. R. Martin's dark, sprawling fantasy epic, A Song of Ice and Fire, for TV must have been daunting. You have an enormous, ever-shifting cast of characters, in which once-minor players periodically rise to the fore and major players are sometimes cut down without warning. You have action spread out across continents, isolating many subplots that nonetheless must be woven into the story as a whole. You have an elaborate, fully imagined world, in which intricacies of history and religion fit together in complicated ways, all of which must be conveyed without drowning viewers in a sea of exposition. And those are just fundamental storytelling concerns. Creating the story's supernatural beings, constructing the many required sets and costumes, staging battles and riots, and casting children in tricky yet key roles all present pitfalls of their own.

So it's a wonder that Game of Thrones (named for the first book in Martin's series) has succeeded as brilliantly as it has, especially considering that the show runners have been taking risks: committing completely to the books' often grim tone, elaborating on relationships only implied in the pages, seeking cinematic ways to handle some of the narrative issues rather than simply parroting the text rote. It's not unfailingly "faithful," in the way people usually mean, yet this is the kind of adaptation I love, not a stenographic rendition of the books but rather a faithfulness to theme and character over raw details. This is the kind of adaption that honors both its source material and its own medium, and the result here is a grandly entertaining quasi-historic saga—in short, great TV.


Special exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., through May 13.

This past weekend, Sean and I visited Washington, D.C., a relatively spur-of-the-moment trip inspired in part by Sean's desire to see the new Art of Video Games exhibit at the American Art Museum. Frankly, we were both a bit disappointed in that exhibit, which was diverting enough but shallow and predictable.* Later, though, we visited another Smithsonian art museum on little more than a whim and were absolutely enchanted with the featured exhibit there.

The irony was that Suprasensorial is an exhibit of art explicitly described in the literature as "accessible," rejecting the "exclusivity and elitism of the art world"—a philosophy that the Video Games curators no doubt had in mind as well. And yet Suprasensorial was far more compelling, beautiful and evocative and unusually emotional for abstract art. It was a reminder that accessible doesn't necessarily indicate lowest-common-denominator work.** At its best, accessible describes something elemental, something universal, something worth aspiring to.

The Hunger Games

In theaters.

Successfully adapting a book about two dozen teenagers forced to fight to the death into a PG-13 movie is, perhaps, a dubious achievement: can it really be accomplished without sanitizing material that has no business being sanitized? I still have my doubts. Director Gary Ross conjures up stomach-churning tension as the deadly Games approach, but some of that tension goes slack once the event arrives because the suddenly hyperactive camera seems virtually unable to confront the violence at the heart of the story—not just the violent deaths of children but the fact that other children are doing the killing.

That criticism feels a bit bloodthirsty, but one of author Suzanne Collins's greatest accomplishments in her Hunger Games trilogy is creating true horror, not merely an entertainingly dark fantasy world but rather an ever deepening, unsettling, provocative dystopia. I can't help but feel that the transition from page to screen has defanged her vision to some extent.

That said, despite my suspicion that something here has fallen quite short of its mark, I enjoyed the Hunger Games movie a great deal. How could I not? It's a sleekly made film with a stunningly deep cast and an admirably adept, spare screenplay. It allows the actors' performances and the little details of the production to convey subtext, and even better, it trusts the audience to pick up on those nuances. It's a smart, sharp thriller featuring an already iconic heroine—and, yes, a weirdly antiseptic approach to the darkest of her trials. You can't have everything, I guess.

Links of the week, 4/6/2012

I'm working on wrapping up a rambling post on the Hunger Games movie, and I should actually be able to do so this weekend since I have neither house guests nor freelance work.

Music for Three Sovereigns

Blue Heron at the Cloisters on Sunday, March 25.

When we picture ancient Greek statues, we see alabaster marble, solemn and immaculate, but writings from the time and—perhaps more to the point— archaeological investigations using ultraviolet light indicate that those statues were actually painted in bold, even garish colors that, to modern eyes, look far more kitschy than noble. As interesting as the historical re-creations are, it's hard not to miss the mythologized statues we know better.

I admit I thought of those statues when I first read about Blue Heron, a Boston-based ensemble committed to performing fifteenth- and sixteenth-century choral music with the guidance of historical documents on how they were performed when first composed: not a capella but rather with a few brass instruments thrown into the mix. Did I really want to hear Josquin's pure vocal sonorities tarnished by an early trombone? Perish the thought.

But my instinctive flinch was premature (not to mention ignorant, but let's move on from that). Of course the instruments are still performing fifteenth- and sixteenth-century music, not the anachronistic slides and dissonant bleats I was hearing in my head, and they complemented the choir's voices beautifully. Set in the re-created Fuentidueña Chapel, Blue Heron's concert was not the unbearably academic, awkward program I had secretly, foolishly feared but rather a lovely musical revelation, taking what I adore about the familiar repertory and giving it new resonance.