It’s fair to say that the fantasy genre is having a(nother) moment, with huge series based on established intellectual property in the works and on release and all over the press. What with all the Star Treks out there right now, fourteen-year-old me is in TV heaven. And what’s great about this particular cultural moment is that the casting directors have made a real effort to give us diversity. It is simply amazing to look back to Game of Thrones, just eleven years ago, and take note of how pale the cast was. For no reason. Peter Jackson’s terrible films were longer ago (but still in this century!), and were equally white – apart from the bad guys and their elephants – but also very short of women.
I wrote previously about Wheel of Time, which I had never read but quite enjoyed, especially for its prominent female characters. I like to go into something like that cold, as a non-fan, and let the storytelling win me over. And it did. And now we have House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power, which are like expansion packs for the originals, especially in terms of diversity casting.
The complication with all these IPs is the existing fan base. Whether readers of the books or viewers of the films, these people are going to have opinions. And what they never seem to understand is, whatever changes the producers of the “new” thing make are neither here nor there for newcomers. They don’t matter. Game of Thrones was a phenomenon because it was great TV. As a reader, the books did nothing for me. And the fans should really get their heads around the idea that Amazon/HBO are definitely not going to spend all that money for a show that will only be watched by hardcore fans who are steeped in the lore. Which is not to say that these things should be immune from criticism, but they need to be assessed on their own terms, as the thing that they are rather than the thing they are based on. So as far as I’m concerned, everything is fair game. Casting can be race and gender blind, whatever.
So I’m not even going to pretend that it’s controversial to cast Lenny Henry as a
Hobbit Harfoot. Suffice it to say that even Tolkien noted that they were “shorter and smaller than the other breeds, browner of skin…”
But what I think is an issue here is to base something on what are essentially footnotes. Both House of the Dragon and Rings of Power are really the products of exposing the iceberg. As I said above, I shouldn’t be judging these things on the source material, but, whatever you produce needs to stand up.
When I say exposing the iceberg, I suppose it’s not quite the same as Hemingway’s theory, but both GRRM and JRRT were filling out genealogy and history as part of the world building, so that when Aragorn contemplated the broken sword he was evoking long-past events as part of the elegiac tone of LotR. But both of these new series are taking the footnotes and fleshing them out with story and dialogue.
And it’s all a bit clunky, it has to be said. You can write this stuff, but you can’t say it.
While Rings of Power has clearly had an enormous amount spent on it, the money obviously didn’t go to the scriptwriters. (The writers, of course, are always the people being told that they can’t be paid much, but the exposure will be good for them.) Yes, there are creatures, and big glowing special effects, and elfin pinnaces, and huge sideburns glued to faces. But the dialogue is all a bit George Lucas, and the hair is all a bit Movie of the Week. Once you start seeing a character as a young Michael Heseltine, you can’t stop. And show me an actor with pointy eared prosthetics and unsuitable footwear climbing an ice cliff in a snow storm and all I’m seeing is a cartoon. The stakes couldn’t be lower.
House of the Dragon looks cheaper, and – a weird but inevitable effect – all of the actors look like Daytime TV versions of the original cast. It can’t be helped. Emilia Clarke may not be a natural blonde, but she definitely looked better as a fake blonde than literally every House of the Dragon Targaryen. None of them look like they belong in a blonde wig, or however the effect is achieved. Grey or black stubble with white blonde hair just sends you into the uncanny valley. And I’m afraid that Paddy Consdine (as Viserys) looks like a bit of a chinless wonder in a bad blonde wig, a charisma-free zone. Not buying Matt Smith in his role, either; he’s too much the lightweight.
Finally, the other challenge with filming the footnotes is also to do with stakes, and this is always the prequel problem. Because we know the future, the past can’t help being less interesting. Funnily enough, the producers of Strange New Worlds have absolutely met this challenge head-on, and they’re having fun with it. But I’m not feeling it with either of these fantasy series. I’ll probably keep watching though, because there’s nothing else on and I am a prolific watcher.