Monday, June 20, 2011

Throne Over

People, it's time to talk about Game of Thrones. Again.

[I'm going to be discussing the first season of the tv show and all four books. Consider yourself alerted.]

Now that the first season of the HBO series is over and I've finished the first four books of Martin's saga (Book 5: A Dance with Dragons will be available on July 12), I can talk about the tv show and the books with some more knowledge. Or at least opinions that are a bit more fully formed.

So, while I dig the opening credit sequence to the show, I think it also points to one of the most serious flaws of Martin's saga, which has carried over to the tv show. There's all this great clockwork machinery that springs into action on the map of Westeros...but it's not in service of anything bigger. Each working piece or set of pieces represents the political machinations in Westeros, but nothing more, like what the stakes are of the story. This is a problem with the plot, not the credit design.

Martin thinks he's writing an epic saga that has aspects of political conspiracy, coming-of-age story, and redemption narrative, but he's actually writing a historical chronicle. In chronicles, the authors are interested only in the elite. Merchants, tinkers, and the great unwashed make few appearances. And Martin writes almost entirely about the elites. Knights, houses, bloodlines and bastardy, special swords, great lords and lesser bannermen are the main focus of A Song of Ice and Fire. Yet the most interesting characters are the ones who are close to these noble families and court culture, but not an accepted part of either (Tyrion, Arya, Daenerys, and Jon Snow, who are never fully part of their grand families, or Petyr, Varys, Bronn, and Davos, who are somewhat unwelcome at court). The characters who aren't well-born, like Yorick or Arya's motley crew, are supporting characters, but we don't really get to know them very well. (The biggest exception to this are the people who live north of the Wall, who are totally awesome and badass, but we don't get to know them well enough, either. Mance Rayder is, like Al Swearengen, someone I'd like to learn more about.)

Chronicles also detail what happens in chronological fashion (history is just one damn thing after another). Even chronicles that aren't annual reports (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is the most famous) and were written to justify a particular political outcome or ideology start with extended, often laborious, backstories, starting with Biblical history and moving through ancient Troy and Rome. It's only in the third book, A Storm of Swords, that one gets an inkling of what the larger stakes are and who the main players are going to be. Compare this to another historical fantasy series, The Baroque Cycle, in which the different protagonists in each book are fully realized, and their dependency on one another is gradually revealed before the final, stunning conclusion. Or the two Dorothy Dunnett series, The House of Niccolo and The Lymond Chronicles, in which there are chases, escapes, great successes and crushing failures, love stories, conspiracies and betrayals, and major character growth in each book--even as Dunnett makes it clear to the reader that each book is part of a larger story (told over about 14,000 pages).

Martin's series is like a chronicle in other ways, too. Magic, portents, mythical beasts, preternatural occurrences, and stories of distant lands crop up all the time in chronicles. Violent deaths, often without explanation or obvious motivation, are also a feature of chronicles. In a novel, it's bold and exciting when one of the main characters dies unexpectedly (but seriously, was it that surprising? Ned was doomed from the moment that he decided to go to King's Landing). But it's quite another thing to invest hundreds of pages and a lot of time in story arcs and characters who disappear or are killed (Benjen Stark, Shae, Brienne, the Hound, Oberyn) and it's not clear, in terms of narrative structure, why.

The problems with the tv show that some have remarked on points to this problem with the source material. Ginia Bellafante* noted that the best HBO shows are about some larger issue or set of questions (The Sopranos: Organized crime and the middle-class family; Rome: What is the nature of the polity; Deadwood: Capitalism and US history; The Wire: The futility of the drug war and the decline of the American city). Martin's books contain lots of trees, but not enough forests.

I think that the tv show has done a pretty good job of mitigating this perspectival problem. Yes, there's the clunky sexposition, and loads of boring conversations in the first several episodes, but the writers have brought out the parallelism in each episode (Daenerys and Jon Snow, for example--and I think the writers have given us a nice hint there) and also the humor. Peter Dinklage is hilarious, bringing much-needed comic relief to the material. (Seriously, no one ever cracks a joke or takes a pratfall in Westeros?) The people behind the tv show (including, perhaps, GRRM) have simplified things enough, while also sticking to the slow build-up of the books (the payoff of the final two episodes was totally worth those first somewhat slow episodes).

So am I going to read A Dance with Dragons when it comes out? Probably. There are a lot of things I've enjoyed about the books: Daenerys suckling the dragons, Aemon Targaryen, Sansa's creepy relationship with Petyr, the cultures of the people across the Narrow Sea, and the different religious ideologies. But first I'm going to re-read Dunnett, or Stephenson, or even Rowling, to remember what a gripping series can offer.

*To be fair: Bellafante made that point after her completely lame, wrongheaded, and sexist assertion that fantasy, as a genre, is too dudely for gals. So I think that no one really got past that point.

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