Thursday, March 14, 2013

Game of Thrones Is Better on TV

I'm teaching a course on medievalism this semester, and one of things I've assigned is an episode of "Game of Thrones" (S1E7: "You Win Or You Die"). The books are too long to assign for a course that also covers a lot of other material, but I wanted the students to grapple with questions of adaptation; visual tropes of medievalism and high fantasy; and the presence of an interactive on-line community of fans and fan sites.

Adaptation (across media, time period, or country) is one of the through-lines of the course. Students read several different versions of the story of Merlin and Viviane, compare Chr├ętien de Troyes' Lancelot with Jerry Zucker's "First Knight," and look at medieval and contemporary stories of outlaws and crusaders. For our "Game of Thrones" and interactive fantasy unit, the students aren't reading any of the ASoIaF books, but they are digging deep into and other fan sites and wikis to research the characters they'll see in "You Win Or You Die." I hope that this will give them at least a basic introduction into the books and some of the choices that David Benioff and D. B. Weiss made when they adapted the books for HBO. I recently re-watched both seasons over again in preparation for this unit and feel even more strongly than I did before that the tv series is more interesting, more complicated, and more pleasurable than the book series.

There are a few different reasons for this. One has to do with the different media. The books are written in alternating third person POV, which gives the reader a limited view of the action and the other characters. A tv show can't do that. Although the show does focus on particular story lines or characters from episode to episode, it generally presents the action in omniscient third person POV (though there are some first-person POV camera angles). This means that characters whom we know (in the books) only from another character's POV (like Varys, Shae, or Jorah Mormont) become, instead, characters that we know just as well as Tyrion or Dany. This shift in perspective, combined with the talented cast and direction, makes the experience of the tv show richer. Martin isn't very effective at conveying the particularities of each character's interior life in writing. But the actors are *very* good. Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), is embittered, protective, lethal, and a true believer in Dany's claim. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau made some specific choices as an actor to indicate Jamie Lannister's internal depths (and conflicts). This makes Jamie a much more compelling character than he is in the first two books of the series.

Another leg up that the tv show has over the books also has to do with the limitations of prose in general. Martin is a meticulous world-builder, but that requires an awful lot of description and exposition. Pages and pages of it. But the incredibly high production values on the HBO show mean that the art direction and set design can stand in for much of that description, and provide a richly inhabited and fully realized visual world. Sometimes the dragons look a little cheesy, but the Wall, Winterfell, and Pyke look fantastic. The limitations of Martin's prose, in particular, is another reason the tv show is better. The show's writers have condensed plots, dispensed with minor characters, and made the emotional resonances of the characters more complex. I think this is particularly true of a number of the women characters. It's not that Martin neglected Cersei, but the writers on the show have brought out her rage at being a pawn despite her considerable acumen, and this makes her villainy more plausible. She's a more nuanced character. Instead of the bland Jeyne Westerling, we get Talisa Maegyr of Volantis--an immigrant to Westeros out of conscience. It's also clear that Catelyn Stark has a canny mind for statecraft and diplomacy.

A lot of things still happen on the tv show, but the writers and producers make sure that the events always reveal something about the characters. Melisandre's shadow-assassin murders Renly, but the show gives us a sharp scene between Loras and Margery that illustrates Margery's pragmatism and Loras' anguish. Martin's books are like sprawling, paratactic medieval chronicles, but "Game of Thrones" is like a Victorian novel: it has narrative economy, coherence, and more richly developed characters. So, if you're not watching the show because you haven't read the books yet, skip the books and start watching.

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