This is the original, uncut draft of a guest-blog about Thrones done for my friend Victoria Watson of Elementary Writers (and she does a mean proofreading service). The shorter version should be appearing there in due course. https://elementaryvwatson.wordpress.com/
Apologies for the long absence. My father died last year and it rather knocked me into a tailspin. There will be a post on that coming at some point when I can nerve myself up for it…
Observe your reaction when I say the following words:
Game of Thrones.
It probably runs through a spectrum. A certain person not unconnected with this blog suffers constant attempts by her boyfriend to make her read the book or watch the TV series, and hence feels annoyance at the mere mention of it. Some of my friends go into rapture at the mere mention of these words; music starts playing in their heads and their eyes take on what Peter Dinklage, the biggest star of Thrones, calls the “Nerd Glaze.” Some people feel deep disquiet and worry at the cruelty and sexism you will find therein; is it merely villainous characters or does it extend to the TV producers and even the author? There are people like me who read the books first and sometimes would rather the TV series had never happened. There are rabid fans who troll the author online for not writing fast enough.
All this rich pageant of humanity is worthy of notice, but for me, the most interesting ones are those who like it despite themselves. Grace Dent, critic of the Independent, once wrote one of the most scathing (and funny) slaggings-off of fantasy fiction and fans that I have ever read. However, she goes on to say that she likes Game of Thrones and enjoys it. She used to appear on “Thronecast” discussing it; that programme is now hosted by Sue Perkins, once lambasted for expressing literary snobbery.
There’s a fair bit of the general genre/literary tension here, which I won’t rant about. But why does GoT, often cross these divides to the mainstream?
In some cases it might be quality, acting, and sheer size. But one of its oft-quoted strengths is its resemblance to real-world history. The various atrocities, treacheries, villainies and iniquities are genuinely reminiscent of history lessons about the wars of the roses/cousins, or ancient Rome. A certain notorious wedding was based upon real events from Scottish history (The Black Dinner/Glencoe Massacre).
The author and a number of people who would not normally prod fantasy fiction with a chainmail-repellent stick make much of the relative lack of overt magic in the setting. It is a long time before the dragons put in an appearance, and even Clive James made an exception to his rule “’It’s vital to have nothing to do with any art form which has dragons in it.”
There are no elves or orcs, and the only dwarf is the kind we known from real life. Altogether, it could almost be period drama if you forget the geography. Although, being a scientist and a nitpicker, I can’t help laughing cynically at the 1000-ft high ice wall (Hadrian eat your heart out!) or the existence of land-based life in the permanently frozen north; there must be a lot more magic present than the author admits to.
There are some good characters, including superb love-to-hate villains, although very few are black and white; a man who threw a child off a tower in episode 1 is now commonly regarded as sympathetic. But for my money, George RR Martin’s achievement is to do danger better than anything else I have read or seen. It is no great secret that major characters die off unexpectedly in GoT. No matter where they are in their character arc, no matter how popular or infamous, no matter how much outrage their loss will cause, it seems that anyone can die at the drop of a hat—and they do. If you read a normal book, you usually know the protagonist isn’t going to get hit by a bus two-thirds of the way through. You can suspend disbelief about that, but in GoT, you feel real fear for them. It doesn’t usually come over as simply an effect to shock, nor as so arbitrary as to damage the story. It feels worryingly like real life in a bloody and unstable period.
This is probably an illusion; I doubt that even GRRM could kill some of them, or all of them. That said, I am seriously thinking of placing a bet that the world does NOT get saved in the end, nor does the favourite for the Iron Throne get to keep it.
I might also bet against the survival of Tyrion Lannister, but only because I would get good odds. This character is again worthy of a mention, for the TV series in particular. Peter Dinklage now receives top billing; if anyone knows of any acting role that is better for a dwarf, they are welcome to say so [Samson in “Carnivale” comes second]. It tackles the way his character has been disadvantaged for being a dwarf without being defined by it. He is flawed but admired by the audience; he drinks, he fights and schemes, adores his brother but hates his father and sister, whores but falls in love, is somehow PC and anti-PC simultaneously. Not to mention he gets to be screamingly funny at times, and his double-act with Jerome Flynn was a true pleasure to observe. But perhaps the best part is that it seems to have led on to genuinely height-blind casting with X-Men: Days of Future Past. Dinklage probably deserves some bigger height-blind awards than he already has.
But while we’re on the subject of PC… oh dear. Gratuitous titillation is a common affliction, but that doesn’t excuse any particular practitioner. There may be a fair amount of sex in the books, but the series has added to it (the term “sexposition” has been coined for plot-relevant dialogue coupled with nudity). In any case there is a difference between reading “she peeled off her dress and let it fall to the floor” and seeing an implausibly well-lit and unmarked actress selected for her extreme beauty doing it in HD. Then there is the “method casting” of porn stars as medieval sex workers. There may be feminist arguments for that as well as against it, but it adds to the general air of sleeze. No doubt the production company has made cynical calculations over how many viewers will be pulled in versus how many will be alienated, but it still stinks.
Much more disturbingly, the series has added two rapes that were not in the books, or happened to different characters. The second led to fantasy site “The Mary Sue” ceasing to cover Thrones. The author defended it by saying that to portray a non-sexist medieval society, or dirty wars without sexual violence used as a weapon, would be dishonest.
A Scissor Sister takes the producers to task: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dP78rvZ2y0
This caused me to wonder: horrible fates are visited on characters of both genders with great frequency, why should something terrible befalling female character X cause people to protest as opposed to something terrible happening to male character Y? Not many people liked the extended torture of one male character, but it did not lead to boycott calls that I am aware of.
My best theory is that it is a matter of moral hazard level. In real western-world life, misogyny and sexual assault are far more common than being executed with molten gold, or having your skull crushed by an eight-foot knight. Yes, non-sexual violence is real and there are debates to be had about its depiction, but many people are more worried that viewers might be influenced to sexual abuse than to murder and torture.
Which is not to say that people do not leave the books and series because of its grimness; many have. I could not really say that I “enjoy” watching and reading all the time, it is an experience but often one full of worry and shock (the same goes for 1984 for example). However, I have quit other authors and series because I thought they were being dark for the sake of it, and I have not done so yet with Thrones; it seems in keeping with the setting. Oddly, I have read some other GRRM fiction and would say that it actually feels quite “warm” compared to many other authors.
You may be getting the impression I prefer the books. Quite apart from snobbery, the TV series has changed the public name of the story (the books are “A Song of Ice and Fire”), made changes, altered characters, and now… it has overtaken the author. The smug sense I had of knowing roughly what was coming next, and the safety of being braced for the next horrible death, is now history.
GRRM says that authors fall into two general camps. The Architect draws a flow-chart of their plot and knows exactly what will be happening in chapter 37 before they put pen to paper on the actual novel. A Gardener starts with the seed of an idea, plants it, sees what comes up and how it develops as they write. By his own admission, GRRM is more of a gardener. However, now he has had to indicate to the TV company how the story continues, and how it will end, and he knows they will get to that point and fill in the details and dialogue before him. This must be a right pain. He may have been a scriptwriter as well as an author, he might be an experienced operator who knew more or less what he was getting in to, but I can still feel for his plight. After all, it getting THIS big must have seemed unlikely.
There are rumours of even greater plot divergences ahead; given the difficulty of keeping up with the intricacies and many characters at the best of times, attempting to reconcile two different versions sounds like a nightmare for me. This situation has actually happened before, with a Japanese manga (graphic novel) called Full Metal Alchemist. An animé (animated tv series) adaption was made, was popular, and overtook the manga. The author deliberately allowed the TV company to finish the story themselves, while she went on and wrote a different story and ending herself. So then there was another animé adaption, this time sticking to the books. Oddly, for my money, the first one worked better…
So… a well-regarded series amongst fantasy readers has now become a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut even referred to by the US President. In the process it has gathered some new fans, opened minds, become an industry in Northern Ireland, been visited by the Queen, provided work for a number of thesps, made a few stars, annoyed many people, shocked more, courted controversy, and probably broken a few moulds while it’s been at it. The books are still there and same as they were apart from the covers; for all its faults, I can’t be sorry the TV series was made.
Love it or hate it, the Thrones explosion has changed things…
James A Tucker
Thanks to Martyn P Jackson for suggestions and comment