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2011.05.05

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While I haven't seen the show, I've read about three-quarters of the book "Game of Thrones," and came away finding it less impressive than its fans would have me believe. It's not bad, but it has key weaknesses that prevent it from being good.

Part of it Tim nails here absolutely: it's very much a standard issue fantasy world, with the magic turned way down and more of a focus on the medieval noble-house politics, though the politics are wholly of the fantasy novel variety, rather than historical. (The series uses the Wars of the Roses as a very rough template -- Starks and Lannisters, ahem -- but it's very rough.) This does not automatically make it sophisticated.

Moreover, that stuff tends to be boring as crap unless one of two conditions are met:

1. The otherworldly aspect of the story comes out to amaze us. Wizards, dragons, rapping elves, etc. "Game of Thrones," at least the three-quarters that I read, had none of these, aside from a prologue chapter and some dragon skulls near the end. Magic is a distant threat, not a present reality. Present reality is Standard Fantasy Kingdom, with a bit more focus on the grubbiness and cruelty of it all. Nothing interesting by itself.

That's okay, though, because the second condition would be even better to meet, and would make the books excellent.

2. Interesting, human, rounded characters. Alas, no. With one exception, all of the characters are exactly what they appear to be the second you meet them. "Good and Noble" Eddard Stark is just that. The assumptions you make about him from his first appearance in the book prove to be dead on, and that's true of basically everyone. The whole book is populated with stock characters: the Tomboy, the Scheming Adulteress, the Spoiled Psycho Prince(s), the Big Brother, etc. Not one of them does anything that contradicts or even broadens their stock role. (The only exception is a minor one, the faux-Genghis Khan, who showed a second side. Not great stuff, but better than nothing.)

What makes the book so tiresome is that the only way the plot can move is to throw the characters at each other in new combinations or circumstances, and without the characters demonstrating variation or development beyond the stock paths of their types, I ceaseed to give a crap.

A common reader complaint with the series is that Martin keeps introducing more and more characters, rather than sticking with the main ones. But it makes complete sense, given the writing. There's only so much he can do with any given character, so to keep the story moving, he has to throw in more.

If you aren't going to make with the crazy fantasy novel whammies ("Dragons from the sky! Tantric sex wizards raising armies of the damned! Gnomes with skateboards!"), and you aren't going to stock the book with rounded characters, and you're going to stick to basic fantasy tropes, well, shit, what's the point? All that kept me going for the last hundred pages or so before I gave up was curiosity about what would happen next. But the book proved slow and predictable, and I gave up.

(The "shocking ending" to the novel -- which I predicted early on and confirmed via the internet -- is only shocking if you've never read a fantasy series before. Reader tip: if a multi-volume series begins with a father and his kids, and the kids are important characters themselves, and the father isn't the villain, *he's going to die before the end of the book.* The kids will be the heroes of the series, and the father's death will be necessary to place them in peril. This is such a tired trope that I can't believe how many internet people expressed shock over it happening again in GOT.)

It's not incompetent, but it's not great stuff either. I set down the first novel with about eighty pages to go and a sense of minor disappointment. It's a standard genre exercise with much more of a brain than usual and decent execution, but it lacks the fizz and pop of trashy fantasy and it lacks the insights and subtleties of literature, so it just kinda sits there.

The TV version at least has nudity and gives Peter Dinklage work, so I'm behind that.

In re your comments on Game of Thrones and it's political system.

I've been watching HBO's Rome series, which works from a similar perspective. Almost everyone is a noble and slaves are ubiquitous. Even the poorer of the protagonists have them. Yet, one thing I find interesting about the series is the way it puts you into this very different system of politics and morals. A system where we can see the problems, but the series isn't spending a lot of time moralizing about it. It really doesn't need to.

With Game of Thrones, so far, I don't get that similar sense, because the non-nobles are so absent from attention. There isn't that casual background of others in most of the scenes. It's just the nobles talking to each other about being nobles.

@Harvey Jerkwater

While the first book might borrow heavily from standard fantasy tropes, the following books depart quite often. The kids are most certainly not the heroes of the following books, at this point in the series, most are either dead or in no position to even conceive of avenging them.

@harvey-
Wow, that's a real _dick move_ of a spoiler! Jesus.

@tucker & tim-
That's what I love about this site. Just recently I was thinking "man, tucker used to write about tv a lot, what about that shit?" And here is this post! So in true TFO tradition, you turn up skewering things I like, but I enjoy reading the critique anyway.
GoT less than Justified, but still tv I've been enjoying.

Tucker had given up on talking about TV. I had to climb to the top of the tallest mountain in New York State, where he had established a quiet zen hermitage with no electronic devices of any kind allowed. He spent most days in quiet prayer and meditation, rising with the sun to work in his garden and subsisting only on vegetables he grew and donations from the village farmers in the valley below.

I knocked on his gate but there was no answer. It was unlocked so I entered the garden and found him sitting erect in the lotus position.

"It is time," I said, "you must return."

"I have given up the ways of television, old friend," he replied. "I cannot return to that life."

"You must. The world needs you, now more than ever."

"I made a solemn vow never again to watch television."

"But, you do not understand - Justified was terrible this year."

He said nothing for many minutes. His eyes opened wide and he seemed to be looking at a point on the far horizon, a point far beyond any I could see with my own vision. There was a cold wind, suddenly, slicing through my clothes and seemingly into my very soul.

"Alright," he said, finally, regrettably. He lowered his head, this gesture a mixture of weariness and resolve. His voice was soft and hard, like the rustling of ancient parchment. He shifted his shoulders, as if assuming once again a great and terrible weight.

"Shit just got real."

"And yet it's hard to feel sympathy for any characters in this undifferentiated mass of political schemers when they're all feudal aristocrats"

Well, there's a lot of canonical literature with protagonists whose existence is predicated on an economic and/or political exploitation which is mostly unquestioned. From a quick glance at the bookshelf: Homer, Plato, Ariosto, Spenser, Malory, much of Shakespeare, Austen, Tolstoy, Proust etc. etc. I enjoy reading about Bertie Wooster, even though he'd be first to the wall when the revolution comes.

Obviously, Martin isn't in the same class as these folks; he's not even in the same school. But, even so, not every one has to be Brecht, you know?

Anyway, at least the GoT books are free of that Tolkien horseshit about the noble blood that courses through Aragorn's veins and gives him the divine right to rule. And there actually is a lot of proley stuff later on in GoT.

David Chase on his audience:

"The way I see it is that Tony Soprano had been people's alter ego. They had gleefully watched him rob, kill, pillage, lie, and cheat. They had cheered him on. And then, all of a sudden, they wanted to see him punished for all that. They wanted ''justice.'' They wanted to see his brains splattered on the wall. I thought that was disgusting, frankly. But these people have always wanted blood. Maybe they would have been happy if Tony had killed twelve other people. Or twenty-five people. Or, who knows, if he had blown up Penn Station. The pathetic thing — to me — was how much they wanted his blood, after cheering him on for eight years."

You write about The Sopranos as if the problematic nature of Tony as protagonist was a bug rather than a feature. I've always assumed that Chase was fully aware of the complicity you talk about and at least thought he was in control of it, using it (justifiably or not) to contemptuously critique his audience's hypocrisy.

I also have trouble getting my head around your assertion that consciously playing with tropes is ultimately no different than straightforwardly employing the tropes themselves. Therefore, Watchmen is the same as the comics it purports to comment on, just Moore & Gibbons's excuse to trot out sensationalistic super violence under a tricked-up veneer. The Larry Sanders Show is just another tired sitcom. Really?

Probably naivety on my part, but I couldn't believe that a contemporary - and acclaimed! - fantasy series was gonna pull the Lusty Brown Barbarian shit. They're STILL doing that? And his rape victim could not have been paler, blonder, blue-eyed-er! Again, I'm told that the Dothrakis in the books are more nuanced (if only slightly), but given what I know of where this story thread goes, I don't see the TV show ever being able to claw its way back from that introduction. Crazy.

Peter Dinklage spends half his time being hilarious because he's a funny actor and the script is pretty good, and the other half being hilarious because of his terrible - TERRIBLE - English accent.

I stick by what I said in the original thread on Tim's blog. I never read the books (I'm allergic to fantasy-novelist prose at this point), so I'm not going to pull the "well in the BOOKS it's much CLEARER that..." business, but it seems really obvious to me that the viewer is meant to find these petty, scheming feudal barons and their vicious, bloodthirsty way of life contemptible. The king is a drunk, a thug, an oaf, and a boor, who by the end of the second episode is happily complicit in the murder of an innocent peasant child - and he's one of the better ones. There's genuine class consciousness here, and recognition of the malevolent hatred of and violence towards women in such a system.

The racist "noble savage" stuff with the Dothraki is bullshit, yeah. But even then it's nothing compared to Tolkien, who, let's not forget, didn't publish his crazily racist, warmongering epic in the late nineteenth century, but in the 1950s.

I'm a Justified fan and all, but I completely get what you're saying here. You remember that scene -an episode ago?- where Boyd threatens Raylan after Raylan said something to Ava? I was expecting Raylan to come up with some witty comeback oozing with bravado. That's what Season 1 Raylan would have done, right?

But he just scowls and goes into his car...and drives off.

Really?

Wow, David Chase, you work in television WHY, exactly? Besides the money. Because shit, if that's how you feel, I'll leave you alone, fuck you very much.

Of all the shitty parts of the schlock that goes under the name of "fantasy", can anyone deny that the worst aspect is the hideous misogyny? The same friends try to force all of this on me, all the time, and I can't get through the first chapter of any of it without discovering that on THIS world, see, men have lightning bolt powers, but women have the ability to heal, and see your feelings.

Oh, and Mr. Stone, you seen Billy Tan on Uncanny X-Force yet? HOPE YOU LIKE BABY ARM

I'm waiting for that review of "Wolverine kills a hundred-and-ten-year-old Nazi, just cuz", myself.

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