Saturday, June 25, 2011

Game of Thrones, Season 1

I read George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, the first volume in his Song of Ice and Fire sequence, in 2005, and came away feeling that it was rather poor stuff.  The post in which I listed the reasons for my disappointment received a fair share of peeved comments, but the one that's stuck in my mind these six years came from a commenter who wondered how I could say that A Game of Thrones didn't diverge from the conventions of epic fantasy nearly as much as I'd been led to believe.  Wasn't the fact that Martin had killed his main character, Ned Stark, in the first book a huge deviation from those conventions?  I remember feeling baffled at this question.  Far from surprising me, Ned's death had seemed to me both predictable and, by the time it finally happened, long overdue.  It had been signposted early in the novel; the book's YA tone and its emphasis on Ned's young children all but guaranteed that he would be done away with; and it took forever--most of A Game of Thrones's 800 pages--to come about.  I was reminded of this exchange last week, when I watched the penultimate episode of HBO's adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire.  I knew, going into the episode, that it would most likely end with Ned's death, and yet I was nervous throughout the hour and, though obviously not surprised at Ned's death, somehow shocked by it.  I can think of no response that more thoroughly encapsulates how much Game of Thrones improves on Martin's novel--the same death that left me yawning on the page when I only suspected it was coming, riveted me on screen when I could expect it with certainty.

The most obvious reason for the superiority of television series to book is rooted in the shift between mediums.  Martin's novel alternates between the points of view of less than a dozen characters, most of whom are young children.  It's locked into their perceptions and their limited opportunities to observe their world.  A television series can't allow a single character's consciousness to dominate it to the extent that a book can, but the creators of Game of Thrones could still have chosen to follow only the characters that the first book does.  Instead, they widened the book's universe, adding scenes in which none of the point of view characters are present and complicating the presentation of many of the characters who, in the first book, are presented as flat-out villains.  A lot of the responses to my post about A Game of Thrones pointed out that my complaints about the novel--the stark division between good and bad characters; the absence of any acknowledgment that the novel's wars of succession were being fought over the backs of the common people, who would suffer equally no matter who was on the throne--were addressed in later books in the series (to which my response was and remains that the book is 800 fucking pages long; no author should need longer than that to come to their point).  The series injects this complexity into its world from day one, and is better for it.

Game of Thrones gives us better sense of Westeros's history and the horrible wars that have led to its present state.  With that information at our disposal, it's easier to see that the war between the Starks and the Lannisters is just one more succession battle in a long list, and that none of the people who have sat on it or aspire to it truly deserve the throne, because in the end no one deserves to have that much power.  That impression is compounded by the view the series gives us of the people who have no chance of ever sitting on the throne of Westeros--prostitutes, commoners, wildlings, warrior tribes--and how they're exploited or destroyed by our main characters, whose consciences are only rarely troubled by this suffering.  Maybe the later books in Martin's series make all these points, but why wait?  We're all smart people; we all know the conventions of epic fantasy.  Why not start exploding them from the first minute?  If there's a single theme to A Song of Ice and Fire, in any medium, it's disillusionment--with ideas of chivalry, honor, and rightful kingship, with love, friendship, and loyalty.  My impression of A Game of Thrones was that Martin wanted to make sure that I had been well and properly illusioned before he pulled the rug out from under me.  The series seems to have more respect for me.

I see this also in the way the series handles its villain characters, most notably Cersei.  She's still, as she was in the book, an evil schemer who sanctions--requires, even--the murders of children and puppies, is having an affair with her brother, and will stop at nothing to put her psychotic son on the throne and make herself de facto ruler of Westeros.  But Game of Thrones (and Lena Heady's performance), without ever compromising Cersei's wickedness, also gives us a very good sense of how she got to that place.  We see the coldness and cruelty of her marriage to Robert, and its juxtaposition with the hopeful, yet just as clearly doomed, beginning of Sansa and Joffrey's betrothal speaks volumes about the limited options that were placed before her, and how little thought was given by the men who directed Cersei's life to her happiness.  Perhaps most importantly, we get a sense of Cersei as a human being--when she befriends Sansa, or sympathizes with Catelyn's fear for Bran's life.  This is rank hypocrisy, of course, especially in Bran's case, but it's a human sort of hypocrisy.  It shows us that, no matter how many terrible things she's done, Cersei doesn't think of herself as a villain.  Again, I just don't see why this wasn't in the book to begin with.  Why was it so important to hammer in for 800 pages that Cersei is a Bad Girl--as if incest and child-murder weren't enough to establish this--before revealing that there's another side to her?

The second way in which Game of Thrones improves on the book is by sidelining the child characters and condensing their storylines in favor of the adults'.  A Game of Thrones suffered from many of the flaws of a YA novel without possessing any of its positive attributes.  It was mired in too-familiar bildungsroman narratives--Jon, the unappreciated child with Special Qualities who goes off to A Special School and finds A New Family and A Destiny; Robb, the Heir to the Throne who is Forced Into a Leadership Role; Bran, who must Overcome Disability; Arya, the Tomboy; Sansa, the Fairytale Princess.  Worse than that, it was mired in the oversimplified terms in which a child--and particularly these children, who have been raised to believe in Ned Stark's ideas of honor and chivalry--views the world.  And yet it lacked the lightness, brevity, and humor that make YA novels worth reading.  It was obvious that all of these children were headed for a rude awakening, but did we have to spend so much time on the preamble?  (I realize that I'm repeating myself, but something like 90% of my complaints about A Game of Thrones would have been nullified it Martin had gotten through its events in 300 pages instead of 800.)

A story about disillusionment needs children in it--we need to see Jon and Sansa learning that life is very different from fairytales, Robb, Bran, and Arya learning that their position doesn't guarantee that they will be obeyed or protected.  But it doesn't need to be told at a child's level.  The series shows us the selfishness and thoughtlessness that underpins the children's behavior--Jon's inability to grasp that he's privileged compared to his fellow Night Watch conscripts; Bran's thoughtless expectation that he will be waited on hand and foot after being crippled; Robb casually promising Arya's hand in marriage to the son of a lord whose lands he needs to pass on his way to battle, then balking when the same promise is asked of him.  It also shows us how a combination of innocence and pernicious education can produce a monster like Joffrey, or a helpless victim like Sansa.  More importantly, Game of Thrones recognizes that though children are necessary to a story about disillusionment, they are not the most interesting part of it--that adult characters who have experienced disillusionment and been stunted by it, like Tyrion, Robert, and Cersei, and the rarer kind who refuse to accept it, like Ned, are a lot of more interesting, and more varied, than the child who is just learning for the first time that life isn't fair.

Game of Thrones clearly has its flaws.  As everyone has noted, the series is too fond of exposition and too convinced that no exposition scene isn't made better by the presence of a naked woman or two cavorting in the background.  The one plotline in the original book that actually proceeded from one end of an arc to another, Daenerys's story, is rather horribly shortchanged here, flattening her growth and, more frustratingly, thoroughly Othering the one non-white character in the novel.  More interestingly, people I know who are watching the series cold are making the same complaints about it that I made about the book.  My mother doesn't understand how I can call Cersei a complicated character when she's so clearly drawn as evil.  Niall Harrison had the same FINALLY response to Ned's death on screen that I did when it arrived on page.  I wonder, therefore, whether I'm not more forgiving of the series than I ought to be simply because it's such an improvement on the book.

That's a question that will presumably be answered next season.  I'm very curious to see how I'll respond to Game of Thrones now that I'm, minus a few spoilers here and there, ignorant of how the story is going to proceed.  More importantly, I'm just curious.  I want to know whether Arya will make it to the Wall and unite with Jon, whether Sansa will find some way to rebel against Joffrey or sink into despair, and whether Daenerys will cross the sea with her dragons before or after the Stark, Lannister, and Baratheon armies tear Westeros apart.  I felt no such curiosity after finishing A Game of Thrones, no eagerness to know what happens next, no desire to pick up the next volume.  And that, even more than my response to Ned Stark's death, is really all I need to say to make it clear how much better I like the series than the book.

39 comments:

Anna Feruglio Dal Dan said...

I rushed through the books, because I wanted to see how things turned out, and missed out on a lot of the things that then I found in the series, with great pleasure. This is not to say that the series doesn't improve on the book: it's just that a lot of the things that I thought were improvements were actually there in the books all the time.

I liked the books, although I didn't love them; I am loving the series with a deep passioned love, and I find myself going back to the books with something like an obsessive immersion trippiness.

Shahar said...

I never read the books, probably due to that post of yours, though I did not remember any of its details until rereading it last night.
It's strange because I do tend to share your mother's reaction to the series, I was highly disappointed to find Robert's son with Arya, heading north in the last episode.
I guess I was looking for that message about the suffering of the common people, regardless of whoever wins that silly war, and was annoyed when the chance to have a true such commoner as an actual character in the story was avoided by picking him.
I think the message is there, but its emotional impact is diluted by this, and other similar choices, to have all characters somehow related to that big game of thrones.
On the other hand, I did love the way the beheading of Ned Stark mirrors the obnoxious opening scene of honourable Ned executing that guy from The Night Watch.

Andrew Stevens said...

I actually think the TV series is inferior to the novels in every respect except one crucial one - Martin desperately needs an editor and the TV series, perforce, provided him with one. On the other hand, at least this is true from the get-go. With Rowling, you got halfway through the series before she decided to write doorstopper novels which took a very long time to do very little.

Anonymous said...

A Song of Ice and Fire is certainly not everyone's taste, but I find it very hard to relate to the objections from your original review:

- Ned Stark's death being foreshadowed is a problem? His story arc follows that of a classical tragedy. Seeing the death coming in this genre is part of the deal.
- Young adult? I just don't see it in any way, shape or form. Having some young characters does not make a story juvenile.
You call them cliched because your 5-word summary of their basic premises are common storylines. But really, any storyline reduced to 5 words is uninteresting. If I describe the Wire Season 4 as "disadvantaged youths struggle to avoid crime", it sounds pretty maudlin right? But it's also widely believed to be the most profound season of television to have ever been made.
- Tolkien? I see virtually no similarities outside of the fact that they are long and have fantasy elements, and frankly, I feel I could change a few words in your review and just blast LotR. THIS is the book you find black & white and predictable?

And I think you will find there are not too many other people out there who really like the show significantly more than the books, as well done as the show is. Seems to me you are just taking the story on its own terms this time around, which your previous review really was not (a point made abundantly clear by the repeated and IMO very forced comparisons with Tolkein).

Anyway, I hope you enjoy season 2 either way, and thanks for the review.

Anonymous said...

"And I think you will find there are not too many other people out there who really like the show significantly more than the books, as well done as the show is."
I don't know. You may be surprised there. I definitely thought the show was better myself. More wit, better dialogue, less long descriptive passages.

rushthatspeaks said...

As a person who's never been able to make it through the first two hundred pages of A Game of Thrones, I'm curious as to whether you've read any of Martin's science fiction? One of the main reasons I bounced off ASoIaF is that Martin *demonstrably can write good prose*. He's just... not, there, for some reason. Dying of the Light and the stories set in that universe are brilliant, and pared to the bone; they almost suffer from their brevity. Dying of the Light is the one I recommend, though I have some qualms about its ending. The setting alone is worth the price of admission, and it's only about a hundred pages long.

I have been waffling about watching the Game of Thrones TV, because I bounced so off the book. This review suggests I might actually like it. Thank you.

Jamal Black (Resident Wit) said...

Sounds like a case of expectations, combined with a preference for thinner books. You were built up on the book before reading it and then approached the series expecting more of the same.

In my opinion, the books are written so that the "main character" can actually die and suffer, unlike all other books where some magical confluence of circumstances will always save him. I also believe that the books are written in such a round about way (length) because Martin is hiding who the protagonist actually is. Since the protagonist is hidden, anything can happen to anyone... which allows me to suspend disbelief.

You feel differently, thats cool, but I think you missed the point of the books (not book).

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the books a lot and am looking forward to the next one, but that's not to say I don't agree on some level with most of your critiques. That's probably a function of expectations, since you were hearing rave reviews while I actually avoided GRRM for a good couple of years after one too many Robert Jordan comparisons.

But I have to say, while the show has a lot going for it (I agree that Ned's execution was really well done, and someone in casting clearly sold their soul for the entire Lannister family), it seems to me to highlight the problems of the novel as much as rectify them. Or maybe it just feels that way because both the book and the show are, basically, a little too self-indulgent--the book with the extra couple hundred pages it didn't need, and the show with the barrage of boobies and gratuitous sexual sound-effects.

Okay, that and I may never quite forgive HBO for the way they handled the Dany/Dothraki plot line.

A note on the series, the black/white morality does get a lot more fleshed out as the books go on, but I don't want to get your hopes up too far; Cersei is always a pretty straightforward villainess, and she becomes an increasingly ineffective one as well. I was really disappointed with the way her character has gone, which is too bad since I love love love the way Lena Heady is playing her (I was really afraid they would go with generically oversexed in the show).

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Shahar:

That's an interesting observation. From what I've heard about the following books, they stay within the environs of the aristocratic characters, and it seems you're right that there's not much emphasis on the actual common people. I do, however, think the series has done this a little, by focusing on characters like Roz the prostitute, or the wildling captured by Robb who becomes Bran's caretaker. From what I've gathered neither of these characters are from the books.

Andrew:

It feels like an apples and oranges situation to compare Rowling with Martin, most crucially when it comes to the YA tone that, in ASOIAF, seems both accidental and damaging, and is handled quite well in Harry Potter. Plus, for all that the later books in the series suffer from bloat, there's no denying that Rowling knew exactly where her story was going and was able to get it there, which is more than you could say for Martin.

Anon. 1:

Ned Stark's death being foreshadowed is a problem?

No, but being foreshadowed for hundreds of pages before it actually comes about is.

Having some young characters does not make a story juvenile

I didn't say otherwise - in fact my point is that the series manages to be about juvenile characters without being juvenile itself, while the book doesn't.

Seems to me you are just taking the story on its own terms this time around, which your previous review really was not

You're free to think that, but I'll persist in believing that I know what goes on in my own head better than a stranger on the internet.

rushthatspeaks:

I haven't read anything else by Martin. I have a copy of his Fevre Dream, but no SF by him.

Jamal:

unlike all other books where some magical confluence of circumstances will always save him

I think we have slightly different definitions of what constitutes "all other books."

George said...

Am I the only one who finds Daenerys annoying and hateful? I don't buy her quick transformation, and my modern sensibility can't swallow the fact that she's raped and abused by Drogo but suddenly, one episode later, she's trying to please her husband in bed and proclaiming her pride about being a queen of barbarian slave-owners who kill each other over who gets to have sex with a girl. No matter how much of an asshole her brother was, her utter lack of reaction to his death seemed almost sociopathic.

Every single instance of the series trying to make me like her failed due to the horrible things that were done because of her selfish desire to rule Westeros. The Dothraki kill, rape and pillage an entire village because precious little princess Dany convinced her husband to get her the iron throne. Drogo the rapist husband screams at the top of his lungs that the Dothraki are going to kill and rape every living soul in the Seven Kingdoms, and she seems excited and even a little turned on.

As Miri the witch pointed out, she was already raped three times by the time Daenerys put a stop to it, her village was destroyed and men, women and children were butchered because of her. But she's so arrogant that she still expected to buy the woman's devotion after ruining her life and the lives of everyone she knew.

The most heroic character in the first season of Game of Thrones was the witch Miri Maz Dur. She saved the world by killing Drogo and, most importantly, the Stallion Who Mounts the World, even though she knew a horrible death would be waiting for her as punishment. The amount of pleasure I felt when the witch explained her revenge to Daenerys and threw right on her face the horrible things that have been done because of her desire to conquer the iron throne cannot possibly be quantified. It's offensive how this show expects me to root for this little mass murdering brat...

Mac said...

I don't think the show is asking you to root for anyone quite yet. in fact, judging by the trajectory of the books, I'd say rooting for anyone is pretty much begging to be disappointed.

Andrew Stevens said...

Abigail, I wasn't comparing Rowland to Martin except to say that Rowland's series felt like a bait-and-switch to me - three fairly tight novels followed by four doorstoppers desperately in need of an editor. Martin at least started out with the doorstoppers so nobody who read on could claim they didn't know what they were getting into. I wasn't making any other claim about the relative quality of Rowling and Martin.

George - I actually agree with a lot of what you say about Daenerys. In defense of Martin's Daenerys, A) in the book, Drogo is very gentle with Daenerys on their wedding night (though not always as gentle after that), to the extent that he had her clear consent before consummation, so Daenerys's subsequent love for Drogo comes a bit less out of left field and B) in the book, Viserys had just pressed his swordpoint into Daenerys's pregnant belly and threatened to cut the child out and leave him with Drogo before Drogo kills Viserys. In the book, her reaction to Viserys's death is ambivalent - the reaction one might have to having to kill an old family dog who had gone mad. It is clear, in the books, that Daenerys loved Viserys far more than he deserved and regrets that he had to be killed (but agrees with Drogo that he did need to be killed). On the first point, your description of the TV series is completely accurate and it's just a change from books to TV and on the second, you've probably successfully described the actress's reaction, though the events I related also occurred in the show.

Also, I'm not sure that Martin wouldn't agree with you about Mirri Maz Duur. As you pointed out, the arguments she made for why she did what she did were plenty sympathetic. Nevertheless, I think Martin absolutely does expect his audience to root for Daenerys just as he expects them to root for Eddard, Tyrion, Jon, and Arya. What I am less sure of is whether Martin himself is rooting for Daenerys.

Andrew Stevens said...

Meant Rowling, not Rowland. Not sure how that happened.

George Pedrosa said...

Andrew,

It's my understanding that the wedding night happens very differently in the books, making Drogo more sympathetic, but are there other differences between the two medias when it comes to the way Daenerys is depicted? Do you think the absence of the inner monologues of the books has interfered with my ability to empathize with her?

Andrew Stevens said...

Definitely some, but as I said at the beginning, I substantially agree with your criticism. There's no question that Daenerys slaughters people playing the game of thrones in exactly the same way Cersei does. While not giving her a pass, I would argue that it might be appropriate to make some allowances for her. We know that she doesn't have a divine right to sit on the throne, but she has been indoctrinated by her mad brother Viserys that the throne is theirs by right (and indeed the culture as a whole would largely agree with his position). Plus Robert slaughtered her father, her brother, her niece, and her nephew and would have slaughtered her and her other brother as well. Her internal monologues (and explicit dialogue) do indicate that she is concerned with justice and being a good queen, even if she is also ruthless enough to step over dead bodies in order to obtain her revenge and (what she thinks is) her inheritance.

Also, they aged her up for the series so they could show her nude on television. She was thirteen at the beginning of the book, so we naturally have more sympathy for her in the book than on television. Her relationship with her brother was also much more complex in the books - there's little doubt that she loves him for all his cruelty and madness. One of the great lines from the book which wasn't included in the series is when Jorah asks her, "Would you want to see Viserys sit a throne?" and Daenerys thinks about it and replies, "He would not be a very good king, would he?" Viserys was all she ever knew.

Another example, right before the scene where Viserys is killed, Jorah tells her of his confrontation with Viserys over the dragon eggs and Daenerys responds that if he wants them, then he should have them. Although they were given to her, he is her king. I don't recall if she offers the dragon eggs to Viserys if he puts up his sword on TV right before Viserys is killed, but she definitely does in the book.

So there are a lot of allowances that one can make for Daenerys's behavior, but it doesn't change the fact that you're right and she's a mass murderer. Mirri Maz Duur is evidence that Martin is also fully aware of this fact. Curiously, Martin does not give us any reason to be sympathetic toward Viserys, although his life is arguably even more tragic than Daenerys's since he is old enough to remember his family being slaughtered (regardless of how much his family might have had it coming to them - he was too young to have deserved a life as an exiled orphan, dodging assassins). But I definitely think you're right and that Martin intends us to be pulling for her. This is also true of the TV series, but I agree with you that the TV series gives us much less reason to go along with it.

mac said...

I honestly don't think Martin intends us to be pulling for her-- at least not any more than other possible candidates, with less madness and burning people alive in their ancestry. It seems to me (pure conjecture) that he is draping her with all the tropes of "rightful ancestral heir returning" in service of yet another narrative reversal -- otherwise why all the constant hints about how terrible her family was?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

As I said in the post, George, I think Daenerys's plotline is the one place where the series doesn't improve on the book. As Andrew says, she's a more complex character in the book and it's easier to understand and sympathize with her transformation. While I was watching the series I thought the problems were the inevitable result of adaptation decay - because Daenerys is the only character with an actual, and rather complicated, arc in the book, the series's condensation of her story and its jettisoning of her point of view hurts her in a way that it doesn't hurt the other characters, none of whom grow significantly over the course of the first book.

Now that I think about it, I'm wondering if there isn't something else going on as well. As Andrew says, Daenerys's relationship with Drogo is portrayed differently, and more positively, in the book, most notably the fact that she isn't raped on her wedding night. I read an interview with the show's creators in which they explained that choice by saying that the romantic consummating of the marriage in the books struck them as unrealistic to the situation, and though I can see where they're coming from, the choice to make that change should have imposed a very different progression of Daenerys's story. Instead the show changes only its opening beat and keeps the romantic follow-up, which is jarring (and all but destroys the character of Drogo, who is one of the highlights of the book). Similarly, the series's greater emphasis on the suffering that the game of thrones inflicts on commoners sheds a very different light on Daenerys's story - I think Miri is a character in the book, but to my recollection she doesn't tell Daenerys off as baldly as she does in the series. Daenerys is probably the closest the series comes to a heroine, because of her journey from victimhood to strength, but the more skeptical tone that series takes towards its characters can't support that view of her. The solution should have been to rethink the character, but instead the writers created a hodgepodge - most of the events of the books combined with some of the series's pro-commoner elements - and the result was an unpersuasive character.

Andrew Stevens said...

Mac - some of Martin's most positive characters (living or dead) are Targaryens, from Aegon the Unlikely to Rhaegar to Maester Aemon to Aemon the Dragonknight. The Targaryens were clearly meant to be like I, Claudius's Claudians - half of them the best of people, the other half the worst of people. If you're saying that Martin intends us to be pulling harder for Arya or Jon Snow or Tyrion than Daenerys, then I'd probably agree with you, but I think Martin intends us to pull for all four. On the other hand, I'm much less sure that Martin is rooting for Daenerys himself than I am about the other three, so she is a more ambiguous character.

Abigail - Mirri's telling off of Daenerys is almost word-for-word from the book. Martin stressed the pro-commoner element to about the same degree as the series (though granted that element is stronger in later books than in the first, but it's still quite strong in the first book).

Andrew Stevens said...

Here's a good link: http://eleusis-walks.livejournal.com/65204.html#cutid1. Based on the book and written right before broadcast of the final episode, the author, a Daenerys fan, convincingly argues George's thesis that Mirri Maz Duur is a hero and I concur.

Mac said...

Hmmm -- I'm not saying that Martin favors the other families, but that no matter who wins this Game, he's loaded each group with enough drawbacks that it shouldn't be a clear-cut outcome. So as I said, I don't think Martin intends us to pull for her more than any other viewpoint character.(Different drawbacks, but drawbacks nonetheless.)

I view the series -- books and show -- like I'd view something historical, as an outside observer, invested and interested, but not especially expecting "pure justice" or "good guys" to prevail; mostly expecting a return to a relatively stable status quo at best. And hoping not to have outright nihilism.

(My memory is not the best at this point, but I think Miri is portrayed more positively on television. I remember her actions being more intentional and vengeful in the book, whereas in the show, they show Dany and Ser J disobeying her instructions. Her explanation, "Now he will burn no villages," seems more like a shrugging, oh-well explanation than a gloat. The book also seems to "other" Miri more.)

So I don't have a problem with Dany. I don't want to hang out with her and have tea and shopping sprees, but I think it's good characterization. (Although I find the writing for her, on TV, a little uneven. I don't like the changes. I see how they were trying to retain the sense of revulsion for her situation without having to actually portray pedophilia/ephebophilia, but I don't like the way it turned out. Whatever, hazards of any adaptation.) I don't think she's a completely nice person, but that's not the character's job, really -- her job is to make me believe that she's a viable player in the game.

Oh, and sorry for tangenting, Abigail -- I really like your outlook, in this post, and agree with much of it. I wasn't bored by the youthful protagonists while reading (that's a quirk of mine, I like to read about kids), but I do find myself...I don't know, slightly more invested in the TV series? Part of that might just be that the books are likely to still take longer to come out than each subsequent TV series, so I know where my hopes will be safer put.

Mac said...

"each subsequent TV series"

series = season. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

A reaction of "finally" to Ned's death implies one of two things (to me): one, that his death should have come earlier in the first book than it did (which I really can't see given the complex series of events that led to it), or two, that Ned's death is the only thing that really matters in the first book and everything else (or at least everything that doesn't lead directly to it) is extraneous detail. Which, given that his death is just one (admittedly important) event in a very large narrative, doesn't seem fair either.

Andrew Stevens said...

Sorry about that link. I thought I knew how to do hypertext in these comments, but it didn't work.

Mac - Mirri also warned Daenerys not to enter the tent in the book, same as in the series. I think the TV series was extraordinarily faithful to the book's Mirri Maz Duur. Because we see events from Daenerys's point of view in the book, I'm not very surprised that the perception of readers is that Mirri was villainous, vengeful, and "other" when reading the book, but much more sympathetic when viewing the series where we get a more objective view. But in terms of words or actions, the two barely differ at all.

I'm not sure that the Starks really have that many drawbacks, by the by. In Abigail's post on the book, she points out that there are decent Lannisters and untrustworthy Starks, but I think this is only half right. There are decent Lannisters, but I can't think of any untrustworthy Starks. (I assume she was thinking of Sansa, a character who is, in my opinion, unjustly vilified by most fans of the book.) Obviously I agree that Martin has written drawbacks into Daenerys, though I still maintain that he intended his readers to be sympathetic to her viewpoint, and my evidence for this would be how sympathetic most readers were to her in her conflict with Mirri Maz Duur, where, I believe, Mirri actually was the wronged party.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Anon.:

Not sure what your point is. Are you trying to prove - with logic! - that I couldn't possibly have reacted to the book the way I say I did?

Andrew:

I'm obviously fuzzy about the details of the book, but if you look at my write-up from six years ago it's just as obvious that I did not get a sense that the book stressed the pro-commoner outlook to the same extent as the series - or even at all. I think Mac is right that the minute the reader is locked into Daenerys's point of view - and particularly given that the book's version of her story is much more romantic and portrays Drogo in a more likable manner than the series - it's impossible not to see Miri as a villain.

It may be true that later books in the series intensify the pro-commoner theme, but that just brings me back to my original point, that there's no reason not to do so from the get-go, as the series demonstrates.

To bring this back to the comparison between Rowling and Martin, I don't think it's entirely fair to say that Rowling performs a bait and switch. She starts out writing very simple stories about a very simple protagonist, because at that point the protagonist is a young child. But the complexity of her story and her world increase as Harry (and presumably the readers) get older (this is leaving aside the issue of bloat which afflicts the later books). Martin also starts out telling a simple story through the eyes of simple - and mostly very young - characters, but he doesn't do so in simple terms, so it's easier to conclude that this is how he wants us to think about his world. My point is that he should have done one of the two - simplify his story, or give us a more complex view of his characters - from day one.

Mac said...

Thanks for the book reminder!

When I say "drawback," I have to clarify that I don't necessarily mean "a character flaw," but a weakness and/or characteristic that would probably mess up the relative tranquility of the realm for the greater number of people, were that family to be in charge.

I would call the Stark's inability, so far, to be pragmatic their drawback -- not as nice people, but as rulers or power-seizers, yes.

Obviously (so far) this is mostly demonstrated by Ned "I support Stannis even if he isn't that great just because of birth order, and I will tell truth to power even when I don't have a leg to stand on, literally, rather than take logical and effective steps to overthrow that power" Stark; by Catelyn "he's guilty until proven innocent" Stark, a bit; and by...er... others of that family later [I was specific just now, but realized that's a spoiler and have deleted the name]. They are the people I tend to like/trust most, but they have definitely not shown themselves to be viable players in the game. I'd love to be their friend, but I wouldn't trust them in a war, based on their behavior patterns. I believe Arya's character development is (or will be) meant to contrast that, eventually, although I can't predict what that will mean overall.

I wonder if whoever ultimately takes over will need to possess a mixture of traits from all the houses?

eudaimoniac said...

I did enjoy the series. Must say, as I have not read the books, I didn't think they'd actually kill off Stark in final episode. Gained new respect for the story when it happened. Sounds like there's not so much going for the books according to this post, so I'll likely steer clear. Thanks for the comparison.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the series, but have not read the book. I wondered if there were some deeper reasons that Lady Stark hated Jon Snow other than the obvious, her bringing home his outside child. Why is there mystery around Jon mother? Why didn't Lord Stark just tell him. How long would a brief explanation take even if on horseback at a time of parting?

Yeechang Lee said...

Abigail, given that the show surprised you in a good way, perhaps you'll now reread the book? It would be good preparation for next season, and it would be interesting to hear whether your opinion on the book has changed six years and 10 hours of television later.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Anon.:

As I understand it the prevailing theory among fans is that Jon isn't Ned's son but his nephew, the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, which if true is not the sort of thing you'd blurt out on horseback just before saying goodbye. The theory gets a real shot in the arm in the season finale when Bran reveals that Lyanna had been kidnapped by Rhaegar before her death - if she's even dead.

Yeechang:

I don't think that I will. Leaving aside the fact that there are so many books I want to read that haven't disappointed me yet, there's really nothing in my enjoyment of the series that suggests to me that I'll think better of the book. As I explain in this post, almost everything I like about the show is rooted in the ways it diverges from the book. If anything, I'd be tempted to read the later books, but as everything I've heard, even from fans, suggests that Martin loses the thread around book 3 or 4, I'm happy to let the series remain the canonical form of this story.

Andrew Stevens said...

The third book is brilliant, easily the best of the bunch, though still far, far too long as all of the books are. The fourth isn't very good at all, but then he left out nearly all of his best characters. We'll see if he picks up the quality in the fifth book when he returns to them.

Blackfish said...

While it's true that the books are all very long, I tend to think of this as a plus.

I think if you were expecting the series to be all shocking twists (which I think you were, to some extent) you're going to be disappointed. That's one of the strengths of the books to be sure, but one that can be overstated. The books' main appeal for me lies rather in the intricate worldbuilding that goes on pretty much all the time. Due to the nature of the medium this aspect is rather shortchanged in the tv series.

In other words, it's long, but it's also a great ride. If the books are a car journey through the country, then the tv series can be likened to taking a plane ride over it. Sure, you get to your destination faster, but that's only a good thing if you dislike the beautiful scenery.

The series is full of traditional bildungsroman narratives, to be sure, but I think highly of Martin's handling of them as he goes to great pains to deconstruct them - for example, Robb is clearly the traditional noble young man forced into leadership, but then we see him through Cat's eyes. Sansa behaves like the fairytale princess, but no one else treats her like one, and she generally pays for her naivete. A similar point can be made about Ned.

Didn't read the rest of the comments to avoid ugly backlash bile, apologies if these points have already been raised and discussed.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think if you were expecting the series to be all shocking twists (which I think you were, to some extent)

Well I wasn't, but thanks for assuming that you know what goes on in my head better than I do.

There's a difference between a long book and one that is too long. A difference between a book that is not full of shocking twists and one that defers its twists long past reason. A Game of Thrones is the latter, and that is the complaint I laid against it in this post.

daneastside said...

I added myself to follow your blog.

And always remember... Smiles don't have to be saved for a rainy day. It's good to waste them.

Anonymous said...

Abigail,
Dany is raped in the book, as she is raped in the TV show. But in the book, her rape comes from her OWN lack of agency, her INABILITY to say no (and a very determined seduction) -- these are things learned from her brother.

And They TRIED the scene as written in the book -- but the actors couldn't make it work (guess you'd need someone with experience seducing a 13-yr-old).

To me? an 800 page book reads in about a day (nearly the same as the series, i'd say). I'm willing to give Martin a few days to make a point.

He does indeed introduce things as stereotypically as possible. But There Are Reasons for this... It provides grounding, and the myths/societies that he uses are allowed to grow naturally and interact with characters naturally. [That is to say, you don't have "these are the Rohorrim, the great horsemen blahblahblah"]. It's already tough enough getting people used to the "no summers" deal.

I agree that both Cersei and Jaime have been WELL SERVED in the adaptation -- the writers temptation to not draw them as PURE VILLAINS really pays off... Not that some people don't still hate them with a fiery passion -- but they do feel more human.

I think Martin writes young characters much better than most. They are typically shortsighted, and do ill-considered things. And Jon mopes A LOT. Which is typical for a teen.

Dan Zaidman said...

Hi Abigail,
Great review.
I'm now reading the second book.

Lidia | Adelgazar said...

Game of thrones is, probably, the best TV serie that I've ever seen.
It's raw and real like none, and reflects the European Middle Age (althought was fantastic, not historic) in all over its dimension.
The characters and the script have an incredible depth.
Perhaps, the sex scenes and explicit violence are too frequent.

Graham Crawford said...

One good thing about the TV series is I don't have to read an entire page listing every coat of arms in the scene. I'm sure the books have several appendices devoted to every sequin stitched and heraldic embroidery pattern.That must have annoyed the HBO costume department!

Anonymous said...

The complaint about the story only focusing on nobility--there is a LOT more involving the smallfolk in later books.

Leon Shousterman said...

Daenerys’ and Drogo’s relationship is depicted in the books and the series alike as love of equals. But this is not the case, they are not equal — her life entirely depends on his mood. She is in mortal danger every moment she annoys him or just disappoints in any way. The moment his affection fades she’ll become miserable. Is love possible in such circumstances? Maybe. But it will be a very different love. Love mixed with fear, love at the edge of psychosis.

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