Snow, Swords and Sourcery, or, ‘Is it really that good?’
Considering how much ground this blog has covered in its relatively brief life span I am shocked that this hasn’t come up before now. This is one of the most successful on-going series out there and has recently been turned into a big budget, glossy HBO adaptation. That’s right, its everyone’s favorite sword based fantasy show with Peter Dinklage in it – Game of Thrones!
The success of the books has really helped the genre of fantasy as a whole, previously fantasy has been the slightly odd pale-faced child in the playground of literature that all the other genre’s don’t want to play with (probably shouldn’t stretch that analogy too far…) With it’s oddness and supposed low literary value the genre was consigned to the realm of sub-culture. However, when examining the wider world of fantasy literature the depth and quality of writing does really stand out – fantasy, perhaps more than other genres depends upon imagination, allowing it be bold and experimental with its premises, characters and even established literary conventions. George RR Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’ series is not the most experimental in terms of fantasy, conforming fairly closely to the generic tropes and writing style that makes the books very accessible to people who wouldn’t normally consider picking up a fantasy novel. First published in 1996 the first book in the Game of Thrones world took some time to generate any cross-market buzz until it topped the chart as a New York Times bestseller last year. Along the way it won a Hugo award, a Nebula award and was nominated for several other writing plaudits doled out by the sci-fi/fantasy writing world. So, let’s gird up our loins and dig a little deeper into the first part of Martin’s ‘Song of Ice and Fire’
As per usual I will try and avoid the major spoilers but if you’ve read this far there is a chance that you already have some familiarity (to put it mildly) about what I’m talking about. Set in the fictional world of Westeros the plot follows three story threads concurrently. Firstly, one story focuses around Lord Eddard Stark, a nobleman loyal to the King, Robert, who is ordered from his northern stronghold to the capital to serve the King as his chief adviser (or Hand of the King.) Once in the capital Stark finds himself drawn into the political scheming of the ruling class – a world that he is dangerously unprepared for and one that the whole realm may not survive. The second story focuses on Stark’s illegitimate son, Jon Snow, who, finding no other place in society, joins the order of the Night’s Watch. This is a quasi-monastic order of knights who protect the northern most border of the kingdoms from a vague unspecified threat. This border is held by them on their massive 700 foot high wall that serves as the northern edge of the civilized world. Once there, he finds that the mystical and mythical threats the Night’s Watch is sworn to defend people from, may be all too real.
The third story follows the final legitimate heir to the throne of the seven Kingdom’s who has been exiled to a savage foreign land and is attempting to raise an army to help her take back the throne. As you may have guessed I have missed out vast swathes of the plot and the details that Martin packs his story with as well as the mythology and symbology so critical to world building in the novel. If there is one thing that’s impressive about the book it is the scale of the vision that Martin is trying to get across. I say trying as he isn’t wholly successful within the one novel but as an introduction to the series and the world of Westeros he sets the stage for the next installment in the series. Plot-wise, this isn’t your typical fantasy hack n’slash style story either – that isn’t to say there isn’t any violence, far from it actually but the thrust of the plot isn’t focused on the blood and gore. More than anything Martin is interested in intrigues here, the novel, whilst being set in another world, is mainly about politics, or as it is wonderfully described ‘The Game of Thrones.’
The sales figures speak on the books success but there is one point that maybe fans of the book won’t like me pointing out. And here it is – the books are not, critically speaking, that good. The characterisation is broad rather than exact with just enough light and shade to hold the attention. The language is a more than a little clichéd, reflecting the speed at which the books were written. There is also the stylistic quirk that Martin shares with another author who has appeared on this blog, Dan Brown. The chapters are kept short and the books are kept long. Thus for the reader to keep track the tone of the writing is not that sophisticated (though not ‘bad’ in any sense) and each chapter is headed by the principle character’s name. This helps keep the story flowing and the reader engrossed but it does mean that ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ doesn’t have the same kind of vast epic quality of ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ That shouldn’t be taken as an unnecessary criticism though and to be honest, it is nice to see an author interested in action and plot rather than anything else. No wonder he wanted to be around when HBO got a hold of it…
So how does it compare as an adaptation?
Really well actually. The first season of Game of Thrones on HBO was probably responsible for pushing the book into the wider public consciousness and you can see why. With the show well financed thanks to the cable channel behind it the attention to detail is incredibly convincing. The design work and visual strength of the series more than matches Westeros with the Middle Earth created by the good folks at Weta workshops for the Peter Jackson films. The casting is also outstanding, with Sean Bean as the noble Lord Stark, Lena Hadley as a cold hearted queen, Kit Harington as Jon Snow being among some of my personal highlights in the acting department. They are all overshadowed by the best performance in the show; Peter Dinklage playing the villainous, hilarious and scandalous Tyrion Lannister. His scenes quickly become the ones you look forward to and In some of the slower episodes it is he that carries the show. I shouldn’t heap too many plaudits on the acting however, as good as it is. As I’ve said, the characterization from the books is not that strong, with a tendency to labor the point the author is attempting to get across. As such a faithful adaptation the show has the same trait in places – characters are not deep or complex but certainly are entertaining and always manage to keep the action advancing.
There are some alterations from the book – given that the show easily earns it’s 18+ certificate characters had to be aged, to have them the same age as they are in the books would not just be horrific, but given some scenes, probably illegal. There is another problem that this does bring up and its one that fans of the show, (which I certainly count myself as) tend to dance around, so let me put this as delicately as possible. This show doesn’t have the best representation of women – the amount of rape and incest that takes place does eventually start to feel a little gratuitous. This isn’t just me complaining about the fact that bad things happen to women in the novels, but rather there are parts of the culture that Martin creates where bad things happening is completely normal. For example, at one point a character is sold to a man as his bride and raped. Horrible, yes but here’s the thing – no one in the book’s world thinks it is. That kind of rape apologia and other examples that I could bring up to make the show/book more problematic. Some of it might be characterizing action but some of it certainly isn’t necessary. The common defense seems to be that this is just part of the fantasy genre but this is something that raises wider questions about the nature of fantasy and whether this kind of characterization and representation is still OK; though not something I’m going to tackle this here it might be something for the Double Barreled Shotgun Review.
To sum up then, a great show with heroes, villains and enough swashbuckling sword play to satisfy even the hardcore fantasy fans. Just don’t watch it with your Nan…
Well, that’s just what I think.
PS I realize it looks like I’ve pretty harsh here and I certainly don’t think I have the space to do justice to the complexity of Westeros in both it’s forms. I guess the best piece of advice I can give is, if you haven’t already go and get this read!