I want to get the clichés out the way first. Yes, it’s hard to compare a book to the TV show or film. Yes, any adaptation of an original work must of course by its very nature be adapted. Yes, there are compromises, creative and commercial, to be made when taking any rich literary work, especially one as realised and meticulously fleshed out as A Song of Ice and Fire, and converting it to the screen.
Yes, I know. I’m fed up of having to preface any discussion or review of this nature with a disclaimer like the above. But everyone does, because you can be sure that if you don’t say it, the very first thing you’ll hear in reply when you point out where the TV show or film isn’t that great, is that you shouldn’t compare it to the book(s). I want to acknowledge that objection from the start. Yes I know books and films of the same story will be different (thank you for that insight), and whilst one should never criticise works simply for deviating from source, it seems unobjectionable to me that they can be compared as one would any two artistic creations; judged by what they are, and what they could be.
As a child I read Lord of the Rings and loved it. Reading and writing has always been in me, from as early as I can remember, but so infectious is Tolkien’s prose and parlance I found it impossible not to emulate his style, tropes and even plotlines in my early fictional writing (something that even certain adult established writers do…) The very fact that so many, young and old, still love and enjoy Tolkien seems to dispel the idea that one grows out of the Father of Modern Fantasy — but I would suggest that Tolkien is loved most by those of a certain mind-set or those with particularly naïve politics who hold quixotic simplistic utopian worldviews. To put it another way: Tolkien might have made it all possible, and set the standard for which epic fantasy could and should reach, and written really good stories — but others have overtaken him. George RR Martin is one such person.
What makes A Song of Ice and Fire such an addictive, fascinating and enjoyable read is not the goal of this article, and indeed would require far more words than I’ve written here. What can I say that hasn’t already been said many times by those more qualified than me? ASOIAF, as us Westerosians say, is a story that grabs you, sucks you in, and makes you really feel part of an exciting, dirty, dangerous, terrifying and sexual world. We are right there, alongside our characters – the evil ones and the less evil ones – as they play their part, play with others, or simply try to survive. I’m not convinced that “life-affirming” is the intended psycho-emotional response to Martin’s story-telling, as such there are no real heroes in the true sense – just people who, for the most part – love or hate them – are doing either what they think is right, or what is necessary, for themselves, their family or their cause. What it is, in any event, is very human. Oftentimes we see the very worst of humanity, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the very worst characters of Westeros or Essos (for me, Gregor Clegane is the worst) are just caricatures of bad guys, the sort that we wouldn’t really find in the real world. Oh, we do. They have existed, they do exist, and they will exist.
Religion and sex are also perennial and important aspects of humanity. I would insist that one is profoundly more essential and natural than the other, and one has historically waged war on the other throughout the ages – but I digress. Martin himself has noted how these two features of life which frequently feature in his work, are notoriously absent from Tolkien’s. This isn’t to imply that Martin’s work is better than Tolkien’s for this reason, but I think it does make it more adult. If not more realistic (its characters certainly are) then at least more relatable. Much more so is Lord of the Rings a book for teenagers – not because of the lack of sexuality, but because of its overly simplistic politics, lack of intrigue, two-dimensional characters, unsophisticated prose (at times), and perfunctory supplications made to the reader’s attention and concentration. At the risk of sounding magniloquent, LOTR is easy reading and ASOIAF is not. That is certainly not a criticism of easy reading. The point is that there are many story-telling styles and what makes ASOIAF such a success is its many rich and complicated stories and how they are told.
ASOIAF is often praised for its “adult” nature – which many seem to think is a euphemism for body parts on display. But as I said above, what I think makes it “adult” is everything else. Perhaps this is why the sexual content of ASOIAF and HBO’s Game of Thrones is, if not the first thing mentioned by one viewer introducing a newcomer to it, probably in the top three things to talk about. Sex happens in ASOIAF because human beings have sex: sex with members of the opposite sex, or the same sex, with older partners or underage ones. Rape occurs and is frequently threatened or boasted about, but rape has been a shameful feature of human conflict throughout the ages – and not at all solely in ancient times. Allied soldiers pillaged cities and raped the defenceless women and girls of fallen German cities after the Second World War. We can agree that WW2 was just and necessary and we were the good guys, but perhaps Lena Headley’s Cersei puts it best: “when a man’s blood is up, anything with tits looks good.”
The foul and unflattering manner of death is also a constant feature of ASOIAF. War, whatever the motivation or necessity, exacts an atrocious price in human suffering and misery. I don’t need to enumerate the abominations which people have inflicted on others. One cursory inspection of, to name just one example, the experiments which Nazi “scientists” performed on prisoners of war is enough to guarantee insomnia for many nights. Martin’s great novels are not cynical or anti-human – but they are good stories, and appreciable parts of the story consist of war and violence. Whilst the human form can be beautiful – in the shape of a striking underage girl, it can be grotesque – such as the crushing of a skull or a lance through the back of the throat. The story is not allegorical and certainly not didactic. In this sense, and I am by no means appealing to moral relativism, it’s not whether these things are good or bad, but rather that they simply happen. Martin has no choice but to tell us the story as it unfolds, (he’s said it has taken on a life of its own): we are reading a history of the world told through the eyes of its contemporaries. For me it is as though Martin were saying: ‘I didn’t want to put child murder, rape, incest, violence, torture, betrayal, heartbreak and pain in my story – but I had to! I’m just telling you what happened!’
Child sexuality is not exactly inconspicuous either. It is not present to furnish the plot with shock-factor, or superfluous intrigue, but because modern attitudes to this sensitive matter are after all modern – and sexuality (especially of the female kind) was historically not treated with respect or deference until some agreed-upon age of consent was reached (and in some parts of the world today, especially religiose ones, there is nothing resembling respect for women). I paraphrase Martin: ‘once a girl menstruates, she’s a woman.’ The number of consecutive years elapsed since her birth is irrelevant. At least, that’s how pre-modern cultures viewed the matter. Again, Martin is telling a story set in a certain time. The contentious and controversial feature of underage sex (consensual and otherwise) is necessary and natural for the setting.
Each turn in the story is a seamless corollary of what came before. Seamless, and by that I mean natural, but not necessary. You never feel that anything in ASOIAF is necessary, in that the characters, so simultaneously powerful and impotent, try to make the right choices, or make bad choices, or make no choices. But one thing that these stories do not feel is this: contrived.
Now, bearing in mind everything I have said above (surely no didactic segue is required), I turn to HBO’s TV adaption of the Martin masterpiece: Game of Thrones. A show that has made fantasy “cool” and brought the genre to such heights of fame and notoriety that it’s no exaggeration to suggest it might have changed television forever. Will we see a whole slew of low or high-fantasy epics brought to the screen? Has GoT paved the way? Has HBO shown that, given the budget, there is a huge audience for television drama that has dragons instead of doctors, knights instead of lawyers, decapitations and exploding skulls instead of court-room set pieces and crime scene investigations? Did anything Jack Bauer go through match Ned Stark on the steps of Bailor’s Sept? When was the last time anything on screen evoked the sense of betrayal, loss, despair and jaw-dropping silence which the Red Wedding did?
The modern TV audience are drama junkies. If that sounds pejorative, I’m ok with it. But if you want drama, drama, drama, you’ll find an endless supply in A Song of Ice and Fire — and it’s why, when Game of Thrones sticks to its source material, it almost always succeeds. One, because it’s hard to go wrong when the material is that good, and two, because the show is so well acted, well directly, well scored and well shot. Technically, the show is almost flawless. Aesthetically, the show is beautiful. But dramatically, the show is oddballish, bordering on bipolar.
Game of Thrones is quite literally two shows in one. There is the mature, adult drama which takes its witches, wizards, dragons, monsters and knights seriously. A show that has an actual story to tell and means to progress that story logically and sensibly through use of character development and exciting action. In other words: the story to be found in the books themselves. The second Game of Thrones, almost invisible in season one but obtruding more and more as the seasons progress, is the show we see now. This show is the one which appeals to what I imagine television executives think is their primary demographic: flesh-craving licentious drama addicts, easily titillated by penile or vaginal endeavours, shocked by guts and gore like a caveman seeing fire for the first time, and one too stupid to keep track of more than five characters or plotlines at a time.
Which isn’t to say that it’s easy to keep track of so many story arcs and people (try reading the books!), but that brings me to another point: if so much time wasn’t spent on gratuitous and egregious insertions of patronising audience titillation, I suspect there would be more than enough to show the numerous plotlines and characters memorably – no, unforgettably! I’m not surprised so many people who watch the show can’t remember who’s who and who is doing what. Why? Because most of the time they aren’t doing anything! We can afford ten minutes here and there to witness so much gay sex (because sexual egalitarianism keeps the rowdy feminists quiet) or embarrassing attempts to justify full frontal nudity, but Daenerys’s prophetic dreams in the House of the Undying? Noooo. Why drop hints or foreshadow the truth of Jon Snow’s parentage when we can have Petyr Baelish expound his inner motivations and ambitions over lesbian soft-core porn? Who is the Knight of the Laughing Tree? What about the kind of man Rhaegar Targaryen really was? What did Ned promise Lyanna before she died? Who killed Pate? Who is the third head of the dragon? What are the as-yet unrealised betrayals Daenerys will experience? What of Quaithe’s other thrilling prophecies? Who is the Prince that was promised? Who is Azor Ahai? The glass candles are burning – don’t tell me we don’t have time for any of this when so much precious time is wasted by lewd bilge.
And the sex misses the point anyway. To take one example: in one of Catelyn’s earliest chapters, we join the story as she and Ned have finished love-making. In Cat’s head we hear her describe how her loins ache, sorely but sweetly, from Ned’s eager and rapid thrusts into her. She can feel his seed still present and hopes it will give them another baby, before they both get too old. We discover that, although their marriage wasn’t born of love, they did fall in love. This is what a love scene should be about!; an intimate look into the private lives of our characters. We learn something about them, and if we can experience their sexuality vicariously as audience members, so much the better. This is the sort of love scene that could be shown respectfully and erotically on screen, that would appeal to an understanding and adult audience, but come from the story, advance the story, enliven the characters.
But no, we are obviously too dumb to appreciate the emotional nuances of consensual caring copulation, and besides, how would we know the characters actually had sex unless we all-but-saw the act of penetration itself?
The only exception to this I can think of is Robb’s love scene with a forbidden young girl, through which he violates a marriage oath and causes his own downfall. This scene was handled well, precisely because it encapsulated the passion of two young frustrated lovers. I daresay we did feel something for these two characters as a result. (Ironically, this love story was substantially different from the books.)
And that’s just on the matter on how condescending and intellectually insulting the show’s use of pornography is. That aside, the complete abandonment of crucial and exciting stories and character developments is completely baffling. Even when you know what’s coming, Game of Thrones can deliver emotion and impact when it tries. But even more flabbergasting is waiting for a momentous and shocking reveal, and it not coming because entire plot-points have apparently been removed. I won’t spoil anything by elucidating this point, but one might suggest only a heart of stone is required to neglect certain rather pivotal story elements.
As I alluded to earlier, prophecy and portents are a huge aspect of the written story. I know it is much harder to get away with the sort of foreshadowing on TV (for example, for the Red Wedding) as was done in the books – but the psychological and dramatic reaction of seeing the eventuality of so many clues pay off, is a priceless joy. It is one of the great pleasures in ASOIAF. It is rewarding and stupefying, and leaves you kicking yourself, when you finally realise that you should have realised it all along! Such is the art of great plot twists – of great pay-offs to long running arcs; it was obvious all along, in hindsight. Not only that, the anticipation of unresolved mysteries and prophecies leads to so much fan speculation which in itself is an inestimable component of the fun. Most of this is absent from HBO’s Game of Thrones. Don’t kid yourself that so much time has been spent with so many characters, they are doing their best to get through such a colossal adaptation. That notion would have more substance if it weren’t for the omission of so much good, the inclusion of so much padding, and (in my opinion) so much unnecessary deviation from source. For just one example, I have to ask why the incredibly minor characters of Grey Worm and Missendei are shoe-horned into a boring and distracting side-plot? Don’t the writers have enough material to be getting on with, without making up plotlines of their own which cannot be anything other than irrelevancies in the grand scheme of things? Why should we care about this? Instead of confecting a flimsy pretext to see Missendei naked (which I am by no means opposed to under the right circumstances), might there not be other things that time could be better spent on? Say, for example, the other fifty characters and their stories?!
I find myself in the odd situation of seeing a show that is simultaneously dragging out affected scenes and inconsequential characters, yet rushing through the source material and skipping the sight-seeing. I’ve no doubt the destination of the ASOIAF saga will be stupendous, but the journey must be every bit enjoyable and jaw-dropping. The creators of GoT have all the time in the world – why don’t they use it?
I’m not saying that Game of Thrones must stick religiously to its source material. As someone who considers Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings not only great adaptations, film masterpieces, and significant improvements on the books, I know that changing key story elements is not only necessary, but actually desirable for the transition from script to screen. What I cannot understand is how a story as complex, clever, interwoven, interrelated, intricate and delicate as A Song of Ice and Fire can possibly be improved by the removal of so much of what made the books great. I simply cannot see how mammoth changes to certain characters’ deaths and destinations, which must necessitate the most unlikeliest contrivance of story-telling or their complete abandonment, make the story better, or at the very least, something remarkable and different. And I think that is what makes me so angry and disappointed with Game of Thrones: the fact that I do have expectations of it — I wanted to see this wonderful and exciting story on screen. But after a magnificent first few seasons, that doesn’t look like it’s what I’m going to get. It would have been better to have read the books or watched the show, but not both. If it seems that one has failed the other, I know which one I’d point the finger at.
For all that I can pretend I’m watching a stand-alone TV show, I can try to see Game of Thrones as exciting, dramatic and addictive. Yes, we want to tune in every week to see what happens next, but when the shock and awe die down, what will we really be left with? Is this a show that people will re-watch time and again? I’m nowhere near as sure of that as I was after its first season. I thought Game of Thrones would change the television landscape, not just because of the story content, but in its approach and style. It has changed television. It has so much of the world talking. It could be the most famous TV show in the world right now — it’s almost certainly the most expensive. But what price has it paid for such roaring success? How much has it abandoned its understated, clever, and often patience-testing literary sires, in exchange for appealing to the masses? In decades to come, A Song of Ice and Fire will still be read and loved by millions – and perhaps it will have had as big an impact of written high fantasy as Tolkien did so many years ago. What will Game of Thrones’s cultural impact be after so many years? What will its legacy be? A ground-breaking drama renowned for its acting, storytelling, emotional realism and capturing the hearts and minds of a generation? Or that show that was like Spartacus, only with dragons? When I first saw Game of Thrones I felt sure I knew what type of show it would be. Now, I just don’t know.
It’s not even that Game of Thrones is bad. It’s not bad. It’s good. It’s very good. But I don’t think it’s special. And it could have been. It should have been.
And the saddest irony, or perhaps l have too much faith in my fellow primates, is that I don’t think the mainstream TV audience is as titillated with tits, awed by asses, bloodthirsty or cynical as studio executives think they are. Maybe TV consumers can appreciate good stories, and can understand political intrigue, prophecies and portent, character struggle, internal conflicts and huge armies of supernatural power – without having them wrapped in the obligatory sexposition scene every episode? Seven hells – maybe a show with dragons can be taken seriously for its own sake?