Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | April 4, 2013

Game of Thrones is Back


The first episode of season 3 of Game of Thrones premiered last Sunday. This is a post about the TV series generally and the series of books, by George RR Martin, on which the TV series is based.

Although I have done my best (I believe) to avoid spoilers, do be warned that there are spoilers in this post and in the linked posts and articles; these spoilers especially include spoilers for the first three books of the series (through A Storm of Swords) and the first two seasons of the TV show.

Ethan Gach at the League has a useful roundup of reactions and commentary on the season 3 premier and the show in general, which Gach calls “the spiritual successor to Harry Potter” and “a tour de fource in fantastical escapism made all the more compelling by its emphatic gestures toward political realism and unflinching brutality.”

At Forbes, Erik Kain has an episode summary and review of the season 3 premier (with tons of spoilers, just fyi), which he calls “a solid start to a solid show.” Kain’s piece begins:

When you have a story as sprawling as Game of Thrones, with a cast that only continues to grow, and plot-lines sprouting up like magic beanstalks all over the place, the first episode of a season can feel a whole lot like tying up loose ends.

That’s basically where we find ourselves in the opening of HBO’s third season of Game of Thrones, the adaptation of fantasy author George R. R. Martin’s best-selling Song of Ice and Fire saga. When we left off in Season 2, we ended on a dramatic note with many unresolved storylines and questions yet to be answered.

Not much has changed after one episode of Season 3, but we can begin to see the pieces moving again…

One of the challenges of adapting Martin’s novels to television involves not just handling an ever increasing number of storylines, but maintaining contact with all of those storylines essentially all of the time. Martin finessed this in the novels in a way that will not be possible in the TV series. In the novels, some characters will disappear from the scene for entire books, as Martin focuses on other plot-lines taking place in other geographic locales. For example, Theon Greyjoy, who is a significant Point-of-View character in the second book (A Clash of Kings) and a major character in the second season of the TV series, basically disappears for two books (A Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows) before resurfacing in the fifth book (A Dance with Dragons). Likewise, Tyrion Lannister (who is played by Peter Dinklage in the TV series and is one of the most popular characters on the show) does not appear in the fourth book (A Feast for Crows).

Martin tested the patience of his readers by ignoring the storylines of popular characters like Tyrion and Daenerys for the space of entire books (based on my unscientific survey of friends and random internet commentators, A Feast for Crows is the least popular of the books in large part for this very reason), but the readers ultimately tolerated it. TV viewers may not be so tolerant (or indulgent). More to the point, the contracts for actors like Dinklage may not make long absences from the screen feasible. Also, there are some books where certain characters don’t do much.

For example, Gach links to a piece in The Atlanic and says, “Spencer Kornhaber still doesn’t care about Stannis Baretheon, and wonders if the show will ever do anything to make him start.” In the books, Stannis plays a major role in the climactic battle of the second book (A Clash of Kings), and he then spends most of the third book (A Storm of Swords) not doing much of anything (before making a surprising strategic move toward the end of the third book). In the books, readers could afford mostly to ignore Stannis; this approach is riskier when dealing with a TV audience, and it presents complications for the actor who plays Stannis (Stephen Dillane). (To speak directly to Kornhaber’s point, if the show follows the broad outline of the books, as it has done so far, it is unlikely that people will care much about Stannis until some time toward the middle of season 4.)

The writers of the show have to some extent compensated for these factors by eliminating some characters who appear in the books or by folding multiple characters from the books into a single character for the show. But even so, at any one time the show features at least half a dozen geographically separated (but occassionally intersecting) storylines spread over two continents. In the books, Martin split the story between the fourth book, A Feast for Crows (which broadly covers events in and near King’s Landing, the Vale, the Riverlands, the Iron Islands, and Dorne), and the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons (which covers events at the Wall, beyond the Wall, and on the eastern continent of Essos). This geographic separation will almost certainly not be translated directly to the TV series, because it would involve ignoring the plot-lines of popular characters for at least one or two seasons!

Forteresse de Dubrovnik

See also Michelle Dean in The Nation: “Is ‘Game of Thrones’ Escapist Enough?”

Finally, I highly and heartily recommend reading this exceptionally good review of Game of Thrones, by John Lanchester, in the London Review of Books. (Spoilers, clearly marked, about half-way through the article.) Lanchester begins by addressing a familiar theme: why do science fiction and fantasy novels not command the respect of the literati in the way that other genres do? More to the point, why do otherwise very well-read people, who pride themselves on familiarity and engagement with a broad array of authors, genres, and styles, seem actively to disdain science fiction and fantasy? An excerpt (emphasis added):

For reasons I’ve never seen explained or even thoroughly engaged with, there seems to be an unbridgeable crevasse between the SF/fantasy audience and the wider literate public. People who don’t usually read, say, thrillers or military history or popular science will read, say, Gone Girl or Berlin or Bad Pharma. But people who don’t read fantasy just simply, permanently, 100 per cent don’t read fantasy.

That doesn’t stop some of these books finding many millions of readers. The works that do so, though, are almost always crossovers from the category of teen, or as the industry calls it, ‘young adult’, fiction. Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, and the Twilight novels are all in this category, and they’re also not individual works but series. When they found a wider readership they didn’t do so in a merely big way but in an apocalyptically huge one. Given permission to read books of this kind – permission derived from the books’ success – people have shown that they are willing to wolf them down by the millions. (It’s a subject in its own right, the self-reinforcing phenomenon of the contemporary mega-seller; by which I mean not just the garden variety bestseller but the book or books which go to that mysterious other place in the popular consciousness, when it’s as if reading them has somehow been made compulsory.) This surely implies that there is nothing innate to fantasy which puts people off reading it. But there does appear to be something off-putting about fantasy as an idea. The fact that people are willing to read fantasy novels in practice emphasises the parallel fact that, most of the time, they aren’t willing to read them in principle. They’re only willing to read the freak mega-sellers: fantasy itself is off limits to large sections of the general reading public.

When you ask people why they don’t read fantasy, they usually say something along the lines of, ‘because elves don’t exist’. This makes no sense as an objection. Huge swathes of imaginative literature concern things that don’t exist, and as it happens, things that don’t exist feature particularly prominently in the English literary tradition. We’re very good at things that don’t exist. … And yet it’s perfectly normal for widely literate general readers to admit that they read no fantasy at all. I know, because I often ask. It’s as if there is some mysterious fantasy-reading switch that in many people is set to ‘off’.

Lanchester then discusses the novels in the Song of Ice and Fire cycle and the Game of Thrones universe:

There are five novels in the series so far; at the moment the projected length of the full cycle is seven books, but the work has already stretched from its initial design of five books to seven, so further stretching feels possible. Martin has said that his ambition was to create an imaginary world with the atmosphere of the Wars of the Roses. A small number of aristocratic families are contending for power on the kingdom of Westeros…

The books tell this story by hopping about from person to person across the wide geography of Westeros and beyond, with the point of view moving around a large rep company of principal characters, most of them, most of the time, afraid for their lives. The Wars of the Roses, in this reimagining, are – as they surely were in real life – a blood-soaked, treacherous, unstable world, saturated in political rivalries, in which nobody is safe. The violence in this milieu is not Tolkienian sword-fighting between warriors and orcs: it is long on murder of the innocent, poisoning and rape. It’s not a world any sane person would want to live in, not for a moment; which is another respect in which it manages to resemble the real Middle Ages.

This sense of unsafety and instability is at the heart of the books. …

Please do read the whole thing.

Image Credits: (1) Carcassonne, France. Photo by Robert King, July 2012, and used under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0 license. Source: Flickr. (2) Minčeta Tower, Dubrovnik, Croatia. Photo by “Romanceor,” August 2007, and used under a Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Dubrovnik was the location for filming many of the King’s Landing scenes in Game of Thrones.


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