Monday, July 20, 2015

Why I'm Changing from Song of Ice and Fire to Game of Thrones (Probably)

My answer when anybody asks if I watch Game of Thrones has been the full-blown snobbish one – I'm literate, why would I watch the show? But it's not wrong. I read A Game of Thrones years ago, back when there was no talk of a TV show, when a TV show would have seemed like a silly joke. But I'd read George R.R. Martin off and on since I was a teenager, mainly the short stories and early novels (Fevre Dream isn't just the best vampire book I've ever read, it's just one of the best period). Maybe I shouldn't have been entirely surprised at A Game of Thrones but it had the epic sweep of high fantasy (though notably was possibly magic-free despite much character talk) combined with the complexity of medieval/Renaissance politics and a pretty grim but fairly believable view of human character.  And it was dense with description, incident, people. A TV show could be worthwhile in its own right but would invariably be a reduction.

So at some point I started The Clash of Kings, got a few chapters in, then misplaced the book. I never felt like buying another copy but when I found it again recently the time seemed right to continue the series. And whatever I saw in the first book now felt diluted in a flood of material in the second. There's so much background – kings and village histories and myths and why castles were built and ravens and what's being eaten at every single meal and on and on. And so many characters doing so many things for so many reasons, many apparently irrelevant. At some point even the actual stories became confused and exactly who was fighting who seemed unclear. Sure I could go back (or more plausibly online) and figure this out but signposting is the novelist's job. To make it worse even big fans of the books say the fourth and fifth wander quite a bit. Clearly like so many other SFF writers Martin was too enamored of his created world to control appropriately what he was doing This isn't even getting to the very real possibility that Martin won't live to finish the series – at the moment despite rumors of next year there's no publication date for the next book, not to mention talk that it may go even to an eighth book.

So this started to seem not worth the trouble. If I'm putting this much into such complicated stories clearly it's much better for them to be about the Habsburgs or Caesars or Stuarts, something that matters beyond the particular book they're in. Dan Jones' book on the Plantagenets has four pages of genealogical tables, a fifth of what's in The Clash of Kings (though Jones does have many more maps). It's not that the history is “real” so much as what's in the novel starts to feel like Martin is just dumping notes and drafts into the work. I think one of the great losses in modern literary fiction is how much description has been stripped from it, part of a general shift towards plainness and simplicity that worked for Chekhov and Joyce but not many others. But The Clash of Kings goes too far in the other direction – Martin has a remarkable control over his prose, everything else not so much.  The actual Wars of the Roses were confusing but a series of novels shouldn't be.

Which is why I started thinking differently about the TV show. Much of the excess would have to be removed (gone I hope at least some of the many rapes that occur so frequently they seem less an indication of the setting's brutality and more like something pathological in the author) and with any luck the show wouldn't have gone too far towards the just-the-story approach taught by modern screenwriting manuals. (Robert McKee should never be read though though he's really just a symptom of how money people make decisions – teaching to the test so to speak.)  In short, for this case the story is interesting enough that I want to continue but I don't see enough value in the vast mass of material in the novels to go that route.  This starts to get into the question of why read or watch at all but that's for another time.

So why the “probably” about changing? It's because I haven't seen any of Game of Thrones yet and my experience with so many highly praised recent shows is that they're really not that good, somewhat entertaining at best. I wouldn't be surprised, and even half-expect, to get a few episodes into Game of Thrones and discover that it's somewhat leaden with Hollywood-screenwriter characterization and perfunctory dialogue, all jerked around by arbitrary story needs. The problem with nearly every American TV show is the amount of padding needed to fit the production schedule but with Game of Thrones I hope that isn't an issue due to the compression of the novels. But who knows?  Maybe I'll end up discovering the show is tedious, the books increasingly unreadable and I'm left reading Wikipedia synopses like a caveman.