TV Review: A Game of Thrones (HBO)

eddard_starkI have television in my house once again – for a little while. This is because it was cheaper to hook up television service when we were hooking up cable internet than to pay the set-up fee. It was actually cheaper to get television, a DVR, and HBO for one month than to pay the set-up fee, and since HBO was premiering its new series, A Game of Thrones, how could I resist?

Readers of this blog are already aware that I am a huge fantasy dork, and entirely unrepentant in my love of all things fantastical. (When my three year old daughter told me the other day she wished she could be in a story – not just imagine but actually be in one – I totally sympathized.)

I squandered most of my life away reading fantasy and science fiction when I should have been reading Serious Works of Philosophy and Politics. This is one reason I’m so bad at being ideological, why my political writing is so incapable of becoming grounded in one of our contemporary political factions.

Anyways. George R.R. Martin’s books are among my very favorite. And not just my favorite fantasy – they are, quite literally, some of the best books I’ve ever read. I remember years ago – probably six or seven years ago – thinking that really I hope they never turn these into films. I hope HBO turns them into a series instead.

Well my prayers were answered, and last night the very first episode of Game of Thrones debuted on HBO. And it was wonderful. Now, maybe there will be Martin fanboys out there who hated it – if so, I have managed to avoid reading them at this point. But I found the first installment of the show absolutely pitch perfect. The sets, costumes, cinematography, casting, acting, pacing – all the components were exactly right – nothing in my imagination’s vision of the books was really shattered, except perhaps that the most excellent Peter Dinklage is too handsome to be the Imp.

Adam Serwer has a good piece up at The American Prospect explaining why the complexity of the stories should provide a good alternative to the more black and white moral universe of The Lord of the Rings. He frames this as more appealing to liberals whereas LOTR had a certain Manichean appeal to conservatives. I personally think that we should avoid framing either work (or most works of fiction) in such stark terms. For one thing, I can only imagine what Tolkien would think of this current crop of American conservatives.

On the other hand, Martin is an unabashed liberal, but judging from his blog he cares a good deal more about football than he does politics. So perhaps A Game of Thrones should be framed more in terms of a good football game than anything else.

Adam also points us to this condescending claptrap from New York Times writer Ginia Bellafante who writes:

The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.

Yes, because it isn’t possible that the show’s creators were actually going by the book – the sex must have been added to draw in women. Because obviously it’s only women who will want to see bare-breasted barbarian women dancing at a Dothraki wedding, or something.

Maybe girls will enjoy the show because the girls in these books are freaking awesome (we named our daughter after Arya Stark)or because, in many ways, this is a fantasy series even feminists can enjoy.

Actually, I know quite a few girls who never read fantasy at all who then devoured these books. Obviously Bellafante didn’t bother to brush up on the literature before penning her scathing review of the series. She goes on:

When the network ventures away from its instincts for real-world sociology, as it has with the vampire saga “True Blood,” things start to feel cheap, and we feel as though we have been placed in the hands of cheaters. “Game of Thrones” serves up a lot of confusion in the name of no larger or really relevant idea beyond sketchily fleshed-out notions that war is ugly, families are insidious and power is hot. If you are not averse to the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic, the series might be worth the effort. If you are nearly anyone else, you will hunger for HBO to get back to the business of languages for which we already have a dictionary.

Right. Martin’s books teach us that “power is hot”. As Adam notes:

Look, I’m a geek. I like geek stuff. Not everyone likes geek stuff.  That’s cool. But the genre of arts review I hate the most is the kind when the reviewer, not content to savage the material itself, begins to express contempt for the audience they imagine might actually like it. With the popularity of fantasy subgenres like Harry Potter and Twilight, neither of which I’m particularly fond of, this sort of review has become less common. But it’s still irritating and patronizing to the reader for the Times to publish a review in which the reviewer suggesting the audience is a bunch of loser guys in a basement tossing around 12-sided die and sharing each other’s hopes and dreams of someday getting to third base, because women couldn’t possibly like it.

Other than the bit about Harry Potter (dude, Harry Potter was awesome, at least from the third book/film on…) I’m with Adam here. Bellafante presumes to judge not just a genre, but an entire group of people. And we’re talking about a group of people that’s pretty large. Martin’s books have all been New York Times bestsellers, and fantasy – if you haven’t noticed – is only growing in popularity, both on film and on the printed page. Bellafante might be a really lovely person in real life, but in this review she comes across as an out of touch snob who won’t even deign to familiarize herself with the work she so scornfully dismisses.

What’s the point of reviewing a work from a genre that you not only loathe, but whose audience you loathe? I just don’t get it.

Expect lots more of this (both well-meaning and not) from non-fantasy-types eager to find relevance for today’s world in the new HBO series.

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43 thoughts on “TV Review: A Game of Thrones (HBO)

  1. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.

    Hrm.

    Maybe *THIS* is why girls’ toys suck.

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  2. Even better news for Martin fans is that A Dance with Dragoons is due out in July.

    And, on an even geekier note, I met GRRM at a book-signing for A Feast for Crows, and mentioned to him that I thought of Tyrion Lannister as what Miles Vorkosigan would be like if he’d been raised by wolves. He grinned evilly, and topped me with “By lions!”.

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    • Heh.

      The Vorkosigan saga is #1 on my fairly short list of “Series that I wish someone with some talent would adapt for a long-running miniseries adaptation”. I’d never made this correlation before but I have to say I can see it.

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          • I say that because the whole Robert Jordan thing is addressed rather directly and in a way that makes it hard to hear comments like that.
            It’s also a pretty good piece on superfandom itself, I recommend it regardless of one’s feelings on GRRM at all.
            http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/04/11/110411fa_fact_miller

            “One group at the party responded with head-shaking and exclamations of disgust when Martin informed them, “I’m still getting e-mail from assholes who call me lazy for not finishing the book sooner. They say, ‘You better not pull a Jordan.’ ” Robert Jordan, whose real name was James Oliver Rigney, Jr., died of amyloidosis in 2007, before the “Wheel of Time” series was finished. (Another writer, Brandon Sanderson, will finish it.) Martin said that he found such remarks particularly heartless: “I knew Jim, which is what his friends called him. He was a friend of mine.”

            “How dare he die?” a woman said, witheringly. “I mean, what an inconvenience to the fans.” ”

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            • The main knock on GRRM is that it’s so long between books (5 years between books 3 and 4, 6 between 4 and 5. And that’s with 5 effectively being the other half of 4.). The main knock on Jordan was that the books continued to come out regularly but without moving towards any conclusion. (This was often interpreted as milking his cash cow for as long as possible. That might be untrue, but it’s not something only a heartless jerk might suspect.) Not really the same thing.

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              • On the other hand it took Stephen King 16 years to write books 2-4 in the Dark Tower, but 5-7 came out within another seven -heck King nearly was killed before he finished these and then banged out the las three in three years.
                I think it’s OK to gripe a bit in good fun about how disappointed you are that a series you like is taking longer to finish than you’d prefer but that’s about it. I’m disappointed Mervyn Peake died before he could finish the Gormenghast books, but I find it unseemly to take it as a personal affront.

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            • That’s perfectly fair on his part. On the other hand maybe it’d be fair if he added on his first novel in the series: “You’ll be an old man before you’ve finished the end of this series” so that some people can take that into account before beginning to read.

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  3. On the one hand, the “Ice and Fire” series is on my list of things that I really, really hope the author finishes before he dies (Zelazny’s original Amber series was on that list for some years; the second Amber series, not so much).

    OTOH, the Potter story went steadily downhill. Really, E.D., the plot turned into LoTR and became entirely predictable. After my son and I had both finished reading the sixth, I gave him a sealed envelope with a list of the major plot elements for the seventh. The only one on which there is any question as to my being correct depends on whether “Dumbledore isn’t really dead and continues to run things” counts as a match for “Dumbledore is dead but his ghost continues to run things.”

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    • Look, Potter was a seven-book series for kids that had some pretty complex characters and made some tough choices that a lot of kids books don’t make. It was entertaining and pretty well written. I had my complaints also, but overall I thought it was a wonderful series. But I’m easy to please.

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      • I’ll that I read the hp books not because I was looking to be surpassed but because I wanted to watch a boy and his friends grow to be men and women who would take the hard path when it was the right path.

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  4. I loved Song of Ice and Fire though oddly enough I loathed Arya Stark and John Snow; I was more fond of Rob, Brandon and even poor silly Sansa.
    I’d planned on avoiding the HBO series, but since you reccomend it I’ll give it a chance. Besides, maybe having an active TV show grinding up his material will put a hot fork in Martin’s ass. Then again if they’re even half way loyal to the script it’ll take them a decade to convert what’s been written so far into hour long shows.

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    • Second the recommendation. They’re doing a fabulous job (so far–1 episode in, so take that for whatever it’s worth) translating GRRM’s story into great television. Very faithful overall; any changes are a) minor, b) consistent with the characters, c) consistent with the overall story, and d) make for better storytelling in a visual medium.

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      • And Sansa is extremely irritating (up until book 4 or thereabouts once she’s grown the hell up). But then she’s basically a character from a medieval romance novel dropped into an authentically medieval setting.

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  5. So, what are the chances that someone who loves drama in general — and is especially positively disposed to HBO series, thinking that HBO and AMC is where the best pop-art has been over the past 10 years — but who isn’t a fantasy fan would like this? Just based off of episode 1.

    For whatever it’s worth in terms of outlining my taste in this regard: I’m a modest LOTR fan, love Guillermo del Toro’s films, and think Battlestar Galactica is much over-praised.

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  6. I watched it with my wife last night. I recently read the first book, she’s never read them at all.

    I enjoyed it (I’m not super enthused yet but it’s too early to form a real opinion), my wife was lost. I am not sure how well anyone who hasn’t read the books could keep up with the way the show throws everyone into the deep end right away. Major characters have their names said once or twice if you’re lucky, much less their relationships established before the plot is already moving along.
    That and that weird depiction of Khal Drogo as 60s era Star Trek Klingon on steroids kind of weirded me out.

    Bellafante’s writing on the show seems crazy to me. I love Game of Thrones because it seems to demolish a lot of fantasy genre conventions about good/evil and honor/pragmatism – good and bad ends are met by people on all sides without regard to their principles. There are fascinating women characters but they don’t get freedom from the limits of the society they live in, instead they’re constantly struggling against limits and not always succeeding.

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  7. As another fan of the books, I thought it was good. I’m withholding full judgment until I’ve seen more of it, but I agree that the cast, script, & production values are all very encouraging, and there were a number of deft visual touches that helped streamline a very complex story. I’d question some decisions, particularly with regards to the Dothraki subplot, but to be fair the problems there originate with the book itself.

    Oh, and while I liked parts of Serwer’s essay, the notion that LOTR is “strictly Manichean” only holds true if one completely overlooks its central theme.

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  8. Why can’t I enjoy scifi or fantasy anymore? I think it happened somewhere in the middle of a Robert Jordan novel, recommended by someone I respected.

    Once, when I was driving back from Louisville to Chicago, I had a bag of red Twizzlers on the seat beside me. It’s a long, straight road, 360 miles one way to my home. Before I realized it, I’d nervously munched through most of that bag. I can’t even think about a Twizzler without a faint wave of nausea.

    I’d read scifi and fantasy since I was old enough to read. LOTR shaped my life in odd ways: my handwriting resembles Tolkien’s variant of Carolingian miniscule and I’ve written with a fountain pen since I was a teenager. I eventually read linguistics and philology with people who’d studied under JRRT. But right in the middle of that Robert Jordan novel, it was as if I realized I was no longer in love with someone. I drifted into Pynchon and Vollmann,

    I still love Stanislaw Lem and a few of the cleverer oddballs from the scifi genre. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast still holds water and I re-read it every few years. I continued to read some cyberpunk but anything with a knight or a castle or a wizard stank of deus ex machina and Twizzlers. All those faux Tolkien wannabes and the pawky homiletics of Sci-Fi drove me away. I’m still in mourning, for once I loved the genres and I know I’m being unfair. But they’ve become like country music and hip-hop, inward looking genres grown stale and clichéd.

    I dunno. Where do I restart? Any suggestions?

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    • I’ve felt the same way at times. I highly recommend Ian M. Banks for science fiction. I have never been much of one for fantasy for the same reasons you detail. GRRM is the first thing in a long time I thought was worth reading.

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    • For me, I think it happened earlier in life, right around the transition from high school to college. I suddenly realized that I was interested in people that had interesting things to say, and most fantasy and sci-fi authors simply don’t.

      But there are a few that do. Banks, suggested above, does. Alastair Reynolds can, from time to time. Cordwainer Smith definitely does, though he’s sort of dead these days. Honestly though, a lot of the more interesting stuff is found in short fiction. I picked up a subscription to Analog last year, and I’m glad I did.

      As far as fantasy though… Martin comes about as close as anyone seems to. I’ve always been more into sci-fi than fantasy, mostly for that reason, I think.

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      • I’ll start in on Ian M. Banks then.

        Apropos to nothing, I’ve been writing a longish novel on pre-Islamic Yemen. Islam believes in the jinni, treacherous creatures of the fire and wind who frequently appear in the Qu’ran. It is a love story about a djinn and a human woman, a tragedy which has gotten completely away from me, a novel written as a framework around a series of stories in the style of the Thousand and One Nights. Much of the dialog is Borges-esque backwork from a fictitious early Arabic manuscript. I’m currently encapsulating the internal stories, pencilling them in Arabic, using Husain Haddawy’s translation of Muhsin Mahdi’s Arabic version of the Thousand and One Nights as a guide to this pseudoepigraph. A pedant’s novel, written to be translated into another language by a better scholar of Arabic than myself.

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          • Hmm. Interesting. Googlegoogle…. St. John Philby, huh? That is a name I know. A nasty little bigot, trained by Gertrude Bell, who we may thank for the dog’s dinner of the Iraqi borders today. Those Brrritish Arabists, genius linguists but twisted people.

            I’m stepping a lot farther back than the Islamic world, into what Arabic calls Jahiliyyah, the Period of Ignorance. I’m having to construct a proto-Islam, a feature my alpha reader (a Saudi) really enjoys.

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            • Trying to avoid spoilers here. Many of Powers’s novels are “secret histories” that show the occult struggles that are “really” behind the mundane history we read about. Declare does this with the Cold War by showing what Philby and his son Kim were really up to, and the legends of ancient Arabia feature prominently.

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    • If Robert Jordan put you off fantasy, then read Brandon Sanderson, he’s Jordan done right. The Mistborn Trilogy will blow your mind.

      For SF, I second the recommend Iain M Banks. Also try John Scalzi. Old Man’s War is basically a more sophisticated non-didactic version of Starship Troopers (and is much better because of it)

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  9. “nothing in my imagination’s vision of the books was really shattered, except perhaps that the most excellent Peter Dinklage is too handsome to be the Imp.”

    That’s exactly what I said but there was a lot of pushback centered around the argument that in the Medieval Period dwarfism itself was considered a type of ugliness but from GRRM’s description Tyrion is both ugly and a dwarf.

    Anyway, yes, Dinklage is just too charming. Even in the pilot it’s too easy to like him. In contrast, as I reread A Game of Thrones, it’s clear that the reader is supposed to learn to like Tyrion. He’s not supposed to be that appealing in any way at first glance. But the difference might be because of the constraints of telling a story in television format.

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    • I haven’t seen the show (it’ll could be years before we get it down here), but I wonder if the difference is that when reading about Tyrion your opinion of him is shaped more by how others treat him, since novels are more dialogue-driven. But in a TV show we can make up our own minds, and we don’t think dwarfism is as grotesque as medieval people did.

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