Tits! Swords! Edginess!

(Editor’s note: Erik’s praise for “Game of Thrones” drew me out of semi-retirement. Bear with me)

One of the problems with easing constraints on a creative medium is that creators are inevitably tempted to prove their boundary-pushing bona fides. Cable television has been widely hailed as this decade’s dominant cultural force, but I can think of more than a few television shows that indulge in graphic nudity or violence for no apparent reason beyond validating their status as “edgy” or “adult” fare.* On the other end of the spectrum, some of the best shows of the era were remarkably restrained in their portrayal of shocking or otherwise unpleasant events. For a show about crime, corruption, and urban decay, I was surprised by how (comparatively) little violence actually appeared on-screen in “The Wire,” one of the most critically-acclaimed series of its era.**

George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire was a fun read (though I admit I stalled out somewhere in the middle of the third volume), but the books suffer from many of the same flaws as the over-cooked cable dramas of the mid-aughts. Upending an entire genre is no easy feat, and at times I felt that Martin was trying too hard to distance his work from traditional fantasy conventions. His approach to distinguishing A Song of Ice and Fire from its fantasy precursors – Tolkien and his legion of imitators, mainly*** – is straightforward enough: inject as much sex, violence, and political intrigue into the books as possible and call it realism. This makes for a fun read, but it’s a trick that rapidly numbs the audience to traumatic events that should shake us to our very core. It also has the effect of making Martin seem more interested in pushing the boundaries of the genre or layering on another level of baroque political intrigue than developing characters or advancing the books’ central storylines.

The HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones amplifies these problems. Presumably in an effort to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, the show anxiously distances itself from the genre’s negative connotations by indulging in needlessly crude expositions (the violence is coming, I’m sure, as soon as the plot permits). How many naked prostitutes does a character need to hire out for the audience to gauge his sexual appetites? How many times must King Robert enunciate some variant of “fook” or reference his enthusiastic wenching and drinking for the casual fan to grasp his essential character? Not only does this come off as gratuitous and unnecessary, it also belittles the viewers’ intelligence: Gracefully hinting at a character’s moral failings is always more effective than bludgeoning us over the head with them repeatedly.

I enjoyed a few of Martin’s books, and I’m hopeful the series will get better (I’m also glossing over many of its admittedly impressive features, from the cast to some truly magnificent set pieces. On the other hand, a few of the helmets looked really dumb). But any creator should be mindful of confusing adult fare with a surplus of sex, violence, and bad language. In a quasi-medieval kingdom largely characterized by its byzantine social conventions, a bit more subtlety and misdirection would be particularly welcome.

* “Oz” and “Nip/Tuck” immediately come to mind.

** When describing the series to a friend, it occurred to me that that the original season gets you totally invested in a police surveillance detail. The relative monotony of those first few episodes really adds weight to the shooting and subsequent manhunt at the end of season one.

*** No one would accuse Tolkien of a slavish devotion to realism, but I feel obliged to defend him from accusations of fantasy neoconservatism. The Lord of the Rings includes plenty of meditations on the corrupting influence of power, from the example of Saruman to the tempting of Gandalf and Galadriel. This is hardly the stuff of a simplistic, black-and-white worldview. Frodo and Sam’s encounter with the Haradrim – agents of Sauron who possess moral agency and have been victimized by political circumstances beyond their control – also point to the books’ underlying complexities.

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39 thoughts on “Tits! Swords! Edginess!

  1. As I just commented on the other thread, completely agree re: Tolkien.

    Re: Martin, well, maybe. I’ll agree that the aspect of Martin’s books I like least is his tendency towards prurience and some mean-spirited debauchery. He’s certainly imaginative in coming up with cruel experiences for his characters to endure.

    At the same time, this aspect of his writing gets seriously overstated. There are over 3,000 pages in A Song of Ice and Fire, but I’d be surprised if the total pages of sex scenes amounted to even 50. Similarly, while there’s quite a bit of violence, it is generally described economically. Political intrigue- well yeah, there’s a lot of that, but if you don’t enjoy it I’d suggest these books are not for you.

    Where you underestimate him is in regards to character and plot. Martin is as good with character as anyone in the fantasy genre, and most others. And he puts Tolkien, most of whose characters are ciphers, completely to shame. By the end of the fourth book, almost all of the major characters have gone through very believable – if often subtly effected – changes, and no one is quite who you thought they were at the outset. And while his plot veers all over the place, the central thread remains remarkably tight through the first three books at least.

    Incidentally, if you didn’t get through the third book – you’re missing out. While it takes a while to build up, the last 600 pages or so are as riveting as any I’ve read.

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    • This seems exactly right to me. In trying to explain some of what I think Game of Thrones is about to my girlfriend last night, I was reflecting on the fact that Martin’s central characters are all broken in some way (with the possible exception of Daenerys, who is a weird character for many reasons). And in many/most/all(?) cases, it is the brokenness that inspires whatever heroic qualities may be on offer in Martin’s bleak world. One of the most compelling characters in the whole series is an outright villain for a good portion of it, until you (and he) realize that we’ve been looking at the world through a shaded lens.

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    • To be clear, my criticism was mainly directed at HBO’s adaptation, which seems to be self-consciously positioning itself as an “edgy, adult” alternative to traditional fantasy. Martin’s books share some of the those flaws, but to a much lesser extent.

      As for the books themselves, I’m not altogether sure why I didn’t love them. Part of it may have to do with his writing style. Part of it is summed up in this old post from Alan Jacobs (the comments are also worth reading):

      http://theamericanscene.com/2009/05/11/a-farewell-to-malazan

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      • Haven’t seen the HBO show just yet, but let me comment about the Jacobs piece.

        I tend to agree that most modern sci-fi and fantasy authors don’t really seem to have a concept of the good life they’re interested in sharing. The ones that do, like Banks, are the more interesting for it. But I think that Martin may stand out a bit there, though clearly not as well as Tolkien, as he does seem to be coming towards something like it in the later books. Daenerys seems to be developing something like a theory of justice, and one can see indications that what’s going on in Westeros is setting us up to buy into that. It’s getting more interesting.

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      • I think HBO’s production is somewhat incoherent on that front. Clearly the network wants a bunch of sex and violence in there for marketing reasons, as with all of their non-Simon dramas. Yet it’s also clear even on a first viewing that the producers are going along out of obligation. (Spoiler) Their sympathies, for instance, are clearly with Dany during the various abuses she endures early on; they even took steps to more clearly show her wedding night as rape. (/Spoiler).

        I think if the show is financially successful, it will probably become somewhat more humane and non-salacious in the seasons to come. Within limitations of the source material, of course.

        As for Jacob’s essay, feh. I think Tolkien is a wonderful world builder and wrote a fine yarn. But I don’t think he has anything more to say about “the good life” than Martin does. In fact, it’s abundantly clear that in Martin’s world a life in which “art and friendship may flourish” is also ideal – it’s just a lot harder to come by. Which arguably makes it even more valuable.

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        • Incidentally, Martin gives his own take on the morality of his books in <a href="http://tunedin.blogs.time.com/2011/04/18/grrm-interview-part-2-fantasy-and-history/&quot;)this very fine interview. Money quote:

          Yeah, I’ve always been attracted to grey characters. I’ve always taken it as a code William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech from the early ‘50’s, where he said that the human heart in conflict with the self was the only thing worth writing about. And I think that’s true…The battle between good and evil is a theme of much of fantasy. But I think the battle between good and evil is thought largely within the individual human heart, by the decisions that we make. It’s not like evil dresses up in black clothing and you know, they’re really ugly. These are some of the things that Tolkien did; he made them work fabulously, but in the hands of his imitators, they become total clichés.

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  2. The other genre convention that Martin subverts is the primacy of magic over reality. Aragorn is a hero who restores a lost kingdom and defeats the massed forces of evil, but none of that would help unless the magic macguffin got melted. In most of what happens in Westeros, on the other hand, magic is irrelevant. Martin doesn’t go quite as far in this direction as Chip Delany, though, whose Neveryona books are Sword and Sorcery without any sorcery.

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  3. I think I’m generally accepting of salacious material, but I’ve grown sort of tired of the need to show a character’s suffering through graphic violence and their dissipation through gratuituous sex. It just seems too obvious and lazy. This was sort of the problem I had with the Passion of the Christ- it seemed like salacious gore where a better director would have brought home the suffering in less hamfistedly obvious ways. I did like Apocalypto though.

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  4. What I wonder about Martin’s series is…

    Where did the Ice Zombies go? The ones from the first freakin’ chapter who appeared, were all scary, and then disappeared for the next three thousand pages?

    I mean, if it took five books to get through the political maneuvering leading up to the Zombie Apocalypse, then Jesus, this is going to be another Chung Kuo!

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  5. I watched Game of Thrones a bit, and I was actually surprised you didn’t mention the foul language in Deadwood for comparison purposes. Both shows try so hard to beat the viewer over the head with the fact that they are for adults for adults for adults that even a small amount of reflection fosters the realization that they are quite oviously for men between 20 and 35. As a man between 20 and 35, I’d feel uncomfortable watching either show with someone not of that demographic.

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