(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.