Why I’ll be watching HBO’s adaptation of A Game of Thrones (and why you should, too!)

This would be the trailer that finally filled me with sufficient squee for blogging:

I guess there’s two questions, here: Why HBO, and why A Game of Thrones? The first is easy, but better explained with reference to the second, so I’ll leave it to last. So:

Why A Game of Thrones?

A Game of Thrones is the first book in a series by George R R Martin called A Song of Ice and Fire. A very long series, and one that isn’t finished yet. Some fans are annoyed about this, but it’s an emotion I’ve never quite understood. But then, my first and longest book obsession was Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, which took 26 years to complete. I’m used to waiting. I actually quite like it.

But don’t get me wrong, I understand why someone might be impatient and champing on the bit to get the latest issue, I just don’t get the anger and entitlement some fans seem to feel about this series. The entitlement that led Neil Gaiman to respond: ‘George R R Martin is not your bitch‘; thus spawning the awesome John Anealio song titled after the rant.

I understand the passion, though, and here’s why:

1. It’s a really cool setting. Yes, yes, it’s a fantasy version of the wars of the roses, and making your world an alternate Britain is not new. But I like this one a lot. And it’s not just a fantasy Britain. It’s a world where seasons last years, and winter is so long that it’s a whole new kind of deadly. If you don’t stock up on food when the weather is mild, you’re really in trouble. There’s something that almost feels SF about this: what if there was a world where the seasons lasted for years? Reminds me of Nightfall, although I never did finish reading that one.

And yet, on the fantasy hand, there’s the Wall. A vast structure of ice, defended by the Watch. The Wall marks the border between the Seven Kingdoms and the frozen lands to the north, inhabited by the ghostly and feared Others.

2. The politics. I wish I could write politics like this. I like writing books with a lot of characters to juggle who inter-relate in interesting ways, but it takes real skill to juggle political intrigue on such a vast scale in a way that doesn’t abstract from the up-close-and-personal grit of the bloody, cunning, carefully planned, stupid, accidental, and tragic acts that make it up. George R R Martin is truly a master of this, and one of the ways you can tell is that you really need to step back and think to realise how clever it all is. For me, that’s the real way to tell a masterpiece: it was such a good story that you didn’t even have to notice how well-crafted it was to get sucked in.

3. Relatedly: the violence. I once got a puzzled look from someone who had read and liked these books because I said I loved how realistic they were. I think he was making the mistake of thinking that a fantasy novel can’t be realistic simply because it is fantasy. But A Game of Thrones is realistic, especially in the brutality and starkness of the violence. I have no clue if the descriptions of armour and tourneys and whathaveyou in any way reflects genuine medieval practices (if you know, please enlighten me!) but the descriptions of the violence are grim and convincing and gripping.

4. The way the above are woven together. Amidst the violence and grabs for power and personal tragedies there’s the ominous shadow of the North, and the fact that Winter Is Coming. In the game of thrones, the warring houses forget about the Others, the Wall, and winter. And slowly, slowly one is brought to feel the stupidity and futility of these violent struggles in the face of the more terrible danger that is coming. I imagine a million different analogies could be drawn, here. Perhaps: our own wars and petty squabbles in the face of climate change. But I think there’s a broader point about games of power and how they distract us from what’s really important in our lives, whether on the large or the small scale. The sheer violence of the case in point underlines how horrible that can be if you ever stop and think about what matters, and what you’ve been doing instead of doing what matters.

5. The characters. This man can write a character. Oh boy, can he. And a character progression. If you had told me I would grow to like Jaime Lannister when I first opened these books I would have been severely sceptical. If you’d told me he would have become one of my favourite characters, and one of the ones for which I had most sympathy, I would have laughed in your face. But it’s true. Martin wove an incredible about face in my emotions, in part by revealing more of the character and that character’s past, and in part by growing the character. Masterfully done.

And then there are the Starks. The Starks are sort of Our Heroes (although in a tarnished sort of way, and they’re certainly not the sole protagonists). Ned Stark is about as noble and moral as you can get. His family is rich and interesting. They maintain a moral core even when divided, physically and by personal differences. It is their strength and their weakness. This is a book that looks at good and bad from all sides. Sometimes the best thing to do is not what one would think was categorically right, and yet, it is not purely and simply a critique of absolutist morality. A Game of Thrones provides no answers. I like that.

But it’s not all perfect. There are two significant defects.

The first is that it takes an age to get going. Martin is building a vast and interesting world, and this slows the pace considerably at the start. I was persuaded to keep going by the friend who leant me the first book. I’m grateful to him for that. If I’d just picked it up off the shelf or the library, I probably would have given up, but it is worth it.

The second is the female nudity. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have no problem with nekkidness, or women getting nekkid, but it’s pretty comical how it’s represented at times. You can play ‘Count the number of women who conveniently forget that they are naked’. One of them is Lady Stark. I hate to break it to you, fellas, but I’ve never once forgotten that I was naked. It’s not just an excuse for cheap titillation, it’s so ridiculous it throws me out of my immersion every time. There’s also the ‘How convenient, in this foreign land we will show how different the customs are by having one of them be wandering around with one boob hanging out’. Again, customs of nakedness and toplessness can be done plausibly (See Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Fate and Ellianna’s coming of age ceremony for how this can be done well), but in Martin it simply doesn’t wash for me. I’m not against a little voyeurism, but if it’s simply for its own sake it only detracts (unless you’re writing porn).

That said, many of the sex scenes (and there are quite a few) are well written and relevant to the plot. All in all these are minor defects that mar an otherwise excellent work – nothing that stops me waiting anxiously for the next instalment.

So, that’s why A Game of Thrones. Why HBO?

A much shorter answer. If you’ve seen Rome you know what HBO can do with gritty realism in violence and a rich historical(ish) setting with deep and interesting characters and convoluted politics. I mourned the end of Rome precisely up to the point that I heard they were doing A Game of Thrones. Seeing what they could do with fantasy in True Blood was simply icing on the cake. I trust these people with characters, with setting, with realism, and with fantasy.

The trailers so far have been pretty uninformative. I was perhaps the only person on the Internet not thrilled to hear that Sean Bean was playing Ned Stark. With all the respect in the world, I just think he’s wrong for the part. Too grizzled and too gruff, if the trailers and stubble are any evidence. But the trailer I’ve linked to above is much more promising. A lot of the characters (the little we see of them) look right. I’m particularly keen to see what they do with Tyrion Lannister – one of the most interesting of a very interesting bunch. Even if he is too young and good-looking by half. And they have the feel right. They have the throne room right. And they have the throne of swords completely right, too.

I’m psyched. I think it’s going to be great. If you haven’t read the books, well, of course I recommend reading them first, but I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t make it very far into the first one. If you don’t get on with the books, I suspect trying the series first instead might help them to grow on you.

And yes, I’m going to stick my neck out there and say that on the scanty evidence of a few cryptic trailers and my knowledge that HBO is in charge. That’s how good I feel about it right now. If I’m wrong, I guess I get to blog loudly about it later.

6 thoughts on “Why I’ll be watching HBO’s adaptation of A Game of Thrones (and why you should, too!)

  1. I’m actually going to introduce myself to the series right around the time the series comes and draw a parallel between the book and the TV series. Not sure the quality of the work I will do, but I expect it to be fun.

    • Interesting! I look forward to reading your comparison. As the book is slow going at first, I suspect the TV Show may be initially more captivating, but so much happens once it does get doing, I find myself wondering how they will handle it. Will they be doing a book a season? Less? More? It is just going to be the first book? One suspects not (why abandon the cash cow it’s almost certain to be?), but I’m curious!

      • I think it will be a book a season, the same way they are doing True Blood. I will buy the second book just in case they do mash more than one books. I think that they will take it slow, because I think this will be a lucrative project and will wrack in more cash, if it stays longer on air.

        • I suspect you’re right.

          I wasn’t sure if that was what they were doing with True Blood, as I hadn’t read the books, and (after I loved the series) I was warned off them. But it makes sense.

  2. I have started reading the book now and Its very confusing…I just want to read it fully before the series starts.I feel that I can get even more understanding of the series if I do follow the series after reading the book!!

    • Reading a book first is always valuable, but sometimes I’ve found seeing a series first helps get me in the mindset. For my shame, I couldn’t get into Pride and Prejudice until I watched the BBC version, now I love the book as well as the adaptation. If you are going for it, though, don’t worry, it does pick up, and is well worth it!

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