Adam Serwer of The American Prospect has a great post looking at the coming HBO series, A Game of Thrones, based on the fantasy novel series by George R.R. Martin. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a really impressive take on the epic fantasy genre. I’ve read the first two books – A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings – of the seven book series (only four of the seven books have been published) and am part way through the third book, A Storm of Swords. Anyway, I wanted to highlight Serwer’s post, which gets at why one should be excited about the coming HBO series.
One of the producers jokingly described it as “The Sopranos in Middle Earth,” but I actually think it’s more like “The Wire in Middle Earth.” After reading the first two books of Martin’s series, I’m very much looking forward to HBO’s adaptation.
Most fantasy writing takes the term literally, painting an alternative universe readers might prefer to dwell in, hence the ab-flex male protagonists and their female companions in armored bikinis. Martin offers no such comfort. The world he creates resembles less a world of magic than a world in which magic has ceased to exist. The lives of the poor are full of toil and famine, the lives of nobles are naught but blood and iron. Honor is suicide, while treachery offers a small hope for survival. Undefeated warriors die from minor wounds becoming infected, cowards quietly flee fields of battle with their lives and honor intact. Martin’s world is populated by some obvious Shakespearean analogues and fantasy archetypes, but the latter ultimately end up subverting type in ways that prove interesting beyond simply defying expectations. Everyone loves Legolas. But what if a child caught Legolas sleeping with his sister and he decided to toss the kid off a cliff to keep him quiet? And so on.
Like The Wire, the impulse to pick heroes and villains gives way to despair over the dumb, arbitrary cruelty of the system all the characters remain subject to. One’s talent for working the system is more important than commitments to abstract principles, and characters who adhere to society’s rules aren’t necessarily good, and those who reject those values altogether aren’t necessarily evil.
Martin has created a bleak fantasy world where there are monstrous deeds and few actual monsters, which is to say, one enough like our own that few of us would want to actually live in it.
The thing that really grabbed me in the first book, A Game of Thrones, was that Martin constructed a world built upon a clear set of moral rules. It is a coherent system that Martin doesn’t take time mucking up after he sets its physics in motion. One of the things that turns me off from a lot of fiction, particularly epic fiction, is the reliance of deus ex machina to preserve heroic rewards. In A Game of Thrones Martin takes no pains to use his authorial powers to save characters from the world they exist in. Heroes die. Villains win. Justice does not prevail. I can’t think of another contemporary author, excepting maybe Brett Easton Ellis, who so pointedly refuses to make everything alright regardless of the trajectory they’ve set their characters on.
Martin continues to preserve his hermetic system in A Clash of Kings, though I do think he slips in a couple points and adds his own power into the system he’d created. I’m not sure how realistic it is in his world for a 10 year old girl to kill grown men and seize castles, while master warlords fall to substantially lesser foes. Martin achieves some of his authorial power through adding more characters and dimensions to his universe, so it’s not entirely fair to blame him for working outside the system entirely, but mostly for changing it in ways that allow what might otherwise be seen as unrealistic or unpredictable. I’m being pretty hard on Martin, but that’s only because I was so impressed by the first volume of his series.
One of the things that I most look forward to with HBO’s interpretation of A Game of Thrones is how they handle the presentation of information. Martin shifts perspective often, with each chapter told from a different character’s perspective. Much of the perspectives that Martin shares with readers are through a character’s internal monologue. Deductions are made, theories are tested, and emotions are hidden. So much of Martin’s books are about the political decisions they must make, which range from palace intrigue to military strategy. Presenting this aspect of A Game of Thrones will be particularly challenging, though I think if Serwer’s analogy to The Wire holds, then HBO will succeed in presenting complexity and depth in such a way to as to garner a dedicated following that includes me.