‘Game of Thrones’ returns to TV screens this week. Here is writer James A. Tucker to discuss the books, series and what should happen next.
Thanks for being involved, James!
James A. Tucker on ‘Game of Thrones’.
Observe your reaction when I say the following words:
Game of Thrones.
It probably runs through a spectrum. A person not unconnected with this blog suffers constant attempts by her boyfriend to make her read the book or watch the TV series, and hence associates it with annoyance. Some of my friends go into rapture; music starts playing in their heads and their eyes take on what Peter Dinklage, the biggest star of Thrones, calls the “Nerd Glaze”. Others feel deep disquiet and worry at the cruelty and sexism you will find therein. There are people like me who sometimes would rather the TV series had never happened. There are rabid fans who troll the author online for not writing fast enough.
All this rich pageant of humanity is worthy of notice, but for me, the most interesting ones are those who like it despite themselves. Grace Dent, The Independent critic, once wrote one of the most scathing (and funny) slaggings-off of fantasy fiction and fans that I have ever read. However, she likes Thrones. Other watchers you might not expect are Sue Perkins and Clive James, who broke his rule about never having anything to do with dragons.
Those beasts do not appear for a while; there are no elves, hobbits or orcs, little supernatural, and the only dwarf is the kind we know from real life. This is reassuring for those who have trouble with such things. Although being a scientist and a nitpicker, I still see plenty of magic around in things such as the hundred-metre high ice wall.
It takes more than an absence to make something popular; so instead of those fantastical elements, it draws upon real-world history. The various atrocities, treacheries, villainies and iniquities are strongly reminiscent of the Wars of the Roses, or ancient Rome. A certain notorious wedding was based upon real events from Scottish history (The Black Dinner/Glencoe Massacre).
There are some good characters, including superb love-to-hate villains, although very few are black and white; a man who threw a child off a tower in episode 1 is now commonly regarded as sympathetic. But for my money, George RR Martin’s achievement is to do danger superlatively well. No matter someone is in their character arc, no matter how popular or infamous, it seems that anyone can die at the drop of a hat—and they do. Instead of suspending disbelief about protagonists surviving, you feel genuine fear turning the page. I might even lay bets that the world does not get saved in the end.
If anyone is safe, it is the dwarf Tyrion Lannister. Peter Dinklage now receives top billing and probably has the best acting role for a dwarf in TV history. It tackles the way his character has been disadvantaged without being defined by it. He is flawed but admired; he drinks, he fights and schemes, loves or hates his relatives, whores but falls in love. Not to mention getting some of the funniest lines. But perhaps the best part is that it seems to have led on to genuinely height-blind casting with X-Men: Days of Future Past. Dinklage probably deserves some bigger height-blind awards than he already has.
But while we’re on the subject of PC… oh dear. Gratuitous titillation is a common affliction, but that doesn’t excuse it. There may be a fair amount of sex in the books, but the series has added to it and filmed it in HD with unrealistically beautiful and well-lit actresses. For extra sleaze they “method cast” porn stars as sex workers. No doubt the production company has made cynical calculations over how many viewers will be pulled in versus how many will be alienated.
More disturbingly, the TV added two rapes. Fantasy site “The Mary Sue” withdrew from Thrones; GRRM defended it, saying that to portray a medieval society or war without sexual violence used as a weapon would be dishonest. A Scissor Sister took the producers to task.
Why has this caused more disturbance than other horrible fates? While few liked the extended torture and castration of a male character, it did not lead to boycott calls. My best theory is that in real western-world life, misogyny and sexual abuse are far more common than being executed with molten gold, or having your skull crushed by an eight-foot knight. Yes, non-sexual violence is real and there are debates to be had about its depiction, but people are more worried that viewers might be influenced to sexually assault someone than to murder and torture.
Which is not to say that people do not leave the books and series because of its grimness; many have. However, I have quit other authors and series because I thought they were being dark for the sake of it, and I have not done so yet with Thrones; it seems in-keeping with the setting and does not break the story.
Should it simply have remained as books? The TV series has changed the public name (the books were “A Song of Ice and Fire”), altered characters and plots, and now it has overtaken the author. The smug sense I had of knowing roughly what was coming next, and the safety of being braced for the next horrible death, is now history.
By his own admission, GRRM is more of a “gardener” author, plotting as he goes along. However, he now has to plan to the end and tell the TV series what happens, and let them fill in the details. I can feel for his plight; I doubt he anticipated the TV rights being used before the series was complete, or ever imagined it would get this big.
Or he could let them finish it themselves, then write a completely different version. This has happened before with a Japanese manga called Full Metal Alchemist, where a second TV series was made with the book’s ending. But with a plot as vast and complicated as GoT, you might wind up needing two brains.
So… a well-regarded series amongst fantasy readers has now become a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut. In the process, it has opened minds, set records for internet piracy, been visited by the Queen and joked about by the US President, made stars, annoyed, shocked, courted controversy, and broken a few moulds. Love it or hate it, the Thrones explosion has changed things…
James A Tucker
Thanks to Martyn P Jackson for suggestions and comments