A Game of Thrones review


I’ve been enjoying Game of Thrones on HBO, but once upon a time, before the show premiered, I’d initially been interested in reading the novels.  Recently I met someone who was holding off on watching the show until after she read the books, so we decided to start the first book in the series together.  Luckily for me, it’s now been a few years since I watched the first season of GoT, and my memory of it is a bit fuzzy, so my experience with the book wasn’t entirely just a recreation of the show.  That can often be a problem if you watch an adaptation first with a strong vision behind it, and it’s the reason I just read Gone Girl and am currently reading Inherent Vice— two novels with film adaptations coming out in the next few weeks/months where the books themselves are supposed to be very well-written and worthy of one’s time.  While it’s true that sometimes reading a book first can lead to disappointment with an adaptation, watching an adaptation first can deprive you of ever being able to have your own experience with the source material… particularly if the adaptation is a strong one.

But there are some differences in the novel A Game of Thrones that helped me to set it apart somewhat from the series.  Tyrion and Arya are physically described very differently from Peter Dinklage and Maisie Williams.  Tyrion has blonde hair and mismatched, differently-colored eyes, and waddles when he walks significantly more than Dinklage as a result of somewhat misshapen legs.  Arya is described as horse-faced and gangly-limbed, and made me think of a younger, pre-teen version of Sarah Jessica Parker or the girl who played Millie on Freaks and Geeks.  And while I love both actors on the show, the differences in description helped me get away from them a bit to have my own experience with the characters.  But there is much between the novel and show that is spot-on identical, and it’s a huge testament to the show that they were able to create so much of the world so faithfully and successfully.

What really made reading the book after having seen the show worthwhile, however, was the sheer amount of information in the books.  And while it’s not like I ever felt that I was getting a huge download of information about the various extended families in the form of blocky exposition, the fact of the matter is that there is a lot of information that just can’t be communicated within the show.  George R.R. Martin does a really stellar job of working that information into the telling of the story, so that it feels smoothly communicated and doesn’t require huge pauses in the plot or storytelling, but it’s information that couldn’t be communicated in a visual medium without stopping everything to sit down and explain.  The result was that, while reading the books, I understood the relationships between characters much more deeply.  For instance, while watching Game of Thrones, I’m not sure I ever knew that Stephen Dillane, who plays Stannis Baratheon, was Robert’s brother.  I was aware that he was in a different part of the world, slowly building his own army and political forces and collaborating with dark witch Melisandre (Carice van Houten), but the backstory and relationships, and consequently the motivations and possible consequences of his actions, were somewhat lost on me.  Perhaps, in the back of my mind, I did know he was his brother on some level, but I certainly didn’t understand the nature of their relationship or the political nuances of what was happening.  There’s also quite a bit about Robert Arryn, the previous Hand of the King killed prior to the beginning of the series, and his family’s subsequent retreat to the Ayrie, that was lost on me while watching the show.  This was, I think, particularly true during the first season when I, as a viewer, wasn’t familiar with the world or its characters.  I’d have to go back and rewatch that season to see if the information was there and it was just lost to me because I had nothing to attach it to, or if it simply was left unexplained and would automatically be lost to all viewrs.  And while these particular details could have easily been made more clear with more exposition, it’s a constant throughout because of the enormous cast of characters and their intricate web of relationships with one another.  If the show were to take the time to make everything clear, it would literally be an hour each episode of exposition.  It’s some kind of writing miracle that Martin is able to so easily and succinctly communicate all of it in the novel, but he does– yet the written word is predisposed to the ability to do this in a way that visual media is not.

Consequently I found my experience with the world of A Game of Thrones and its characters significantly opened and enriched.  I’m assuming that at some point I will go back and rewatch the show from the beginning, and I’m certain I’ll get even more out of it now as a result of having read the books, as I plan to continue with the other novels in the A Song of Ice and Fire series.  All of  which is to say that I would definitely recommend the books to fans of the show, and rather than being a redundant experience, believe it will also complement and expand your involvement with the Game of Thrones universe as well.

One area that I felt was handled much better in the novel was the character of Jon Snow.  I don’t think Kit Harington is necessarily a bad actor, but he’s very one-note and certainly doesn’t have the kind of charisma that Jon Snow has in the books.  There’s a decent amount of time spent with Snow in the first novel, and I felt much closer to the character and had a deeper understanding of him. That’s also true of the geography of the world and the way all of the storylines interconnect with each other.  Often watching the show the different storylines feel like they’re happening in different, remote parts of the world.  While that may be the case, Martin’s writing frames everything and places it in relationship with each other, so that you have both an understand of where everything is happening physically in relation to each other, and also how the various characters’ actions will immediately alter the delicate balance between everything.

As for the writing itself, Martin is in top form with this series.  The first book is a definite page-turner, no small feat with a page count of about 750.  I’ve already mentioned Martin’s ability to communicate so much expositional information without it ever feeling like walls of text.  And the characters are all complex and forever changing, which I think is probably the greatest hallmark of the series and the reason it’s been so successful in all of its forms.  It’s not enough that Martin has crafted a compelling story (or web of stories), nor that he’s chosen a fantasy setting and richly illustrated the world; he’s also created an enormous, complicated cast of characters that are as fascinating and nuanced as you’d experience in contemporary fiction.  Martin doesn’t simply create archetypes and then let them sit and do the work for him and occasionally play off of them, he’s forever developing and humanizing them and probing deeper into them.  Yet all the while he still maintains a strong storyteller’s voice that allows his fiction to feel like it draws from a world fables and legends, and never becomes adrift or meandering or searching in its own telling.

I’m never one to spoil plot, so I won’t reveal any story details here. And in this case, with the property so in the public consciousness, I don’t feel much of a need to summarize plot or even paint a picture of the world of the novels.  It’s fantasy, both high and low but more low… and it’s some of the best writing being published today and perhaps the best fantasy to ever be published.  Beyond that, what do you need to know?  It’s about life and death, love and friendship, honor and responsibility, morality and faith, courage and fear, soul-searching and purpose.  It’s about everything we experience, told through the prism of this fantasy world via compelling plots, sometimes with surprising twists, and very three-dimensional, human characters, whose strengths and weaknesses sometimes come from the same places.  The language is full and prosaic but never dense and impenetrable, everything interwoven by a master of his craft.

I do wonder if the book would have been even more effective for me if I hadn’t already seen the show and known what was coming. And in some ways, I was waiting to see how certain plot points or story progressions would work in written form.  Martin never disappointed, and reading the book was always a pure joy, even when horrible or bleak things were happening.  Yet I have to assume it would have been even more powerful if I didn’t know what was coming and wasn’t ostensibly waiting for it.  I’m definitely looking forward to catching up to the show and hopefully eventually outpacing it, so that the last several books in the series will be my first experience with their content, and I can experience what that’s like with Martin’s writing.  It’s so strong, it deserves it.



Published in: on September 17, 2014 at 3:09 pm  Comments (2)  
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Mid-2014 Re-Launch

It’s been two and a half years since I posted a blog, and I disappeared in mid-Top Ten list.  There were a variety of personal reasons, from the break-up of a seven-year relationship that I’d poured my heart and soul into, to the diagnosis of my sister with a terminal illness.  It all just got to be too much, and I found myself without the desire to write about movies.  In fact, for a time, I really stopped going to the movies.  Which if you know me, is saying quite a lot.  I’m the person who was called “the movie guy” by friends in high school, and ran the organization that programmed my college’s film schedule.  I don’t think I have the kind of following at the moment to warrant going into an expansive detailing of my personal problems, but a brief explanation does seem necessary for whoever might have been waiting for, or curious about, those last two write-ups in my Top Ten of 2011.

At this point, I don’t really feel like going back and writing full reviews of those last two films from 2011.  Also, the films aren’t as fresh in my mind anymore.  If there were requests, as is always the case, I’d be happy to do it.  But for now, I think the mention of the titles should suffice.  So… drum roll, please… the titles of my top two of 2011 were The Help (#2) and The Artist (#1).  The Help was pretty much everything I want from a Hollywood drama, and the kind we rarely seem to get any more.  Great writing, great performances, with an important subject matter.  It definitely saddens me that super-hero films have taken over the landscape to the point where indie movies need to have A-list names to get wide theatrical distribution, and solid, meaningful dramas are few and far between.  I was excited to see The Artist from the first time I saw a trailer, perhaps six months prior to release, when I thought I’d probably be the only one who’d enjoy it.  As a huge cinephile, I loved the way it charted a course though some of the history of film, and commented on the shift from the silent era to talkies while also telling a very specific fable-like love story of its own.  It was a perfect gem of a film, and I was really elated to see it find a larger audience and win the Academy Award.

There are certainly criticisms to be made of either film: I’ve seen some say that The Artist is overly simple and not complex enough, and I’ve also read comments about how The Help essentially whitewashed its story by the narrator, and supposed hero, being a young, white woman.  I’d argue both points.  I don’t think a film like The Artist needs to be complex; in fact, the whole point of it was to tell a very specific, simple fairy tale-like story.  In my mind, it stands next to the best of Chaplin and Keaton, while not trying to compete with the kind of physical comedy that made those films great.  As for The Help, the narrator being Emma Stone’s Skeeter Phelan simply read to me as an honest depiction of the times and a necessary convention.  Viola Davis’ Aibileen Clark and Octavia Spencer’s Minnie Jackson were not weakened for me because of Skeeter’s inclusion, and I can’t think of a way that their story would have otherwise gotten to the upper-class whites and created a similar change.  But Skeeter was never the hero of the film to me, and I don’t think there was an agenda of the film to make her into one.  She was a catalyst character.  When I think of The Help, I think of Davis and Spencer and their strength and the racist, weak-minded whites that were so slow to change and required dissenting voices from within.  If the film had simply followed the black maids and not had a Skeeter Phelan in it, it would be a much different film.  We’d see the day-to-day of the their lives, and perhaps that story would be even bleaker and more naturalistic.  But there wouldn’t be a way for those lives to change. If you wanted to see a documentary about those times, obviously any big Hollywood movie isn’t going to scratch that itch, and this movie is not that film.  Often, real change takes generations and a slow erosion of prejudices over a long period of time; and that’s not always the stuff of a two-hour Hollywood movie.  What The Help did do was give us powerful performances across the board and put it all into the public consciousness, starting a larger conversation at a time when prejudice of all kinds, including racism, is still rampant in many parts of the country and the world.  The film jettisoned working actor Viola Davis onto the much-deserved A-list and proved that Tate Taylor could handle a large cast and direct an ensemble to career-best work.

Changing the topic and looking forward, I’m planning to start writing on this site again.  I’m hoping to do at least a few entries a week, and the posts will likely also include television, books, and video games as well as films.  Right now I’m really enjoying The Leftovers and The Bridge, reading A Game of Thrones (the first book in the A Song of Fire and Ice series) and Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, and playing Far Cry 2 and the point and click adventure A New Beginning.  I’d like to do smaller reviews for something I have an opinion on, like the fact that I’m enjoying Far Cry 2 now several years after the fact even though it has improvements that could be made, and likely have been, in the sequels.  But my video game list is long, and I’m spending some time now trying to catch back up with old stuff.  I also plan on soon playing the first two Medal of Honor games that were released for the original Playstation.  And I’d like to do longer reviews for something like Halt and Catch Fire, something that I’m experiencing along with the zeitgeist, at a time when opinions about it are very fractured.

I’ve also put up a Paypal button on the sidebar to the right.  I’d love to be able to work on this site and do several entries a day, but for that to happen I’d need to be making my primary income here. I don’t expect that to happen, but if it does take off over time as I’m able to write when I can, perhaps I’ll eventually be able to increase the amount of time I spend here.  For the time being, I’m also venturing into the world of self-publishing, and that may need to receive the lion’s share of my time, at least for now, for purely financial reasons.  But I do expect to be posting here again more regularly, and I hope you’ll join the mailing list and add your voices to the comments sections.

Oh, and finally, it looks like I’ll be attending TIFF for a few days in September.  Unfortunately, I’m only going to be able to catch 2/7 of the films I really want to see, since I’ll be there during the week and I don’t have any premium tickets.  So I won’t be seeing The Drop, Manglehorn, Nightcrawler, Top Five, or While We’re Young.  And because of simultaneous showings, I also probably won’t be able to make Wild or 99 Homes.  I’m also disappointed that Birdman won’t be playing the festival.  And since I’m attending with my mother and we’re attending screenings together, the midnight showing of REC 4 is probably also out.

But I am hoping to see Foxcatcher, Whiplash, and The Imitation Game.  I may also be seeing The Equalizer and The Keeping Room, or we may opt for Red Amnesia or A Second Chance.  I’ll post a final list once I’ve made my selections in a week or two, and you can expect to see write-ups for most of those in September.


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