Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Before We Begin: A Full Accounting of My History with “Game of Thrones”

Before we get into an examination of how the beginning of book “A Game of Thrones” works, I thought I’d better come clean about my rocky history with the series.

To begin, let’s go back to before the TV show was made. Like a lot of people, I had that one friend who kept insisting I read the books. “But I don’t like fantasy novels much,” I’d say, at which point he’d insist that this was fantasy for non-fantasy fans, and everybody should check them out. I still resisted, and it was for a rather silly reason: I took umbrage at the “R. R.” initials. I correctly guessed that wasn’t his real name (he added the second “R”) and it seemed so presumptuous that this author who was going to posit himself as an American Tolkien had also adopted his initials. So I never read the books.

But then the show came out and people went crazy for it. I watched the pilot and decided not to continue with it because it ended with Bran being pushed out the window, and I was afraid that the show would ask us, as many HBO shows do, to sympathize more with the victimizer than the victim, which I didn’t want to do.

But people kept going crazy for it, so I went ahead and gave it another try when it came out on DVD, and I found that my fears were, at least initially, unfounded. Unlike many HBO shows, this was a show with a refreshing sense of good and evil. The show made no attempt, in that first season, to justify the Lannisters’ behavior. I had managed to avoid spoilers and I was, of course, shocked by Ned’s death, but that didn’t impact my enjoyment of the show. I admired its gutsiness and shifted my hopes for a happy ending onto Robb.

The second season I found more disturbing than the first. It did indeed seek to redeem Jamie Lannister a bit, which annoyed me. More troubling, the razing (and presumably raping) of Winterfell was played as a jokey scene. I was also beginning to sense a pattern: Ned’s mercy towards Cercei led to his death, now Robb’s mercy towards Theon led to the holocaust of his home. The show was very well made, but it was starting to seem too harsh for me.

Then came the third season. There was a storyline that stretched the entire season that consisted of nothing but Theon being tortured, episode after episode. That pushed me to the breaking point. Then I got to the Red Wedding. I could no longer deny the politics of the series: The naïve goodness of the Starks was simply there to be punished, and the sadistic savvy of the Lannisters looked good by comparison. I decided I was done with it.

But I also knew that I was addicted. I had to know what happened next, so I simply went to Wikipedia and read the in depth plot descriptions of the rest of book 3 and books 4 and 5. Now I knew what was coming (I took some comfort in the upcoming deaths of Joffrey and Tywin, but not much) so I didn’t have to watch it. Once the show moved on past book 5, I no longer knew what was happening, so I started reading occasional episode recaps to slake my curiosity. I was frequently tempted to dive back in and catch up, but the endless litany of rapes I was reading about squelched that impulse.

That brings us to this blog series. I’m looking to cover books that everybody has read, and “A Game of Thrones” was an obvious candidate. I had already watched a 10-hour adaptation of the first book, so I figured it held few surprises. In fact, I could maybe read just the first twenty pages that I marked up. So I started reading the book (listening to the audiobook, actually). As my friend had told me all those years ago, it was very well written. So well written, in fact, that I got totally sucked in.

Even though I’m not a fan of long books, I found a joy in reading this that I hadn’t felt in a while, and I never wanted it to stop. The one scene that almost stopped me was Joffrey taunting Sansa with her father’s severed head. Why was I reading something so sadistic? And why couldn’t I stop? Was I a masochist? Even when I finally got to the end, I realized that I would go through withdrawal symptoms if I stopped there. I loaded up Book 2 and started that.

But then I got to the scene where Robb sends Theon off, and that finally broke me free. Once again, Martin was about to harshly punish a Stark’s mercy, and I of course knew it would only get worse, so I stopped listening and moved on to other books. I then read more online about the rest of the book series and how they varied from the TV show.

So here we are. For the next few weeks, I’ll break down what I read and why it has such strong effects on me, both positive and negative. Sorry I can’t come to it having read every book or seen every episode, but those who have are free to call me out if I get anything wrong.


James Kennedy said...

Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, your experience with the series tracks very closely to mine.

Jesse Baruffi said...

I started with the books, but my own experience was pretty similar. I got out a little before you did, but I also had friends spoiling the series for me along the way, and every bit reassuring me that it just wasn't for me.

I had to think a little bit about why, though. I've enjoyed my share of dark stories before, and stories with anti-heroes, so what was it about this series I couldn't get into? I suppose partially it does come down partially to the way you describe it, that idealism, compassion, and mercy are consistently punished, but more than that, it just didn't feel like it was going anywhere. At the end of the first book, I was surprised, but a little excited. I assumed that all the Stark children, separated as they were, were going to show us a different aspect of the world and we'd follow them as they fought their way back together and put things right for their dad. Being wrong doesn't bother me overmuch, but as the story went, I tried to find the strand of where it was going, and I just didn't see it. It was just bad things happening to good people, and occasionally to bad people too. Hope was treated as something to be yanked away, rather than fought for. And when it seems like a story is just a bunch of stuff happening, without some logical path forward, I admit I get exhausted easily and bow out.

Matt Bird said...

Another growing annoyance I had throughout seasons two and three was that the story kept unraveling and none of it ever came back together. When I quit watching, I told book readers, "I'll start watching again when any Stark child reunites with any other Stark child." They had of course read the remaining two-and-a-half books that hadn't been adapted yet and knew that still hadn't happened (as did I, because I had read the synopses) so they would say, "Oh, then you'll be disappointed."

One of the reasons I've thought about diving back into the series is that I hear that they've finally begun to reunite. I used to joke that the show needed a British-style Christmas Special every year, where the kids would reunite, enjoy a fruitcake, and talk about everything that had happened to them, before going their separate ways again.

Eric C said...

Is a 13 year old boy picking a confirmation name really as bad as all that?

Anyway, Matt, I find it really interesting to read about how your interest in the series shifted back and forth because of the story's ability to engage conflicting with your feelings about its moral value. I'd actually like to hear a bit more about your experiences on that front, if not about this story, then about other ones in the future.

I've followed your blog for some time, and generally been very impressed with your insights, but I've always felt a disconnect with many of your posts about how the moral value of the protagonists and the events affect how we feel about them.

This is probably because the stories from my own home country have a tendency to very heavy-handedly enforce popular moral judgments through the plot, even when it would need outright magic in otherwise mundane stories. I quickly found I preferred the western tendency - at least relatively - to have events feel like they might actually happen to people in the characters' situations.

On that front, when I read GoT years ago, I felt that the story was harping more on tempering one's desires and worldview with awareness and pragmatism than on good and evil.

I never thought Ned died because he was honorable, but because his take on honor made him underestimate Cercei for being a woman - even when she basically told him to his face that she would not be taking his offer to flee, and that this would be a struggle to the death that she had every intention to win, he refused to understand what he was hearing because it conflicted with his view of her as a vulnerable mother and lowly adulteress. Renly had the right idea when he advised Ned to seize her children the same night to compel cooperation, and if Ned had listened he would have been able to secure a much better outcome for almost everyone, despite the distastefulness of taking innocent kids hostage.

Similarly, I felt that Robb made his fatal mistakes when he refused to listen to his more world wary mother, when she advised him to send anyone but Theon to deal with the Greyjoys, and keep the marriage pact with the Freys. Tywin's ultimate failure came not because he was a bad man generally, but specifically because he was a terrible father who absolutely refused to take his children as the people they were instead of shallow archetypes to force into positions he had picked for them in the family legacy.

I did eventually sputter out on the books myself, but more for reasons of the later books feeling like they were taking more words and time to say and do less - more like the unraveling you mention in your follow up comment.

Anyway, to get back on point, I'd really like to see you go into your thoughts on this sort of thing in a more in-depth way in the future, because I find it to be a fascinating look into a reaction that I don't experience but a lot of the audience obviously does, and I trust your ability to analyze explain it more than that of anyone else I've seen discuss it.

Matt Bird said...

All good points. Certainly Ned and Robb's disastrous decisions are more complex than I described them in my post, and you do a good job describing the complicated thoughts and morality that inform them. Each of these plot turns, when they happen, seem like good, compelling, thoughtful drama. It's only when I step back and look at the cumulative effect of several such plot turns that I begin to feel queasy.

Eric C said...

Honestly, that it only happens in retrospect like that just makes me hungrier to see you to try to analyze it.

There's something complicated going on in your intuition that affects your enjoyment of the work even after you've enjoyed going through the scenes themselves. You're not remotely the only one, and whatever it is, since I don't seem to experience it, I'll probably never be able to figure out what is happening and how to manage it in an audience on my own.

Alex Jeffries said...

I picked up the first book the week it came out. Reading through it made me want to take a shower (not a cold one), but I kept at it until it killed off Ned and the "child of prophecy." Tossed it in a box, where it stayed for years until I donated it to the library.

Years later, I saw how much a first edition mint copy sells for. So... I guess I showed Martin who's a great judge of writing.