GAME OF THRONES…When TV is Richer than Books [On The Contrary]
Some people were just born in the wrong time. Maybe it’s because I’m getting old now, but I look at these high school nerds today and they don’t know how good they have it. The mainstream has entirely embraced their culture. Superheroes and fantasy adventure, once the lowest of the low, is now embraced by all, especially Hollywood, which spends top dollar on translating books I once felt subtle shame reading publicly into high budget tent pole blockbusters. And now there’s even a legitimate political movement to curb the bullying, once the ultimate Darwinian equalizer in the social order of young people. We are truly in the Golden Age of the Nerd. Oh to be young and nerdy again.
Case and point, one of the best shows on television right now, GAME OF THRONES, is not only amazingly well produced, acted, and written, it also follows faithfully the fantasy adventure novels of George R.R. Martin. And it’s POPULAR! This isn’t some niche show that airs late night on Fridays. This is a multi-million dollar production that is arguably HBO’s flagship show, and now it occupies the Sunday night time slot once tended by THE SOPRANOS. This is fantasy taken seriously.
The show is epic in scope, but the complexity of its plot and social dynamics, as well as the richness of its characters reminds me of nothing so much as a medieval fantasy version of THE WIRE. It’s got intrigue, violence, intelligence, magic and monsters (although they are never the focus), larger and more substantial roles for women than is common in the genre, and if that wasn’t enough, a surprising amount of gratuitous nudity and “sexual situations.” There really is something for everyone.
Spurred by the fantastic first season that aired last spring (and a Kindle that seemed hungry for more books), I dove into the source material for the show—Martin’s series of novels, which he calls “A Song Of Ice and Fire.” In retrospect, I’m sure he wishes he would have called the series “Game of Thrones” (the title of only the first novel and now the HBO series) since it’s what everyone calls the books anyway. Martin’s books are dauntingly long, but not difficult reading, and the first season of the series ends on such a cliffhanger that you want to know immediately what will happen next.
Reading the books after watching the series, however, had a surprising and counterintuitive effect. Normally you would think that going to the book would reveal an even richer and more detailed experience than any filmed version could bring. Look at the HUNGER GAMES right now—the movie is fine, but can’t compare to the emotional resonance that the beautifully written book brings. Not so with Martin’s novels. It must be said, he is a fantastic story spinner, and constructs wonderful characters, but while there is certainly more detail in the books and more “stuff happens,” the material rings much more hollow than the emotionally complex experience of watching the show. Reading the books reminded me of reading an exceptionally long and incredibly precise Wikipedia article.
Part of this could be because Martin insists on changing the point of view of the story from chapter to chapter, and introduces so many characters that it becomes impossible to keep up with all of them. On television you have the benefit of a face and a voice to help remember each character rather than remembering hundreds of invented fantasy names.
Martin seems to be very enamored of his world, which is fine for the author, but an expensive television show with only ten episodes to each of its seasons has to be more economical in its storytelling, so scenes are forced to do a lot more. In trying to get all the information across while also developing characters, working in wit and humor, and finding ways to both build and subvert audience expectations, the show has taken all of the good stuff from Martin’s books and made the story equivalent of a super food.
Who knows how long the series GAME OF THRONES can keep up its run? There is an immense amount of material still to cover from the novels, and things only get more complex as it goes on. It will take years to put it all to film, and the Golden Age of the Nerd could run its course and flame out before the story is complete. For the time being, though, we nerds are spoiled to have an incredible group of filmmakers and actors taking a good nerdy property that 20 years ago would be consigned to the page or at best B movies and turning it into truly great television.
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