Why I Love and Hate Game of Thrones

First edition cover, Bantam 1996

The world has changed in many ways over course of the now almost twenty years of the twenty-first century, but one development that I probably wouldn’t have predicted back in the year 2000 is the worldwide popularity of Game of Thrones, an HBO television show based on an epic saga of fantasy novels with the absurdly nerdy title of A Song of Ice and Fire, about a War of the Roses stye dynastic squabble on the fictional but very obviously Britain-like continent of Westeros, told through a gradually expanding cast of POV characters and overall attempting to subvert conventional fantasy tropes by presenting a darker narrative in which the heroes rarely win and the villains end up being far more interesting than their moral counterparts. I first came across A Song of Ice and Fire in 2005, when I was a junior in high school, just after the fourth book in the series had come out. I was an avid reader of epic high fantasy then, everything from classics like Lord of the Rings and Wheel of Time to somewhat more obscure titles like Malazan Book of the Fallen. At that time, George R. R. Martin’s series fit squarely in the latter category, books I’d only heard about because I’d scoured internet forums looking for fantasy novel recommendations. To my high school self, then, the book series always felt like a secret, a world I’d discovered and that few friends of mine knew about, and so I never imagined that the characters I grew up loving, Littlefinger and Varys and Arya and Jaime, would one day become household names, spoke with reverence by both nerd and bro alike.

The truth is I have very mixed feelings about the popularity of Game of Thrones. On the one hand it feels like a vindication, knowing that many of those people from high school and college who scoffed at me when I tried to explain to them the political complexities of Martin’s world (“No, there are seven kingdoms but only one Iron Throne.”) or the brilliant way Book Three’s various plot threads came together are now eagerly awaiting each new spring Sunday, stirred just as I am by that epic theme music. But on the other hand, I can’t help but feel that the things I actually loved about the books — the intricate worldbuilding, the complex characters, most importantly the expansiveness in the way George R. R. Martin wrote each new novel — are features that the television show has completely flattened. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the show’s creators, don’t at all appear interested in what makes the novels compelling but instead seem like two Hollywood bros who’ve stumbled into something bigger than they first realized and are now looking to cash in on our culture’s macabre taste, stripping away all narrative complexity for cheap “who’s going to die” tension. They clearly have no interest in the way Martin sought to subvert traditional fantasy tropes and have instead given us a very traditional heroic narrative, with Jon and Dany as our uncomplicated “good guys.” Worst of all, they’ve completely eliminated what I think is the book series’ singular element: the way each novel broadens our cast of point of view characters and thus expands our vision of the world of Westeros.

Book One of Martin’s series, the one actually titled A Game of Thrones (though with that crucial article “a,” which adds so much and feels so necessary), begins with what seems to be a traditional fantasy novel point of view structure: there is a good family from whose perspective the novel is largely told, with a noble but stubborn patriarch, his capable wife, and their various children, among them a little boy who loses his innocence, two girls with completely opposite personalities (one a tomboy, one more “ladylike”), and a bastard with secret parentage and heroic ambitions. We also get a few other POVs to round out our good characters, including the one decent member of the realm’s evil family, ostracized because of a physical defect, and a princess from the old regime who’s been sold off to a group of Mongol-like “savages” on a different continent by her evil and controlling brother. Told like this, there’s nothing particularly subversive-sounding about this narrative, and to be honest, most of the first novel reads like a straightforward good and evil story, with Ned Stark as our “noble-man-in-a-nest-of-vipers” trying to establish some order and moral authority. But what was compelling about this first book was the subtle way you felt Martin was making fun of his moral protagonist — because Eddard Stark was in the end far less interesting than all the schemers he encountered in Kings Landing: Varys the Spider, Cersei Lannister the evil queen, Renly the flamboyant and ambitious younger brother, even Grand Maester Pycelle with all his pedantry. All of them came across as more dynamic than the plodding Ned. And then of course there was Littlefinger, Petyr Baelish, clearly Martin’s favorite character, the social climber, the ambitious courtier, the Machiavellian maneuverer who’s amorality you always felt kept him one step ahead of the frustratingly moralistic Starks. You may be following Ned’s perspective, but secretly, you want Littlefinger to come out ahead. And then, as a reader, all your suspicions are proven true when the moral protagonist doesn’t prevail but instead gets beheaded for his nobility and his moral stubbornness — and suddenly you realize that the seemingly traditional fantasy you were reading was actually secretly subversive, that the reason you found Cersei and Varys and Littlefinger more compelling than poor, dull Ned was that Martin wanted you to feel that way. This was the new morality of this kind of fantasy, where being noble, both morally and literally, was not enough to make you a hero. Suddenly, it’s not Ned or Jon or Catelyn who we love, but Arya, the one Stark who seems to get it.

One problem with the show, though, is that television as a medium can’t achieve this kind of subversion in the same way a novel can. In a visual medium, the good guys are clearly good because they look more heroic and because they’re played by actors we love, like Sean Bean, while the morally ambiguous characters are played by plump British men we’ve never heard of, or by that creepy politician from The Wire. The contrast between Littlefinger in the books versus Littlefinger in the show is the most obvious example of the moral flattening that happens with a visual medium — in the books, despite never having a POV chapter, Littlefinger is a dynamic character with charm, intelligence, and sophistication, a villain sure, but an interesting one who we want to spend time with. In the show, though, he comes across as a creepy, lecherous, leering pimp. Part of this is the fault of the writers, who amped up the sex by making the whorehouse his primary setting rather than the palace council chambers where we mostly encounter him in the book, but part of it is also the fault of the actor, who plays him as one dimensionally as possible, a few beard strokes away from being Jafar. Meanwhile, Sean Bean, as misguided as his character is, plays good old Ned with that mix of moral pathos and self-righteous anger that we can’t help but root for all the way to his untimely end. Thus, even though first season is by far the show’s best, it’s already failing to capture the books’ central ethos.

It’s really the second book, though, A Clash of Kings, in which Martin’s expansive vision comes through. In a traditional fantasy, we might expect the sequel to follow the fallen patriarch’s children as they plot to take revenge. But instead, the primary protagonist of Book Two is Tyrion, who’s now been accepted by his family, the Lannisters, and given a position of power. New point of view characters, meanwhile, include other enemies of the Starks, such as Theon Greyjoy, Ned’s resentful ward who wants his own family to achieve glory, and Davos Seaworth, who may be a good person but who’s loyal to Stannis, the cold and ruthless figure with his own ambitions for the throne. And gradually, reading Book Two, you realize that it’s the Lannisters, the villains from Book One, who have become the novel’s “good guys” — in the conflict between them and Stannis, we readers find ourselves rooting for them, choosing their greed and moral relativism over Stannis’s cold ambition. What kind of fantasy novel could achieve something like this? The villains of the first book, the ones who we thoroughly hated, have suddenly become the heroes. The show, to its credit, manages to hold to this point of view and gives us a season in which we sympathize not just with Tyrion, but even to some extent his father Tywin.

With Book Three, A Storm of Swords, the expansiveness of Martin’s vision only continues, as we’re now given the POV of Jaime Lannister, the major villain from Book One. Here, the show falters a bit, as it’s already humanized Jaime in its early seasons, thus failing to achieve what I feel is one of the book series’ major coups — getting us to sympathize with someone we absolutely hated. I remember reading this book in high school and feeling shocked at how sympathetic Jaime had suddenly become and then realizing that this was something Martin purposefully achieved through his brilliant structure — and it made me understand exactly how effective great writing could be, to so completely manipulate an audience’s emotion as he did with my own.

It’s with Book Four, though, A Feast for Cows, that I feel Martin outdoes himself. This is a controversial opinion, I know, and even many book fans find this fourth volume tedious. But I would argue that Martin admirably sticks to his expansive principles and makes sure that this new book gives us new POVs that complicate our understanding of the series’ central dynastic conflict. Beyond just the Lannisters and the Starks, we’re now given the perspectives of Brienne, who’s been just a small supporting character thus far, several more members the Greyjoy family, the Martell princess of Dorne, and most importantly Cersei Lannister, humanizing a character who’s been cartoonishly evil for so much of the prior novels. Additionally, large sections of this book feature Jaime and Brienne wandering through the Riverlands, giving us a view of part of Westeros we haven’t yet seen in such great detail. It’s a bold and controversial choice to stray so far from the Starks, and I had many friends grow tried of reading about Jaime having dinner with yet another minor aristocrat, but it reminds readers that this story Martin has created is far more expansive than just one noble family’s quest for revenge. By forcing us into these perspectives of families and characters who’ve up till now been on the periphery, Martin is emphatically subverting what we expect a traditional fantasy narrative to be.

Sadly, the show never seems to understand this, and it’s at this point that it begins to deviate drastically from Martin’s vision. We barely get the Greyjoy or Dornish perspectives, and Jaime and Brienne’s journey in the Riverlands is heavily truncated, reduced to a small subplot. Worst of all, Cersei remains a cartoonish villain and we’re never moved to sympathize with her the way the books make us do. Some think pieces do their best to read against the grain, but it’s clear the show has a disdain for Cersei and will never allow her the complexity it gives to someone like Jaime, or that Martin gives to all his characters.

Book Five, then, A Dance with Dragons, came out in 2011, the same year the show’s first episode aired, and it was clearly the strangest of the Martin’s books. Committed to his vision of consistently expanding POV chapters, this fifth volume includes POVs from Barristan Selmy, until now only a minor character in Dany’s service, more Greyjoys, fewer Starks, and two whole new subplots, first with a former hand of the King that gives us new insight into Westerosi history, and second from another Dornish prince, Quentyn Martell, who seeks out Dany’s hand in marriage, a narrative that reads as a parody of traditional fantasy quests. And then it all ends with Jon Snow getting killed by his Night’s Watch brethren — only unlike the show, it’s not at all obvious that he will be resurrected, or, if he is, that he will be the same in any way. It’s such a bold vision that as readers you can’t help but appreciate it, Martin telling us that what we think we want from a narrative isn’t actually what we want: we think we want more Starks, we think we want more closure, we think we want the narrative threads to come together, but actually, we want EXPANSIVENESS, we want this world we’ve fallen in love with to keep getting bigger and bigger, we want more complexity and more characters and more POVs, we want this story that we keep having to flip to the maps at the front of the book for and the character charts in the back for to fully understand to keep going going going — we don’t actually want Dany to come to Westeros, we don’t actually want her and Jon to fuck, we don’t actually want them to rule the kingdoms together, because that would mean it’s all ending, and in a devastatingly predictable way, and that this journey that we’ve loved being a part of since we were young nerds in high school is coming to an end, and in a less interesting way than we’d been led to believe.

The show, of course, by this point, has given up on Martin’s vision completely, and strips away almost all of Book Five’s subplots, giving us a very basic narrative which tries to force the disparate storylines back together, rushing to bring Tyrion to Dany and Dany to Westeros and to get her and Jon to fuck. But this is where the show’s failure become most evident — it believes that the narrative is still just about the Starks. It believes Jon and Dany are the heroes, and all the side characters are just filler, and that the question of who ends up on the Iron Throne actually matters. It completely misunderstands why George R. R. Martin chose to write A Song of Ice and Fire in the first place, and takes a subversive fantasy series and makes it frustratingly mainstream. No scene makes this clearer than Jon and Dany’s sex scene, overlaid with Sam’s voiceover pronouncing Jon the heir to the Iron Throne. Any good book reader knew this, of course, that R+L=J, as the forums succinctly put it, and you didn’t even have to be some obsessive fan to pick up on the clues — but the show acts like it’s some earth-shattering revelation and worst of all, acts like it actually matters. For five books Martin has worked to dismantle our concept of legitimacy, to question the whole idea of nobility and honor and whether it even makes sense that one person can inherit the right to rule over such a territory — and in one scene, the show’s writers undermine all of it and demonstrate that they understood none of what Martin was doing and that their vision of legitimacy is underneath everything utterly conservative, that they actually believe there should be a rightful heir to the throne, and that we the viewers should also believe this and cheer at the cheesy sight of Jon and Dany fucking and feel relieved that all this bloodshed will soon come to an end, because the good guys are together now, and they also happen to be the rightful heirs, and so everything can be put back together again. What an awful misunderstanding of everything the books have been trying to do. George R. R. Martin must have puked in his mouth.

The one solace that I can take from the fact that the show has become so bad is that Martin’s books can still make things right again. The last book, Dance with Dragons, came out July 12, 2011. The show premiered earlier that same year, April 17. I don’t think it’s an accident that for as long as the show has been on, Martin has been unable to finish his next book. How could he, with the pressure of this adaptation that every season has gotten worse and worse and drifted farther and father from his vision? And so, I like to imagine that a year or two after the show’s final episode, we’ll finally see that long-promised Book Six, The Winds of Winter. Like the previous books, I hope it’ll maintain Martin’s expansiveness, his commitment to new POVs, to challenging our idea of what this world of his is like, and I hope it’ll give us a look at a new region of the continent, just as every book before it has done. And then, ten years after that, in 2030, when Martin is eighty, I hope we’ll finally get the seventh book we deserve — I’ll be over forty by then, but I’ll still think fondly back to the high school version of me that first checked out A Game of Thrones from the library. The show will by that year be a distant memory, hopefully almost forgotten, a promising HBO product that gave in to its worse impulses and ended on a predictable and mediocre note. And then I hope to sit down, to open up that final volume with the giddiness of the high school nerd I once used to be, and lose myself one last time in Martin’s expansive world.