The Armchair Madcap

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When You Read “A Game of Thrones,” You Either Win, Or You… Well, Win.

For those of you who have somehow remained unaware of the multi-media blockbuster that is George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, let me ask you a question: where is this rock you’re living under, and is it comfy in there?

All joking aside, the popularity of this series has exploded in the past few months, thanks in large part to the HBO adaptation of the series’ first novel, A Game of Thrones. In fact, I owe HBO for introducing me to the books, since it was their early advertisements that got me interested in the first place. The season finale will be airing on Sunday – more on my opinions of it as a whole later.

To begin, however: I love these books.

I’d marry them if I didn’t think that would be taking the definition of “bibliophile” just a little too far.

Having been an English major for the past four years, I’ve been reading book after book after book that I thought was okay, or which captured my attention only marginally, if at all. Reading A Game of Thrones over this past Christmas break was the first time in a long time I’ve been able to completely throw myself into a book and enjoy every minute of it.

The real power of the book is its characters: every single one is a nuanced, living, breathing person, complete with believable motives and relationships that change and evolve over time. Every side character has the potential to become important; every main character is under real duress and at the whims of real peril. This is a story with teeth, and nothing is sacred.

Which is to say the story is violent and sexual, and it isn’t pulling any punches. This is by no means a child’s fantasy book. Eviscerations, beheadings, humongous battles, sex, incest, rape – they’re all over this series, and they serve to emphasize just how cheap life really was in the middle ages. Martin seems to be asking his readers: if death came easy in the dark ages of our own world, how much more easily would it come in a world that has magic and dragons?

The books are definitely marketed as fantasy fare, but even by the end of the fourth (and most recently published) installment, the fantasy elements are sprinkled throughout very conservatively. There are dragons, yes, but only a very small number; there’s a vague, magical threat to the north, but it’s true powers are only beginning to be witnessed; there are a couple of characters who could earn the title of “witch,” but their magical abilities are mostly overshadowed by grandstanding and myth. This is a series that takes great care to craft a believable world on top of which magic and mythology can be overlaid, rather than relying on that same sorcery to shore up a shaky foundation.

The political machinations of Martin’s characters are the delight of the first novel, and people should give the series a read just to see how Martin deftly handles a gigantic roster of people, each with their own ambitions and fears. In fact, Martin has the habit of adding three or four (or more) new major characters per novel, so there’s no fear of ever getting tired of the same old, same old. This is especially important because death comes calling for major characters just as often as it comes calling for the peons, making everything feel that much more intense.

Pictured: the average size of a George R.R. Martin cast.

Honestly, I recommend these books to anyone, not just established fantasy fanatics. If you like reading at all, you should check out these books. If you like writing, you should read them just to see a writer very much in control of every pen-stroke. If you love fantasy… Well, you’ve probably already read them and need no prodding from me.

When it comes to the television adaptation, I like the HBO series well enough, but I think it falls leagues and leagues behind the quality of the novels. This is mostly due to time constraints, I should think. After all, it’s impossible to adequately condense almost a thousand pages of well-crafted prose into twelve episodes. Something is going to be left out, and in my opinion, what’s been left out of HBO’s Game of Thrones is mostly character development.

In the books, characters’ motives are properly crafted and explained where necessary. In the show, we just kind of have to take the actor’s words for it. It’s led to some interesting misunderstandings from the television-only crowd, such as the idea that Ned Stark – arguably the first book’s main character – is 99% honor and 1% common sense. It’s led to an amusing (and slightly spoiler-ific) meme called “Stupid Ned Stark.”

“Surely they were plotting against someone else with my exact name!”

And he really is kind of a complete idiot about political maneuverings. In the book, though, it’s explained that Ned was the second son, raised to be a soldier rather than a lord, into whom the notions of honor and chivalry were drilled before all else. It was his brother who was raised for political intrigue; Ned is just dealing with circumstances as best he can, for better or for worse.

It’s this complexity of character that is missing from HBO’s adaptation. On the positive side, the scenery is lush where needed and barren where appropriate; the special effects leave a little something to be desired, but they’re passable; and they’ve chosen actors that suit each character well. In fact, I think Peter Dinklage, who plays the sarcastic Tyrion Lannister, has jumped up my favorite actors list about tenfold. Maisie Williams, the child actress responsible for bringing Arya Stark to life, does a wonderful job capturing the capriciousness of her character, and I look forward to seeing how she handles the additional challenges of the second season. I also like staring at Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who isn’t given much to do as Jamie Lannister other than be snarky and look pretty.

And brood. How could I forget the beautiful brooding?

I’ve never found myself turned off by HBO’s Game of Thrones, so that’s decent praise from me in the first place. I’ve watched every episode, and I’m going to keep watching. But more importantly than that, I’m going to keep reading A Song of Ice and Fire. Every. Last. Word.

2 comments on “When You Read “A Game of Thrones,” You Either Win, Or You… Well, Win.

  1. Pingback: The Vast Rewards of a Thriving Fan-Fiction Community (And Why It’s Not All About the Porn) « The Armchair Madcap

  2. Pingback: Moogles, Magic, and Muramasa Blades: the Armchair Madcap Conquers February « The Armchair Madcap

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This entry was posted on June 17, 2011 by in Fantasy, Literature and tagged , , , , .

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