I read a lot of fantasy novels. I am in no way some sort of expert critic on the subject, but I am passionate about my favorites, and I can at least check off that I have read a series over 15 books long. One series in particular that I am passionate about is the Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin. Ring any bells? The series title might not, but its first book, A Game of Thrones, will surely pique your interests.
Just this past Sunday, HBO presented its premiere episode of Game of Thrones, the television show based on George R. R. Martin’s long-lived series of books, to ravenous fans across the world. One thing you might not realize is that those fans (many of us at least) were ravenous long before the official announcement of the show. So far, the Song of Ice and Fire contains four books: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, and A Feast for Crows. If you take a peek at the Wikipedia entry for this legendary, critically-acclaimed series, you will see that, in fact, seven books are listed (the remaining three being A Dance with Dragons, The Winds of Winter, and A Dream of Spring). You may also notice the publishing dates for the first four books: 1996, 1998, 2000, and 2005. The span between books has only grown longer with each subsequent book.
Back to the ravenous fans, perhaps now you begin to see why these book lovers have been so riled up? You don’t? Perhaps the note at the end of book 4 stating that book 5 will be hitting shelves only months later will add some colour to the picture. No? Surely an announcement in 2008 claiming that book 5 would finally see the light of day at the end of that year will make things more clear. In short, this series has had its fair share of controversy, some of which I will touch on later.
“But Aaron, it’s just a book, why so worried?”
The way that Martin writes his stories is somewhat reminiscent of a Guy Ritchie movie. He switches back and forth between main characters (of which there are many), sometimes leaving you guessing about your favorite character for several hundred pages. This style eventually became such a strong theme throughout the books that, when A Feast for Crows released and spent 900+ pages without mentioning some very prominent characters, fans were irked to say the least. Then to wait over 5 years for the second half of a story we have already read (which now has an official shelf date of July 2011)… it has been a long, painful wait. I spent 500 words on this back story because knowing some of these facts is important to my outlook, and the outlook of many others who have read the book, on the show.
My first concern going into the show (then and now) was the simple fact that these are truly epic books. They are not for the beginning fantasy reader. In fact, I can list at least 10 friends who have picked up the series because I personally have ranted and raved about it, only to give up after barely finishing A Game of Thrones (some not even halfway through). They are long, complicated books with lots of details and plenty of big words. Truthfully, there are long parts that many have called “boring”. So my first concern, with so many people I know personally who have failed to make the jouney through Westeros with the Starks and Lannisters: how would they make this a successful show without a) altering plot points to cut out the boring parts, or b) taking liberties with the story and leaving out favorite parts. My only answer: I trust George. The first episode did lack a few specifics, but overall, I was pleasantly surprised when even memorable dialogue made it in, word for word.
My next concern comes from the actual writing format, as previously discussed. How would this story maintain good continuity on the screen with so much jumping back and forth? I suppose Guy Ritchie can do it, right? Unfortunately, Ritchie isn’t directing… (how awesome would that be). With just one episode down, it is a little hard to tell how they will eventually handle this without completely changing sections of the book to alter timelines and show multiple occurrences at once. Already there are hints of exactly that happening. I watched the episode with my wife, who is not a fantasy novel fan like myself, and I found myself having to pause to explain who different people were as the story blew past them without so much as an uttering of a name. This brings up my next concern.
I had heard that each season of the series was going to be one book (not sure if that is true or not). I find it hard to believe that HBO would limit themselves to a finite number of series at the very start of a show, but stranger things have happened. The worry for me here is pretty basic: these books are long. Even as fantasy novels go (which are traditionally a little longer than many other genres), A Song of Ice and Fire is a LONG series. To say that a single season is going to cover a whole book just seems like quite a bit to me. Just from watching the first episode, you should be able to tell a few things that might highlight why this is a concern.
Firstly, there are a ton of characters in this story. Secondly, there are several important geographic locations that are important to the series. Lastly, you will have to figure out what the hell a wildling is and just what “kind” of fantasy land you have entered upon deciding to try a stay at Westeros. Like I said, I watched this with my wife (who probably represents the massive pool of HBO viewers more so than I do), and I spent quite a bit of time explaining places and people that the show did a poor job of introducing. For example, where do the Starks live? In fact, who are the Starks and what is their significance to the land of Westeros? What is the Nightwatch and The Wall? Where did those two weird blonde kids and those Conan-looking people come from, and what in the world did they have to do with anything? Who is this John Aaron guy? In the books, I would tell you to finish the first book, and then you would know. If you have to wait an entire season to understand even a 10th of the nuances, references, and foreshadowing that I appreciated in the first episode; you, the casual viewer, might get a little bored and irritated. Then I lose my new favorite show.
The final concern is one that has already begun to show its ugly head. This series has several themes that were more acceptable in medieval or more primitive times. Let me just say this: if you had a problem watching the way women are treated in the first several seasons of Mad Men, then you might want to take a deep breath before diving in to Game of Thrones. There is incest in the very first episode, murder, bigotry, rape of a minor, and more. This series is not for the faint of heart and HBO has already made it clear with the first episode that they will not be shying away from some of those aforementioned topics. This issue has been discussed by many leading up to the show’s premiere and I think HBO just gave everyone an answer… just be prepared. If you had issues with the first episode, there is more to come.
So the question remains, what did I think? Frankly, I thought it was pretty good. Not amazing, not the best thing ever, just pretty good. I think that the only reason I am refusing to lose my mind over the show is because I don’t want to have to get upset and act surprised when they change some major plot point. It’s going to happen super fans, count on it.
From the perspective of someone entering this show with no prior knowledge, I think it looks to be a pretty good show. There was good action and suspense. The acting was fantastic (that’s from the objective viewer as well as the book lover) and the Stark children are cast perfectly. I love that the show is staying away from any real A-listers (sorry Sean). For me, part of the allure of fantasy novels is that it taps into a piece of my imagination and allows me to really just run crazy. Thus far, Westeros is just how I pictured it. I would say that anyone would be well served to give this show a try. I remain cautiously optimistic.
A final note on the books…
A Song of Ice and Fire is indeed my favorite fantasy series of all time. The characters are fantastic and the story is riveting (most of the time). Never before have I gasped aloud while reading a book — several times. If the television show can capture just a small percentage of the magic of the series, I think we are all in for a treat.