Cliffs Notes: HBO’s Game of Thrones

July 19, 2011 at 2:32 am | Posted in Television | 15 Comments
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I have gotten letters over the years from readers who don’t like the sex, they say it’s “gratuitous.” I think that word gets thrown around and what it seems to mean is “I didn’t like it.” This person didn’t want to read it, so it’s gratuitous to that person. And if I’m guilty of having gratuitous sex, then I’m also guilty of having gratuitous violence, and gratuitous feasting, and gratuitous description of clothes, and gratuitous heraldry, because very little of this is necessary to advance the plot. But my philosophy is that plot advancement is not what the experience of reading fiction is about. If all we care about is advancing the plot, why read novels? We can just read Cliffs Notes. — George R. R. Martin, in an interview with The Atlantic

In the above quote Martin saved me a lot of effort by eloquently summing up his approach to A Song of Ice and Fire, though he might have mentioned that with Game of Thrones, at least, we can watch Cliffs Notes instead of just read them. Rereading the novel a few days ago took me just over twelve hours. I read fast, if not extraordinarily so, and I’m comfortable saying based on my experience that for the vast majority of people, the experience of spending ten hours or so to watch the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones will be faster and easier than reading the book. As is inevitable with this sort of adaptation, there’s quite a bit of material from the novel that doesn’t make it into the show. I’m not sure if there’s any less sex on balance, but there’s somewhat less violence and considerably less feasting, clothes, and heraldry. In fact, one might fairly accuse the show of, well, cutting out everything that doesn’t advance the plot.  Is Martin arguing here that the show is inevitably bad?

Obviously not. I don’t think it will be news to anyone reading this that HBO’s first season has been very well received by both the avid fans of the books and those completely unfamiliar with the source material. I was somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, having read the first four books of the series last year and come away with some reservations, but I found myself enjoying the show far more than I expected. So much so that, rather than read Adam Whitehead’s summaries to refresh my memory before reading A Dance With Dragons as I had originally planned, I decided to actually go back and revisit at least the novel Game of Thrones to better compare it with the show.  Having liked the show better than my first reading, I found I actually liked my second reading of the novel better than watching the show. A surprising but pleasing turn of events, except that now I have to try to explain this.

Martin provides a clue in the quote above. “If all we care about is advancing the plot, why read novels?” he asks. Well, is plot the only reason we watch television shows? As I’ve already noted, HBO’s adaptation necessarily subtracts the novel’s “gratuitous” feasting, clothes, and heraldry, leaving just the plot.  But adaptation is not merely subtractive. The show adds acting, set design, and music (to name just three of many things) to the plot it takes from the novels. Being a lavish HBO production, and what’s on screen is all the more lavish because the show saves money by omitting some things we’ve come to expect from fantasy adaptations (I’ll get to that in a second), all these are excellent. Seen in this light, my experience makes more sense. Having read the novel already helped me enjoy the show more, since it saved me from having to learn the characters in the first few episodes and dignified the smaller players with backstories the show didn’t have time to cover, and having seen the show helped me enjoy the book more, as my imagination incorporated the show’s excellent performances and visual design.

This view of two different versions of a work as mutually reinforcing, by the way, helps explain why some prefer one medium or another to be their first experience.  Over the past decade of Harry Potter films, I had friends who set out to read the books before seeing the films as well as other friends who did the precise opposite. This is partly explainable in terms of which heightening effects each preferred, though a complete explanation would also have to say something about the different forms of suspense that come from encountering a story for the first time in prose or visual media.

HBO had already greenlit the first season when I first read Game of Thrones (indeed, that was one of my reasons for doing so) and while reading it I was trying to keep a figurative eye out for particularly visual scenes. I was surprised to find the story rather lacking in this regard, and I wondered whether this would hurt the adaptation. To briefly explain what I mean by “particularly visual scene”, in the run-up to the Lord of the Rings movies there were a number of scenes I was really excited to see realized in live action, scenes like the flight to the ford and the bridge of Khazad-dum, for instance. I thought Peter Jackson did a good job with some of these moments and a disappointing or even disastrous job with others, but he never lacked for effort.  His worst failures, in fact, were usually through overdoing it.  It’s not enough that Sam joins Frodo at the end of Fellowship of the Ring, he has to almost drown trying to do it. It’s not enough that Gandalf advances on Theoden and cures him, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli have to beat up a bunch of extras while he does so.

It was these crescendos I was looking for while reading Game of Thrones, but I didn’t find them. Partly this may be explained by diminished investment: I loved Lord of the Rings, I only liked Game of Thrones. But despite my best efforts at objectivity, the only scene that struck me as one that would play with intensity on the screen was the flashback to the investment of King’s Landing, when Eddard Stark lead his men into the throne room on horseback and found Jaime Lannister on the Iron Throne. The HBO series didn’t even bother filming this scene…so much for my directorial eye! (Although, in my defense, I contend they would have shown it if the limitations of de-aging effects hadn’t made them eschew flashbacks entirely.) But given I enjoyed the series anyway, was I wrong? Peter Jackson dug up some genuinely effective dramatic moments of Lord of the Rings I hadn’t noticed in many rereads, after all. Did the show do the same for Game of Thrones?

Well, not really.  There’s a case to be made for some of the scenes that end the episodes, like Bran at the window or the final moment with Daenerys, but I would argue that the show really doesn’t have these moments. The thing is, it works just fine without them.  Hollywood in general and the Lord of the Rings movies in particular have trained me to expect that kind of heightened (detractors would say melodramatic) visual punctuation, but Game of Thrones isn’t that kind of story. The action of politics is in conversation, not epic showdowns, and (for now at least) this is a political story first and a fantasy story second. Rather than try to inject drama into scenes that didn’t previously have it, the show is confident enough to stick to a straightforward depiction in almost every case. One imagines that Peter Jackson would have filmed Jon Snow’s brief departure from the Night’s Watch as involving a five minute chase scene on horseback ending with Samwell making a horse-to-horse diving tackle of Jon, then one or both of them temporarily appearing to have died from the ensuing fall. Jamie Lannister’s swordfight with Ned Stark, which adds a bit more action at the cost of making the entire sequence of events incomprehensible, is probably the one exception. This confidence in the characters and the plot pays off handsomely, thanks in large part to the actors.

While the cadence of the show is derived from the story it’s telling, I suspect other elements from the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings visual toolbox are missing more because of budget. Swooping helicopter shots of castles and traveling groups of people, even if overused in Jackson’s trilogy, would given the sense of scale and landscape that the show’s credits sequence could not, no matter how beautiful it was. The show was also plainly unable to muster the extra or effects for large crowd shots and battle scenes, and the visual and narrative tricks used to sidestep these limitations only go so far. That said, if helicopter shots and battle scenes are the price of getting ten hours instead of the three or so we’d get from a big budget movie, that’s a bargain.

As successful as the first season is, I do have some concerns for future seasons (which I will discuss generally so as not to spoil anyone). Any time you telescope a story from the novel format (and Game of Thrones is about three times as long as the typical novel) character nuances are going to be lost. The television show’s Tyrion, for example, is something of a caricature of the novel’s. Tyrion is witty, and with relatively few lines to work with, everything that comes out of his mouth in the show must be a joke of some sort, save one or two Character Revealing Scenes. In this Tyrion gets off easy compared to Littlefinger, whose true motives in the novel are revealed slowly and in parsimonious little details, but on the show these get lost in the background, so he must completely depart from character to monologue everything about his inner self to two strangers. But far more troubling are the characters who are going to be important in the second and third seasons but who get inadequate emphasis in the first. The huge abbreviation of the Hand’s tournament means the Clegane brothers and Loras Tyrell remain ciphers, for example. Most worryingly, almost no information is provided about Jaime Lannister except his relationship with his sister. There’s no sense he’s particularly talented in combat, nor is it clear what he gave up by joining the Kingsguard. I suppose it’s really the third book where this becomes important, so there’s still time, but the story in Clash of Kings doesn’t give Jaime very much to do.

Perhaps I’m overestimating the importance of this sort of setting up, even if it’s one of the things the novel does very well. We don’t learn much more about Beric Dondarrion in the novel than we do in the television show and that wasn’t a huge problem, I suppose. Perhaps all that is just more so-called gratuitous detail from the novel, like the clothes, feasting, and heraldry. We’ll find out in a year, but in the meantime I’m off to see if A Dance With Dragons will live up to my suddenly increased expectations.


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  1. Jaime’s set up well enough. There’s actually more scenes without Cersei than with her (about three with her, plenty more sparring with Ned, or Jon, or just outside Robert’s door). Then again, Jaime’s relationship with Cersei was a cipher in the first book.

    I agree that Jaime hasn’t been “omg you are the awesome!!!11!!” fighter here… but he HAS set himself up as someone who looks/craves approval from Ned, a man whose bitterness sometimes gets in the way of him being helpful, and a reasonably sharp person, in general. Also, a huge, I am so full of myself, prick. But if NCW hadn’t pulled that last bit off, he’d have the whole character wrong.

    Theon’s been set up, if anything, a bit overmuch.

    And I agree about Littlefinger. he’s been the most spoiled of character -turned into a chatty blabbermouth.

  2. “Having liked the show better than my first reading, I found I actually liked my second reading of the novel better than watching the show.”

    Interesting. I wasn’t sure quite what your explanation is for this by the end of your column though?

    Also, I’ve never read the books or watched the series, and i’m trying to decide which to do first. Anyone have any thoughts on this? I’ve read far and wide in fantasy since devouring Tolkien at a young age, and apart from JRR, have hardly enjoyed any of it. [Magician by RE Feist seemed ok, not the rest of his books though!, Thomas Covenant was just about the worst thing i’ve ever read, etc etc – Have been more successful with historical fiction – fantasy crossovers like Taliesin Arthur Merlin series]


  3. PTD: It’s possible I would have liked the reread just as much even without having seen the show. It’s hard to explain in detail without spoilers but when you are reading Martin for the first time, it’s hard to get a grasp of where the story is going (whether this is good or bad is something of a debate). Knowing where things would go made it easier for me to appreciate how he gets there, if that makes any sense.

    As for which to do first, that’s really down to personal preference. Myself, I prefer book before TV/movie for just about anything. In this particular case, one point in favor of the book is that the huge cast is easier to cope with when you are reading their names. Obviously the stars are easy enough to track on the show, but the secondary characters are important in this story and people new to the story might (just speculating) have trouble remembering, say, the one line two episodes before that identified who they were.

    By the way, if you like Tolkien and historical fiction I’d recommend giving Guy Gavriel Kay a try if you haven’t already. My favorite of his is Lions of Al-Rassan but Tigana is also very good.

  4. This is what frustrates me about Martin. I read the first book and didn’t get caught up in it for a similar reason to your comments in your original posts: pulling the narrative rug out from under me just made me think Martin didn’t have a plan and reduced the series to a bunch of fantasy politics/narrative shocks about nothing. (I checked online about whether the sort of thing that happened at the end of GoT kept happening, found out about the RW and just decided I didn’t need to read any further.)

    And Martin’s comment about plot increases my impression that he just doesn’t get it. No one is arguing that the books should only consist of plot, that that’s “all we care about”, but that’s not a reason to dismiss plot altogether. Just flip Martin’s first argument on its head: if saying something is gratuitous equates to saying “I don’t like it”, then including all this stuff about feasting and heraldry and rape is just Martin saying, “This is what I like.” He may be sufficiently under the spell of the cult of the author to think that’s enough, but to me it’s just self-indulgent.

  5. EDIT: I meant, “including all this stuff about feasting and heraldry and rape without simultaneously advancing the plot…”

  6. Ovid: I liked the books a little more than you did but otherwise I agree. I’ll have a lot more to say about this when I get around to finishing my review of the latest book. In the meantime, however, in Martin’s defense I will note that he’s hardly the first author to have succumbed to narrative bloat as a series progressed. When someone hits it big with one of these series, editing becomes nearly impossible. After six years of waiting for book five no one at the publisher is going to say: “Sorry, we need some big rewrites on this.” That doesn’t mean complaints are invalid, but few authors get this right.

    Also, and I think this shouldn’t be underestimated, most authors only get one shot at a long series. When the typical author publishes their first novel, they’ve already written several novels that weren’t good enough and gotten better in the process. But writing a big series takes such a large amount of a writer’s life there’s usually not a second chance. If you can’t write a practice series yourself, the next best thing is to read those who have gone before, and I don’t think it’s an accident that the new generation of epic fantasy authors, like Daniel Abraham and Brandon Sanderson, seem to have a much stronger grasp on how to plot and pace long series than authors like Martin and Robert Jordan.

  7. I have never read any lit.theory and am completely ignorant of plot-structure. But when reading through your earlier review (and this later review of the tv production) I found myself agreeing with you about the lack of direction of the book. That Martin kills some of the characters seems to be due to the fact that he somewhere realizes that he is spending too much time on them (and perhaps enjoying it too much?) and that they will only serve to complicate whatever conclusion he has in mind.

    Now it seems that Martin isn’t much of a plot person, but when asked what these books are about, what is he going to answer? Is his answer going to be that the books are about the doom that threatens mankind from the north until the savior rides in from across the ocean, or is he going to answer that the book is about the political intrigue of a medieval fantasy kingdom? It’s not really a dichotomy, but I would like it much more if the latter were true. He is at his best IMO when he writes a sort of War of the Roses-inspired political intrigue.

  8. […] 2011: I’ve written some thoughts on the HBO Game of Thrones first season, including some brief notes on how it’s made me […]

  9. Nick: I’m sure if you asked him, he’d say he hoped his story was allowed to be about both. And at 1.7 million words and counting, there’s probably enough room. But the way the story is built, I’m not sure he can keep the fantasy story from overwhelming the political story by the end, and I agree the political story is more interesting. We’ll find out eventually, I suppose.

  10. Matt: I agree that it’s a huge undertaking with many pitfalls that it takes a truly great or just disciplined writer to avoid, but my annoyance was more with Martin’s reaction to criticism, as epitomised in the quotation in your post. Perhaps he’s been burned by the notorious internet trolling he’s been subject to, but comments like the one above indicate a remarkably limited willingness to concede that some criticism might be valid. He seems to hold his critics in contempt, and that’s a very unappealing character trait.

  11. Im on the third book and im not sure if i want o keep reading. whats the point of getting attached to characters that will only die pointlessly in a book and a half? Neds death was shocking, but understandable the story isn’t about Ned and it let readers know that noone was safe. Robb’s quest for vengence was more interesting than any of the other things going on, even if only told from other people’s perspectives, but with the Red wedding it would seem that there was no point, it might as well not have happened or at least could have been told in a few chapters or even one book. but instead i followed robb’s doomed adventure for about 3,000 pages only to see him brutally murdered in almost exactly the same scenario as his father. bad guys keep on living and doing bad things and good guys are killed through treachery

  12. Cody: that’s fine just stop reading after the third book then! The fourth book is *absolutely abysmal*, he must have had writer’s block coupled with editors looming over his shoulder shouting Write! Write! Don’t worry about advancing the master plot, string out the series until it’s ten books long! Completely insignificant characters going nowhere is a summary. The 5th book is a bit more of the same but fortunately it is back to the important characters Daenerys Tyrion et al. They’re not going anywhere particularly fast either, but some big plot advancements do happen.

    The worry for George RR is that the tv series is in its second season, they can’t make a whole season out of the fourth book unless they revise the whole script, so after the third season they can coddle together material for one more and then… that deadline is only three years away and at the rate he’s writing, will he have more books out by then?

    In any case, the TV series can definitely be a huge improvement on books 4 & 5.

  13. Season 2 was the shit, might have to buy book 3. I love the army of white walkers! I never got into lord of the rings, Harry potter, star trek, I called all of them gay, but game of thrones is by far the gayest shit ever, & I didn’t think I’d like it but hbo hooked me from the 1st scene! I never thought I’d say this but it’s Soprano’s caliber: writing, production, & acting, amazing television.

  14. Re: my comment on April 10, the author clearly has the same concerns as me…

    [from his interview on]
    “I am aware of the TV series moving along behind me like a giant locomotive, and I know I need to lay the track more quickly, perhaps, because the locomotive is soon going to be bearing down on me. The last thing I want is for the TV series to catch up with me. I’ve got a considerable headstart, but production is moving faster than I can write. I’m hoping that we’ll finish the story at about the same time… we’ll see.”

  15. […] 2011: I’ve written some thoughts on the HBO Game of Thrones first season, including some brief notes on how it’s made me […]

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