Monday, June 9, 2014

Why I am Finished with Game of Thrones

I made it through two books and I thought to myself, Okay -- that's enough. This would make a pretty good TV series, but I don't need to read it anymore. Then, the TV series came out and I though, Hm. This is pretty good, but I can see it wearing thin after awhile. Well, it wore thin. Last night I decided that I have had quite enough of Game of Thrones, in whatever form. 

Many people don't know that George R.R. Martin was a pretty reputable (and award-winning) science fiction writer before he began writing the A Song of Ice and Fire books (the series of which A Game of Thrones is the first novel). He's a pro and certainly no fresh-faced youngster breaking through with an accidental literary phenomenon. But...I like his sci-fi better than his fantasy.

A friend of mine stopped reading the series because he found it ugly. He quickly got sick of the preponderance of sexual content and the ruthlessness of some of the characters. He stopped after the first book. I went through the second, but bailed out after that.

The story started to mushroom out into directions that, instead of making it feel complex, made it, to me, feel diluted. I still question whether Martin can (or will even attempt to) draw his various lines to any kind of conclusion. There is always the argument that good literature doesn't seek out neat endings "because life just isn't like that"...that not every novel has to wrap up as neatly as a Dickens book...but, as in music, my mental ear needs to feel as if melodies are going somewhere...anywhere. I just didn't feel any sense of direction from the first two novels.

I get the feeling Martin decided to see how long he could keep readers with him -- how much money he could rake in with this series. And I don't fault him for that at all, if it is true. One needs to be quite a craftsman to pull that off and he is a pro, as I said. He gave the popular reading world something they have never seen. In his work, no one is perfect. There are no wholesome hobbits. Even the forthright Ned Stark in the first book had a spotted past of infidelity.

Siblings should love each other, but...
The problem is, maybe his characters are too true to life. People in real life are sometimes painfully unlikeable. Maybe Martin's characters were too accurate -- so realistic, I hate most of them. And the one I liked quite a bit? -- Ned? [SPOILER ALERT] -- he died in the first book.

I get that too; Martin put us all on edge. We knew early on that no one was safe. A bold play in a fantasy novel. (Let's face it -- did anyone ever really think Frodo was going to die in The Lord of the Rings?) Martin takes Twain's darling-killing to a whole different level. It was an effective move.

Maybe these books are all about tolerance-level. How much can we take? My friend, mentioned above, only lasted through one book. I made it through two and through part of the third season of the show.

Then, last night, my wife and I were watching  (on Netflix DVD), and I saw three babies in formaldehyde, one little girl with a disease that turns her skin into stone, two young boys stabbed to death by an old man, one beheading and a dismemberment and I had to say, at the end of the episode: "Well, I am officially done with Game of Thrones.

On top of it all is the political side of the work. If I want politics, I will watch the news. I don't want to be bogged down, when reading (or watching) fantasy, with the chess match of diplomacy, politics and social maneuvering. A little bit of it is okay and might even be necessary (think of Rohan's reluctance to join the fight with Gondor in LotR) but a little bit is about all I can stand. 

And characters? Martin commits the soap opera writer's sin (at least I see it that way -- as a writerly sin) of trying to shift characters from evil to sympathetic by virtue of an uncovered unknown. On soap operas, the writers will decide to change a character from evil to good. What happens is that, no matter what the character has done in the past, he or she (probably as a result of demographic feedback) turns out to be okay. The evil of the past is completely forgotten.

Forgiveness is great...but take Jamie Lannister -- "The Kingslayer." Here is a guy who has sex with his own sister [That's still not okay, right? I know we live in an increasingly tolerant world, but...that's still really wrong, correct?] and who pushed a child out of a tower window, not to mention having committed lots of other meanesses. Then, he delivers a monologue explaining why he killed the king (stabbed him in the back); that he did it to save a city of innocents that was in danger of being completely wiped out. And...I'm supposed to see him differently, now? Yeah, I know -- if anyone had bothered to listen to him as to why he killed the king, things would have turned out differently. He would have lived a different life in which he doesn't make love to relatives and in which he doesn't push children out of windows...

Um, no. Sorry. I'm not that forgiving. I don't think being misunderstood causes people to do those things...or that it excuses them. Therefore, why continue with an interest in these characters? I just reached the end of my tolerance, probably during that very speech.

In short, there might be magic in Martin's series, just doesn't feel fantastic enough to me. Too much ugliness; too much sex; too much randomness in the events. This may all be seen as praise for the work; as an indication that Martin writes realistically. But I think of it the way some people see painting: It is cool when an artist can paint photographically, but, after one recognizes that, and praises it, why not just look at photographs? I want to see a writer give me the perfect balance of believability and wonder.

Most of all, I want to care and, in the case of Martin's work, I just ran out of caring.


  1. Before I comment, I feel compelled to apologize for commenting, what I feel is, almost too frequently. I'm genuinely interested in the content you put out, but even I might understand being annoyed if someone were to comment on post after post of my own blog.

    I think what's important to remember here is that the setting and story of this series is modeled after European history -- and in that, there are going to be things which we don't see as being socially acceptable, and politics are going to be impossible to separate from the plot. I get bored of it too, I agree, but it's something to consider.

    I've been reading a manga called "Attack on Titan," which takes place in an apocalyptic world where humanity has been reduced to a few thousand people due to giant humanoids (ranging anywhere from 3 to 15 meters tall, although one specifically is 60 meters) coming in and eating them all. They retreat to a city surrounded by gigantic walls, and their entire focus is winning the war against their only natural predators.

    The reason it's relevant is because the writer of that story did a very good job of telling his readers to not get too attached to any character. Realistically, if that were going on, there are going to be character flaws, there isn't going to be romance, and there are going to be frequent, unexpected deaths. Such is the story itself.

    So while that particular aspect of it irritates an infinite number of people, to me it just makes it all the more compelling. I've only read the first book as your friend did, but I kind of feel the same way about Game of Thrones. The fact that it's so realistic just makes it more interesting no matter how disgusting and vile some of the characters and events are.

    Just my opinion though, of course, because I agree: it probably has a lot to do with tolerance, but more on the level of "how much can you stomach?"

    1. Alexis -- Don't be silly. It is a pleasure to hear from you whenever you feel inclined. You always offer interesting insight and interesting perspectives. Comment twice a day if you want!

      It is certainly all about that "line" -- when it becomes too much for the reader/viewer And I do think Martin is a good writer. As I said, he is no newbie. But there are a lot of writers whose work I respect but don't enjoy -- Michael Chabon is a prime example. He is a master novelist, but I have, to date, stopped reading three of his books right in the middle because I just stopped caring. Hard to accoutn for that...

  2. Chris, I've also hit the point where I can't understand why something like 18 million people tune in each week not only to be entertained by spending an hour in a relentlessly brutal fictional world but also to film their own shocked (and sometimes sobbing!) reactions. Maybe I'm just crotchety and old, maybe it's having spent years studying the real Middle Ages, or maybe years of teaching literature have made my cynical about the ways we let fiction beguile and manipulate us...but I just can't get into this show or the books behind it. When I was younger, I would have praised GoT for "realism" and authenticity, but (I know I sound 150 years old when I get going like this...)

    1. Jeff -- I guess it resonated with people who are not really into either fantasy or medievalism. On the coat tails of a lot of really bad but successful TV fantasy, people saw this as a sophisticated super-epic thing. To those who know the real epics and to those who, like myself, are in love with the shimmering gauziness of great fantasy lit, it just falls sort. GoT definitely taps in to the post Terrantino era and the soap-opera concept of stretching an aimless story forever. Fortunately, Martin is a good writer, so it has more worth than the actual soap opera. But, it is weird when something becomes such a pop-phenomenon; a whole different mindset seems to come along with it -- in this case a dark kind of Beatlemania. Strange, indeed. My youngest son and I are reading LotR together, now, aloud. I'll Take Tolkien any day and, sadly, some younger readers of Martin might completely miss the LeGuins, the Alexanders and the Beagles looking for more "edgy" fantasy like Martin's. For me, the best fantasy (and even the best medieval lit) has always been aligned with a kind of sinewy poetic beauty that Martin seems to have shunned. To each his own, I suppose, but meetings of the Literary Curmudgeons Club will begin next Tuesday, if you're interested in joining me...

    2. I think it's quite interesting (and smart) of you to see the soap-opera influence. As mainstream TV has changed from being episodic to being serialized, it's picked up several of the soaps' bad habits. It's funny how touchy people are about being told their favorite show has more in common with "The Young and the Restless" than with Tolkien!

      I agree with you that there's something special about the Leguins, Alexanders, Beagles, and Tolkiens, but my former patience for brutal, realistic movies and TV has most likely just been undone by contact with reality. A decade ago, I visited Serbia and met people who'd survived the Balkan wars; not long ago, my barber told me how she'd escaped Vietnam only to end up in the Philippines in a refugee camp where the guerrillas in the surrounding mountains routinely tried to break into the camp to commit rape; and then there's the simple matter of having lived for 20 years in a city full of power-hungry freaks. With that world so lucid before me, so unavoidable, why would I want to see it in things that are supposed to be entertaining?

    3. Escape is underrated, Jeff. I think it is a wonderful and rare kind of reading/viewing. I know during my time in school it was so often rejected (Tolkien was ridiculed by my teachers and professors) that maybe readers and writers think that misery is the only real subject matter. It is really too bad.