July 16, 2011

My Favorite Soap Opera

I finished watching the first season of Game of Thrones on Monday of last week, and have been thinking about it ever since.

As a rule of thumb, if I think about something this much after viewing it, I really like it. In this case, it is partially because I like it, and partially that I find it troubling.

I bought the book Game of Thrones over ten years ago, but never read it, mostly because my wife (who reads ten times faster than I do) read it and told me it wasn't worth the time. Last year, before I'd heard of the HBO series, I listened to a podcast review of Game of Thrones, by a young fellow named Luke Burrage, that made me want to read it even less. While he enjoyed parts of it, particularly the parts with Tyrion Lannister (pictured as portrayed by the pint-sized Olivier, Peter Dinklage), the first book made forebode a series of diffused focus, poor-to-no character or story development, and missed opportunities.

After watching the series, I peeked at the reviews of A Dance with Dragons, the long-awaited fifth book in the series. What I take away from the description of the state of the world after the intervening 3000 pages since the end of the first book is: not much really happened.

"Winter is still coming." So, the existential threat that drives this story is... the weather? Is one of the characters going to do something about the weather? The other menaces, the blue-eyed zombies and the dragons, I presume the characters stab with their swords. The Red Keep is full of dragon skulls, so I guess they've been there, done that. The Night Watch has had 997 Lord Commanders, so, conservative estimate... 10,000 years? Does anything change in this world?

My suspicion is the answer to that question is, "No, and that's the point." Like a soap opera, it gives you lots of characters who interact with each other, punctuates the narrative with shocking events, and teasingly holds out the promise that something significant is going to happen just around the corner, stringing you along for another show. As Burrage points out, a series of events punctuated by people dying or being killed or raped doesn't amount to a story.


Blogger First Sea Lord said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

July 17, 2011 at 9:00 AM  
Blogger First Sea Lord said...

As time goes on, re movies, I am progressive less interested in story development in what are essentially visual features. The forced acceleration of story and even characterization through plot machinations strikes me as increasingly predictable and uninteresting.

The story struck me from the outset as conceptually thin - but it's proven a palette for actors to fill in rich characterizations with gestures, look, delivery.

You're quite right about the plot punctuations from death and rape and violence - I would identify them a little differently: as attempts to force the story forward. Dramatic replacing drama.

In fantasy, the test is: "can we disappear into this world, and are we compelled by the reality of the people we meet and what they do? "

Surprisingly, a rich story frequently takes away from this - (a unfair example is the Star Wars prequels) I would have preferred this world sans zombies, evil weather, etc. These are the parts that feel false. But the actors and writers and designers have been able to take a fairly blank story and run with it.

It boils down to: Game Thrones is a fantastic setting and supreme visual mood, and a great but simple plot (who's gonna be king?!!) with superb but stock characters. The best actors eat this up, telling a wonderful story without saying it, spurring the imagination, in spite of the writer never putting it there.

In other words, it's kind of the the lack of the writer's imagination that's allowing everyone else to fill in theirs.

July 17, 2011 at 9:24 AM  
Blogger Laird of Madrona said...

I think that predictable and uninteresting stories are predictable and uninteresting, but to my mind that doesn't discredit the art of story telling. Do you think Lord of the Rings would have been a better book if it weren't for all that nonsense about the ring? Or that Shakespeare's plays would have been better if he had simply set the stage for the characters to interact?

Let's take an example that I think we almost agree on: the first Iron Man movie. The first half of the movie was satisfying, whereas the second half, in which 'the plot' got underway, was not. But the first half of the movie did tell a story: the story of how Tony Stark becomes Iron Man. What didn't work so well was trying to pivot in the middle of the movie to tell a second, much less interesting story.

BTW: the Star Wars prequels are not an unfair example of a rich storytelling, because they are not an example of rich storytelling in the first place, unless by 'rich' you mean overly-complicated, badly conceived, and incompetently executed.

A good story can't save a bad production or book, but not having one can diminish its potential. As a contrast, look at Star Trek the original series vs. Star Trek: The Next Generation. TNG had better actors, more focus on character development, and was overall a production of higher quality. But many of it's episodes lacked something the original series did better: putting the characters in a story where there actions had significance. As I'm fond of saying, in TNG there were too many episodes where the characters would be in the bar talking about their personal problems 30 minutes into an episode, whereas on the old series that never happened because they were busy saving themselves from certain doom, which I at least found much more compelling.

July 17, 2011 at 12:45 PM  
Blogger Viceroy De Los Osos said...

I might just add that reviews aside the board game based on the books is going through the roof price-wise

July 17, 2011 at 5:03 PM  
Blogger Viceroy De Los Osos said...

Oops. Check half-way down the page to see current BGG and Ebay prices for A Game of Thrones, the board game.

July 17, 2011 at 5:05 PM  
Blogger First Sea Lord said...

I wrote literally 20 paragraphs in reply - both attempts to post were eaten. No more.

July 17, 2011 at 5:08 PM  
Blogger First Sea Lord said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

July 18, 2011 at 11:08 AM  
Blogger Laird of Madrona said...

Three things:

1. Is it okay of I make a point-by-point refutation of what I think you wrote?

2. I still can't believe Boromir was stupid enough to trust Carcetti.

3. "Say 'Winter is coming' one more time, motherfucker! I DARE YOU! I DOUBLE DARE YOU!"

July 18, 2011 at 4:19 PM  

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