Today's Brew: 'Game of Thrones' -- Before & After, Part 2
Yesterday I revealed that I have an issue with high fantasy, but proclaimed my intention, despite being all "meh" about it, to watch HBO's upcoming fantasy epic "Game of Thrones," a series based on the works of novelist and screenwriter George R. R. Martin.
And then I said I would come back and tell you what I thought. Last night. Or first thing in the morning.
Right now, it is neither of those.
After watching four episodes last night, I wrote a Zap2it post, watched "Dancing With the Stars" (OMG, poor Maks! But Kirstie still rocked it out. Confused? Click here), checked my Google Reader, wrote some emails and then was just too sleepy to write.
Today, I'm on vacation, so I made breakfast, watched "RedEye w/Greg Gutfeld," checked my Google Reader again, wrote some more emails, ironed a shirt (you know things are bad when I start to iron) and was considering starting the laundry -- all in the interests of not writing this.
But, I promised, so here goes.
The good news: I didn't hate it. The production design is gorgeous; the horses are gorgeous; Sean Bean is awesome, and gorgeous. The dialogue is good; the acting is excellent (but then I'm a big Peter Dinklage fan in any setting -- he's in the picture below, at right); and it doesn't look cheesy (yeah, Starz' "Camelot," I'm looking at you, here).
The bad news: I just don't care.
I have written before about the importance of caring. It's usually the reason why I love something or don't. After four hours of "Game of Thrones," the only thing that got me emotionally involved that evening was seeing Kirstie and Maks' "DWTS" mishap.
Honestly, it just comes down to my problem with fantasy. To make me care, you have to give me stakes, context, parameters, something solid to hold onto, a reason to root for one side over the other.
In stories based in the real world, even if they're fictional, they're still constrained by the way the world works, and depending on your personal history and preferences, you can usually figure out who to root for (but the storyteller can mess with that, if he or she is really good).
If you introduce a supernatural element into that, part of the dramatic tension comes from the contrast between this occurrence and the ordered natural world that we all understand.
To me, the best stories that do that, like "Frankenstein," show that messing with Mother Nature has tragic effects. You can supersede nature, but you'll still pay for your hubris. Or, in other stories, humans triumph over natural catastrophe, but that seldom comes free.
Even Spider-Man and Iron Man pay a steep price for their super-powers (and I love me some Spider-Man and Iron Man).
In the best science fiction -- from "Dune" to "Ringworld" to "Star Trek" -- the world created is still rooted in reality, even if it's an entirely created reality. It must have consistent rules; things must exist in context.
If a human character on an alien planet has a golden retriever, he brought it with him, and at some point in the past, both species originated on Earth. We're not expected to believe that other worlds also evolved human beings and golden retrievers.
(OK, TV science-fiction and movies have often strained this conceit to the limit, especially before the creation of computerized special effects. Sometimes budget constraints just called for a golden retriever, but maybe with wings attached, or a dude with antennae. Novelists have it easier this way.)
But in sword-and-sorcery high fantasy, all bets are off. The worlds often look medieval, but everything in medieval times -- from clothes to weaponry to armor to social mores -- existed for reasons specific to that period and its political structure and religious beliefs.
Reality is a seamless garment, with everything connected to everything else and obeying specific natural laws. That's why stories where reality is rent asunder are so compelling. We know the world should be one way, and suddenly it's not, and that's terrifying.
The animals in a world also exist in context of that world's ecology; they don't just spring up for no reason. Many fantasy worlds have horses and dogs, but also dragons and perhaps prehistoric elephants co-existing with modern animals (as seen in "The Lord of the Rings").
"Game of Thrones" has dire wolves. Now, dire wolf sounds cool, which is maybe why the author used the term, but they're real, and they only existed in North and South America during the Pleistocene Epoch. Is this North America during the Pleistocene? If so, where are the giant sloths, mammoths and American lions?
Of course, it's not North America. It's not anywhere. The world of "Game of Thrones" is a free-floating patchwork quilt of customs and styles and animals and weaponry from a range of human history, tossed together with a vague sort of religion ("gods" are mentioned) and an ecology of winters and summers that vary wildly in length.
The erratic weather is a big plot point -- "Winter is coming" is constantly intoned -- but this planetary irregularity is not explained.
But this is fantasy, so you're not supposed to ask. You can have kings and queens and keeps and knights and horses and extinct dire wolves and winters that last ten years and whatever else there is, just because the author said so.
Even with all this, I can still enjoy a fanciful story if it feels emotionally true, if it follows classic themes of human storytelling -- like how the original "Star Wars" trilogy uses the timeless form of the Hero's Journey -- or is an allegory or a metaphor -- like how "The Chronicles of Narnia" is a Christian allegory, with a lion substituting for Christ (OK, I don't love "Narnia," but I got the allegory).
"Game of Thrones" reminds me of the second "Star Wars" trilogy, in which the Hero's Journey was set aside in favor of a complicated tale of political maneuvering and power plays.
I haven't figured out if "Thrones" has a larger theme -- such as Frank Herbert's fascination with ecology, which underpins the political machinations in the "Dune" books -- or if it's an allegory for something else. So far, it doesn't seem so. It just seems like characters moving in a landscape, maneuvering for power.
I'm just not sure if I care who wins or loses.
Now, I'm not saying fantasy is bad or people shouldn't enjoy "Game of Thrones" -- different strokes for different folks, and millions of ardent fans can't be wrong. Obviously this story touches them deeply in a way I just don't understand.
But for me, in terms of HBO, "Boardwalk Empire" can't come back soon enough.
HCTV: Because of a couple of truly filthy comments (we here at HCTV get stupid spam comments on occasion, but these weren't spam), comments are now closed on both "Game of Thrones" posts. And to those commenters who wondered why I pointed out that the series is well-made and credited those parts of it that are good, that's called being fair, which I try to be, even when something isn't my taste. Thanks for stopping by.