Like the late arrivals we often are, Rhonda and I are just now watching the first season of HBO's Game of Thrones. I happened to luck into a remarkably bargain-priced set of the DVDs at our local Joe's Records, and picked them up because many of you have recommended them, because they're high fantasy, and since I started my writing career working in that genre….well, you know the rest.
My reaction to the show has been mixed favorable. The acting, the production values, and the Northern Ireland sets are, to my way of thinking, pretty wonderful. I've liked Sean Bean for ages, it seems, and having him anchor the cast is, to me, one of GOT's principal strengths.
But hold on a minute. Does he really anchor a cast or is he just one among a helluva lot of people—so many that I'm finding myself looking at the guide in the DVD set because I can't tell the players without a scorecard? Baratheon mingles with Stark and Lannister (there are also the blonde ones whose name eludes me—super-entitled wicked brother, gradually empowered sister) until I find myself stopping the disc, tottering on the edge of lost until I piece together who's who, the image frozen on the screen.
This is digital narration rather than the television or the film I grew up with, so I am forced to scramble a little—not a bad thing for a budding geezer. It's the kind of "cast of hundreds" you can pull off if your last name is Tolkien or Tolstoy, the leniency of prose fiction allowing the reader to backtrack and cross-reference. But I'm not as used to it in film or video, and GOT is asking me to access the story in a way that's relatively new to me. And I'm grateful for that gauntlet being thrown down, for something asking me to venture into unfamiliar realms of "reading".
Having said that, I'd really like to see the elements of the fantastic more in play in the series, fulfilling some of the stark (pun intended) promise of the first few minutes. We're on the eighth episode, and it seems to be returning, but that's a long time to wait. The preternatural lurks at the margins of the narrative, and we glimpse moments of it, but it's almost as though it's an afterthought, a kind of hood ornament on the far-ranging Byzantine intrigue. Whatever one can say about Jackson's Lord of the Rings (and I've heard ranging opinions, from loving to loathing), the fantasy is integral to what happens on screen. I also found it far easier to tell one character from another, but I'm not reliable on that, since I know LOTR better than any book other than my own, and leaned on that knowledge as I watched the movie. People who were introduced to Tolkien via the Jackson films might well have found some rough going in growing acquainted with all the characters, but the film (and Tolkien's novel) have the advantage of convening the whole bunch at the Council of Elrond, so that their dispersal becomes easier to follow in the last two books of the trilogy; GOT, on the other hand (at least the TV series—I can't speak for the novels, though I suspect they do the same) moves its characters from distant sources toward convergence, so that the advantage of contrasting one dirty-haired Boromir-type with another goes clean out the window, and I've been looking at them as family members rather than individuals in order to tell them apart.
Something else, though, has always set apart fantasy from other modes of storytelling—especially the high fantasy version of the genre. We often laugh about how many high fantasies involve the "rag-tag group who save the world from ultimate evil" but they do this because high fantasy deals in the Big Idea, the quest, the important issue, and rests on the premise that ultimately, the world is worth saving. Martin's Westeros is up for grabs, and I have yet to get a sense of what's at stake beyond raw plays for power, and I am, as I said before, eight episodes in. That's 4/5 of Season 1.
And this bothers me. In high fantasy, the stakes should be high for everyone involved, and I get the feeling that these intrigues at the uppermost levels of fantasy politics will make little difference to those who live day by day in Westeros, something you wouldn't have said about the events that take place in Middle Earth or Earthsea. Maybe it's high fantasy with the postmodern turn of "no grand narrative"? If that's the case, I suspect I'm going to feel cheated ultimately, like in so many postmodern stories: shimmering surface gives way to a kind of self-referentiality, a kind of brittle thinness.
All in all, the attempt to set down the War of the Roses or Jacobean intrigue in the midst of an alternative world may or may not end up successfully; I'm suspending judgment and enjoying the sumptuous visuals, the neat suspense of the self-contained episodes, and not yet worrying my pretty little head about a more nagging concern: the lack of a grand thematic design of the whole work (so apparent in Tolkien's books and in Jackson's film version of them). Grand design is something I like in heroic fantasy, just as integral to the genre as the preternatural mythic stuff; however, I'm beginning to fear that, once you get beyond the dark visual beauties of George R.R. Martin's Westeros, it'll end up being kind of like Gertrude Stein's Cleveland, in that "there's no there there".