Elen sila lumenn omentielvo!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

"The things I do for love...."

That's a memorable line of dialog -- perhaps the most memorable -- from any of George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire books, and fortunately, it's spoken in the television adaptation of A Game of Thrones, in exactly the right way. That moment, early in the book, jolted me a bit as a reader as a genuine surprise. Martin would, in my opinion, go to this type of well a few too many times over the rest of that first book and in the three that came after, so much so that I remember reading A Feast for Crows with a constant sense of impending doom for every character. After a while, I have to admit that it got to be a little much, and sometimes I think of A Song of Ice and Fire as the fat-fantasy equivalent of Funky Winkerbean.

Maybe that's not fair; heck, it probably isn't. But while I've enjoyed Martin's books, I've never been as big a fan of them as many. I started to tease out the reason why when I read A Feast for Crows, and now that I've seen the first episode of the teevee adaptation, I'm seeing ASoIaF for what it is: it's a fantasy soap opera.

When I was a kid, I actually became for a time a huge fan of General Hospital. This was back when each summer would have a long and sometimes "action-packed" tale involving spies and espionage and intrigue of such nature, usually featuring characters like Robert Scorpio and his former wife Anna, who were both also former agents of the WSB (World Security Bureau), when they'd square off against the nefarious agents of the enemy DVX. As these storylines wended their way through the summer months, lots of other characters would see their own lives intersect with the "main summer storyline". This was all usually quite a bit of fun, but there were characters I didn't really care about, and thus their bits in the storyline tended to slide beneath my radar. And not all of the show's characters would be involved in the "main summer storyline", so once a week -- usually on a Tuesday or Wednesday -- there'd be an episode of GH that served only to catch us up on the characters who had nothing to do with the fun stuff. These episodes were largely boring as hell; I was watching the show for Robert Scorpio's heroics and whatnot, and I didn't really care one whit about Steve Hardy's son's relationship problems or the various infighting of the Quartermaine clan or the trials-and-tribulations of hooker-turned-straight Bobbi Whatshername. But that was the price to pay for the good stuff.

So GRRM's massive fantasy series is getting kind of like that. Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different character, with that character being named in BIG LETTERS at the top of each chapter, so as soon as one chapter ends, you know just by looking at the next page where you're going next in the story. This is classic soap opera structure, and in the first two books it was extremely effective, but I'm finding that now as we're into our fourth book here, it's all starting to feel the same way it felt when I'd watch GH all those years ago. "Oh, cool! An Arya chapter! Her story's interesting!...Oh, bugger, another chapter about Sansa. Snore." If ASoIaF were to be filmed, I think it should be as a soap opera, titled Westeros!. And if they change actors, a voiceover guy could intone, "The part of Jaime Lannister will be played on this episode by...."

It's not that I didn't enjoy the book, because I did, mostly. But the feel of reading this series has become eerily similar in my mind to that of watching a soap opera. I'm not sure if that's what GRRM has in mind, but there it is.


I'm not trying to belittle things here, because it's fun to delve deeply into stories like this. But even so, reading that last book, I remember a certain creeping frustration that things weren't unfolding so much as grinding along.

Martin's series gets compared to The Lord of the Rings a lot, which interests me. I just re-read LOTR a month or so ago, so it's fresh on my mind, and what struck me this time is how surprisingly focused Tolkien keeps things: he's got the story he wants to tell, and he pretty much sticks with it. Martin, however, focuses everywhere. If Martin had written LOTR, we'd have long chapters describing the trials and tribulations of the folk at Bree. We'd have chapters showing the befouling of the Shire while Frodo and the others are away. We'd have the meetings of the Council of Wizards. We'd have chapters set in the North and around the Lonely Mountain, showing what the dwarves up there are up to. And Gondor? We'd see all of the intrigue there.

At this point, I'm not sure that there even is a story that Martin is trying to tell. I think he's immersing us for a very long time in a heavily populated world, a world where there are good people and bad people and people who are just kind of all right, and where sometimes these people do horrible things to one another and where love is not necessarily a happy thing and where sins of fathers ripple out through the generations and where there is murder and incest and people thought dead who turn out to not be dead and...so on. Basically, all the things you'd find in a soap opera.

I swear that I don't mean any of this disparagingly -- but I'm just not all that convinced by repeated claims that George RR Martin has done something staggeringly new and stunning and original with this series. It's a fantasy soap opera. General Hospital meets the Wars of the Roses. The Sopranos with swords. Dallas with dragons. The X-Men when Chris Claremont was in charge.

As for the show itself? Very well done, for the most part. A few more characters might have been named. I didn't care for the look of Winterfell, with all those round towers -- it seemed a bit too elegant in a long shots. But still, very effective. I took one look at Joffrey and immediately thought, "Oh, you little f***er. And the acting was uniformly excellent -- I liked the way everybody looked. I'm fine with Tyrion not being as ugly as described in the books. Part of my problem right now is that I'm spoiled by my knowledge of what is to come; like it or not, I can't set aside the more favorable opinion of Jaime Lannister that the third and fourth books created to hiss the pure shit that he is in the first two.

And as for the books, I remain deeply skeptical that Martin will ever finish them, and I remain deeply hopeful that if he does finish them, the very last line of the last book is "Hodor."

(Can't wait to see Hodor, actually. Talk about an actor lucking out -- he can memorize all of his lines in less than two seconds!)

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