BY SEAN CLARK
This wasn’t really a book I expected to enjoy. Genre fantasy novels generally aren’t my cup of tea. I’ve tried a few, and frankly I think they’re pretty dull. However after finding myself intrigued, and then rather enthusiastic, about the recently concluded HBO adaptation of A Game of Thrones, I decided to give the source material a go.
What baffles me the most about A Game of Thrones, is how utterly boring it sounds when briefly summarized. There are no epic battles (at least not depicted on the page, really), no wizards or orcs or elves, no all-powerful force of evil in need of vanquishing, etc. Instead this novel (which, I should add, sits at around 830 pages, and is the first book in a planned series of 7–the fifth is due out this summer after a lengthy wait for fans) is at its core a political thriller spanning generations.
The tale occurs in a land once divided into seven kingdom and since unified by a single royal family. Things pick up a few years after the long royal lineage has been usurped (and nearly snuffed out). Sitting on the Iron Throne, as it’s called, is Robert Baratheon, a great, burly man of many appetites. Sharks swirl around him, and the machinations of various members of his court spell the writing on the wall for Robert. The player with the hungriest ambition is the Queen, who comes from the richest family in the land. His right hand man (called the Hand) has died, murdered it’s whispered, and he’s called upon his old friend and war buddy Eddar (Ned) Stark, to run things as Hand while he drinks and whores.
Ned comes from Winterfell, the old kingdom of the North, which is a cold land separating the Romanesque south, and the walled-off wilds of the north, where creatures such as giants and wights are said to still roam. The whole land is divided into these distinct parts, each with its own value, and with its strategic uses and disadvantages for war and diplomacy. And each is ruled by an old bloodline, and populated by various degrees of lesser houses, all loyal to one line or another. The intricacy with which Martin has conceived the social order of his world, its long history, and its geographic nooks and crannies is jaw dropping.
I didn’t set out to watch the show, I just happened to find it on one night. It interested me enough to watch the next few. By the fifth I had bought the books. HBO did an excellent job with this series. The production values are as high as you’d expect from the channel, the casting is deft, and–I soon found out–it manages to remain extremely faithful to the source material without feeling stilted or shoehorned.
In part, this is because Martin’s novel lends itself tremendously to the serialized television format. The book is written from alternating viewpoints and, combined with the aforementioned intricacy of the fictional world and some very well-paced plot points (Martin is not at all shy about delivering the opposite of what you think is about to happen), it stands as an excellent example of using dramatic irony well. He doles its plot hooks out like an intravenous injection, in short and satisfying bursts that cycle into each other. This allows plenty of points for an episode to stop on a cliffhanger.
In fact, I was going to just do a regular review of the book, because I liked the show so much I didn’t think it was much worth comparing. The two are nearly identical, and I thought the show might even out-do the book (like David Fincher’s Fight Club bested Palahniuk’s novel). But then came the last episode.
I’m not going to spoil the plot, and it’s not that I felt let down by what happened. In fact, the final episode remains as true to the book as the rest of the show, perhaps too much so. I finished the final chapters of the book just a few days before the final episode aired. The ending took me from enjoying the book to knowing I’d be reading the next installment. It does what so many series opening books attempt and fall short of. While this tremendous self-contained plot had swept me away for 800-plus pages, only in the very end did just what is going on in the bigger scheme of things click for me. This world and its strifes, it turns out, are larger and more far ancient and ranging (and cyclical) than we already thought. The deep history of the land that Martin quietly shared suddenly became important. I was thoroughly impressed.
When I saw that same ending (with mostly the same lines) portrayed on the screen, that excitement and wonder was lacking. It wrapped things up nicely, and left all the anchors in place for the story to continue in the second season. But that enlightening moment lacked. They added an interaction between a few characters that hinted at the bigger picture, but really it was just an ending.
This has actually had me thinking pretty much all week. How can two things so very nearly identical affect such different reactions in me? Was it because I’d read it before watching, unlike the other episodes? I don’t think so. Are films/television just incapable of that given their limitations on time and conveyable narration? No, I think the first time I saw Donnie Darko the ending stirred up a similar reaction to how I felt when finishing Martin’s book.
But Donnie Darko probably wouldn’t make for a very good book. And while HBO did a wonderful job of converting this book into their brand of character drama with a unique setting and some excellent spots of action and badassery (and plenty of full frontal), it can’t fully encapsulate what I liked most about the book. The heart of the book, I realized, relies so heavily on subtlety and lore and history and the lineages of the players big and small, that the show could never hope to convey it in ten episodes. It simply doesn’t translate to screen. You’d need to add so many boring scenes of kids in classroom or whatever and risk losing your audience to express what can be slipped in gradually over 800 pages. The show captures the essence of the tale and is extremely entertaining–I suggest you watch it–but for this inescapable reason the book was better.