A Game of Thrones: Thoughts From A Show Watcher

Spoilers Below

A Lack of Closure
Last year, HBO’s Game of Thrones series ended. We laughed, we cried, and at times it seemed like things didn’t have any hope of ending well. But Dan Benioff and D.B Weiss pulled off the impossible, and crafted an ending that pleased absolutely everyone, despite the lack of source material to adapt. At the end of the journey, the ASOIAF community was able to come together as one to celebrate a fitting send-off for one of the biggest shows of all time. Ah yes. Good times.

Such good times that I, a show watcher, was left wanting even more. Now, even before the unanimously well received and critically acclaimed finale to the show, I was interested in reading the books. After all, I like Game of Thrones. I like reading. Stands to reason I would like reading Game of Thrones. But I hesitated. After all, these books are pretty thicc, and they seemed like a big time investment. Now that wouldn’t have bothered me too much, but as I’m sure you all know…they aren’t done. In fact, there are two more that have yet to be released. To invest so much time into something that may not ever reach a conclusion seemed a fool’s errand.

I mean look at this fuggin thing. What?

Well, the ending of HBO’s Game of Thrones was just…so good that I couldn’t help but want more, as I said. So I gave in. I have now read the first installment of George RR Martin’s massive A Song of Ice and Fire series: A Game of Thrones. As I was reading it, I had the idea that I could probably write about my experiences reading this book. A sweet summer child show watcher gives his views on the books, and how the show diverges. I was sure someone, somewhere would get a kick out of that. So here it is. Here’s my thoughts on A Game of Thrones and how it differs from Season One of the show.

Yeah, it’s uh…it’s the same. Exact same in almost every way. Even down to the dialogue. As these books progress I’m sure the differences between show and book will begin to widen, but as it stands, while there is obviously the occasional difference, on a fundamental level the first season of Game of Thrones is remarkably faithful to the book.
This left me with a dilemma. If the show and the book are, thus far, the same, then what the hell will I write about? Well, I guess I can just talk about the book/show in general. As if that hasn’t been done enough already. After thinking about it for a while, I think I know exactly how I want to tackle covering this book. Particularly, I want to talk about how, having seen the entire story told, this first book functions so well as an introduction to the world of Ice and Fire, and to the tone and themes of the series.

A Dance With Fantasy.
I’ve heard the GOT series referred to as fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy. The magic is toned down, the fantastical is built up to and more grounded in reality, common fantasy tropes are dispensed with or explicitly averted, and the series overall has a large focus on medieval politics and realistic depictions of warfare. And sex, can’t forget that. Two characters talking about their some dumb prophecy crap or their feelings or whatever? Here, have some exposed lady bits. Thaaaat’s better.

Well, all of those things are true to an extent. If you’re not a fan of fantasy (and indeed I am not a huge one. Not out of any particular dislike for the genre, but rather my flavor of geekdom is more focused on people in spandex with superpowers hitting each other really hard, rather than people in armor with magic casting spells at each other really hard) you’ll find that ASOIAF/GOT averts many of the classic fantasy tropes. However, I wouldn’t necessarily call it “fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy”, anymore than I would call something like The Dark Knight Returns “superhero comics for people who don’t like superhero comics”. It can function in that way, yes, but it’s still unabashedly a superhero comic, with all that entails

In that same way, Game of Thrones is still unabashedly fantasy. At the end of everything, this series still ultimately results in knights with magic swords and fireproof dragon riders fighting against a horde of zombies. This series doesn’t hold itself above or in any way apart from fantasy. It’s simply a different take. Now of course, not everyone who refers to ASOIAF/GOT in this way is trying to claim that the series is distancing itself from fantasy, but, nevertheless, I felt I needed to say that.

Reading A Game of Thrones, and remembering the first season as I did so, I found myself somewhat surprised on a couple of occasions. Even though this series does take its time in working up to some of its more fantastical elements, and concerns itself a lot more with interkingdom politics as it does so, it doesn’t shy away from the fact that magic is a thing that exists in this universe. Even from the prologue, bitches be turnin’ into zombies and shit.

Nevertheless, you can easily forget that fact on occasion as you read the book. This is because, in the world of the story, magic is something that’s pretty much gone. So much so that the characters themselves don’t believe in these more mystical elements. They exist only in folktales passed on by people who are seen as naive or uneducated. The plot of the novel, past the prologue, isn’t about magic. When something that could be seen as magical appears in the story, such as Daenarys’ dragon eggs, it’s treated with skepticism by pretty much everyone.

Surprisingly their suspicions were correct. These things? Total red herrings.

This series reveals its true nature to the audience via its characters. It’s not exactly an unheard of writing technique, I’ll admit. You have a character that doesn’t know shit, they get taught shit, and as they learn shit the audience also learns said shit. Most of the time this is done with exposition. Harry Potter doesn’t know how magic works. We don’t know how magic works. We learn with him. What impresses me most with the story isn’t that it employs this tactic, but how well it does it, and how it does it not just with exposition, but with tone and theme. 

Game of Thrones doesn’t really have a singular main character, but I suppose if I had to say so, I’d say the main characters are the Starks, and, for this section of the series, I’d probably say that Ned in particular is the protagonist. Ned is a classic hero (Kinda. Even he has his layers and complexities). An honorable man who lives his life based on his principles and ideals, is loyal to his friends, and treats others with kindness and respect, if not a bit of coldness. Robb Stark, one of his sons and heir to his throne, is much the same, though without the same level of wisdom and experience.

Jon Snow is Ned’s bastard, who hopes to claim his honor and glory by joining a group of valiant heroes, defending the realm from outside danger. Sansa is one of Ned’s two daughters who has been raised to be a proper lady, and wants nothing more than to marry a prince and live in a castle and all the other things you would expect from a young girl in this time period.

These are classic character archetypes. That’s not to say these characters, or the other Stark family members that I’ve neglected to mention are two dimensional. They’re certainly not. But they are the most traditional heroes you’ll find in this series, at least for now.

And to put it lightly, this series takes no small amount of pleasure in disabusing them of all their silly little notions of how the world works.

A Storm of Misfortune
By the end of the novel, Sansa is a captive of her so-called prince and wants nothing more than to return to her home, Jon’s dream of claiming honor with a band of stalwart defenders of the realm is tarnished by the realization that said band is instead full of cowards, rapists and thieves, Ned’s uh…dead, and Robb’s military conquest to save him has failed. If you are reading this, and are not familiar with how the rest of the series plays out, I can only say that this is not the end of the Stark family’s troubles.

I may be misremembering, but I don’t think Catelyn was especially happy in this scene.

But in putting the Starks through such turmoil, GRRM is teaching lessons to them and to the audience. These traditional fantasy heroes, with their traditional fantasy worldviews are sorely mistaken about the world of Westeros. In this world, if you want to survive, you’re a lot better off being smart than honorable. This is not a world of dashing princes and knights in shining armor, and much like it did in the period this book is based on, said world is not very kind to women. Good guys don’t always win. Bad guys don’t always lose. And death is a very real possibility.

And in disabusing these characters of these notions with such brutality, the series sets them up for deeply interesting character arcs. Sansa is such an annoyance in this section of the story it’s honestly kind of hard to believe she ends up being a fan favorite. But she does. At least going by the TV show, Sansa grows into one of the most clever and badass characters in the series. Arya’s wild free spirited nature is only a taste of what she grows into. Jon’s quest to earn respect and validation takes him to places you couldn’t even imagine at this point in the story. Moving beyond the Starks, Jamie is an arrogant prick who develops into perhaps the most complex character in the entire tale. Daenarys’ start as a helpless victim of the various men in her life is very different from how she ends up. Etcetera, etcetera, so on and so forth. You get the idea.

The world and the characters grow in such interesting directions, but it all starts right here, in 1996 with this one book. Before the Red Wedding is a part of the pop culture lexicon, and before this series and Walking Dead become famous for killing off a different character every other week. It starts with taking the audience by the hand and guiding them through Westeros and Essos. It starts with introducing the audience to this fantasy world, and its unique rules.

Well, anyway, time to take off my critical analysis glasses and revert back to a random Game of Thrones fan mode.

A Dream of The Future
At the end of A Game of Thrones Dany’s dragon eggs hatch at last. The story has well and truly started. And I’ll tell ya…I’m pretty excited. The Faceless Men, the Free Folk, Dorne, Melissandre, and several other elements of this story have yet to be introduced, and seeing as the books in this series approach and then supersede 1000 pages, I imagine there’s even more that TV series left out. As such, as there become more divergences from the TV show, I can spend these posts reacting to the differences as I intended, rather than playing at amateur think piece writer.

This may sound like a no brainer but reading this story is very different than simply watching it. Not that one medium is inherently better, but I must say that in terms of description, Martin paints a picture with his words better than the show could depict in that first season (though definitely not for lack of trying.) For example, reading about the Eyrie and specifically Cat ascending the mountains to reach it really added a different dimension to the experience than what I got out of seeing it in the show. Or Varys’ appearance. In the book he’s far more out there than what he was in the show, giving him an offputting atmosphere here that he just doesn’t have in the series. Though Varys in the series is awesome too and Conleth Hill does an excellent job portraying him. I could go on and on but you get what I mean by this point: Westeros in the book is just…clearer than in the show.

So yes, I’m very excited to continue on this adventure through the series. I don’t know when I’ll do that, as I will first need to purchase A Clash of Kings, then read the near 1000 pages contained within, and as a broke college student, money and time are resources that I have a short supply of. But I will continue. And let’s hope that in the time that it takes me to get A Clash of Kings, Martin releases The Winds of Winter.


Leave a Reply