This season I’m liking the Game of Thrones TV show ALOT more than I liked the books

Grey_Worm_Profile(light spoilers for the latest episode lie ahead)

I read A Song Of Ice And Fire when I was in high school (i.e. before it hit the mainstream, you posers =) and as such I think I’m allowed to say that I think the TV show is better. In fact, I already did say it, a few years ago. But back then my thinking was that the TV show was slightly better, because, in a few isolated cases, it corrected some errors that the show had made.

Now, though, I have to say that I think it is much better, because it’s started to create new and compelling content. For instance, in the books, Grey Worm is a placeholder character. He just represents someone Daenerys can talk to when she wants to make the Unsullied do something. But in the TV show, he is shockingly compelling (and the view of Unsullied–and, by extension, human–sexuality is much more nuanced and interesting that I would’ve expected from this show).

Similarly Jon’s interactions on the wall in this latest episode, both with Tormund and with his fellow sworn brothers, were pretty engaging. Tormund, for one thing, humanized the wildlings. Up to this point, they’d come off as a bit of a noble savage caricature. But Tormund’s obvious trepidation and angst over Jon’s offer was something new. And whereas in the books the sworn brothers seemed completely unreasonable in their unwilingness to accept the wildlings, here in the show, it feels much more understandable.

The show feels like it has more room to milk all the natural human drama out of what’s occurring. For instance, the scene where Aemon Targaryen talks about Daenerys is a no-brainer, but it’s not something that did (or could’ve) existed in the book, because the book was relentlessly focused on its viewpoint characters at the expense of all the side characters. The show has also settled down into a more relaxed pace. Things aren’t happening as fast. There’s a sense of wheels spinning, in some ways. So more weight is being placed on character interaction. All in all, I’m actually very compelled.

My thoughts on the plot differences between the book and TV versions of the second season of Game of Thrones

Well, I am current on Game of Thrones and I continued to enjoy it right up to the end. In general, I particularly enjoy the TV show’s deviations from the book series. I like them not only because they’re unexpected, but because they also usually make a bit more sense than what happened in the books.

For instance, in the books, Arya helps the Northmen capture Harrenhal and then serves as a cupbearer to Roose Bolton (who does not know her true identity). In the books, that whole thing never happens! Instead, she serves as a cupbearer to Lord Tywin Lannister. Not only is this a bit more efficient (since it lets us see both Arya and Tywin at the same time, whereas Roose Bolton is a total sidecharacter), but it also makes way more sense. I mean, Roose Bolton was on the same side as Robb Stark. I know that there’s a reason why Arya Stark didn’t reveal herself to Bolton (although I can’t quite remember what it is), but isn’t it so much cleaner and more efficient for her to never have to concoct some tortured reason in the first place? I mean, almost any narrative choice can be justified, but sometimes it makes more sense to avoid the need for a justification in the first place.

I also like the changes that help clear up troubling bits of characterization. For instance, in the books, Jon Snow chooses to let Ygritte escape instead of killing her. This is kind of a troubling move, because she’s clearly going to go back and warn the wildlings that the Night’s Watch is lurking around. In the show, he just takes her captive. That’s also doesn’t strike me as a smart choice, but at least it’s making the best of a bad situation.

Sometimes the additions add tension to stretches that were, in the books, a little narratively dull. Or there’s the part in Qarth, where Daenerys’ dragons get captured. In the books, this does not happen at all. She just chooses to go into the House of the Undying in order to gain their help. So, basically, Daenerys just faffs about in Qarth for a whole book. In the show, she’s at least got some sort of complication in her life. Also, it does sort of solve a logical difficulty that I always had with the books: given that the dragons are the most valuable creatures in the whole world, it totally makes sense that someone would try to take them from Daenerys by force. By beating back the attempt, she’ll demonstrate how she’s able to keep the dragons despite her obvious lack of wealth or strength.

 

The only additions that I really don’t like are the ones that are designed to make the evil people eviller. I mean, I’m not one of those people who gets off on the “moral ambiguity” of Martin’s books. I actually don’t think they’re particularly ambiguous at all. I mean, Tyrion and Daenerys and Jon and the Starks are clearly the good guys and Jaime and Cersei and Tywin and Littlefinger are clearly the bad guys. In fact, the series has one of the hallmarks of a lack of moral ambiguity: good people can do horrible things and everyone will praise them for it just because they’re the good guys. Daenerys can run around sacking cities and it’s okay, because she’s the Mother of Dragons and she has good intentions. But when the Dothraki do it, that shit is bad to the bone! Really the only person with moral ambiguity in the series is Stannis Baratheon. He does horrible things that people hate him for, but he also goes up and saves the whole North.

But two scenes that were inserted into the TV series just felt really wrong to me. The first is the scene where Joffrey forces one prostitute to beat another prostitute with an iron staff or candleholder or something. This is just such a huge escalation from anything he’d done previously. Before, he’d shouted for people to die, and his soldiers had gone ahead and done it (because he was the king). But he’d never really gotten right up close in the blood and gore. That girl was on Joffrey’s bed. She was bleeding into his sheets.

Even very callous people experience a kind of visceral, animal pity when they see someone in pain. That’s why Nazis had so much trouble getting their police battalions to execute people one by one (but comparatively little trouble when they ordered soldiers to conduct executions en masse). I just don’t buy that Joffrey would be able to bear the sight of this kind of suffering. I’m pretty desensitized to portrayals of violence, including most forms of stylized sexual violence, but even thinking about how beaten-up that girl was going to look was a little upsetting for me.

Even if you think that Joffrey derived some kind of psychosexual pleasure from the sight of suffering, the kid had also clearly never seen a naked girl before. I just don’t see him immediately jumping straight to beating a naked girl half to death.

 

The second interpolation that I didn’t like was when Jaime beat his cousin to death so that he could (I guess?) break open his chains and escape. That whole scene was incredibly cold. Here’s the scene:

Cousin: “Hey, I met you once before, don’t you remember? I squired for you before a tournament.”

Jaime: “Oh yeah, you were a pretty good squire.”

Cousin: “Yeah, that was the greatest moment of my life. I will never forget a single second of it, ever. Even after I forget my mother’s face I’ll still remember the color of the mud on that day.”

Jaime: “That’s cool. I totally understand. Here’s a story about how much I loved some other night back when I was sixteen.”

Cousin: “Hey, now that we’re locked up together, is there anyway that I can help you to escape.”

Jaime: “Yeah, you can die!”

I mean…what? This seems like it reflects a lack of psychological insight. Even if Jaime was a callous bastard who’d murder his cousin just to escape, it doesn’t feel like his last words would be, “Yeah, you can die!” (that wasn’t it exactly, but it was something cocky and stupid). It seems like he’d at least have a little more respect or fear or awe than that. But also, who would do that?

I mean, we’ve already seen Jaime attempt to kill another kid (Bran). But that was a spur of the moment thing, and he did it to prevent Bran from destroying Jaime’s entire life. In this case, Jaime was in no immediate danger. He just wanted to get out of prison.

I can believe that someone might be horrible enough to act the way that Jaime did. But it does make him a substantially worse person than he was in the books. And it’s going to be a little harder, from now on, to stomach him whenever he starts joking around with Tyrion or something.

Scattered thoughts on the second season of Game of Thrones

So, when I watched the first season of Game of Thrones last year, it somehow wasn’t particularly compelling to me. Since I read the books, I already knew what was going to happen, and I wasn’t particularly interested in watching it played out onscreen. I finished the first season, but I didn’t rave about it. This year, I watched the first episode of the second season and then put the whole thing aside. I just didn’t feel any desire to watch the rest.

Yesterday, I finally watched the second episode, and I found myself intensely gripped. I rapidly watched the next two episodes. And I have no doubt that within a few days, I’ll have watched the rest of the season.

This makes me remember, “Oh, wait, this is exactly what happened with the books.”

Way back in the mists of prehistory, when I was a high school sophomore, I basically slogged my way through A Game Of Thrones. I enjoyed it enough to keep reading, clearly, but it was also just a little boring. The death of Eddard Stark at the end of the first book was just surprising enough to rescue the book from being a failure, in my eyes. So it was only with reluctance that I picked up the second book. However, from the moment I began reading the second book, I was captivated.

Since then, I’ve read the first book several times and considerably enjoyed each re-read, so I’m not quite sure what put me off the first time. Maybe it was all the children. The worst thing about A Song Of Ice And Fire are the children. Particularly Bran. My god, he’s dull. In five books, he’s done absolutely nothing. Arya has a more action-packed life, and it definitely caught my interest….but it definitely wasn’t ever what kept me reading. Only Sansa sometimes crosses my interest threshold (but then, isn’t she the most nearly adult of all of them?)

Anyways, the series of really good. Arya’s storyline is surprisingly interesting. Perhaps that’s because it’s just so horrifying. There’s really something about seeing it that is different from just reading about it. All of the little side characters she encounters along the way also have so much more life in the series than they ever did in the books: Gendry, Lommy, Hot Pie, and the Tickler all have some kind of solidity to them.

I think that’s true of the series in general. It’s definitely done wonders for even some of the more important minor characters. Tywin Lannister, for instance, was an imposing figure in the books, but in the series there’s also a hint of humanity to him.

And, of course, the best character resuscitation is that of Renly/Loras. Okay, I knew that they were lovers in the books. But really I only knew that because of a fan-made FAQ. It is really not at all obvious. And that’s for a simple reason: I don’t expect to the homosexual romance in a modern book to be subtextual.

For instance, it’s obvious (to me, at least) that Ishmael and Queequeeg were lovers in Moby Dick, even though it’s never directly acknowledged. They sleep in the same bed and spoon and Queequeeg calls Ishmael his wife and they hold hands while kneading a barrel of sperm. It’s totes obv.

I understand why Melville had to be so coy. I mean, that was the 1800s (although he was considerably less coy than Martin’s books). But it seems a little antiquated that Martin inserted this homosexual relationship into his books in such a veiled manner. It comes off as more of a box-ticking exercise than any real engagement with the world. Like, “Oh yeah, there should be gays. Oh, and we’ll put an island of black people somewhere too.”

Anyways, I am glad that the movie corrected this oversight. And they did it so deftly, too. Renly and Loras are, like, a real couple. I particularly like that their relationship is not just sexual (although in every case that we see them together, they’re about to start having sex), but that Loras is very involved (perhaps more involved than Renly) in this whole plan to turn Renly into a king. And I like how the show steers clear of shoving them into a feminine/masculine dichotomy. Both of them are a little foppish and a little foolish and, in their scenes, they trade off on the role of being the wiser head. There’s also no implication (in their scenes together) that whoever tops the other in bed is also the one who is more worthy of respect. Yay for not assigning normative value to sexual roles.

Oh, and the Daenerys plotline (which, in the books, is completely tepid) is also marginally more interesting to me in the show, although I have a sneaking suspicion that this might just be because the actor who plays Jorah Mormont is so handsome. I think I have the opposite problem with Jon Snow’s plotlines. Those were pretty interesting in the books, but there’s something about Jon Snow’s goofy looks that’s putting me off.

So….yeah…I’m just going to come out and say it….I’m thinking about adding this show to my list of movie/television adaptations that are better than the books.* Who’s with me on this?

*The other items on my list: The Prestige; Legally Blonde; The Devil Wears Prada; The Godfather; Minority Report; Total Recall.

In which I write about the first book in The Hunger Games trilogy

            I finally read the Hunger Games. I started reading it and then, three hours later, I was done. I read it because I love Woody Harrelson. When I heard that he was the drunken mentor in the HG movie, I was like, “I really want to see that.” Normally, I don’t particularly care about reading the book before I watch the movie, but in this case, I decided to. It was pretty enjoyable, but I’m not too sure about whether I’m going to read the next few books. (Hey, umm, some HG spoilers are gonna follow, so beware).

The book is about a teenage girl who’s dispatched to fight to the death on television for the entertainment of an audience of jaded sybarites (in a futuristic dystopia, of course). It has hints of Rollerball, Battle Royale, The Running Man and “The Most Dangerous Game”.  The only innovation of the novel is that the protagonist realizes that she needs to have the audience’s good will in order to survive. This is because the audience is able to dispatch gifts to help their chosen kid, and those gifts can (and do) mean the difference between winning and dying.

However, because this contest has a sort of reality show flavor, what really matters is building some kind of credible storyline. A kid needs to feel like flesh and blood; someone the audience can empathize with and root for. In order to this, the protagonist of the Hunger Games (whose name is Katniss) fakes that she is falling in love with one of her fellow contestants Peeta. While she’s running around killing other kids in a series of moderately gripping action sequences, she also learns how to inhabit her role as a starstruck lover (which is made much more poignant by the fact that she might possibly have to kill her ‘lover’ in order to win the game). I thought this was a neat conceit. It sort of came out of nowhere about a third of the way into the book, and it slowly grew to dominate the whole story. This whole reality show / playacting part of the story was by far its best part.

And I don’t really trust any of the other novels to have good parts that are as good. I mean, the author can’t use this reality show conceit again, right? And even if she did, it wouldn’t really be fresh. I don’t know why I am so suspicious of a series whose first entry I enjoyed so much, but I think what it comes down to is that I just don’t trust Suzanne Collins enough. Pretty much every series starts out with a few good ideas and then slowly exhausts them until eventually the later books of the series turn into pitiful self-parodies. When a series starts out with one good idea, it becomes really hard for me to believe that there is a lot more stuff lying underneath.

On a side note, my problems with the book were exactly the same as everyone else’s problems. Collins manipulates the situations in this book to exculpate her heroine of any of the moral guilt from killing a bunch of other kids. The other kids are either psychopaths or they get killed by the psychopaths. Katniss’ hands remain clean. To me, that seems like a waste. If you have a book where innocent kids are forced fight each other to the death…then some innocent kids ought to actually fight each other to the death!

As a writer, I do kind of understand why Collins did that, though. The audience for stories with moral complexity is a lot smaller than the audience for stories without moral complexity. Even a lot of the series that people claim have a lot of moral complexity are actually just standard Good-and-Evil narratives dressed up in gray clothing. A prime example of this is A Song Of Ice And Fire. People claim that this series is very dark and gritty, but actually, from book one, you know who the heroes are and who the villains are. Sure, some of the villains turn out to be likeable and some of the heroes turn out to be stupid, but very little occurs to make you question the original good/bad classifications.

Even in my own stories, I sometimes step back and am like, “Whoah, no one is going to like this main character” and then I change around some stuff to make him/her more likeable. Because that’s what people want.

This reminds me of the section in A Moveable Feast where Hemingway criticizes Fitzgerald for altering his stories to make them more saleable:

I thought of [F. Scott Fitzgerald] as a much older writer. I thought he wrote Saturday Evening Post stories that had been readable three years before, but I never thought of him as a serious writer. He had told me at the Closerie des Lilas how he wrote what he thought were good stories, and which really were good stories for the Post, and then changed them for submission, knowing exactly how he must make the twists that made them into saleable magazine stories. I had been shocked at this and I said I thought it was whoring.

When I read this passage, I was shocked. Since Fitzgerald’s stories are pretty sublime, I wondered what in hell it was that he was changing in them? I had a sneaking suspicion that maybe if I read the unchanged stories, I wouldn’t like them very much.

Woman as Financial Vampire

I’m currently reading (and considerably enjoying) Edith Wharton’s Custom Of The Country. But I am also disquieted by the novel. At its core, the story of this novel is a very familiar one. It’s about an ambitious woman who sucks dry a somewhat dreamy man with her incessant financial demands.

The cunning woman who only longs for fine society and fine objects and uses her beauty as a tool with which to entrap men into providing for her desires is an incredibly familiar figure in literature. She is so familiar, in fact, that I kept having these strange echoes while I read the book. I’d have a brief impression, and then I wouldn’t be able to rest until I remembered the other book that I was being reminded of.

I haven’t tracked down all the impressions of what I call “woman as financial vampire”, but I can name a few. There’s Emile Zola’s Nana, about a French prostitute who destroys the fortunes of her admirers. There’s Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, whose eponymous heroine eventually gets her husband deep into debt after issuing numerous notes and trying all kinds of financial manipulations with the village moneylender. There’s Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie: the main character has a paramour who engages in embezzlement to meet her monetary demands. There’s Becky Sharp, from William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, who bankrupts her creditors (and ruins her admittedly horribly husband) by knowingly borrowing huge sums and then running away from her debts. There’s Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind: who screws over her second husband in various business deals. There’s Grushenka in Dostoyevsky’s Brother’s Karamozov, who causes the central conflict of the novel by creating a large need for money in the oldest brother, Dmitri. There’s Polina in Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, whose mysterious need for money causes the hero to take up gambling.

Perhaps the most nuanced and complex use of this female trope comes (rather surprisingly) from Charles Dickens. David Copperfield’s first wife, Dora Spenlow, shares many traits with the financial vampires described above: she’s spoiled, petulant, short-sighted, and used to being supported by wealthy men. And when she married David Copperfield, one is almost sure that she is immediately going to drive him to ruin. But she doesn’t. Their marriage is not precisely happy, but she does not destroy him. In the end, it seems like he genuinely loves her and she genuinely loves him.

Most of the examples I cited above are from a particular time period, and, indeed, I think it’s difficult to find more recent examples of the woman as financial vampire. An example from the fifties is Millie, from Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana, whose financial demands cause her father to enter into the spying business. Another that springs to mind is Jorah Mormont in A Song Of Ice And Fire, who becomes a slaver and a mercenary in order to satisfy his wife Lynesse’s need for jewels and finery and parties.

There must be many more examples of this trope, but its frequent occurrence in my own reading is enough to satisfy me that it is definitely “a thing”.

But it does puzzle me. The occurrence and reoccurrence of the fantastically spendthrift woman in literature seems to suggest that she is being used to work out some sort of deep cultural anxiety. In many cases, her financial needs are coupled with a sexual unfaithfulness, which seems to suggest that they’re both part of some kind of fear of emasculation or loss of control.

But it’s the financial aspect that has always been more startling to me than the sexual aspect. After all, a woman can’t be spendthrift without her husband’s consent. In most of the above relationships, the man has to sign for each and every purchase. He is fully capable, at any time, of cutting the purse strings, but he is so ensnared by her charm that he is unable to.

It’s a strange sort of anxiety and I question how often women like this actually existed. She’s more like a monster than she is like a real person. She has an unholy power to glamor a man. And she has an unquenchable appetite for jewels, hotel rooms, meals, carriages, and dresses.

In some cases (as in Our Man In Havana) the financial vampire is just a plot device. She’s a way to provide the hero with a huge need for money without also making him seem greedy or repellent. But many of these novels are explicitly devoted to the psychology or origins of these women. It’s quite fantastic that so much ink has been spilled about the inner workings creature that can’t have been very common.

But it doesn’t matter that the financial vampire probably didn’t exist too often: what matters is that she ought to exist. Most of these novels conclude that mankind deserves the financial vampire. Halfway through Custom of the Country, a character rather explicitly says that America gives rise to these financial vampires because it infantilizes women and doesn’t allow them to have real pursuits: the reason they have no real concept of money is because they are not allowed to work, and the reason they ruin men is because they are taught that their virtue is measured in what they can extract from males using their beauty and charm.

Personally, though, I am not convinced by these pseudo-feminist morals. Despite the gloss that these novels put on what they’re doing, they are still trafficking in very charged, very sexist imagery, and I think that part of their emotional appeal, as literature, is due to the horror that these women arouse in men. If I created a movie where a mob of blacks rioted and raped a bunch of white women, I think I would still be playing to the racist anxieties of my audience even if I ended the movie by saying “They were driven to this by your racism!”

Kind of not as excited about “A Dance With Dragons” as I used to be

So, the latest volume of George R. R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire just hit the shelves. For those not in the know, this is a huge epic fantasy series that is super popular and which recently spawned an HBO series that is incredibly good (and possible better than the books?).

I read the first three books when I was in high school and I really, really, really liked them. I reread them several times while I waited for the fourth book to come out. When it did, during my sophomore year in college, I purchased it in hardback and read it. I then read all four books several times while I waited for the fifth book to come out. Unfortunately, it took six years for the fifth book to come out, and I am somewhat over the whole thing.

Awhile back, George R. R. Martin complained about how his fans would flame him and berate him about how long it was taking him to write this book. He said that writers work at their own pace, and you can’t force it, and etcetera. I was less sympathetic. Not because I think that Martin somehow owes me this book, but because Martin basically makes a living by stoking the kind of rabid fandom that can cause a fan to get really crazy about an author taking six years to finish a book.

I mean, George R. R. Martin has an HBO TV show, card game, spin-off novellas, line of miniatures, reprints of long out of print novels, other random merch and a whole host of other side projects that basically came about as a result of the belief that people love A Song Of Ice And Fire so much that they’ll pay for anything even vaguely ASoIaF related. I mean, each of these books is more than a third of a million words long, and I read each of them an ungodly number of times.

I don’t really think you can get that kind of fandom without having at least a few people in it feel like they are owed something by you. I mean, I really like Ursula Le Guin, but I don’t even notice when she puts out a book. Her book Lavinia won the Nebula a few years back, and I never even read it. But I read two of Martin’s early novels (Fevre Dream and the Armageddon Rag) and I even bought his hugely expensive short story collection (Dreamsongs). All of them were amazing, of course, but I doubt I’d have bothered if I hadn’t felt like I was somehow invested in him and his series.

But that investment has dissipated. For a mere $15, I could be reading A Dance With Dragons on my kindle right now. It would be difficult to count the number of times over the last six years that I have fervently wished I could be reading that book right now. Well, right now is here and I am not reading it. I mean, I’m definitely going to read it eventually. It’s on my list of things to read, but, you know…there are a lot of other books on that list. And I’m definitely not doing that thing where I re-read every other book in the series so that I am totally current on every last little event and character (although at this point, I don’t think there’s any aSoIaF trivia that I don’t already have stored in my brain’s RAM).

Did anything in particular happen to cause this cooling down? Nope. Six years just went by, and gave me a little perspective.