Kingdom of disconnect: On ambivalence with Game of Thrones

As you may or may not know, I have not read one single word of the book that HBO’s Game of Thrones is based on. As such, I was sufficiently excited for the television adaptation, as I would be for all new HBO drama series. Despite all the annoying hype and the assertions that the series would be difficult to follow, I really, really liked that initial episode and wrote a fairly glowing, albeit short review of the first offering back in April. But after that, I haven’t even come close to writing a review of any of the episodes and it’s not really because of other time commitments.

I said this on Twitter the other day, but the thing with Game of Thrones is that after every episode, even the objectively pretty damn good ones, all I can muster up is a “cool.” This isn’t a particularly excited “cool,” but nor is it a frustrated or sigh-related “cool.” This “cool” comes with a slight nod, maybe a twinge of a smile, but that’s about it. For the most part, I completely understand why critics and friends of the blog really enjoy Game of Thrones. As someone with the ability to separate my personal enjoyment with more objective quality, I more or less see that this is a good, teetering on great television series. It’s beautiful, the story has a number of intriguing elements and I generally like the people I’m supposed to like and dislike the ones I’m supposed to dislike.

But most importantly of all, I just don’t care. When Drogo gave Viserys his crown, I gave my loudest and most excited “cool” of the season, but I didn’t really care about what that moment was supposed to mean to Drogo, Viserys or Daenerys. When Ned was executed at last Sunday’s episode, I gave my saddest and somber “cool” of the season, but again, I didn’t totally care that the series killed off the individual that appeared to be the lead character. That’s a shocking development (well, for those of us who hadn’t read the book) and I still couldn’t muster up much enthusiasm, sadness or anger. I was mostly numb to the events, just as I have been at the end of every Game of Thrones episode. In general, I am not invested in any of the series’ characters and the journeys that they are on. I see and respect what the series’ production team is trying to do, but Thrones has done a masterful job at keeping me at arm’s length throughout the first nine episodes.

I’ve been wondering about this a lot lately because it frustrates me. I don’t want to feel this way. I love to love things! I want to feel something for these characters and want to be invested in the paths that they’re on. I’m looking for someone or something to blame and I think I’ve come up with four primary culprits that I want to quickly discuss here before the season one finale airs this Sunday.

1.) There has been too much material taken out of the books when the story was adapted to television, which especially hurt the development of the characters

I’d love to say that this is the most obvious answer. Condensing a 835-page paperback book into 10-hours of drama is certainly difficult and perhaps the things that were lost along the way were the character beats that would really alter the way I feel about them. At times, it’s felt like the series has bounced around from narrative to narrative without a lot of pausing for consequences or discussion. So clearly, it’s the fault of the adaptation process! Of course, then I realized that A.) I haven’t read the books and therefore have no idea what has or has not been left out and B.) If I can find a two-hour film adaptation of a similarly long Harry Potter book satisfying, I could just as easily feel enchanted by the people of Game of Thrones. So not only is this probably not true, I wouldn’t really know if it was.

2.) The books are at fault to begin with and the series’ production team should have been more willing to step out from underneath it

I have heard from a few book fans that the series has been mostly faithful in the adaptation process, so for a moment, that became my scapegoat. Although I just lambasted the book for theoretically taking out important stuff I WANTED TO SEE, I’m generally supportive of adaptations standing on their own in any capacity. The process can be tricky, especially with a rabid fan base like this one, but I’d be all for new material, storylines, etc. Of course, after a few minutes of meditating on this problem, I realized that it’s similar to #1. I can’t know for sure because I haven’t read the books and so I should just shut the hell up. But wait!

3.) HBO’s recent approach to drama series storytelling supports season-long arcs over episodic satisfactions 

There’s been a decent amount of discussion about this issue, I guess you could call it. Some of HBO’s recent drama outings (most notably Treme and Boardwalk Empire) have forgone telling stories that conclude momentarily on a weekly basis and instead prefer working their structures more like well, novels. Treme is more overt about it, but I remember some of the early complaints about Boardwalk Empire mentioned how its combination of dense, broad character stable didn’t quite match with episodic storytelling. These are different cases with distinct circumstances, but it seems like HBO is trying to tinker the storytelling structure just a bit, whether implicitly or not.

Game of Thrones fits into that mold somewhat, as many of its episodes have just ended with very little resolution to them. I don’t need big twists, shocking deaths or even some sort of new development, I would just generally prefer that an episode have a beginning, middle and an end so that I can at least evaluate it in those terms before thinking about the season as a whole. I’m not totally sure this is the biggest problem with Game of Thrones, but there were certain weeks where it bothered me and certainly didn’t help me like the series any more.

4.) The genre and/or the original story itself just don’t interest me

I’m not saying this is a fault of anyone’s, it’s just becoming more and more obvious to me that this isn’t a story I am ever going to be especially engaged by. I’m not a fantasy buff, but like most people I enjoyed the Lord of The Rings films. I own all three of them and have watched each one a few times since the original theatrical runs. I even cried just a bit during Return of The King. But outside of those films, the fantasy genre has never caught my eye. I don’t dislike it, I just find myself attracted to a number of other things before fantasy. I do enjoy that Game of Thrones is not overflowing with magic and dragons and instead focuses on the political scheming, but perhaps it isn’t enough. Similarly, maybe it’s not that this television adaptation is too rigid or not rigid enough. Perhaps I would read the first book in this series and realize that even then, the characters didn’t have enough time to really develop because the plot was moving so quickly. This simply might not be my kind of story and no cool twist or shocking death is ever going to change that.

In the end, I’m not really sure the full reasoning for my ambivalence towards this series. Let me again reiterate that I recognize the quality of Game of Thrones and don’t come anywhere close to hating it. I feel like the characters have gotten the short end of the stick so that the plot could move fairly crisply over the first nine episodes, no matter if the adaptation, the original book or HBO are to blame. I don’t care about the people and am unsure how anyone could. But again, I do. not. hate. it. Yet, the fact that I do not like it, as hard as I have tried over these last nine weeks, is supremely frustrating. Maybe the finale will change my mind, but I’m not holding my breath. Maybe you have some answers?

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7 Responses to “Kingdom of disconnect: On ambivalence with Game of Thrones”
  1. I haven’t read the books myself and I’m not big on fantasy material at all, but I find myself greatly enjoying Game of Thrones. That said, even though Ned’s death got to me, it was nothing like the impact of major character deaths on some other major series, so I suppose I feel a bit of a disengagement as well. I think it’s partially a result of the narrative condensation you mention, but rather than specifically being about cutting character beats I think the story is more suffering from the shift of perspective away from the internal thoughts of characters to a more objective televisual format. There are plenty of character beats, but not enough space between the amount of material and shorter episode order for the show to just slow down and teach us about the characters since we’re losing the entire internal world of the novels in the translation. The sequence where Syrio starts training Arya and Ned watches her at the end of “Lord Snow” (Episode 3) is the kind of scene I’m talking about, as it creates actual internal depth for those characters while we generally have to glean what we know of others through shorthand techniques. I don’t think we necessarily need more material from the books included, but rather for them to give a little more breathing to the parts they’ve decided to tell.

  2. Kimsie says:

    Marfle. yeah, this was about twhat readers feared. that people would not CARE about the folks. However, you seem to be rather… unique in that.
    So, perhaps I might ask… did you like the wire?

    Is it the fault of the show or author to try and put too many people/personalities on stage? If you do not care, this is a serious fault of the show. Unless you’re weird.

  3. kwite says:

    I can understand where you’re coming from about not finding the characters fully developed. Having read the books, let me assure you that it is not a failing in the source material, which features some of the most well-developed characters in all of fantasy literature (certainly surpassing any of the one-dimensional archetypes in LotR).

    Perhaps paradoxically, I don’t feel like it’s a failing in the adaptation process either. The characters as they are presented in the show are perfectly accurate representations of the characters in the book. As a fan of the books, I love this. The issue for new viewers is that at this point in the show, the characters as presented are still incomplete.

    There are a couple reasons for this. Partly it’s inevitable, with so many story lines and a limited number of episodes, that not everything in the books will make it into the show. But more significantly, television gets to work with a longer timeline than novels do when it comes to character development. With a limited-omniscient POV structure like the books have, characters are the lens through which readers explore the world, so it’s important that you get a solid sense of who the POV characters are and how they think. All that characterization has to happen in the first couple of chapters, otherwise the foundation on which the story is built feels unstable. If POV characters are still undergoing surprising character developments late in the book, that’s a failing.

    Television is different. It tells the story through a point of view external to the characters, so the characters themselves can be explored at a slower pace. It’s perfectly reasonable to be surprised by something a character does twenty episodes in, so long as it is consistent with what we’ve seen the character do thus far. So in this sense, not telling the viewer everything about the characters upfront can be used for dramatic effect later on.

    All that said, the show does need to give viewers enough characterization to make them care about the characters. The fact that you’re not feeling invested in the characters by the end of the first season is a problem. I fully expect the characters to continue to deepen in the second season, but if you’re feeling on the fence about whether to stay with them that long, I would recommend reading the books instead. Moreso than any other adaptation I’ve seen, Game of Thrones seems made for fans of the books. You say that you “love to love things.” If you really want to love Game of Thrones, I think the surest way is to get to know the characters through the books first. It worked for me!

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