Friday, June 05, 2015

all caught up, Mr. Martin

This morning, a bit before 7AM and after having stayed up all night to finish, I came to the end of the final chapter of the fifth book of George RR Martin's epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. So as far as the books go, I'm now officially caught up. All that remains is the HBO adaptation. But here's the thing: I've seen clips of the HBO series—enough clips to spoil a few plot points from the books—and I'm really in no rush to watch the show. It could be that I'm being a sphincter-puckered purist about the matter, but from the video clips I've seen, the HBO series pretty much mangles the story, and does so right from the beginning.

Case in point: A Game of Thrones, the first novel in the ASOIAF series, begins with a prologue that depicts a group of men from the Night's Watch: the older Gared, the younger Will, and the also-young Ser Waymar Royce, the only true knight in the group—cocky, arrogant, and derisive when he hears the stated fears of his companions. They eventually encounter a group of Others, also known as White Walkers—tall, pale beings with intense blue eyes that have the power to create wights—undead—from corpses. Ser Waymar foolishly confronts the Others and is promptly slaughtered, after which he's revived as a wight. Gared, a veteran but unmanned by the sight of this supernatural carnage, very understandably abandons his duties—an act punishable by death. Will climbs up a tree and witnesses Ser Waymar's death. When he climbs down, thinking all is safe, Ser Waymar rises as a wight and kills Will, leaving only Gared, now a deserter, to tell the tale of the return of the Others after several thousand years. Gared is eventually executed by Eddard Stark, lord of Winterfell. Lord Stark hears Gared's tale of the Others but doesn't believe him. In the HBO version of things, Ser Waymar is indeed killed, but Gared is beheaded next by a White Walker, leaving Will to abandon his duties. Lord Eddard (the ever-dying Sean Bean) executes Will after hearing his story.

That's a pretty significant change of details, I think, and I further think it qualifies as "mangling" the story—right from the beginning. Sure, if you zoom back to an abstract level, not much has changed: there's a ranging by the Night's Watch; the Others appear and kill two people; the remaining person deserts and is eventually executed, but not before telling his story of the return of the lords of the undead. In the abstract, the same story is being told, but to me, the devil is in the details, and the details are very, very different.

The HBO series contains completely non-canonical events. There's a video clip titled "Brienne vs. The Hound" that depicts a vicious fight between Brienne of Tarth and Sandor Clegane, a.k.a. The Hound. Not in the books. Another clip shows Daario Naharis, the mercenary lover of Daenerys Targaryen, fighting a champion outside the gates of Meereen. Also not in the books: in the novels, Daenerys's champion is not Daario but the huge and humorous ex-gladiator Strong Belwas, who always refers to himself in the third person ("Strong Belwas wants liver and onions or someone must die"). A third clip is titled "Jaime and Bronn vs. Dornishmen," depicting yet another fight that never appears in the books, and following a mission (Bronn and Jaime go to Dorne, presumably to kidnap Myrcella Lannister) that doesn't happen in the books. Another scene shows Arya Stark acting as a serving girl to Tywin Lannister, who displays a cold sort of courtesy without realizing who and how important she is. In the books, the two are never shown meeting. A related clip, "Bronn and Jaime vs. the Sand Snakes," depicts yet another non-canonical battle. A very recent clip shows the deaths of two favorite characters, Ser Barristan Selmy (a.k.a. Barristan the Bold) and Grey Worm, the leader of the Unsullied. Both Ser Barristan and Grey Worm are alive by the end of the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons. Same goes for Jojen Reed, who gets killed by a wight in the HBO version but is still very much alive in the novels.

Fans of the HBO series will be quick to argue that, given HBO's schedule and budgetary limitations, there's little choice but to condense and otherwise alter Martin's sweeping vision in ways that remain faithful in spirit to the books. HBO partisans can also argue that Martin, because he's a consultant for the TV series, has essentially given his blessing to these alterations, so the changes in story aren't as evil as all that. This is analogous to what happened to the Harry Potter stories: JK Rowling was quite involved in the making of the movies, and the movies were a super-condensed, super-altered version of her books. I'm not convinced, though: I think HBO could have been much more faithful in its rendering of the novels (indeed, from what I've seen on YouTube, the HBO show occasionally contains verbatim lines of dialogue from the books) instead of haring off on utterly alien tangents.

I may eventually watch the HBO version, but for now, I feel that watching it would distort the book's narrative in my memory. This distortion has already begun, in fact: I can no longer imagine Ser Barristan the Bold without imagining Ian McElhinney, the surprisingly spry actor who plays him on TV (assuming those action sequences didn't involve a CGI replacement). Whenever I think of Brienne of Tarth, I see Gwendoline Christie (her hilarious interview with Craig Ferguson is here). Same goes for Eddard Stark: I can't envision Eddard without thinking of Sean Bean. I do, however, experience some mental static when I compare actress Michelle Fairley to my mental version of Catelyn Stark. Fairley's a handsome woman, but in my mind, Catelyn has smoother, less angular features, although her face can still harden into resentfulness whenever she sees Jon Snow, Eddard Stark's son by a different woman.

It'll be interesting to see where Martin goes next in The Winds of Winter, which isn't out yet. A Dance with Dragons brings us right to the edge of official winter in the Seven Kingdoms—a fact that probably has little relevance for the hotter parts of Martin's planet—places like Dorne, Asshai (I swear, whenever I see that word, I think "asshat"), the Dothraki Sea, Braavos, and the various cities of Essos that Daenerys had conquered, like Yunkai and Astapor. Still, winter is relevant in the northern reaches of Westeros, especially as one gets closer to the Wall. Stannis Baratheon may already have been frozen enough for his small army to have been defeated by Roose Bolton at Winterfell (Ramsay Bolton's nasty letter to Jon Snow makes this claim, at least).

With Ser Barristan alive in the books and dead on film, I wonder what sort of story-level contradictions will begin to develop as both the HBO series and Martin's books now progress in roughly parallel fashion (at this point, HBO has pretty much caught up with Martin's ambitious narrative). My understanding, from watchers of the show, is that HBO tried its best to be more literally faithful to the books in the early seasons, but as the show progressed, it began increasingly to go its own way, such that it has now become something of its own thing. (Ramsay Bolton's taunting of Theon Greyjoy with a long link of pork sausage—this after Theon's privy member had been cut off—was yet another event not found in the books.)

Things certainly aren't going well for Jon Snow by the end of the fifth novel: he's been betrayed by some of his men and has been stabbed three-and-a-half times (the first knife attack merely grazes his neck thanks to Jon's quick reflexes). I suspect, though, that Martin is too invested in this character to let him die: Jon Snow, if he dies, will likely be resurrected by fire-priestess Melisandre, who seems to have a potentially prurient interest in Snow (the HBO series has her actually making salacious advances on Snow; the books are much more coy about her intentions toward the teenager). In the meantime, I expect that Snow's wildling counterpart, Tormund Giantsbane, a man incapable of hiding his feelings, will find Snow's betrayers, tie them to stakes, and roast their entrails while they're still alive. As a wildling, Tormund is ostensibly Jon Snow's enemy and only a grudging partner to the fragile peace between the wildlings and the Night's Watch, but it's obvious that Tormund has an avuncular love for the boy and would move mountains for him.

A Dance with Dragons ends very much in medias res. Fleets are converging on Meereen, bringing people who want to either align themselves with Daenerys or steal her away for themselves—Tyrion Lannister and Victarion Greyjoy among them. Will Dany ever decide to head back to Westeros to claim the Iron Throne? Will Tyrion ever find himself in a place of safety, happiness, and justice? Will Arya Stark, currently in Braavos and mastering the deadly arts of the Faceless Men who worship the Many-faced God, have a chance to meet up with her siblings: Sansa, Bran, and Jon Snow? And what of Lady Stoneheart, i.e., the resurrected Catelyn Stark, who is almost a wight herself? How will her children react to her existence? Will Daenerys figure out the secret of riding a dragon without using magic to command it? Will Aegon Targaryen become a true rival to Daenerys's claim to the Iron Throne?

One thing seems certain: when the series is finally done, it won't really be done: if Martin's narrative teaches nothing else, it's that nothing in life is guaranteed, and plans always, always go awry. This is, I suppose, a decent reflection of the real world, but Martin will be taking a big risk when he writes his seventh and (supposedly) final novel, A Dream of Spring: there's potential, here, to piss off most of the readership if the story ends unsatisfactorily, with too many loose ends. But we have years to go before we find out the end of the saga. Until then, it's enough to wait for the sixth and penultimate book, The Winds of Winter, and hope it's as interesting as the previous five have proved to be.



Frank (formerly Nomad) said...

IMHO, HBO has done a superb job with the series (as they've done with many of their shows). The scenery, directing, writing and most of all, the acting makes this one of the best shows currently out there. I've read the books twice now, and I thoroughly enjoy the TV series as well. My one and only gripe is what you brought up above; the show has begun to deviate from the books, especially in this season and I have to wonder where they'll go next season, given the next book isn't out yet.

Kevin Kim said...

I wonder whether it might be prudent for HBO just to put the show on hiatus. If the writers have been proceeding at roughly one novel per TV season, it makes sense to wait for the newest novel to come out before the show's writers kill off too many characters who, in the novels, still remain alive.

Killing off Ser Barristan Selmy seems rather extreme. I saw the HBO clip of his death on YouTube; as the video titles suggest, he goes out like a badass (in the fight sequence, he kills thirteen Sons of the Harpy), but the fact remains that, in the books, he's Dany most valued counselor now that Jorah Mormont has been banished from Dany's presence. With Ser Barristan dead, a major chess piece is off the board, and it's going to have significant ramifications for the TV series since Dany will no longer have access to Selmy's wisdom. (Then again, Martin might kill Selmy off in the upcoming battles that are sure to take place in and around Meereen, so perhaps the TV/book rift will be minimal.)

I somehow managed to hold the Harry Potter books and movies in two different compartments in my head, probably because I've read the Potter heptalogy through, like, five or six times by now. I suppose I can manage the same feat for Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire and HBO's "Game of Thrones." With summer vacation coming up, I'll likely be rereading ASOIAF soon.