On April 17, HBO will premiere what is arguably the largest fantasy film-making effort since Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Lord of the Rings: the first season of Game of Thrones, an adaptation of the first book in George R.R. Martin’s long-running Song of Ice and Fire series. I don’t make the comparison to Jackson’s epic adaptations lightly – the HBO press department has been rolling out teasers and “behind the scenes” featurettes on a pretty regular basis for the last few months, and from the look of them, series creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss have done their homework. The series looks suitably epic, with an amazing eye for detail. And to top it all off, they’ve amassed an impressive cast, including Sean Bean, Peter Dinklage, and Lena Headey.
As a fantasy geek, I couldn’t be more excited. But I suspect that folks who tune into the series expecting something along the lines of Lord of the Rings – either due to HBO’s PR efforts, certain assumptions about the fantasy genre in general, and/or Martin’s reputation as the “American Tolkien” – will be in for a bit of a shock. Though Martin and Tolkien may be shelved in the same section at your local Barnes & Noble, don’t let the “fantasy” tag trick you: Westeros is a long, long ways from Middle-Earth.
First, a very quick introduction: A Song of Ice and Fire primarily takes place on the continent of Westeros, a massive continent that once held seven kingdoms. Three hundred years before the series begins, one of these kingdoms, the Targaryens, conquered the other kingdoms and established a single kingdom. Eventually, their increasingly brutal regime was challenged and overthrown in the years immediately prior to the series. Now the land is relatively at peace under a new king of the people — or so it seems. Numerous rivalries and conspiracies simmer just below the surface, old loyalties still remain, and what’s more, an ominous threat is beginning to emerge from Westeros’ vast, frozen north. In the midst of this mess lies noble House Stark, a proud and ancient family who finds themselves drawn into a chaos that will challenge their sense of honor and duty, their lineage, and their very lives.
I’ve glossed over a lot, if only because the novels in the series are massive — the third book in the series, A Storm of Swords, weighs in at over 1200 pages — and feature a huge cast of characters. But while Martin’s novels certainly have an epic scope similar to Tolkien’s famous stories, they couldn’t be more different in some significant ways.
Despite being fantasy novels, there’s very little magic to be found in Martin’s novels. You’ll find nary an elf or goblin wandering about Westeros, and dragons have been extinct for hundreds of years. That’s not to say that Martin doesn’t know how to include some “traditional” fantasy elements — as the series progresses, several otherworldly mysteries appear, e.g., the erratic nature of Westeros’ seasons — but they remain on the periphery, and are barely discussed and understood even less so. You won’t find the same sense of awe and wonder that permeated Tolkien’s writing here. Rather, Martin’s emphasis is primarily on the politics and the characters’ myriad struggles to achieve and maintain power. Combat and bloodshed, subterfuge, seduction, conspiracy, assassination, treachery: these all feature in the novels more prominently than magic and fantastical creatures.
But the pursuit of power comes with a heavy price. While Tolkien explored the corrupting aspects of power via the power of Sauron’s ring, he shied away from many of the uglier, seamier details. Martin, however, pulls no punches. No character in the story is safe: indeed, he is perfectly willing to kill off even the noblest and most heroic characters. Or at the very least, the books’ heroes find their ethics compromised, either because they give into lust for power or because they’re forced to take extraordinary measures to survive. In either case, Martin’s point is clear: power corrupts, and it oftentimes corrupts the noblest the most easily.
The novels, as well as HBO’s upcoming adaptation, have been described as “fantasy for adults”, and in once sense that’s true. Make no mistake, Martin spins a dark tale full of violence, bloodshed, and sex. And given HBO’s track record, and some of the promo materials, that content will make it into the series. However, and this is important, the sex and violence are not gratuitous, exploitative, or titillating. Especially in the case of the sexual content, Martin rightfully portrays it as disgusting and perverted, for it is often not an expression of love, trust, and intimacy, but rather, yet another tool for achieving and maintaining power.
However – and this is the masterstroke of Martin’s novels that keeps me from calling them nihilistic or cynical — corruption is not all there is: redemption is possible, too. One of the true joys of reading Martin’s novels is that none of the characters are static; they are constantly developing and changing. Sometimes this is for the worse, as noble characters compromise their ethics for one reason or another. But sometimes, it’s for the better, as characters that we love to hate at the beginning slowly develop and reveal themselves to be much more than fiendish villains. They’re fallen, broken human beings prone to doubt and conscience, and sometimes, this leads to a burgeoning desire for that which is honorable, one that can’t be snuffed out regardless of the depravity. Redemption never comes easily — it may literally cost an arm and a leg — but it is possible.
If I had to describe Martin’s writings in one word, it’d be “humanistic”. By that, I mean that his novels are focused on, and draw their strength from, a thorough examination of the human condition. Power, glory, honor, corruption, duty, deceit, hatred, sacrifice: these comprise the themes of Martin’s stories. It is true that his books — and, I’m sure, the series — go through some very dark, stomach-churning places. But Martin never glorifies or revels in the darkness. And the extent to which he is willing put characters through the ringer is matched by the extent to which he willing to give characters moments of redemption, honor, and dignity — even those who seemingly deserve it least.
If even a fraction of this makes it to HBO’s adaptation alongside the amazing attention to detail in the sets, costumes, props, and languages, or alongside the wealth of acting talent in the cast — then HBO’s Game of Thrones is going to be something very special indeed.