Heather Havrilesky offers an interesting review of the TV adaption of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones at the New York Times. Apparently, this particular article is not behind that noxious paywall, though another review of the same show at the same site is.
Heather Havrilesky is one of those reviewers whose names I only recognize because I disagree with what they write every single time, people whose reviews work like anti-recommendations. If the reviewer likes something, I am sure to hate it. If the reviewer dislikes something, it may be worth checking out.
Now I haven’t seen more than a trailer of the Game of Thrones adaption nor am I likely to watch, because I am not a big fan of the books and no fan of what passes for HBO style quality programming in the US. I even made a joke about this today: “Guess what, HBO is making me a birthday present [A Game of Thrones will premiere on my birthday] this year: The most anticipated fantasy series of the year that I won’t watch, based on books I don’t like and broadcast on a channel whose output I can’t stand.”
There is a lot that’s wrong with this review. For starters, Ms. Havrilesky not only obviously hasn’t read the books or is even cursorily familiar with them, she may not even be aware that there are books at all. In fact, I strongly suspect that she is not familiar with the fantasy genre in general, for she constantly keeps getting fantasy and SF mixed up and does not even seem to know that there is a difference. And finally, he assertion that in the end, there will just be “the same predictably doomed battle between factions” is very likely wrong, as anyone who is even cursorily familiar with George R.R. Martin’s series will know that the epic and all deciding good versus evil battle is not where this series is going.
Nonetheless, Ms. Havrilesky’s view as a genre outsider is very interesting in the light of the recent discussions about nihilism in epic fantasy. Because Ms. Havrilesky also seems to be turned off by the excessive bleakness and darkness and seriousness of A Game of Thrones – and this from a person who actually likes the dull and depressing programming served up by HBO and its ilk.
But watching A Game of Thrones, she found herself waiting for some kind of lightness or humour or comic relief and maybe a character who isn’t a “sullen thug” or “solemn royal”. She also complains about characters speaking in declamations and addressing each other as “dwarf” and “bastard” and about the fact that sex never, ever happens missionary style. Of course, Game of Thrones is a HBO show and the one defining characteristic of HBO shows is that people always have extremely unpleasant looking sex.
Heather Havrilesky sums her reaction to the prevailing bleakness of A Game of Thrones up as follows:
“[…] in this brand of fantasy, grim-faced nihilism isn’t just a default philosophy; it’s a foundational religion.”
Which brings is right back to the “nihilism in epic fantasy” debate. And though I doubt that Ms. Havrilesky is aware of that debate at all, she still manages to articulate very clearly what the problem with many books of the new darker type of epic fantasy is, namely that they are so dark and bleak and gritty that they shoot right past the goal of realistic fantasy and go off the other end, into a world that’s so dark and bleak and corrupt and depressing that you can’t possibly take it seriously.
I call this the Sin City effect, for the world portrayed in the Sin City comics and the film adaption is so utterly awful and depraved and hopeless that you can’t possibly take it seriously without feeling the need to pop some pills and slit your wrists. But if you view it as an exaggerated parody of the well-worn tropes of the noir genre, it becomes brilliant. I’ll get into the Sin City effect another time – in fact I have a post half drafted which goes into that very subject.
Heather Havrilesky writes, with regards to the excessive gore of A Game of Thrones:
“Heads are sliced off with stunning regularity, innocents are harmed or killed without much hesitation and the camera lingers lovingly on each surge of blood. (Unfortunately, it can be a struggle to take such gratuitous gore seriously, resembling, as it so often does, a particularly bloody Monty Python skit.)”
That’s the Sin City effect in action. The show is so gory and so depressing that it threatens to tip over into parody. And for that matter, why has TV, particularly fantasy TV, gone so blood and gore happy of late anyway? TV vampires are the sloppiest eaters imaginable, managing to smear their food all over the entire set, in shows like True Blood and Being Human*, while the British hospital horror Pulse and even Misfits (which I love) have the Kryolan blood spurting all over the place. Really, I like some gritty realism as much as the next person, but those blood orgies aren’t realistic or gritty, they’re just plain gross. But that’s a whole different rant. For that matter, I also have a rant coming up on Being Human and how that show turned from the best urban fantasy show on TV into utter crap.
As for A Game of Thrones, I will be very interested to see the reaction. Of course, the epic fantasy crowd will probably love it, but they are a small group compared to the total viewership of a TV show, even one on a niche channel like HBO. In fact, I have seen some people on romance boards get excited about A Game of Thrones, largely because it stars Sean Bean. Those people hadn’t read the books, though some of them were considering to pick them up, if the show is good. The reactions of those viewers to A Game of Thrones will be very interesting to see, when nasty things start happening.
At the Atlantic, Nick Baumann wonders the same thing: We know that the fans will be watching, but what about the non-fans?