The Bleak "Game of Thrones" Needs More Light

Interesting article from The New York Times Magazine. Here are a few extracts:

The aim of fantasy, after all, is to awaken something sleeping in our imaginations — and Martin and the show’s creators, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, embrace this task with a passion, skirting dull expository groundwork in the early episodes in favor of those elements that are just preposterous enough to mirror the depravity of contemporary life. We dive right into orgiastic feasts, murderous snow zombies, Faustian bargains made with primitives and feverish acts of incest. This is fantasy, after all — and medieval fantasy at that — so why not? Naked breasts are intended to tumble from their leather bustiers, dwarves and bastards are meant to address each other as “Dwarf” and “Bastard,” and coitus should never, ever be missionary style.

In this way, fantasy as a genre seems to have an almost unfair advantage at allegorically chronicling our age. Elsewhere, the crudeness and savagery of modern life are artfully encoded in the palm-sweating desperation of the meth-dealing dad in “Breaking Bad,” the terse detachment of the pill-popping mom in “Nurse Jackie” or the quiet machinations of the enigmatic assassin in “Dexter.” But that brand of darkness has so thoroughly become the default syntax of cable dramas that even these sensational figures can’t quite jar us out of our somnambulant state. We apparently require gigantic walls of ice, supernatural wolf puppies, gory jousts, dragon eggs and a nomadic warrior who looks like Dave Navarro after heavy steroid use. Maybe it takes the grand scale of sybaritic kings and imaginary kingdoms to do justice to the perversions and the nihilism of post-empire America


Fantasy, for all its imaginative potential, is fertile ground for nihilists. This can be useful. For one, it enables its writers to personalize viciousness in ways that could never be accomplished in contemporary realism. When, on “Game of Thrones,” a princess begs her brother not to force her to marry a savage whose language she doesn’t understand (a situation not unfamiliar to your average single female), he coldly informs her that he would let the entire savage tribe have its way with her if that might restore him to power. (“All 40,000 men and their horses, too, if that’s what it took.”) When the queen’s son tries to convince her that a rival clan is their enemy, she spits, “Everyone who isn’t us is an enemy.” By repositioning a familiar message — “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” — in medieval-fantasy terms, the show’s creators force us to view its ghastliness with fresh eyes. In contrast to the uneasy alienation of dropping bombs on countries thousands of miles away, “Game of Thrones” presents its carnage in such extreme close-up that it can’t be ignored. 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.


All of which is very somber — and a little odd, when you think about it. Even with countless horrors on the way, wouldn’t there be at least one unshakable optimist in the bunch? Isn’t that how we, in the real world, get through life? Irrational optimism in the face of looming bleakness? Yet in this brand of fantasy, grim-faced nihilism isn’t just a default philosophy; it’s a foundational religion.

And why, while we’re on the subject, do the authors of medieval fantasy so often restrict themselves to sullen thugs and solemn royals, instead of serving up a more varied palette of characters to reflect the stubbornly cheerful drones and twitchy neurotics of modern times? Why do authors limit themselves to somber dialogue that they consider period-appropriate, a compulsion as specious as associating France with French fries jokes? Whereas sci-fi fantasies gamely employ playful, contemporary dialogue, Dark-Ages-flavored narratives appear to require the repetitive, sludgy talk of honor and impending bloodshed. Aside from Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), a snarky dwarf, and Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen), a crafty adviser to the king, the characters of “Game of Thrones” rarely speak without sounding ponderous and sour. Unless two characters are discussing the joys of sex or drinking, there’s not much lightness; only anger, disillusionment and apprehension

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13 commentaires:

Ted Cross said...

Amazing review -- if you follow all the conventions of fantasy, you get accused of it, and if you break all the conventions of still get accused of it!

Anonymous said...

i feel like this guy spent a lot of time whining about nothing. is there a lot of darkness in fantasy? yes, but the inclusion of quirky characters is in Martin's books, not to mention throughout the genre - the Malazan series comes to mind.

the author paints with a broad brush, casting judgment on a genre it seems, to me at least, she has little experience with.

Anonymous said...

One of the most ignorant reviews I've read. Although from what I've seen in the previews, GoT literally needs more light, but not figuratively.

darkul said...

Most critics with a negative result according GoT/ASoIaF have the problem that Martin's world is too realistic, that there is desperation, that there is rough sex (just as in medieval times, that everybody can be a coldblooded killer. Harsh times require harsh acts.
And what have we read about Martin loving seducing young girls. Man, man, man. As soon as a girl had her first blood she's ready to marry and to produce children, that is just the truth and nothing else. Think again: ASoIaF plays in a medieval time with death/war/intrigues almost omnipresent. Since peopled died young in those times they needed children to survive. Just look to the third world in our times.
Quirky characters? Oh my god, Steven Erikson must get a 0 out of 10 from this critic. Just ridiculous. If she wants quirky characters she should use Gollum as an example, and who dares to have a problem with Gollum? Maybe every character is far too complex for the average fantasy reader/watcher, maybe 90% of those characters should be transparent, easy thinking, heroes (best just one) and villain.
I have to say, since I read Martin, Bakker and towering over them all, Steven Erikson, every other fantasy story is dwarfed in every aspect. The usually good vs. bad stereotypes are usually too childish since I read those really sophisticated epics. And since I read them I got back my faith that fantasy would one day become respected genre.

Anonymous said...

@Darkul, except he isnt actually criticising the darkness of the world, he's complaining that all the characters within it seem to embody only the negative emotions when in fact, that seems to run counter to what he believes is human nature.
Look at all the misery in the world today and the most inspiring thing is that the people suffering, in many, many cases, arn't the 'nihlists' (using that term very loosely) that this critic sees in Martin's characters but the opposite, human nature seems to breed compassion and hope in the worst of situations and ignoring that entirely is the exact opposite of presenting a "realistic" world

Disclaimer: I havent actually read ASoIaF for a looooong time and frankly my memory of its a bit fuzzy so if anyone has counter examples to this im willing to stand corrected

Tristan said...

Someone writing for the New York Times is completely out of touch and ignorant of what they are writing about? Say it ain't so!

Martin and the makers of the show are telling a specific story about a specific group of characters in a certain situation. These characters are hard people; cynical power brokers fighting for survival every day of their lives, both from internal and external forces. Most of them have seen death and pointless cruel violence first hand. Jon Snow, arguably the truest hero of the series, is punished for a crime he had no control over,his birth, always surrounded by what he could never quite have.

This is not a story of people pulling together and surviving and in harsh conditions, it is a story of people struggling to hold or reclaim power in the face of a changing world. They are politicians and nobles, to make them life affirming would be pandering. Judge it for what it is, not what you want it to be.

Isaac said...

@Anonymous: I haven't seen the series, obviously, but I feel like in the books, there are many spots of brightness. Bran, Arya, and even occasionally Jon and Dany's POVs are often filled with wonder and joy at the beauty and newness and novelty of life. The events around them are dark, but the BIG events around all of us are fairly dark, and would be darker if we lived in a claustrophobic medieval epoch, as Martin's characters do.

I also think that the author's greatest sin in this review is sort of painting this stuff across modern fantasy with such a broad stroke. As others have mentioned, I'd love (hate?) to see her review Erikson, my favorite author. I'm sure she'd find it to be the most bleak, depressing thing of all time, and sure, parts of it seem that way, but there's a lot of light and laughter in the face of desperate horror in there, which to me is what makes people strong and what makes them human. Anyone can smile on a warm sunny day, but it takes something greater to smile when you're starving to death and are being hunted by undead dinosaurs with blades for arms. That's the sort of triumphant human portrayal I find in Erikson, Martin, Bakker, Wolfe, and all the rest of my favorite fantasy and science fiction authors.

Bah. As a counterpoint, it looks like there are a bunch of really positive reviews for GoT on the web right now, but Pat's List and GRRM's blog are both focusing on relatively negative reviews. What does that, itself, say about the human condition?

Ludwig Van said...

Firstly, the writer of this article is HEATHER HAVRILESKY, so please stop babbling about the "guy" who wrote it and don't refer to her as "he".

Secondly, the article is a well-written, thoughtful critique by someone who obviously doesn't relate to fantasy literature. Instead of bashing the genre or flat-out ridiculing it, Mrs Havrilesky engages the themes and images of "Game of Thrones" and tries to find a fair judgement from her perspective (that is, with her preferences).
The knee-jerk reactions from agitated fanboys and fangirls who are incapable of imagining someone who just doesn't like fantasy - especially not when it's depressingly dark and unforgiving - are ridiculous. Grow up, will you?

Anonymous said...

Actually Ludwig, she paints with a broad brush and talks about problems with fantasy as a genre.

She's trying to come off as knowledgeable on a topic that, should she skim the surface, she seems to little to nothing about.

I don't me or HBO cares too much about what she says, this series is going to be at minimum moderately successful. My problem is we have more "journalism" without research.

erikr said...

Well, I loved the sneak-peek I got to see through my work at DISH network, and must disagree. I know the show is not historical in fact, but it DOES present a good sense of the nature of the middle ages. There is usually a sense of dark within the fantasy genre, and, well, have you studied the middle ages?? Black plague?? The Crusades? The War of the Roses? The Hundred Years War? This was NOT a light-hearted time!!! I got HBO setup in HD and HIGHLY recommend you do the same if you want to catch all the dark splendor of this show!! Check out to see how you can get it before the show starts!!

aureda said...

Well, the ASOIAF books aren't as bleak or completely without optimism as the reviewer says. But it wouldn't surprise me if HBO have cut those parts away. They aren't plot-wise that important and were probably the first to go. Hopefully the end result isn't too angsty.

Snow Princess said...

well, looking at the blatant sexism of the other review - girlz need sex scenes in their showz! - it isn't a bad piece.

Anonymous said...

"Unless two characters are discussing the joys of sex or drinking, there’s not much lightness; only anger, disillusionment and apprehension."

Soudns like real life to me.