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Much have I traveled in Realms of Something or Other. A Song of Ice and Fire Reviewed.

July 2, 2017

song of ice and fire

A little over a year ago, I was engaged in an online discussion of Game of Thrones and its possible trajectories and resolutions, when someone addressed me by saying “but you HAVE read the books haven’t you?  You HAVE to read the books to understand this conversation.”

In my line of work, this sort of comment has roughly the same effect as Biff referring to Marty McFly as “chicken”.

So heaven help me I read them.  I read all of them.  I read all five or more (some of them are cut two in some publishing jurisdictions).  Thousands of pages.  Done.  As Tenzing Norgay so memorably observed on an occasion you’ll extrapolate – “we done the bugger.”

Here’s the funny thing, I’m almost professionally obligated to prefer literary sources to televisual (or filmic) adaptations any day of the week.  When I look at actors portraying literary characters, I always feel as though I’m looking at someone from the outside in, rather than (while reading), from the inside out.  A performance of a character with a rich interior life generally speaking offers an approximation of a partial mood of a character but is not the character themselves.

But A Song of Ice and Fire?   I don’t think so.  When I read George R. R. Martin’s description of the adventures of Tyrion Lannister, am I watching some richer and more satisfyingly complex than Peter Dinklage’s performance as Tyrion Lannister?  Actually no.   And it’s not just the acting.  Virtually every discrepancy between Martin’s novels and Weiss and Benioff’s scripts seems to me to be to the latter’s advantage.  Weiss and Benioff seem to have a more coherent vision of the material than Martin does.  They know which plotlines are more satisfying than others.  And Weiss and Beniov’s dialogue is certainly crisper, funnier and more devastatingly obscene than Martin’s.

So rewatching Game of Thrones having read these books makes me feel I’m watching not an adaptation of a sequence of novels, but the perfection of a vision.  Martin created a world and a set of characters and imperatives, and Weiss and Benioff are completing that vision, making it imaginatively richer rather than simply more visually specific.

One important factor is that Game of Thrones has to actually end at some point and I’m not sure that Song of Ice and Fire can or will.  By the end of Dance of Dragons, you start to feel that Martin just has far too many balls in the air – or far too many plates spinning – to be able to attend to them all.  Some of them are going to crash – in the sense of being treated to an abrupt and forced resolution that doesn’t really do justice to the effort put into them.

Martin likes short chapters, far shorter chapters than you’ll find in Lord of the Rings.  These short chapters betray the fact that he worked as a screenwriter before he started writing his epic.  Unlike Tolkien, who rarely went near a cinema, Martin’s vision was from the outset structured by the language of film.  Martin’s chapters are “scenes”, curtailed by a dominant commercial consensus regarding how long an audience will commit to particular storyline at a time.  Tolkien’s much much shorter work comes closest to Martin in Book Five of Lord of the Rings (or Book One of Return of the King), where the chapters oscillate between those belonging to Pippin, Merry, and Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas.  These chapters have more fighting than trudging.

Another key difference between Tolkien and Martin is revealed by the trudge to fighting ratio.  Tolkien is less afraid of “dullness” than Martin in the sense that Martin is not prepared to write longish chapter after chapter in which trudging about in the wilderness getting cold and miserable is the main action.  Martin’s need to oscillate between characters and the frequency of violent and sexual encounters within those chapters also create a different experience of distance.  The distance between Winterfell and King’s Landing is meant to be far far greater than the distance between Hobbiton and Rivendell.  But this distance is never really experienced by the reader because Martin will not really commit to describing the experience of trying to cover it.

True epic needs dull bits.  Dull bits are part of an overarching grammar of expectation.  I love test cricket.  Excitement rewards dullness and gives it meaning.  Dullness gives Excitement context and makes it necessary.  Martin is duller than Tolkien because he won’t recognise and embrace tedium for any length of time.

Tolkien of course is writing about a specific question.  From the second chapter of Lord of the Rings onwards, it’s clear what has to be accomplished.  This has structuring implications that give Lord of the Rings a sense of totality.   It is unfair to compare a finished work with an unfinished one, but the Song of Ice and Fire has no comparable sense of purpose.  Of course, at some point dragons and “the others” will inhabit the same chapter and “Ice” and “Fire” will fight.

Possibly resulting in lukewarm water.

So… in the battle of the R.Rs  (Arse Wars?) who wins?  Is Lord of the Rings a more rewarding literary experience than Song of Ice and Fire?


Is the TV adaptation of Song of Ice and Fire better than the movie adaptations of Lord of the Rings?


Is the experience of watching Game of Thrones richer than the experience of reading Lord of the Rings?

Oh come now, that’s beyond “apples and oranges”…  that’s like… ice and fire.


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One Comment
  1. Oh yeah. I started reading the books long before the TV show came out. And I got hooked, but eventually I bogged down, because Martin kept killing off characters and introducing new ones–dozens and dozens of them. I concluded that he has no real story arc and doesn’t know where he’s going with all of this. Part of what keeps Lord of the Rings on a good narrative path is that Tolkien has a cast of main characters (including a central figure) and sticks with them. That is essential in an epic. Otherwise, what is it about??? The only excuse I can imagine for Martin is that he’s trying for an element of realism, the sort of thing you’d find if this were history rather than epic. But history doesn’t make for good storytelling unless it is given a shape and an arc.
    I have to admit I’ve grown impatient with the TV series too, though as you say, it is superior to the books in terms of focus.

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