Sunday, May 26, 2024

Game of Thrones is officially passing the books in Season 6, and why we shouldn’t care

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The new year is often a time for optimism, what with talks of fresh starts, forward-thinking plans, and resolutions for self-improvement. Yet for fans of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (ASoIaF), January 1st brought some disappointing news: the sixth installment, The Winds of Winter (TWoW), will not be completed before Game of Thrones (GoT)’s sixth season airs in mid-April.

Well, actually, in true Martin fashion, it was technically 12:24 AM on January 2nd when this news broke. But I don’t want to pile on. That couldn’t have been an easy blog post for him to write, and the self-anger/guilt that permeated the entirety of it was practically Martell. Of course he wants his book to be done by now. Of course he cares. And the fact that every time the man wants to go see a movie or watch a football game there are millions of people screaming “why aren’t you writing???” at him really can’t be helping the entire situation.

As someone who writes fiction (well, it’s Legend of Korra fanfic; Martin would not approve), I have somewhat of an appreciation for how hard it can be. Sometimes writing goes well, sometimes it doesn’t—a sentiment Martin repeated several times in his blog post. At the moment, I’ve been staring at the same chapter for over three weeks, despite knowing exactly where I want it to go. Creative energy can be like that. Oh, and my end product doesn’t matter in the slightest!

Martin is a professional working on the most popular contemporary fantasy book series. However much we may bemoan his writing process, there is no denying that it has produced engaging content. In my opinion, I would rather he takes six years to write a book with which he’s satisfied than five to write one about which he feels “okay.”

Heck, let him take seven, and if people could stop pulling out actuary tables, that’d be nifty. Because seriously, that’s just plain rude. The fact that he felt he even had type the words “you can blame my age, and maybe that had an impact too” is a bit sickening. And for anyone who wants to claim that his work has declined since A Storm of Swords, I won’t hear it. I think a lot of it is that Martin is screwed over by genre expectations, but there is no doubt in my mind that TWoW is going to be a wonderful read whenever we are lucky enough to get it. We are not owed it.

But…there’s that pesky lil’ adaptation of ASoIaF. You may have heard of it; “critics” certainly have, as they can’t seem to go a week without praising it to the high heavens. Apparently it is the “best drama” on television right now.

Here at Fandomentals, we make no secret of the fact that we find GoT to be illogical, toxic swill. This is our stance when discussing the show in its own right. When we discuss it as an “adaptation” of ASoIaF, our criticisms grow even stronger, as it’s quite clear to us that not only is the show wildly missing the points Martin is trying to make, but it actually goes so far as to deliver us the perfect thematic opposite of his book series.

However, there’s no denying that the show is “based” on the books, and that showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D) know the broader strokes about the upcoming material in ASoIaF, as well as “how it will end.” So there are things in the show that will, invariably, “spoil” what’s coming in the still-to-be-published books. For instance, the fact that Jon Snow was able to kill a White Walker with Valyrian steel has been widely accepted as something that will probably be revealed in TWoW, or maybe even the planned 7th installment, A Dream of Spring (ADoS).

There’s also the fact that D&D certainly seem to think that they’ll be spoiling the books. Hell, they already did in one of their “Inside the Episode” features, when they said that Martin had told them about the burning of Shireen, something yet to happen in ASoIaF.

But…here’s something else they said:

“Themes are for eighth-grade book reports” –David Benioff

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that these words came out of the mouth of someone who has an MFA in creative writing.

And this is the real crux of it. A story, any story, is not just a laundry list of “plot points” that happen. It is a carefully constructed narrative that like…has a point. And stuff. It has character arcs, and conflict, and tension, and in-verse logic. There’s a reason fiction exists, and it’s not just because we enjoy the bullet points of “what happens.”

Now, I hate to point this out, but themes rather do matter. Yes, I say this as someone who didn’t study creative writing; I studied engineering and environmental policy. But from what I can recall from all those eighth grade book reports of mine, a thematic concept is what a story is about, and the thematic significance is what the author is trying to say about the subject. Which is, in short, everything in a constructed narrative.

There’s a reason that when we read Macbeth, our conversation following it is not, “oh wow what a twist! I didn’t see Duncan’s death coming!” It’s almost as if Shakespeare had written the play to provide commentary on the corrosive effect of ambition and guilt, or something.

With ASoIaF, the discussion of what “points” Martin is trying to make is especially important, because his choice to set his books in a strongly misogynistic and racist world bring up a lot of heavy subject matter. At times, it is not an easy read, as there’s a lot of violence against women, an up close and personal examination of slavery and its consequences, the sexual grooming of nearly every female character, heavily racist and ableist close-PoVs, and so on. For these reasons, many write off the books, or chastise Martin’s “uninventive” choice of setting.

I’m quite sympathetic to that argument, but I lean more towards analyzing the ways in which Martin uses this setting to challenge readers’ preconceived notions. In my view, the power of speculative fiction comes from our ability to distance ourselves from our cultural understanding to really dig deep at issues. Westeros is not “historically accurate,” nor does it make sense for it to be, yet it is uncomfortably similar to how our world once was, and as a result brings up issues and tensions that are still uncomfortably present. And I don’t think Martin is unaware of these tensions. You can’t accidentally write Cersei’s internalized misogyny like that, for example. He knows what he’s doing, and he has a reason for doing it. Because that’s the job of an author.

Enter D&D. Apparently they don’t care about thematic significance, and we know that because they said so. And boy does it show. As Julia and I pointed out in our Meereense Retrospective:

“[D&D] will take components of Martin’s world and use it as a meaningless backdrop, but then forget it the second any sort of implication of such a system needs a follow-up. For instance, in 5×03, Varys takes a lot of time to explain the Volantine slavery system. This was something we already knew about from Talisa, everyone’s favourite field nurse, because we guess that made her seem badass or sympathetic or something. Yet now, three seasons later, we’re once again walked through the facial-tattoo thing, only this time we’re seeing it up close.

But then, in the same fucking episode, we go into a brothel with sex slaves (they have the tattoo) who act absolutely not in accordance with this established system. They’re perky! and flirty! (and yes, we’ve seen honeypots about “well isn’t that how they’d be forced to behave?” and want to hear none of it). The one sex slave is so sad the men won’t give her attention, and she offers Saint Tyrion free sex for being funny. Because she doesn’t have an owner that would fucking kill her for that or anything.

Fuck you, D&D. You don’t get to decide when slavery is cinematic enough for you to deign to put it on the screen.”

There’s also the magically disappearing patriarchy on the show, which we can easily see when Cersei is shut out of power for being the “Queen Mother, nothing more,” yet Olenna is somehow the designated negotiator for House Tyrell on the grounds that she’s sassy. Then there’s the way in which violence against women is used as background flavor sometimes (Craster’s Keep springs to mind), or for dramaz (Gilly’s almost!rape this year as a plot device to get her and Sam to hook up rather than them just actually wanting to, like in the books), or simply to horrify the audience. There is no respect given to the personalities at play, or context, or in-verse logic, or actual character arcs.

Remember that “spoiler” about Shireen burning? It serves as the perfect microcosm to this point. A feudal lord vying for the throne would simply not burn his only heir because of his “ambition.” This makes absolutely no sense in a world where power comes from the family name.

Then there’s the fact that Stannis is the books is not portrayed as an overly ambitious man, or even an ambitious man at all, as D&D erroneously asserted in the previously linked “Inside the Episode.” He is a man of duty, to the Nth degree. He believes the Iron Throne is his right, but also, more importantly, his duty. In many ways, the large point of Stannis’s character is that he is a perfectly just man, yet the resulting inflexibility from this commitment to justice often makes him a less desirable candidate for the throne. That’s because the intersection of the personal and the political is one of the central tensions in this damn book series.

This isn’t to say that Shireen won’t burn in the books. I’m sure she will. Hell, Stannis might even give the order, though that’s far from certain. But the context is going to be quite a lot different when this comes to pass. And we know that, because in the books right now, Stannis is in a far worse scrape than his show counterpart was, and he doesn’t even consider burning a loyal moop. Oh, and he ordered his daughter and wife to stay at the Wall because no feudal lord would bring his young daughter—the entire future of his House—on a march to war for no reason.

But to D&D, themes don’t matter to a story. Which is basically the equivalent of a contractor saying that a house’s foundation doesn’t matter, as long as it looks like a house in the end. If there’s no focus on themes, a story just becomes that meaningless list of “things that happen,” because there’s no longer an overarching point. And if all that matters are the “plot points,” then there similarly can’t be a focus on characterizations or context.

We know D&D lack this focus for a certainty because of how they talk about their show:

“Season five is still very much within the books for the most part. The very first scene of the season and the very last scene of the season are book scenes. It’s more season six that’s going to be diverging a bit.” –David Benioff

I can’t make this up! D&D truly believe that their final scene of Season 5 was straight from the books. This was the scene where Jon Snow gets stabbed. And yes, Jon Snow gets stabbed in his final chapter of A Dance with Dragons, Martin’s most recently published ASoIaF book. But as Julia and I spent 15,000 words explaining, these two scenes could not have been more different.

“…Olly’s foregrounding significantly undercut what Jon’s stabbing was all about: that it wasn’t just the culmination of one fractured relationship; that it wasn’t a Night’s Watch Brother with a uniquely personal beef against the wildlings. And yes, we know Olly’s dagger was not the only one in the dark, but as we said, the entire thing was framed as his idea, and it was his execution that mattered. In fact, aside from Thorne who from what we could tell, pulled a random 180° after letting the wildlings through and stabbed Jon just for the hell of it, the other mutineers were complete nobodies who we never even saw interact with Jon. We guess they had similar reasons for being upset as Olly did, but like…how is this meaningful in the slightest?

Jon’s last words were “Olly,” for fuck’s sake. It was made all about their relationship. This kid that he had apparently been grooming for leadership for reasons still unexplained (young boys are just malleable maybe?) couldn’t understand his siding with the dude that raided his village, even though the army of the dead was approaching. That’s it.

The answer is, of course, that it’s not meaningful. A story without any focus on themes literally cannot be meaningful. Yes, GoT will continue to profit off of Martin’s creative ideas, no doubt using some of the plot points he told them about. Season 6 will, I’m sure, have elements in it that we will later read about in TWoW. Martin even said as much in his blog post:

Will the show ‘spoil’ the novels?

Maybe. Yes and no… Given where we are, inevitably, there will be certain plot twists and reveals in season six of GAME OF THRONES that have not yet happened in the books.

He also goes on to note:

Some of the ‘spoilers’ you may encounter in season six may not be spoilers at all… because the show and the books have diverged, and will continue to do so.

It’s his famous “butterfly effect” sentiment once again. Martin is of the mind that the show is the show, and the books are the books, and there’s no “true answer” about how many children Scarlett O’Hara had, because there are two separate Gone with the Wind narratives. Though I would argue that GoT is as if, in the movie-version, Scarlett sold Tara and then gave the money to a charity to promote literacy among freed slaves because she decided that being rich wasn’t so important after all.

But whatever; my point is that there’s really no reason to be upset with this news that TWoW won’t beat out Season 6. GoT will not spoil TWoW in any way. And that’s because GoT is an empty shell of a narrative. It is Potemkin village; it may look like a challenging, deep fantasy story, but it’s just a façade to fool people passing through. And one that breaks down with a minimal level of scrutiny, which we here at The Fandomentals will be happy to continue to provide.

Images courtesy of HBO

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