A Game of Thrones makes a somewhat lacklustre first impression. After coming late to the party I decided to pick up the book first, and put it down almost as quickly. I’ll admit the hype about the whole series probably made me over-expectant. When I tried the screen version instead a few months later my first impression didn’t feel so different either. How I ended up watching the first series in three days and the second in two I don’t exactly know, but I think it lies in people having told me what compulsive viewing it was and me not being disappointed when I persevered.
Game of Thrones got its hooks in me thanks to the large number of storylines that interlinked, each with its own tension and abundance of knife-edge balance between life and death. Wanting to see a massive cast of characters either triumph or be punished is a solid way to produce the kind of story where people can’t wait for the next episode, or chapter.
In the novel version, George RR Martin plays the same kinds of games with the reader that the screen version plays. Characters who seem unsympathetic one moment have something redeeming about them the next, even if only slightly. There are no plot twists a keen eye won’t see coming, mostly thanks to a changing first person narrative, but this doesn’t stop the tension from building. Rather than seeking out a revelation, the reader will want to see the result of a character getting one.
A former housemate of mine once wonderfully summed up Martin’s main tactic as an author for me: ‘Is that your favourite character? Byeeeeee!’ That and how Martin’s characters are constantly ‘at it’ and nothing is off limits: incest, homoeroticism, fetishism, bondage, nothing is off the cards for this lot. Strange then that the novel version feels so restrained. For a book and indeed series of this length, Martin has a somewhat to-the-point writing style that doesn’t labour descriptions of the sex or violence that the screen viewer has presented to them full-on. People who have criticised Martin for huge amounts of info dumping were rather unfair to do so if such criticism was based on the first half of A Game of Thrones. Only in the second half did certain passages (mostly those concerning Catelyn Stark and Dany Targaryen) feel weighted down by family history and descriptions of past battles that are neatly kept to one side in the screen version.
The points of view in the book end up feeling equally limited, and to me seemed an exercise in focusing on the characters who I as the reader was supposed to root for. Nowhere in the book version, for example, is there private time between Cersei and Jaime Lannister – they are always observed by others. It has to be said though, here lies the first reason for this being a four star review: using a character name and their one point of view for each chapter was a masterstroke on the author’s part. Yes, I would have liked to have seen Cersei or Jaime as one of the headings as well as the constant POV focus on the more sympathetic Starks, but I’ll put that aside. At least, after all, there’s plenty of focus on Tyrion. Belonging to the less sympathetic house and yet being one of the most sympathetic and admirable characters, Tyrion is the biggest character-hook in both screen and book versions. Besides, I get the feeling that more characters will get their names on a chapter heading in the books to come.
Controlling a novel of this length with probably the most characters I’ve ever encountered in 800 odd pages is a task most writers balk at. Ian McEwan, one of British literatures most acclaimed and in my opinion grossly overrated authors, recently made a comment about how most long novels don’t earn their length. I wish I hadn’t missed the debate that subsequently went out on the radio based on that comment, but lets just say if A Game of Thrones wasn’t mentioned then everyone missed a trick. Sorry Mac, but you can get back on your high horse and the Dothraki hoards will trample you back into your largely unimaginative and uninspiring books. If the control and concentration it takes to craft a novel like A Game of Thrones means that certain points of view don’t get brought into the mix then it’s a fair sacrifice. That’s part of what TV is for anyway: re-working an already solid narrative to add the things that might not quite work in a book.
Aside from the control, Martin’s characters themselves are brilliant. In the same way I’ve said before that the characters in good science fiction should be the staple and the science is the background behind them, so it is with the fantasy in Game of Thrones being a backdrop to complex, deep and in some ways contradictory and troubled people. When the characters analyse each other (and they do a lot, particularly when honour is in question), the reader will already have a mind of their own and ideas that Martin as the author lets them work out for themselves.
As the screen series goes on it becomes increasingly difficult to know which side to be on. As certain people are eliminated and the debate about whether to support them with it, the people who populate Game of Thrones often change their mind as much as the reader. This is character development done as only a master of fictional people management can do, and it’s all natural, never forced or contrived. As Martin himself once said when asked how he writes such good female characters, he doesn’t write women and he doesn’t really write men either: he writes people.
Martin also writes places. After watching the elaborate and intricate set work done to create the various diverse lands in Westeros, I was half expecting the description of places to take up at least as much wordcount as the history. Not so – Martin is more economical than I expected yet again. If anything, his descriptions are a little sparse and didn’t put me in these locations and give me as much feeling for what they were like as I wanted, but this doesn’t take away how he imagined them and formed battle tactics around them. Particularly impressive is the Vale with its moon door and dizzying heights – the one time I felt the book did trump the screen for how it brought a fictional location to life.
The character psychology in A Game of Thrones is as near faultless as you can get, and yet doesn’t take the forefront. The forefront is who might come out the winner. As Cersei tells Ned Stark, ‘When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.’ (The line even forms the title for one of the screen episodes.) Who has the biggest army is often no indication of who will be the victor, and even when some sides seem close to firmly cementing their power, there’s always the question of what’s behind The Wall.
A Game of Thrones is a solid novel that now reads like a solid blueprint for more ambitious things: namely, a screen adaptation. It would probably be wrong to say George RR Martin wrote the book with a future screen adaptation in mind though, if only because it did not enjoy the same success in 1996 as it does now. This is a lesson served to many authors about patience and writing the best book possible before getting a head filled with hopes and dreams for it. When I went into bookstores back then (I was 13 when Game of Thrones first saw publication) I never noticed the book, nor the author’s name. It grew a cult following and eventually a screen contract was on a table somewhere, but nearly twenty years later it seems like the success of this series still hasn’t quite peaked as fans eagerly await the Season 4 DVD and the next novel, now reported to have a 2016 release date.
No surprise then that the other day I saw the latest editions lined up in Waterstones and on the cover of one was a critic’s quote: ‘Fiction this good is worth waiting for.’ What’s planted now is always harvested later.