Game of Thrones: Little People, Big World

Kristin Devine

Kristin has humbly retired as Ordinary Times' friendly neighborhood political whipping girl to focus on culture and gender issues. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of

Related Post Roulette

60 Responses

  1. InMD says:

    Good essay Kristin. I will quibble with you on using LOTR as an example at the beginning though. Maybe it’s just because that’s the only truly fantasy story I like but that is in part because I think it handles the scope issue well. Tolkien’s insistence upon actually re-writing a part of the Hobbit to make it work may be the only successful instance of a creator retconning his own work ever. The mission needs to be completed by stealth, not combat, and by people who could plausibly resist temptation to try to use a great weapon (i.e. they probably wouldn’t know how to if they tried). The fighting is against capable enough foot soldiers (some of them overwhelm Boromir), no main warrior character has a one on one showdown against a main bad guy, unless you count Eowyn killing the wraith but I don’t think that’s quite what you’re talking about. The big battles aren’t for all the marbles, they’re potentially suicidal diversions. I don’t think anyone has looked at those maps in the books and wondered what was passed the outer edges. No one thinks ‘it’s probably just more hobbits’ and we’re incredibly lucky ol’ JRR never had a bunch of profit hungry executives telling him he better figure it out.

    Now I will admit I haven’t exposed myself to anything outside of the books and movies so maybe the video games and other media do some of these things.

    I agree on your larger point though and it’s why I find historical fiction and non-epic science fiction to be a lot more satisfying in this regard. It’s much easier to avoid all kinds of pitfalls when you look at a little corner of a real or imaginary world.

    I think this is closely related to the phenomenon of ‘answering questions no one asked.’ And surprise, the answer is always some kind of fan service or intimately related to the characters we already know, just no one happened to mention it until now.

    I know it’s anathema to the sprawl of geek culture and modern consumer capitalism but I’ve started to believe the best thing a creator can do for his or her work is abruptly die or failing that go complete Bill Waterston. It’s the only way to prevent future meddling, revisiting things that don’t need revisiting, or all manner of other things that boil a once satisfying broth down to water.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to InMD says:

      Agreed, Eowyn killing the Wraith King doesn’t count. His end didn’t halt the battle, because armies don’t stop just because a general is taken out. If anything, Aragorn showing up with the Ghost Army was a bit more Deus Ex. And even that was merely the end of that battle, not the end of the war.Report

      • Its interesting example, since they almost – probably purposefully in the films – set up Aragorn releasing them with Gimli’s little diaglogue about how handy it would be to keep them around since the war was not over. I was ok with it, it worked for what it was and set up the Black Gate ok so to me it slides under the Bad Dues Ex usage. That and after 40 minutes it was time to put a bow on that puppy, no matter how well done the battle was.Report

      • InMD in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        Agreed. I never felt the books oversimplified things quite like that. So much is kept somewhat mysterious including I would say the exact nature of the stakes.

        I can see the criticism as applying more to the movies of course. It’s easier to drive drama when the end of the world is on the line. I can also see how it comes off as ‘save the world with this one neat trick.’ While I get why they made the decisions they did and I liked the movies well enough when they came out I’ve always suspected Tolkien would find them deeply offensive, maybe even a desecration.Report

      • My problem with Eowyn killing the wraith was the literary quibble about “no man” being able to kill him. (If I’m not mistaken, the literary quibble was in the book as well as the movie, but I could be mistaken.)

        I’m not a big fan of literary quibbles. They probably serve a purpose, and they’re definitely a tradition that extends at least as far back to Shakespeare, but I don’t like them.Report

      • Marchmaine in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        If I futilely attempt to avoid being ‘that guy’ by citing Kristen’s early post about D&D just driving from event to event… that’s the problem with the Army of the Dead. Jackson wanted the CGI more than he wanted the tale.

        The Oathbreakers weren’t that numerous nor all-powerful (among their weapons were fear…) Aragorn used them to lift the siege of Pelargir to bring reinforcements, human reinforcements. It also subverts the Theseus theme where Aragorn sails to Gondor with the Black Corsair ships of Umbar – which is the event that drives Denethor to his final despair. Denethor is the archetype of despair… he knows all, but abandons hope… so when he sees the Black Sails it is confirmation of the Destruction he foresees (with the Palantir) so he abandons hope and the moment hope arrives. Turning Denethor into a Daddy issue is such a Boomer thing. And these are the sorts of subtle errors that … “well, it was necessary for the plot” … just plain misses. Not to mention the ever-present problem of scale… everything in the Jackson movies is just too numerous… too big… too, well, despair inducing.Report

        • InMD in reply to Marchmaine says:

          I think trying to translate that level of subtlety and build up into the medium is why so many epic stories feel hollowed out on screen. The box is just too small and you end up with what I refer to as Power Rangers scenes where a bad guy in a remote stronghold talks about what they’re doing then it cuts somewhere else. Everything with Denethor is like that and Saruman even moreso. The Harkonnen scenes in David Lynch’s Dune also come to mind.

          You can see traces of the problem at least as far back as The Ten Commandments. Notice though that many of the scenes in various Egyptian palaces have extras and show people coming and going. It helps create some degree of perception that you’re looking at a real place integrated into the world as opposed to awkwardly inserted exposition to connect to the next expensive set piece/CGI action/whatever else. It isn’t completely successful but I get the sense someone thought about the issue.Report

        • As I reread the GoT books there is SO MUCH in them along these same lines. They had to simplify for the show, ok, I get that, but so much of the poignancy is lost in translation.Report

          • Slade the Leveller in reply to Kristin Devine says:

            Isn’t that true of most movie adaptations of books? Everyone complains about how one of their favorite novels was turned into an awful movie (hello The Legend of Bagger Vance!), but there’s really no way to translate, in a watchable way, the written word to the screen. There’s too much happening on the page that isn’t action, yet is important to the story.Report

            • Marchmaine in reply to Slade the Leveller says:

              Its certainly true that it happens more often than not; but there are many movies that are as good (a few better) than the books. It’s possible, but by far the exception.

              That why, I think, the critique stands… because we have seen movies that adapt the book so the failures demand explanation.

              For me, I’m fine with Jackson’s editorial choices (and his artistic/stylistic choices) but I draw the line when he changes the narrative such that it does violence to a character and/or philosophical point in the book.

              A simple example is having the Ents arrive at the wrong conclusion in the movie… to be corrected by Merry/Pippin. There’s no actual Plot reason for this… nothing added, nothing gained. Simple deviation for no commensurate good.Report

              • Slade the Leveller in reply to Marchmaine says:

                I don’t remember the books or the movies well enough to quibble, so I’ll take what you’re saying in the last paragraph as truth.

                Counterpoint: Think of yourself as a moviegoer who has absolutely no knowledge of the books. Does Jackson’s artistic license feel out of place? Maybe we, as fans of the books, are demanding too much of the adapters.Report

              • Marchmaine in reply to Slade the Leveller says:

                A Good point. I suppose it depends. As pure plot/spectacle the movies are ‘close enough.’ But I’m not sure books are simply plot/spectacle devices. So if one is interested in more than the base narrative, then it’s important to get the meta-narrative aligned.

                As I note below, I think this is the primary deficiency of GRRM and why, ultimately, his novels *only* work as subversive narrative… they assume we know the meta-narrative. GRRM fails once it is necessary to square the narrative with the meta. See also LOST.

                I can certainly appreciate a movie maker who is ‘grappling’ with a work and makes some conscious decisions that we as participants can contemplate and grapple with as well.

                A fun little example of this was the most recent Emma… which I think is very well done indeed (despite dubious editorial choices) but precisely because I can see that the makers are grappling with the fact that they don’t really like Emma. It’s an anti-Emmma… and that’s ok as far as Art goes. But precisely because we can discuss how and in what way its *not* Emma and not trying to do Emma and getting it wrong.

                Now, your movie goer who has no Idea who Emma is? They should not watch this movie without first learning about Emma.Report

              • Slade the Leveller in reply to Marchmaine says:

                Honestly, when I watch a big screen epic these days, I’m hardly looking for subtlety. For that I’ll read the book(s) it’s based on. Maybe it’s there, and maybe it isn’t, but if it is, it sure ain’t making it into the script.

                As for smaller films like your example of Emma, I think the subtlety can absolutely be translated to the screen. But I think we have to allow the adapter’s take on the original to stand on its own. It’s perhaps a form of literary criticism. Or, more likely, it’s just an attempt to make a watchable movie that appeals to the sensibilities of the times.

                The example that comes to me is Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Dick’s novel, if adapted faithfully, would have been an entirely different film, more My Dinner with Andre than Blade Runner.Report

              • Marchmaine in reply to Slade the Leveller says:

                Fair point… I’ve never read Marvel comics… I can’t say I’ve discerned any sort of meta-narrative from the movies, and that makes me assume there’s no coherent meta-narrative/metaphysics I need to consider. The story goes where the story goes, and where needed the story is violated (retconned) to make it go where it now needs to go.

                If you told me that Marvel has an important metaphysics undergirding the entire thing that I should really grapple with first… then I’d want to grapple with that for fear of mis-understanding the movies.

                Now you are probably going to ruin Marvel movies for me like I’m attempting to ruin LotR for everyone else? 🙂Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Marchmaine says:

                Back in the mid-oughts, there were a bunch of “comedy” movies that came out that were “funny” if you saw 10 or 12 of the blockbusters that came out the year before.

                Epic Movie! Disaster Movie! Date Movie! Teen Movie!

                One of the “jokes” I remember seeing was a set-up of the Sabre Tooth Tiger scene in 30,000 BC and, instead of the tiger, it was Amy Winehouse.

                That’s it. That’s the joke. If you hadn’t seen 30,0000, you’d not have understood the setup. If you weren’t familiar with mid-oughts Pop music, you would not have understood the punchline.

                Without getting into reasons of whether or not the movie was funny at the time, we could at least have a real conversation about why someone might think it was funny at the time.

                But Airplane! is still funny in 2021 (despite a handful of jokes that similarly benefitted from cultural knowledge… Barbara Billingsly speaking Jive is funny in 2021… But knowing that that’s the mom from Leave it to Beaver? Holy crap, that’s even funnier. But it’s still funny even if you don’t know that Leave it to Beaver was a sitcom in the late 50’s, early 60’s).

                Comedy, at least, has the defense of being incredibly difficult in the first place. But action?

                How do you mess up people fighting against evil?

                (One very good way is to not be able to tell the difference between Good and Evil, of course.)Report

              • Marchmaine in reply to Jaybird says:

                “How do you mess up people fighting against evil?”

                Agency… a’la Ents. 🙂Report

              • Kristin Devine in reply to Jaybird says:

                I have this fictional universe going in which people are still watching old sitcoms like Laverne and Shirley but there are endless footnotes so you get all the historical relevance, like when Laverne and Shirley meet Fabian.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Kristin Devine says:

                HA! I remember that episode.

                From what I recall, you didn’t need to know who Fabian Himself was to get the jokes. It was enough to know “Contemporary Pop Music Star”.

                You could make the exact same jokes in That 70’s Show and put Leif Garrett in there with some light word substitution.

                That 90’s Show could have Color Me Badd on there.

                Justin Beiber for That Oughts Show.

                Change a word here or there and you can have the same exact joke. BUT! AND HERE’S THE POINT!

                It’s the interchangability that makes the joke funny. Make a joke about the good looks of the pop star. Make a pun involving one of his best well-known songs. Make a joke about how fanatics stereotypically act around pop stars. Have the “tough” character say “oh, I’d never do that…” but when she (or he, whatever, it’s the current year) meets the pop star, they do exactly what the stereotype was joking about.

                It writes itself!Report

              • Kristin Devine in reply to Jaybird says:

                My mom had to explain to me who Fabian was, but for some reason that (and Carmine’s disappointment when Shirley kept throwing herself at Fabian) got burned into my brain, perhaps obviously LOL.

                Just as you say, it’s the difference between a sh–y forgettable pop culture reference and a timeless joke…the interchangeability and timelessness of it.

                There’s a point to be made here about GoT too – while I’ve vowed not to ever write about politics on this site any more, there is a universalness to many of his political points that I appreciate hugely in the here and now.Report

              • Wow great point about squaring the subversion with the narrative.

                I must think on that.Report

              • oops, that was supposed to be to Jaybird, sorryReport

              • Marchmaine in reply to Kristin Devine says:

                Heh, sad. 🙂Report

              • Marchmaine in reply to Kristin Devine says:

                Thanks! One hits upon the occasional nugget and all that. Appreciate the GoT re-visits.Report

            • But sometimes they do the simplifying and improve it.

              I give the example of my favorite book to movie transformation “LA Confidential” where the book is a bit of a mess but the screenplay fixes all that.

              There are a few things in the GoT books that were somewhat improved in the show by streamlining them. Other things not so much.Report

          • Marchmaine in reply to Kristin Devine says:

            Agreed… that’s where GRRM really shines… we *love* teams and cultures and archetypes. We love the *idea* of Honor-bound Northmen wielding large weapons plus knightly duchies and exotic spear wielding southerners who might (or might not) be subtle practitioners of poison.

            And of course their buildings, their climate, their environs and their culture all inform how they fight, rule and scheme… That’s world-building 101. Even Terry Brooks could do that (well, as long as he had someone to copy he could).

            That’s what makes his books delicious… but its also why he couldn’t finish (I surmise). Once you’ve run out of places to describe and machinations to weave you have to land the story… and that requires a meta-narrative about why tropes were subverted and what is verted in its place. GRRM couldn’t vert.Report

            • One of the themes of LOTR is that the fight against the Enemy is so difficult, maybe even doomed, because the people who should be the allies don’t trust each other. The key illustration of this is blindfolding Gimli on the way into Lothlorien.

              GRRM is doing something similar, with all the conflict, from petty sniping up to and including the War of the Five Kings, happening in the face of an existential threat to humanity that’s almost entirely ignored by everyone south of the Watch. (Melisandre, as sketchy as she is, at least gets this right. ) What GRRM hasn’t been able to do is merge those two stories and show us what’s going to replace brutal, treacherous medieval politics that can deal with the Others.Report

              • It’s both one of the best parts of the books and the worst part of the show, acting like it had all been wrapped up so easily.

                I would have very much favored a Sopranos type ending where Dany has broken the wheel and yet the Game of Thrones continues on undiminished.

                Because that’s the way of it in the real world.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Kristin Devine says:

                One of the things that I thought was really interesting about Game of Thrones was that the story took place after a story that seemed a lot more interesting.

                They took on The Mad King! He was Crazy! There was a war! There was a Kingslayer! The Kingslayer slayed the king!

                And this story is about a boar hunt that goes wrong, a bastard hunt that goes nowhere, and the guy that we figured was the main character ends up shorter at the end.

                Nothing happens, nothing happens, then a bad thing happens.

                I’d rather have read the prequel.Report

              • Kristin Devine in reply to Jaybird says:

                There was a forbidden love and a secret baby! There was a family partially killed and partially carried off to another country!

                The prequel would have been insane. :/Report

    • Kristin Devine in reply to InMD says:

      I really quibbled with myself about using that (and even said later on I thought Ender’s Game was the earliest example of the phenomenon) because I do think LOTR falls in a different category. JRR wasn’t doing it as an easy, pat way out of a problem he’d written himself into unlike Benioff and Weiss. But it was really a good example of what I meant where one thing happens and the good guys win.

      Excellent point about answering questions no one asked.

      I am sort of coming around to the notion (and GRRM would find this anathema) that the best thing a creator can do is at some point turn the world over to the fans and see what they have to say about it. Not as fan service, but as feedback. The truth is, the fans of the show version of GoT had some incredibly badass ideas, way better than the writers came up with. But there seems to be this tension between creator and fan that leads the creators of stuff to either fan service just to shut people up, or else to ignore great ideas that might have really worked. IDK still thinking this through.Report

      • InMD in reply to Kristin Devine says:

        I really like the idea of passing the torch, for good or for ill. Random example but a while ago I came across a fan-created Predator short film set during the crusades. The premise seems sort of ridiculous (beyond the obvious way that all such movies are ridiculous) but somehow it works and is way better than anything Hollywood has done with the concept. Same with a series of shorts that were released for the 40th anniversary of Alien. They played off the ideas and settings that work but didn’t try to make it bigger than it needed to be.Report

        • Kristin Devine in reply to InMD says:

          The truth is, as a writer you get snowblind sometimes and you need another set of eyes. I really loathe how both GRRM and JK Rowling not to mention several other writers are so dismissive of their fans because it’s such an arrogant notion to think you can contain all this in your head and never could benefit from a fresh perspective.Report

      • “But it was really a good example of what I meant where one thing happens and the good guys win.”

        Maybe. But even doing that thing meant a lot of things happening — defeating Sauron at Minas Tirith (which, in the books, means drawing support from all over Gondor), drawing him out to the battle at the gates, finding their way past Shelob, etc. There’s no one thing that completes the quest. It’s definitely a massive group effort.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to InMD says:

      If you love the LOTR lore and you enjoy action/adventure sandboxy games (think the Batman: Arkham games), you should get the Shadow of Mordor/Shadow of War games.

      Much more fun than they have any right to be, the writing is top notch, and you might be tempted to think that the writers have no idea that the original books even had a theme. (They pull it out at the very end and you will say “okay, maybe they did know what the point of the books was” but, like, that’s only after hours and hours and hours of a game that delights in violence and orc domination.)

      If you’ve ever been tempted to ask “wait, what if they made *TWO* rings?”, you should run, not walk, to pick these games up (and since they’ve been out for a million years, you’ll get the Game of the Year versions with all DLC included for cheap).Report

  2. By the way I would like you all to admire my forbearance in not including the sentence “I love Woody” in this piece.Report

  3. One interesting play on this is the Dune series. This sets up a massively complicated world. But the point of the world is to *create* a situation where one person can decide the fate of humanity. The sisterhood has spent millennia with a breeding program designed to create a superbeing. And the point of the later books is to create a situation where humanity’s fate and survival is impervious to the actions of a single person (or group of people).Report

  4. Marchmaine says:

    Riffing on InMD and Michael’s comments about LOTR and Dune… my change-up would be that both of those books are fundamentally books exploring metaphysics and the plot is driven by that. GRRM’s failure (and almost all modern fiction) is precisely this point… they don’t have the metaphysics aligned so their plots fall apart.

    Which is to say, if you just default to what’s familiar like England, Kings, Lords and Ladies, then it doesn’t make sense to have an Ice King and R’hllor… to have a Church where everyone is a skeptic… yet the day-to-day world is suffused with miracles that would make the Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Dennett drop to their knees and worship on the spot.

    So while I’ve read all of GRRM’s GoT books, he’s at best 2nd tier because he thought making fun / subverting the Metaphysics would free him from it, but in the end it defeated him. Incidentally, this is more or less true of Brian Herbert and his pet writer… they get the plot but not the point.Report

    • March, you consistently make the most fascinating points, I love it.

      This is EXACTLY, exactly what bothered me so much about Buffy and “the First Evil”. The source of all evil in the world is located and Buffy had even been to heaven, but then there is nothing to explain the origins of good in the world.

      It irritates me to this day.Report

  5. DensityDuck says:

    Here’s a fun essay describing the various characters in Game of Thrones as direct critiques of fantasy tropes and the Big Fat Fantasy-reading audience.Report

  6. Swami says:

    Currently loving the show The Expanse.

    But the same problem. Somehow the five people on one ship always manage to somehow be the right place to save everyone in the entire solar system, and now the whole galaxy a bunch of times. What is everyone else in the solar system doing other than getting in the way?Report

  7. Dark Matter says:

    For Star Wars, the problem is every last erg of popularity needs to be extracted. Skywalker is popular (and powerful), so connecting to him is both an excuse for power and an invitation for fans to show up.

    We see this in comics, Wolverine and Deadpool have joined the Avengers. Both of them are famous for breaking rules, killing people, being crazy, and/or anti-social so there’s no way in hell either would be allowed to join. However both are wildly popular, ergo they have to somehow be on the team.

    Now some of this can be lazy writing. I need a character to be X, everyone already knows of a character who is that, so if I drag in that character then I don’t need to spend any time showing that he’s X.Report

  8. The daughter and I were talking about Star Wars and how much she hates Rise of Skywalker. The problem plugs right into what you’re talking about: that it just folds back on itself to, “Oh, yeah, Palpatine is back.” There were two ways this could have gone WAY better.

    1) The Lensman solution. You defeat the Big Bad at the end of the book. But when the next book begins, you discover he was only a servant of the REAL Big Bad. Think about if what the sequels had done is gone with the idea that Palpatine was but servant of an even larger evil.

    2) The Thrawn solution. The sequel books explored the idea that ending the Empire wasn’t as simple as “Kill Emperor. Done.” There were other people out there who had abilities and a lust for power. There was a vast military and skilled commanders. You’re dealing with the aftermath of the Empire and it turns out restoring democracy isn’t as simple as flipping a switch.

    Either of those would have been better than the fan service recycled plot we got.Report

    • And when in the finale you’ve found the Lensmen’s true enemy, the Eddorians, you penfu gurve cynarg orgjrra gjb bgure cynargf lbh unccra gb unir oebhtug jvgu lbh sbe whfg gung checbfr. Now, that’s a climax.Report

    • Dark Matter in reply to Michael Siegel says:

      I like the “power vacuum” solution. You beat one empire, now there are 6 want-to-be-empires to face instead.

      I think they don’t go for that because they always want “THIS movie” to be “THE movie”. They’re forgetting “The Empire Strikes back”.Report

    • James K in reply to Michael Siegel says:

      I thought the Thrawn solution was where they were going to go after The Last Jedi, but that would have required the director for Star Wars IX to not be a total hack.Report

    • Same with Solo – it was Darth Maul all the time! (insert Picard facepalm gif)

      I have a third solution. Both The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker are huge missed opportunities because the real battle is for Kylo’s soul at that point. There didn’t need to be a big bad. There didn’t need to be a recycled plotline. There just needed to be a race to redeem this guy who was hell bent on self destruction. You could have kept a lot of the same scenes in both movies and even much of the overall plot, and made it a more intimate and psychologically interesting story about what happens when someone does turn to the Dark Side.

      The actors were so good and had such chemistry I think it really would have worked, and honestly without cutting out any of the action scenes people go to Star Wars movies to see.Report

  9. Marc Sacks says:

    If you want a highly complex world with a vast variety of characters or all classes and walks of life, which doesn’t involve forces of evil (though there are a few), supernatural beings, or the end of the world — read Balzac. His “Human Comedy” provides as broad a panorama of humanity as ever existed, all within the microcosm of mid-19th-century Paris.

    Years ago, I tried to get my kids hooked on Balzac, but they never caught on. (Probably far too many years ago. You try to meet your kids where they’re at, but Balzac is a long way from the Boxcar Children. For that matter, much as they were enthralled by dragons, gods, dwarves, and magic rings, I don’t think I ever did get them into Wagner’s Ring Cycle.)

    In any case, if you want a universe that seems to go on forever, you don’t have to go to fantasy novels. I really enjoyed the anthropology of The Wheel of Time, but it has the same problems you write about, including most of the heroes’ growing up in the same village. Oh well. By all means check out Balzac, or maybe Zola.Report