Game of Thrones: Little People, Big World
A couple months ago, I wrote about The Mandalorian and one of my favorite parts of the Star Wars universe – the sheer scope of it. There are just SO MANY cultures, so many creatures, so many backstories, so much complexity, that the Star Wars universe at its best feels vast and grand and deep.
Or as I said then:
One of the things that has long puzzled me about the popular writing of the past thirty-ish years is what I call The Scope Problem. The Scope Problem rears its ugly head when we have this freaking mind-blowing world created for us in the first half of a movie or the first few episodes of a show or the first few books in a series, and then all that stuff fades away into the background as the plot starts to take over. No more do we have a wide-open universe where anything is possible. Instead, the story focuses in on a handful of heroes with one single goal, usually defeating a villain who also has one single goal.
The vast horizon of possibilities present at the beginning of the piece shrinks to a few players on a small stage, as if we’re looking at the fictional world not through Imax or Panavision, but through a pirate’s spyglass. Even when (or possibly especially when) our heroes are fighting a Big world-ending Bad, the story ends up feeling pitifully small, even more so when that Big Bad turns out to be shockingly easy to beat.
In Independence Day, for example, despite there being alien spacecraft descending from the clouds all across the globe, the President of the United States and Randy Quaid team up to bring down the Mothership, which is conveniently located right over America, assisted by a computer virus. In The Avengers, a world-threatening hole is opened by Loki right over NYC (not outer Mongolia where no one would have noticed it till after it was too late), and Iron Man blows it up pretty darn easily, putting an end to the Chitauri invasion in one fell swoop. In the Harry Potter series, Lord Voldemort, despite being such a threat to the whole entire world that the British Prime Minister was notified about him, was left to be defeated…by some teenagers at a boarding school. (Where was the bloody RAF?) Buffy the Vampire Slayer had “The First Evil”, the source of all evil in the whole entire world, brought down with relative ease by the Scooby Gang. For all its mystical lore, Lord of the Rings hinged on two hobbits and a hobbit-like creature with specious motives throwing a ring in a volcano. LOST will go down in history as being the lamest thing in ever when this big complicated mystery-filled universe they’d created so spectacularly just ended up being the hallucinations of some dead people or something.
IDK. I try to block that one out.
These supposedly huge and terrible threats that our handful of ragtag heroes spend all this time stressing about are easily defeated by like four people armed with bargain basement technology. The Scope Problem makes a fictional universe feel small and lame to me. And the bigger and more magnificently complicated the universe was to start with, the more of a letdown it is when the scope of the ending is disappointingly puny.
Despite my earlier praise of Star Wars, sadly it has often fallen into the same trap. Luke and Leia are…brother and sister? And their dad is…Darth Vader? And…Anakin built C3PO? And the Death Star…could be defeated by shooting a single bullet? Though they did retcon an explanation for that, I suppose, but…it was thanks to the father of the chick who brought Princess Leia the plans for the Death Star in the first place?
What are there, like 27 people in this universe? And they’re ALL involved in this life or death universe-ending situation that has to be avoided somehow by the exact same 27 people?
LAME. No scope! No scope at all.
Even The Mandalorian itself, which started off so promising, seems to be succumbing the Scope Problem. Boba Fett, Asoka Tano, and then (SPOILER ALERT) Luke freakin Skywalker have all made an appearance, turning a story I thought was about a dude and a Baby Yoda having adventures in a pretty awesome universe, into yet another dispatch about the lives of the Skywalker clan and their chums.
It’s a small world after all, I guess.
I mean, it’s not BAD, exactly, I don’t HATE it, but it just makes this incredibly vast universe Lucas et al created feel like living in a small town where everyone knows what everyone else is doing all the time. “VernaLou, did you hear the news? Leia Organa and Luke Skywalker are actually brother and sister!” “Oh my stars, LeeAnne Marie, and after they kissed when escaping from the Death Star!! Does their father, who is Darth Vader and also built C3PO BTW, know?”
Again I ask, are there 27 people in this universe?
What it is in the human brain that leads writers to create these marvelous fictional universes with what seems to be unlimited amounts of potential, and then not be able to stick the landing? Why is it writers keep going back to the same goshdarn well of sending a paltry handful of people to defeat the greatest evil the universe has ever known?
Let’s ask the master of creating an exquisite fictional universe and not being able to pull off the grand finale – George RR Martin.
I bust George’s chops now and then, and bust his proteges/minions David Benioff and DB Weiss’ chops even more, but the truth is the guy created a freaking world like no other. I’m not completely obsessed with it for no reason, fam. The world of Game of Thrones is rich and varied and full of interesting people, places and things. When you’re in it, it seems mindblowingly huge. Massive scope, phenomenal vision. Even as you, the reader/viewer, are all wound up about the White Walkers coming and what the Lannisters are plotting you know there’s this whole other section of the GoT universe where there’s all this other stuff happening, where people haven’t even heard of the White Walkers, and none of what our main characters are going through matters to any of them.
But as we all know, the dude’s reach outstripped his grasp, and he couldn’t finish the fictional panorama in a timely manner. He had to turn it over to lesser creators, and they dropped the ball, big time.
When it comes to the Game of Thrones TV show, pretty much everyone agreed it was disappointing how unepically the Night King was defeated. The once formidable Cersei Lannister was like a clown show compared to that, and Dany was taken out by a cute boy.
Of course, GRRM was not technically responsible for the mistakes of David Benioff and DB Weiss, but allegedly they were simply following his lead. No matter what happens in the final books, I suspect that the Others will go down with a whimper not a bang, and then Cersei will just be an afterthought on the way to doing in Daenerys.
And why do I think that?? Because pretty much EVERY story with this massively huge world that’s in peril from some terrible dark force being fought by this small band of people ends up feeling small and lame to me. I still hold out hope that GRRM is going to surprise the hell out of me, but not much hope.
After giving The Scope Problem a lot of thought I have concluded it’s gotta be something fundamental about the nature of creating an “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” kind of scenario. At the beginning of the story when the world is wide open, the writer has the freedom to hint at all these marvelous things, drop bread crumbs down lots of different trails, but as human beings, writers are limited to the number of people and plots their brains, let alone their readers’ brains, can handle. What needs to be epic often ends up being lame, because neither writer nor reader can manage to track it all. Eventually the story will, by necessity, end up focusing on a few people coming together to do one or two or a few brave and heroic things.
Shortcuts have to be taken. Maybe those shortcuts come from having all our main characters come from the same village growing up. Maybe they take the form of having the main villain be shockingly easy to defeat. Maybe Anakin really DID have to build C3PO. Regardless, these shortcuts end up cutting a world of endless possibilities down into, “ok here’s the exciting part” and before you know it (to use the earliest example of The Scope Problem I’m aware of) a group of schoolchildren led by Chosen One Ender Wiggin is defeating the species of giant ants known as the Formics, the precocious kiddos thinking the entire thing is just a big video game.
Welp, that was unsatisfyingly easy.
Discovering pat solutions to highly complicated problems is not how things work in the real world. If there’s one thing I’ve learned the last fiveish years or so, it’s that shit is complicated and it isn’t just about one bad guy who is gonna be easy to defeat (sorry to shatter everyone’s illusions here). Whenever a vast and interesting fictional universe boils down into the outcome of one battle or the killing of one villain, it feels SO fictional to me.
There just seems to be some kind of irreconcilable disconnect between creating fictional worlds and then making huge events happen in them. It’s like in its lack of epicness, the huge world-saving event always manages to pull back the curtain and reveal that the world is artificial, an inch deep and a mile wide. Authors just cannot make fictional universes that are as complicated and involved as reality, no matter how hard they try.
Why? Well, try to explain the difference between Seattle and Portland. It’s not very easy to do. There is a difference, we all know there is, but if you were trying to describe the two cities to an alien from another planet who had no concepts of things like liberalism or salmon or “Seattle Nice” or coffee or food trucks you would be hard pressed to do it. There are tons of things in the real world that are close, but no cigar. Cleveland and Cincinnati. Coke and Pepsi. Keira Knightly and Natalie Portman. Potato salad and macaroni salad and spinach salad and fruit salad. HOW TF CAN ALL THESE THINGS BE SALAD? But in the real world, we understand they’re all salad, even if we can’t quite explain the reasons why.
A writer creating a universe has to be able to explain why some of these things are not like the others. That’s what being a writer is fundamentally about – the expressing of inexpressible differences. Capturing in words all those crazy nuances and subtle understandings that we have accrued over a lifetime of existence without even thinking about it. How is poor GRRM supposed to be able to describe the difference between King’s Landing and Highgarden when you can’t even adequately explain why Seattle and Portland are two different places!?!
Let’s take a truly epic good vs. evil scenario IRL like storming the beaches at Normandy to illustrate why creating realistic fictional universes is so hard. In order to fictionalize D-Day, you would rely on the ability of people to understand concepts like “France” and “Germany” and even more obscure things like “Normandy” and “pillbox” and “Higgins boat”. You would expect your audience to be up to speed on the most important individuals involved. The technology of the time, geography of the area, and even things like the religion, language and culture of everyone involved are known by us to some extent.
All that stuff came together to form one moment in time in which some men did a pretty freaking amazing thing.
We know everything we need to know to understand D-Day because we’ve grown up our entire lives hearing about European history and WWII. So when it comes time to learn about that battle we have all that background already there in our brains before we ever start hearing the story of June 6, 1944.
The landing at Normandy was an event of mindboggling scope. Imagine trying to create that kind of scope in a fictional universe. Imagine trying to write a D-Day scenario as a fantasy writer. All that history, geography, religion, culture, and technology would have to be set up in advance of the big battle – and that doesn’t even get into the characters themselves, or the overall plot. But that’s what a writer has to do when it comes down to creating a battle like one of the many battles in Game of Thrones. George RR Martin and everyone involved in the tv show had to basically create the equivalent of D-Day out of thin air, using people, places and things that they had to not only create, but explain to their viewers.
It’s not so hard to understand why most writers would simply imagine D-Day written as a LARP where a handful of Jungian archetypes with some complicated frenemy backstory somehow all managed to survive the beaches against completely overwhelming odds, and for some reason Hitler was at the top of the hill and the most obvious guy offed him. Imagine Saving Private Ryan rewritten as “Chosen One Saves World As We Know It.”
That was the battle of Winterfell, basically.
This is why so many fantasy stories devolve into sagas set in fictional England and involve the occasional visitor from fictional Asia like Khal Drogo, without that much nuance or creativity involved. It’s just easier to fall into the set patterns that already exist in our brains than it is to truly make something from nothing. In a fantasy story like Game of Thrones, everyone rides horses, everyone has a sword, there are kings and queens and noblemen. Because our brains already know and expect those things. You just cannot build a D-Day from nothing, and if you tried, it would probably be so complicated it would be asking too much for your readers to even track it.
The truth is, as much as I see the end of the TV version GoT as a massive disappointment, and as much as I fear the books will let me down even more so because they’ll be so final, I have to admit that George, David, and DB are doing/did something that is quite tough – bringing a vast and complicated world to a satisfactory close for the finite number of characters we’ve gotten to know along the way, without making it feel like microscopically small potatoes.
These two goals – vast and complicated world plus small and intimate characters feel mutually exclusive to me for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned. So much so that I actually hope that writers in general start to move away from the “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” plot in favor of something else. It just doesn’t seem to be possible to pull off ITEOTWAWKI without making that grandiose, intricate world you created in the first part of your story seem lame and amateurish, when the fate of everyone on the whole planet ends up resting on the shoulders of a single besieged building in Northern England, and in the end either Harry Potter or Arya Stark just HAS to be the one who gets the baddie.
Invariably the writer ends up telling a much smaller story than the story he or she was telling at the start, and as a fan, how can you not be disappointed in that?
When it comes to solving The Scope Problem, I think that’s where the answer lies. If you’re going to end up reduced to telling a small story anyway, why not start with that goal in mind? Rather than setting up a plot where an ultimate good is fighting an ultimate evil and the fate of the world hangs in the balance, why not aim at telling a relatively small story against the BACKDROP of an infinite, exciting, extremely complicated world? That way authors don’t ever have to take a step backwards and make their worlds feel smaller in order to bring them to a conclusion. The fictional universe can stay as huge as you want it to be, because your story is reasonable in scope.1
I personally believe that the best ending, of anything, ever, is in a much less assuming piece of fiction than GoT called Toy Story. (After ragging on him in my last piece, I must give Joss Whedon credit where it’s due). In Toy Story, Woody and Buzz don’t end up preventing some supervillain mastermind from killing off all sentient toys, and they don’t unravel the mystery of why toys talk in the first place. They just exist in this weird, cool universe where toys come to life, and in that universe, they want the things they want and those things are totally relatable both within the boundaries of the world, and to us, as human beings. It works so well because the big finale simply entails Buzz and Woody getting back to the boy they both love and working out their differences rather than disarming a nuclear warhead, stopping the Ultimate Evil, or killing the zombie king.
The end of Toy Story is so much more effective than the end of Game of Thrones, because the world stayed big but the characters and story were small enough for both author and audience to wrap their brains around. Even though I know it feels counterintuitive, I truly believe authors trying to make their characters too important within the bounds of their fantasy world end up simply making their world feel smaller without making their characters any more important in the hearts of the audience. I love Buzz Lightyear just as much as I love Arya Stark (if perhaps nowhere near as much as I love Sansa.)
Not every character has to be the Chosen One! Not every character has to be a king! Because in the real world, none of us are that important really – not even kings. Even when it IS the end of the world as we know it, most of us simply fulfill our parts and live out our tiny lives. In real life, there is no one single Chosen One upon whose shoulders rests the fate of the whole universe. In real life, even in times of crisis, there are many people working together to accomplish attainable human goals, sometimes together, sometimes alone, and any one of their individual stories carries with it both scope and intimacy.
Look, this is doable. The Scope Problem is fixable. It can be solved. I believe that the telling of relatable stories in massive fictional universes be done successfully and well (if I didn’t, I would not be a writer at all). But we gotta quit ignoring The Scope Problem or we’ll just end up with more things like Game of Thrones that start off amazing and end with a disappointed “meh”.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“How do you mess up people fighting against evil?”
Agency… a’la Ents. 🙂Report
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
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
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
Heh, sad. 🙂Report
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
yeah probably should have cut it, but I worried my other examples might be too obscureReport
And the result was unexpected. The point of the quest was to deny Sauron the Ring that would have made him invulnerable, and keep him at the level of evil that can be dealt with. No one knew that destroying it would also destroy Sauron and all of his works.Report
Plus, the guy who did it first falls into a different category just by design than those who simply mimic the trick.Report
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
By the way I would like you all to admire my forbearance in not including the sentence “I love Woody” in this piece.Report
Speaking of Toy Story that’s a rare one where you can say they nailed the sequels. I watched #4 with my son a few months ago. It was good all around but Key and Peele as the weird carnival toys had me dying.Report
I weirdly disliked #4, should probably write about it somedayReport
TS3: an important beat is how Bo Peep got thrown away between TS2 and TS3, meaning that there are genuine stakes for these characters, that they might not all get to spend Infinity And Beyond together, a bit that adds a strong element of maturity to the story
TS4: (literally a whole movie that’s a Fix-It Fic for Bo Peep)Report
I also did not care for Woody, who had been all about being with his kid for three movies (like, even to the point of insanity) being like “I GOTTA LIVE FOR ME NOW”
Parts of the movie are incredibly cute but that felt weird to me.Report
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
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
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
Hey, this is great, thanks.
I swear I feel I’ve read everything on the Internet but still keep finding undiscovered gems.Report
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
Interesting! I keep meaning to watch/read that, sounds like it’s more of the same though.Report
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
I have a piece percolating about anti-heroes to go along with my hero piece a few weeks back, I appreciate this insight.
I like Wolverine but he was kind of a plague to be honest.Report
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
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
I completely thought that’s where The Mandalorian was going and I was so excited to see it. But nope, just more of the same apparently.Report
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
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