Chances are that even if you haven’t watched Game of Thrones (or read the George R.R. Martin “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels that it’s based on), you’re still familiar with some of the show’s more questionable elements. For starters, it’s the kind of show whose fans feel free to demand even more gratuitous content (as do those directly involved with the show).
Yet for all its gratuitous-ness, the show works for one reason: it’s based on a series of incredibly entertaining and complex novels. Spread over five books (so far), Martin’s sprawling, expansive narrative jumps between chapters, characters, plot-lines, and continents to create what Time has called “the great fantasy epic… for a more profane, more jaded, more ambivalent age than the one Tolkien lived in.” In fact, our own editor-in-chief opined in 2012 that the narrative ranks “among the best epic fantasy stories ever written.”The danger of the show’s growing influence on the narrative is that we’re left trying to justify what we’re watching against what we’ve been told it represents.
In lieu of a release date for the next novel, HBO’s show became a substitute; after seeing glowing reviews for the first three seasons, I completed the books and began watching. And you know — it was great. Even so, I was cautious in my approach: I avoided watching alone, and any scenes that strayed too far into grotesqueness were skipped without hesitation.
Before we move too far into this discussion, though, it seems necessary to mention that I haven’t watched Game of Thrones‘ current season for reasons we’ll discuss below. I say this to move this discussion beyond the controversy associated with the show’s most recent snafu. But here’s a quick rundown:
- The May 17th episode — “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” — featured a scene of rape.
- This rape occurred in the books, but the book’s victim doesn’t exist in the show so the show’s creators merged the scene into an existing character’s story.
- This was arguably the most “tasteful” of the show’s rape scenes (at least according to the actress herself).
- Reactions to this scene ranged from disgust and entirely dismissing the show to roughly “I told you so.”
- In terms of narrative value, the scene served little purpose other than to shock the audience.
I want to phrase this carefully, so bear with me: claiming a particular scene’s content as the reason for dismissing an on-going narrative disservices our ability to gauge entertainment. It should go without saying that the depiction of evil isn’t the same as condoning that evil, especially in this kind of discussion. Rape is a sickening, vile horror, so don’t mistake my thoughts for flippancy.
What I am saying, however, is that if you’ve invested time, conscience, and effort into the world of Game of Thrones (or any thematically mature series), one episode’s content doesn’t inherently destroy the story’s value, and it doesn’t ever give us the right to say “I told you so” in a brash or arrogant way (even if it’s true).
Still with me? Good.
That’s where the conversation often stops, much to the detriment of a far more important yet less referenced discussion. Until this point in the show’s history, deviations from the books have arguably enhanced its ability to tell a lean, compressed narrative. Not everything always remains the same when adapting books to screen, so I excused the changes as necessary to fit the confines of television.
But season four had several moments where the showrunners simply mangled the story while ignoring character history and context. It wasn’t that they just changed the story — like I mentioned, that would be understandable. What’s troubling is that the show’s worst moments directly coincided with deviations from the books, and these changes were indicative of a problematic pattern: the more HBO’s team began shaping the narrative beyond the books, the more I expected such moments to occur.
Here’s where the show’s greatest problem presents itself. Instead of an epic narrative fueled and realized by a single artist, we’re forced to recognize what directly motivates HBO and question how much this new creative vision is both trustworthy and capable of creating something redemptive. To an extent, Joanna Robinson’s article from last year is correct:
Discussion around any given episode and, certainly, any hot-button topic is always warranted and welcome. But with television, specifically, it might be more useful to hold off on name-calling and assumptions until we’ve seen the entire piece of art. That Scene, as it’s come to be called, is one piece, of one episode, of one season, of a saga. If you see a problematic pattern emerge, by all means call it out. But if a show has already earned your faith and adoration, maybe it’s useful to wait and see where it’s going before rushing to accuse.
It’s true that we can’t know the entire worth of a narrative until it’s complete, so Robinson’s point is well-taken. That said, the series’ more questionable material should never have easily captured our “faith and adoration.” One of the first warning signs was apparent as far back as season two, when a Game of Thrones director was initially shocked at the “surreal” requests from HBO’s executive producers:
This particular exec took me to one side and said, “Look, I represent the pervert side of the audience, okay? Everybody else is the serious drama side — I represent the perv side of the audience, and I’m saying I want full frontal nudity in this scene.” So you go ahead and do it.
Because of that influence, the show’s tendency has been to stray towards visual exploitation of the obviously vile, depraved world of Martin’s books. As a result, the show’s creators have been incapable of consistently creating a narrative which reflects Martin’s intentions. Game of Thrones depicts a medieval world where brutality and power define reality, but the danger of the show’s growing influence on the narrative is that we’re left trying to justify what we’re watching against what we’ve been told it represents. The means justify the ends, or so we’re supposed to believe. Thus far, it hasn’t quite added up, and we’re now in a position where the show’s creators and Martin have admitted the show will entirely overtake the books as early as 2016’s sixth season. (Some character arcs have already reached this point.)
With that in mind, I’m also not preaching fidelity to Martin’s books, which occasionally linger on the sexuality and violence of his world. But he manages to overcome his own tendencies through creating deeply flawed, interesting, and relatable characters that push us to question the limits of our empathy. And while it’s a common authorial mistake to revel in depravity while claiming to expose that depravity as meaningless, Martin’s books have seemingly been driven by a word Christians know well: redemption.
One of the things I wanted to explore… with so many of the characters is the whole issue of redemption. When can we be redeemed? Is redemption even possible? I don’t have an answer. But when do we forgive people? …I don’t know the answer, but these are questions worth thinking about. I want there to be a possibility of redemption for us, because we all do terrible things. We should be able to be forgiven. Because if there is no possibility of redemption, what’s the answer then?
“Redemption” is a loaded term. Martin obviously doesn’t share our Christian beliefs, and his definition appears to substitute forgiveness and empathy for these characters more than anything else. But is that such a bad thing? One of Game of Thrones’ defining characteristics is a visible lack of decency, where the rule is kill or be killed. Martin’s search for answers supposes there will be a time when “terrible things” will no longer be absolutely necessary for survival. If the books end with broken people seeking forgiveness and recognizing their own depravity, isn’t that what it feels like to know the reality of common grace?
Sadly, little of the show’s direction seems intentionally angled towards those questions, and the many changes from book to television continually work to strip ambiguity and complexity from characters, a point Martin’s book editor recently made. Now that the vision of HBO’s producers is inextricably connected to the series’ ultimate end, I fear Martin’s approach will suffer even more as a result. The ending will align in both the books and show, and a statement like “[t]he show must go on… [a]nd that’s what we’re going to do” doesn’t bode well when we’re wrestling with questions of grace and forgiveness.
Instead, we’re left with a show facing inevitable time constraints and the pressure of expectations to create a product that, nuanced or not, must go on. Unsurprisingly, that approach is self-serving and cares far more about a visually spectacular, yet hollow story:
There’s no way to retain everything from the books and we’re making choices that we think are necessary for the series… and if that means keeping faith with certain aspects of the book, that’s great. If that means deviating from the books because it’s in the best interest of the series, then we’ll do that, too — whatever is best for the series.
I’m not suggesting that the books are lost causes, or that I regret the time I’ve invested into this series. As narrative beings, our common desire to be redeemed is ingrained into us. When we invest in fictional worlds where evil seems glorified, we also know truthful, satisfying conclusions are still possible for these characters if the author knows how to ask the right questions.
Humanity’s past and present reflects the truth that we live in a thoroughly evil world, one where it’s sometimes hard to remember the existence of common grace. The almost absolute absence of true goodness or joy within the books doesn’t feel far removed from what the early Dark Ages might have been like, and Martin has mentioned his vision is tainted by historical events that reflect how “rape and sexual violence have been a part of every war ever fought… [t]o omit them from a narrative centered on war and power would have been fundamentally false and dishonest.”
Yet now that Game of Thrones has reached a point where answers to questions of evil and grace may no longer be our destination, the value of its ongoing narrative has lessened significantly. I don’t know where we’re headed, and I don’t trust the producers to make this journey any better. Martin has embraced their vision as simultaneous and worthwhile to his own, and it’s hard to see how the show can add anything worthwhile to Martin’s established world. Sure, it will be entertaining, but it’s taken him years to craft these novels. What kind of nuanced theological questions or introspective truths about humanity can we expect with a rushed, compressed product?
It’s not easy to abandon a story midway through its telling, and who knows, maybe the series’ remaining books will be unchanged. But in my mind, the question isn’t if Game of Thrones will be damaged because of the need to accommodate a television show’s vision. Based on the show’s track record, it’s how much.