Game of Thrones: When Fantasy Looks Like Reality

The second in a five-part series about HBO’s new show, which premieres this weekend


HBO’s new series, Game of Thrones, premieres on Sunday. This week, we’re featuring five different takes on the show, which is the first foray into fantasy for a network that has built its programming on grimly realistic stories like The Sopranos and The Wire. Atlantic correspondent Alyssa Rosenberg began the conversation, and The American Prospect’s Adam Serwer continues it:

The most concise summary of Game of Thrones comes from the character King Robert Baratheon, as he recalls the first time he ever crushed the life out of someone with his war-hammer. Speaking to his brother-in-law and the aging leader of the Kingsguard, the wine-drunk Robert recalls how the slain man defecated on himself shortly after dying.

“They don't tell you that in the songs,” he spits.

George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is nothing if not an attempt to mash together two seemingly contradictory genres of literature: realism and fantasy. It wants to tell you precisely what is not in the songs troubadours perform: the callous ambitions of nobles, the suffering of their serfs, the paralyzing social conventions of life for the mostly lowly blacksmith or highborn lady. While the producers of Game of Thrones might have been tempted to portray the epic battles of Robert's Rebellion in 300-style flashbacks, this history is instead rendered verbally, much as it is in the book, through the war stories of old men who are no longer the heroes they once were.

But the above scene does not appear anywhere in the first book of the Song of Ice and Fire series—none of the original point-of-view characters from the book are present as Robert says this. But the scene an example of how pitch-perfect the show is in capturing the original feel of the books. I actually looked back through my copy trying to find the exact scene, only to discover it wasn't there.

Despite its setting, Game of Thrones is, as Alyssa noted, more comparable to The Wire than anything else on television. But this poses a challenge for the series that may prove difficult to meet in terms of snatching up viewers. The Wire didn't begin with the same moral ambivalence that later defined the series. To the contrary, viewers were initially encouraged to view Baltimore's drug trade through the eyes of Jimmy McNulty's quixotic attempt to bring Avon Barksdale to justice. Likewise, in Lord Eddard Stark, Martin provides a fairly traditional protagonist who helps anchor the reader through the first book. The differences in medium however, eliminate Stark's internal monologues, which are key to leading you to the meat of the story. The adaptation is so successful in imitating the tone of the books that it starts off adopting the same ambivalent approach to the main characters that Martin eases you into later on. For those of us who have read the books and are aware of the payoffs, this poses little problem. But I suspect some viewers less familiar with the world of Westeros may be frustrated trying to figure out who the good guys and bad guys are. With no obvious person to root for, the series' abrupt plunge into its rather bleak subject matter may be difficult from some viewers to suffer through.

Part of the issue here is that Peter Dinklage and Maisie Williams steal the show as the calculating Tyrion Lannister and tomboyish Arya Stark, respectively. These characters are already favorites for longtime readers of the series, but because their performances are so compelling in the show, viewers may end up sympathizing with characters on both sides of the Lannister-Stark feud early on, way before plot developments force invested readers into wrenching emotional choices about who to root for. This is Martin's ultimate intent, of course. But I wonder if it may discourage or confuse newcomers.

There are also some minor problems with the early episodes. The scale of the Dothraki wedding scene plays more like a frat party gone horribly wrong than a warlord's nuptials. The decision to make the Dothraki miscellaneous brown people rather than model them directly after the Mongol warriors on whom they seem to be based reinforces the problematic ‘noble savage’ stereotype. The nobles across the sea in Westeros are, of course, hardly any more civilized—but the false contrast is even less evident early in the series than it is in the books. And there are times when the actors' delivery is stiff and off-putting, like they've spent hours trying to get the pronunciation of various proper nouns just right.

Despite some flaws, however, the show does an incredible job of capturing the realist heart of Martin's books—with that sense that magic lingers only on the periphery of the world in which the characters dwell, and is something more terrifying than wondrous. Rather than being about an epic, glorious battle between good and evil, this is a story about lives being crushed by the feudal system they are born into. The producers have grasped that this is more a story of politics than one of heroism, a story about humanity wrestling with its baser obsessions than fulfilling its glorious potential—and that's where the show's possible crossover appeal lies. It's a fantasy story that defies expectations by ultimately being less about a world we'd like to escape, at times becoming uncomfortably familiar to the one we live in.

Read all of The Atlantic’s Game of Thrones coverage.