Monday, May 12, 2014

George RR Martin, Game of Thrones, and Hollywood Sword-and-Sandalism

I've met George RR Martin. I like him, he's a nice guy. This is saying something in a set of genres - science fiction and fantasy -  that seem to attract assholes. Sometimes interacting with SF&F authors is a long wade into a deep cesspool full of adolescent behavior, alcoholism, preening, and rampant egotism. I've been called names and mocked by Harlan Ellison. I was spit on by a drunken Jerry Pournelle. I've been reviled by an apparently endless line of writers. So Martin stands out as a legitimate nice guy.

Personal aside: detective, mystery, and hardboiled writers have treated me like a prince. One of them, James Lee Burke, became one of my mentors in college. Even guys who write about hardcore gangsters doing the most despicable things have answered my letters with great kindness.

It pains me to say this. I mean, it really does. I can't stand anything George RR Martin writes. I wish I admired his writing, a nice guy deserves that. But I can't. I don't like his books. It isn't for lack of trying. I've read several of his SF novels. I forced myself through two of the Song of Fire and Ice novels, Storm of Swords and the next one, forgot its title. Hated them all. Most of the time, in order not to harm the gentleman - nice guys deserve to be treated nicely - I evade or dissemble when asked my opinion about "the Game of Thrones books." But now that the series has become a full-fledged cultural thing, I no long have to remain silent. The guy's sold over 24 million copies, he's set for the rest of his life. So with a light heart, knowing I won't be doing a nice guy any damage, I can shout at you, DON'T READ THESE BOOKS, THEY'RE TERRIBLE!

Read Fritz Leiber instead. He pursues the same themes of reality-in-fantasy, human cruelty, tragedy, and non-sensational magic as Martin does. His Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories are a complete joy to read. I'd also recommend Lin Carter, Robert E Howard, C. L. Moore, Karl Edward Wagner, and a bunch of other dead people from whom Martin has borrowed his themes and tone.

However...this essay ain't about my affection for George RR Martin despite my dislike of his work. It's about the most recent episode of Game of Thrones, the television series based on his series.

It was a very good episode, mostly because of the trial sequence at the end.  Peter Dinklage is the actor behind the portray of Tyrion Lannister. Dinklage is a freaking genius, an actor with more talent than any five other actors you could name. He managed to unleash the rage that character has been carrying around in his heart since birth. Wow.

The rest of the episode was up to par if not to the epic standards of the trial scene...with one very notable exception: the fight sequence in which Theon Greyjoy's sister tries to free him. The punk-torturer shows up essentially naked, armed only with an axe, and charges straight at a heavily armored Ironborn, who also has a shield and an axe. I summarize this for easy comprehension: NAKED GUY charges STRAIGHT AT an ARMORED soldier holding a SHIELD. The naked punk-torturer wins?  This is the worst sort of Hollywood Sword-and-Sandal heroic bullshit, this in a series supposedly claiming to be more "realistic," more "faithful to the true nature of the Middle Ages." LIKE FUCK.

We're to believe that a heavily armored man carrying a large shield, armed with either a sword or fighting axe, is to be overcome by a naked guy armed only with an axe running straight at him?  Maybe it could happen, if there were another thousand naked Celts right beside him. But there aren't. Everyone else is armored up. One cut from the naked guy's opponent, one deep cut, the naked guy's gonna bleed out. At the minimum, the naked guy will lose an ear, a nose, fingers, be crippled by a blow to the get the idea. It would take him time to overcome the shielded, armored soldier, time he doesn't have given that one cut coming at him. This is shit out of a kung fu movie, not one of the good ones, either, one with everyone flying around on wires. It's Hollywood Magical Armor, which looks like real armor, like a real helmet, like a real shield, but offers zero protection even from glancing blows. Armor as a fashion statement? This completely dilutes the great scene about armor and combat between Arya Stark and the Hound in the previous episode. It undermines a major plot element right there. Naked guy charging into a shield wall held by heavily armored soldiers? Who knew PCP existed in Westeros!

What's really going on, gotta fill up that fucking plot point. Never mind that one change in the scene would have made sense of everything. We've seen that the punk-torturer likes to kill helpless people. He isn't into putting himself at the least risk. We've fucking seen this in previous episodes!  So why isn't naked-torturer-guy AT THE BACK of his crowd of minions?

Goofy Hollywood shit strikes again, even undermining the drama and epic talent on display elsewhere in the series. This is why I both love and loathe the TV series. In one thirty minute stretch of the same episode, it can be both epically good and epically bad.  If I can see the bad parts coming, I walk away from the TV, do dishes, fold socks, something meaningless for five or ten minutes. It's back to being epic by then.

It's the way things are with fantasy and science fiction in film and on television. It's why we can't have nice things. Hollywood must have its way, even if it fucks everything up.
R. P. Bird: Professional writer since 1989. Author of the IN THE REALM OF THE GODS series and the SUZIE crime novels. Crazy, but highly reliable. Can fix about anything.