Beyond the rare opportunity to see Sean Bean play a man of honor and impeccable integrity (I always thought there was something shifty about him), HBO’s Game of Thrones, the adaption of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels, offers a number of other pleasures as well. The settings are lush, the photography high-quality, the imagined landscapes beautifully rendered, the bodices ripped, the bosoms heaving, the intrigue intriguing, the magic more or less nonexistent (for a Fantasy story).
Doubtless some among the books’ millions of devoted fans may find fault with the adaptation. It’s almost never a waste of time to ask whether a film or TV show does justice to a book, because it forces you to articulate what was worthwhile about the book in the first place. But I think that beyond questions of taste, emphasis, and abridgement, there is a very tough problem for any adaptation: the books’ distinctive style of narration.
For books, especially beloved books, there is a litany of standard complaints about adaptations for the screen. A novelist’s ability to pause the forward movement of the plot and fill in background and details in the narration is not shared by a filmmaker. Sure, in the last couple decades film narrative has become more fractured and experimental. The canonical example is probably Pulp Fiction, which unfolds in non-linear fashion, or The Social Network, which is a similar kind of thing but less showy about it; but don’t forget the brilliant, underrated Crank 2: High Voltage or Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (notably an adaptation, where the film was struggling to cope with the representational innovations of the book). Still, while these examples are mainstream, they are notable primarily because they’re exceptions. By and large, screen narrative is stuck where the theater and the novel were a century and a half ago. Even when films are fantastical, the fantasy is presented, as it were, naturalistically—which is to say, in denial of its own artifice.
Though a lot of intrusion by a novel’s narrator threatens to interrupt the flow of the story and make the plot stutter, skillfully deployed, it provides a sense of texture, history, and scope which is important to epic fantasy like Game of Thrones. Throughout the series narrator is always giving you the (fictional) historical background of the Seven Kingdoms, providing background for characters’ assumptions and prejudices, and situation their actions within a cultural context. At its best, the series pulls it off brilliantly, which is why so many people got hooked on the first couple books: The world seems vast and fully-rendered.
By contrast, filmed narrative (that is, if you don’t want a voiceover as long as the 34-hour GoT audiobook), requires you to shift exposition to the dialogue, which means characters go around reminding one another of things well known to all of them. This can sound stilted, and disrupts the “realistic” interactions which were the heart of GoT’s appeal in the first place. What’s more, without the narration, the stately pace of the novel is transformed into a jolting and disorienting series of scene shifts, and all this cutting back and forth around the kingdom for short bursts of story, at its worst, gives gives the series the feel of a soap opera. A 1- or 2-second establishing shot can’t fill in for in for half a dozen establishing paragraphs which not only set the scene but ease you out of one frame of mind and into another. (Disclamer for the haters: They’ve only aired two episodes, this is a minor quibble, and it’s likely to get better. It’s also not even what this article is really about.)
As I say, these are standard gripes for a screen adaptation. The good ones find a way to mine the novel for its essence and distill it to its highest poetency, giving it economical and powerful visual expression. (This still takes time, something I’m afraid we don’t have in contemporary American movies and TV, which move at a dead sprint.) The bad ones are a forced march through the incidents of the plot, without any thought given to the different natures storytelling has in disparate media (see: all the Harry Potter movies except #3).
But GoT poses a special challenge for adaptation, because of the specific type of narration: third person, limited, jumping from character to character.
Novels’ narration is classified along a couple axes. Is the narrator one of the characters in the story, referring to herself as “I” and the rest of the characters as “him” or “her”? We call that “first person narration,” and generally describe it by how self-conscious the narrator is and how reliable.
If all the characters are referred to as “him” or “her” and their is no “I”, just a narrative voice unfolding events, we call that “third person” and classify it as either “omniscient” or “limited” depending on how much information the narrator reveals to us. If the narrator reveals facts the characters don’t know, that’s “omniscient,” and if we only discover things that the character discovers, that’s “limited.” (“Second person narration” is a controversial topic, and too distracting a rathole to address here. Suffice it to say, like many things, everyone tried it once in college and most decided it wasn’t for them.)
So the Ice and Fire books are told in the third person limited—characters are “him” and “her”, and at any given moment we only know what they know. Some of this knowledge is relevant to the plot, some of it—like the narrator’s historical interjections—serves to illumination fictional context and culture. But there’s one twist: Each chapter follows and is limited to, and by, a different character. This is admittedly less limited than a novel with narration limited to one character throughout, since different characters know different things at different times and we discover when they do—a tricky balancing act for a writer.
This narrative technique is related to the artistic project of the Ice and Fire books, which is, broadly, to rescue the epic fantasy genre from overly schematic, morally simplistic, good-vs.-bad hack and slash. As has been repeated to the point of numbness in the blitz of press-coverage attending the HBO series’s premiere, in GoT, nobody is all good or all bad; the characters have complex psychologies and find themselves on different sides of conflicts than you might expect based on shifting circumstances and the dictates of self-interest.
Jumping among characters, the third person limited narrative manages to tell a story that spans a great deal of space and time without privileging any one point of view. There is no canonical version of events, and no omniscient narrator to inform us who is right in the end. Art is not a geometric proof, moving inexorably to establish the truth of a single proposition, and the novels emphasize a multiplicity of view points, none with obvious moral superiority. In other words, one way to break down the good-vs.-bad dynamic is to make sure there are no good guys and bad guys, and in a novel concerned with political and military struggles for power, having no good guys means that victory is determined through maneuvering, intrigue, violence, and chance.
What’s more, we can throw the post-structuralists a bone here, because the destabilization of narrative authority extends beyond people’s motives and opinions to history itself. There isn’t a single, canonical version of events, either of the plot or of the series’s massive backstory. Historical authority is revealed as a discourse—created and manipulated to serve powerful interests or else merely subject to the vicissitudes of experience and interpretation.
Finally, the limited perspective of the narrator creates suspense. Either we discover information as characters discover it, or else we witness the dramatic irony of characters acting without knowledge we’ve gained from another character in an earlier chapter. In this way keeping the narration close to a character is akin to keeping the camera close to a character in a horror movie—by pulling the frame tight around one consciousness, you create the possibility for surprises to come from outside it.
I mention the camera because it’s really the camera that creates difficulties in the adaptation. In film, the camera can come to feel like it has its own agency. Nobody ever says what “Rosebud” is in Citizen Kane, it’s the camera which reveals the secret in the final shot. The camera cuts, moves, and focuses independent of any character’s consciousness or knowledge. There is a long rack focus in GoT Episode 2 from one character to another which emphasizes the point—the camera is still highlighting multiple points of view, but it is doing so simultaneously, without limiting itself to one or the other.
This gives us the sense that there is privileged knowledge, that the camera has it, and that it is transmitted to us by seeing. The camera has its own point of view, and it mediates and dominates the characters’ points of view. Without the limited narrative interjecting and jumping among characters to ironize what we see, we are prone to believe our eyes and take what we see at face value.
This is not helped by a few simplifications or shifts of emphasis in the plot, which make the whole enterprise seem less morally gray—case in point: Danerys & Drogo’s wedding night. But the most blatant example, and the one I want to highlight, is the way the series renders the discovery Bran makes while he’s climbing the walls at Winterfell. (Sorry to be enigmatic; I’m trying not to spoil the revelation, especially for new readers of the novels.)
Appropriately enough, since I’m making a point about the effects of the camera, it’s something he sees—or rather, something he shouldn’t see but does anyway. Bran catches sight of something as he’s climbing Winterfell’s Broken Tower early in the first novel and late in the TV show’s first episode. In the novel, what (whom) he sees is filtered through his own consciousness—his child’s understanding and his limited acquaintance with the other characters—and rendered for us in enigmatic form. It is actually possible for the reader not to cotton on, and for Eddard Stark’s discovery about two thirds of the way into GoT to come as a surprise.
In the series, by contrast, we see exactly what he sees—we know who the people are and what’s going on. The privileged knowledge of the camera has superseded Bran’s limited knowledge, and a lot of suspense deflates from the first novel’s central mystery.
In other words, we believe our eyes. And we are the worse for it.
[How do you like the adaptation of GoT so far? Sound off in the comments. I’d also like to take up a practical question: How might the series have adapted the novels’ third person limited narration in a way that would have preserved some of its benefits without making each episode a 60 minute long POV shot or going what Stokes, in an email, called “The Full Roshomon”?]
I love the adaptation as if it were my first born child.
I don’t think they had a chance of preserving the benefits of the POV without seriously damaging the storytelling. It’s a different medium, it has different tools.
Also, is it really possible for a reader to not get what Bran was seeing? I’ve never met a reader who was surprised at Ned’s discoveries – at least not that part of them – and having been involved with the Hebrew editions of the books (edited the translations of books 1&2, translated the 3rd), I’ve spoken to many fans of the books.
Putting this out immediately, I haven’t see this show or read the series of books, but it shouldn’t affect my point.
You (Didi) mention that different media have different tools. The most effective book-to-film conversions that I’ve seen (Scott Pilgrim being one of them) are ones that aren’t afraid to make some pretty drastic departures from the original story. This allows the new medium to tell it’s own story well rather than try to fit the original story’s square peg into it’s round hole. Again, I’m not familiar with this franchise but what are the odds that this story may wind up having a forked plot with the book if for no other reason than the subtleties of the language of literature don’t translate over to the visual medium?
I agree with this completely, and it saddens me, because I can’t imagine *any* departures from the GoT plot, off-hand, that would work for me, and I don’t think the many rabid fans would abide it. Also, although I love GRRM greatly, he’s been very involved with this process from start to finish, and usually, when an author is heavily involved, the films tend to stay more true to the novel (whether because of author bitchiness, or because the creative team is afraid to be creative with the author hovering, I don’t know.) The obvious example of this is many of the Harry Potter movies, which by-and-large were nothing more than live-action illustrations for the books, and suffered for it… but another compelling example is the made-for-tv version of Stephen King’s The Shining, which by all accounts (I didn’t see it) didn’t even hold a candle to the Kubrick, despite being more faithful.
Another case, that doesn’t involve author input, is the newer Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which (as much as I love Tim Burton) just wasn’t as compelling or interesting as the version with Gene Wilder, even though it was somewhat more accurate. Books are books, and they tell great stories a certain way… but films/television have to be given the freedom to tell those stories in their own way.
First, regarding your specific example of Bran as an example of the camera fubarring limited perspective, I can’t help but feel that that’s exactly wrong. Furthermore this feeling rests on a reasonable certainty that you can’t actually miss what was going on in the tower. If I’m wrong, and you or someone you know was actually surprised to get the same plot reveal over again 3/4’s of the way in (and it’s not really the same plot reveal; there’s a very specific new element added, though I suppose the new element wouldn’t be hard to infer from the original revelation and character descriptions), then I stand corrected.
Even then, however, I think the way the scene is presented in the book, it was more about narrative irony and building suspense for what is essentially an inverted ghost ship moment than about the idea that the reader might legitimately not get what was going on.
If I’m correct in this, then the HBO version of the scene is a perfectly legitimate alternate framing, one which specifically takes advantage of what literature can’t do well: shocking immediacy. The camera moves along Bran’s POV, we see what he sees. In addition to just mirroring the perspective of the book this, along with a slight abbreviating of events, to make the most shocking reveal in the entire book actually shock. Nothing a writer can do will match the immediacy of a jump cut for this sort of thing.
Instead, Martin goes for slowly building horror, which is no less legitimate, but also not really any more legitimate. Also, I don’t think it would take an incredible feat of imagination for a screenplay to approximate what Martin does with the scene. Just let Bran hear more, see less, and see what he sees in smaller pieces, initially. Finally, reveal the characters in question a couple of seconds after they’ve completed their business, making sure that their situation is more compromising than compromised.
Or, if you really want to make sure the mystery is preserved, don’t show anything at all. Just have him climb the tower, hear some suggestive noises, then cut to the wolf pup howling back at see level followed by… well, you can see where I’m going. Granted at this point you’re no longer really tracking to Martin’s use of perspective at all, but I think there’s some justification for leaving what he sees a mystery, given his later perception of the events (if that gets across my point).
That the director didn’t do it this way is either because he legitimately thought the jump cut would be better or because he was pressed for time (pacing being a legitimate issue, especially in the first episode).
In general, I think you’re both underestimating the degree to which film can present subjectivity and overestimating the degree of subjectivity in Martin’s presentation. Certainly there are differing interpretations of events, and legitimate confusion about historical incidents or things happening far away. But his 3rd person limited perspective never aspires to be an unreliable narrator that I can recall. If the character sees something within the current time narration, then the basic facts of what happened aren’t open to any sort of Rashomon Effect. And, if even if they were, it isn’t like film hasn’t already explicitly done Rashomon.
That was a longer first than anticipated. I wanted to come to second, which was to ask what specifically you were referring to in the wedding. I have some thoughts on that subject, specifically regarding the way a particular scene seems to have been edited for time, and I’m curious if your thoughts track mine.
As the two previous commenters have said, I think you picked a poor example. If the reader has been paying attention at all up to that point, then they immediately realize the details that Bran does not. In the show, we do miss out on Bran’s innocent perspective on the scene (apart from what the actor manages to convey through facial expression). But some amount of narrowing perspective is inevitable in a visual adaptation, and in this instance I don’t feel that it had a strong impact on how scene played out.
But you raise a good point that some of the story is inevitably lost when events are viewed through the camera lens rather than through the eyes of POV characters. In the two episodes we’ve seen to date, I noticed this most clearly in the interaction between Joffrey and Sansa in episode two. Sansa is one of the least reliable POVs in the novel, and though many people dislike her for it, getting to see the world the way she does is essential to understanding her motivations.
Watching the show, we never get to see Joffrey as the gallant prince that Sansa believes him to be. He is introduced to us as a spoiled brat, and that initial perspective never really changes. This is true in the novels as well; I don’t think any readers actually believe he is as charming or noble as Sansa sees him. But knowing that Sansa sees him that way has a profound effect on how we see her. I feel like her character suffers for that loss of perspective.
In this instance they could have preserved some of the effects of the POV simply by giving Sansa and Joffrey more time together on their outing. Most of the details of character that the book conveys through POV could be communicated just as well through the right dialog. And I do think that overall, the show has done a good job of translating the most essential pieces of character. But with so much plot to cover, it sometimes feels that the show is simply moving too fast to give the characters the room they need to breathe.
i think this show’s a, hmm, misguided understanding of film, as a visual medium rather than a dramatic one. visuals and camerawork are agents of structure and empathy, as words and syntax are agents of structure and empathy in a novel. for most viewers, the camera disappears more than the words of a novel (in the case of a realist film like ‘thrones’), but the effect isn’t that we give everything we see equal weight as reality. structure and empathy determine the pov in a film. the analysis falls flat when you liken pov in literature to camerawork in film, while pov is still a separate aspect of film. we see robert and ned in equal measure as they stop on the side of the kingsroad, but that scene is from ned’s pov. another big factor in film pov, maybe the main factor, is called gaze-object-gaze, which is an editing (structural) technique. but there is also editing in literature. i think maybe this article is a bit misguided, and chalks up the first two episodes’ (relatively small palatable) problems of execution and pacing to something intrinsic and inescapable in the very medium. essentially a ‘books ARE better than movies’ argument in place of a ‘this part of this book is different than this part of this series’ argument.
i feel that so far, when the series has kept the same story as the novels, those parts of the series have been as successful as those parts of the novels. we don’t hold books to the same standards as film i feel, but you just don’t remember every little boring paragraph of the first chapters of a novel the way that you remember the boring or confusing scenes from a tv episode you saw the other night and currently have on your dvr.
Just to respond to an earlier poster:
There are big examples of unreliable narrators throughout the book. Some characters like Tyrion tend to be very astute about what’s going on, unless it’s about a specific subject, like his dad. A big pleasure about book 1 is rereading it after you’ve gotten to know the characters from other angles: Ned consistently misjudges most of the major players, but since his opinions stay internally consistent throughout the whole book, you never really notice. And of course any of the kid’s PoVs are undependable, Arya thinking early on about how everybody hates her and life is so unfair, or Sansa about, well, everything.
Yes, but that doesn’t make them unreliable narrators as such, just people with questionable judgement. Take Sansa for example. In the original text of her scene with Joffrey sure, there’s a lot of to do about how awesome and gallant he is, and how awful Arya is being, but the actual factual events are still being presented in a straightforward manner. Even when we start getting POV’s for someone like Cersei, whose capacity for self-serving subjectivity borders on the pathological, the reader is never given reason to wonder if what is shown to happen is what really happened.
If that distinction isn’t clear, imagine an alternate version of the scene where, through Sansa’s perspective, events are shown to transpire the way Joffrey later tells his mother they do. We could then get a narration of the scene from Arya’s perspective depicting the currently canonical series of events. The implication here would not be that either child was lying as such, just that their preconceived notions of Joffrey and of each other have quite believably colored their memories of what was a very tense and chaotic incident. It would then be up to the reader to decide, based on what they know about the characters, whose recollection is more factually accurate.
Full disclosure: I haven’t seen the TV series yet because I don’t own a television, and have not had a chance to track down streaming versions yet.
Just a comment about what Bran sees in the tower — I agree that one of the powerful things about the scene is his innocent perspective. Admittedly, it would be difficult to depict it in film. I’m glad to hear that the TV version showed what he saw, because I agree with other posters, I don’t think that any reader would miss it.
What Martin does with the rest of the book — Bran’s later interpretation of what he saw and his inability to communicate it — is set up tension for Ned’s process of discovery, and also, crucially, allow the schemers time to scheme. It’s delightful. The readers know what Ned is resisting knowing, and they know how damaging and potentially disastrous the revelation could be — but they also see the political maneuverings that change how the revelation is received. Delicious. It’s one of my favorite dramatic tricks. It’s the kind that gets you yelling at the character.
And I want to also add my vote to the unreliable narrator — unreliable narrators present a version of events that is different from what is presented as “reality” in the context of the work of art — the canonical version, as it has been called. They work because readers often believe what they see (or read) until they find evidence that there is a good reason not to do so. The slow realization that the character upon whom you have been depending for a reliable interpretation of reality can be disorienting and self-revelatory. Also a lovely technique, but one that I doubt will be used in Game of Thrones, precisely because of the fantasy element. One of the uphill battles of fantasy as a genre is being taken seriously — narratives not being dismissed as ‘a dream’ — and in order to accomplish that, the world presented must be internally consistent. Playing with assumptions about the presented ‘reality’ of the fantastical world would seriously challenge this goal.
The thing that drove me crazy about the first episode was the consummation of the marriage of Khal Drogo & Daenerys. In the book it was portrayed as being very gentle. Masculine, but gentle. In the television series, it came across as abusive and callous.
That said, things do get better in the second episode, where Daenerys starts asserting herself. I look forward to the characters becoming better-developed with time.
Wrather hits the nail on the head regarding Martin’s narrative style, and I think the uncertain, subjective view of reality it creates is fascinating and it’s this treatment of what otherwise might come off as tired genre fiction that sets A Song of Ice & Fire above its brethren.
I agree that the Sansa/Arya/Joffrey business is a better example than Bran on the tower, but in general I think we’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg as far as difficulties portraying limited third-person perspective.
The trouble is likely to come later, when (not to give anything specific away), characters the reader has loathed for hundreds of pages suddenly become sympathetic. It’s an effect that’s both shocking and engaging, and it’s achieved because Martin lets the reader inside the character’s head. This sort of thing seems really difficult to achieve on television; I suppose LOST managed it fairly well by using flashbacks to give the viewer a completely different perspective on the world’s “villains,” but that sort of approach costs a great deal of screen time.
All in all, I’m enjoying what I’ve seen so far, but I’m skeptical as whether a television adaptation can, in the long run, be as effective as this very layered work of fiction.
I disagree that LOST achieved those things solely by use of flashbacks. Even if you take those out, the audience opinion of the character changes because the episodes centered on them are shown largely from their perspective, even in “real” time. This is something that Glee actually achieves quite well, too, at it’s best (which it hasn’t been, lately.) Of course, Glee also uses voice-over to help achieve the effect. Since it’s clear that HBO won’t be using shifting perspective (which is unfortunate), and certainly won’t be using flashbacks or voice-over, then it’s up for grabs how they’ll manage to get those things across, if they do indeed manage to do so.
I think the critical response to the TV shows is as worthy overthinking as the show itself. Many critics treat GOT as though it is the most vulgar thing ever shown on TV. Profanity! Nudity! Violence! A fascinating comparison could be made between critic’s reviews of GOT, Deadwood, and Spartacus.
Another point of interest is the critic’s response to the hype. Some critics embrace the hype, allowing their reviews to become love fests. Other critics take the hype as an affront to their ability to criticize fairly, and turn their reviews into laundry lists of why the show isn’t the second coming. A comparison of reactions to something like Twilight or Harry Potter might be appropriate here.
Finally there is the critical response that takes the form of prejudice for or against the Genre. Reviews become a mishmash of attempts to say good or bad things no matter how crazy they may sound. See the NY Times Review: http://tv.nytimes.com/2011/04/15/arts/television/game-of-thrones-begins-sunday-on-hbo-review.html
“The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness (sex, nudity, incest) has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise.”
A collection of some of the more unhinged sounding criticisms compared to some of the Tea Party or Birther statements about President Obama would make for an interesting article.
As mentioned elsewhere in the comments, I really don’t think that 3rd person limited is impossible to achieve in television (c.f. LOST & Glee) – I just think that the producers have chosen not to pursue it. I really am enjoying the series so far, but it seems a bit… mundane. It’s as though their hope is to follow in a vein of the show Rome meets the Lord of the Rings movies: lush, beautiful, intriguing, but ultimately pretty standard storytelling. This is, of course, unfortunate because Martin doesn’t give a rat’s ass for traditional storytelling. His 3rd person limited narration is just a device, chosen because it made telling the story easier. There are other ways to do it, and television is probably a perfect medium… but HBO won’t get creative, because they’ve achieved a winning formula, and they’ll stick to it.
I disagree with Rachel’s comment, above, about fantasy battling to be taken seriously. BAD fantasy wants to be taken seriously, and many fantasy adaptations want to be taken seriously (and I think that’s where HBO will fail.) At its best, though, fantasy knows damn well that it deals in impossibilities and archetypes. It’s not trying to make you believe in dragons, its trying to make a point about how crucial imagination is to the human conscious. The best fantasy *does* leave you unsure whether or not it’s a dream – the point of fantasy isn’t to insist on clarity, it’s to raise doubts. This is even more true of epic fantasy (really, of epics in general); GoT most definitely falls into this category.
Basically, this show would be awesome if Darren Aronofsky were doing it.
The ONE thing that gives me hope is the opening credits. They are unconventional and quirky and intriguing, and leave open the possibility that at some point, the show will be, as well. The other thing that gives me a modicum of faith is that, narrative devices aside, morally ambiguous characters are sort of the bread-&-butter of HBO. For all they will be taking away from the impact of the series by sticking to their formula, they *do* always, somehow, manage to present characters that are ambiguous, or become ambiguous, or make us question our assumptions about them. Oz and Big Love spring to mind, but I think that The Sopranos also fell into that category, and perhaps True Blood as well. Viewers who don’t “get” the moral ambiguity through storytelling will nevertheless assume as much, simply because of the source… and I have faith, because of its track record, that HBO will *somehow* manage to get that across.
I do not believe it is possible to pursue George R.R. Martin’s point of view strategy in a televised adaptation. It’s actually not the *limited* nature of the POV that matters here, but rather its “closeness.” Martin’s third person is free indirect in nature.
To give an example of how this can be totally destabilizing, try reading Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and then watch the original film, which recreates the free indirect third person through constant (And seriously intrusive) voice over. There’s no real other trick for letting us know what someone is thinking, because in film there isn’t internal monologue outside of voice over.
TO put it another way: What matters to Martin’s 3rd person limited strategy is not just that characters only see pieces of information while the reader sees the whole, it’s that through deploying free indirect narration, we get the character’s understanding of what is going on. That just can’t translate. You have to find another way to do it.
For example: Bran doesn’t understand what Cersei and Jamie are doing when he sees them. We the reader have to read around the narrator to get it (it’s so easy in this case that we don’t even realize that’s what we’re doing). There’s no way for us to know that in the TV version because there’s no way for them to tell us.