Published May 21, 2019
“Game of Thrones” is a dream that seems first vivid and real, then rapidly deteriorates into nonsense that the unconscious mind accepts until its conclusion. Yet when the dream comes to a close, the conscious mind will sensibly forget all but the most vivid aspects of its nocturnal adventure. “Game of Thrones” is a great show and a monument to television as medium of compelling storytelling — if you forget everything about it that’s filler and bullshit meant to string you along moment-to-moment, but which has no payoff or purpose beyond taking up time. Your dreams about your Aunt devouring your Grandmother and forcing Donald Trump to eat lasagna at a Taco Bell may be symbolically significant, but you and I both know you’re forgetting parts of your dream and filling in blanks with conscious thoughts you did not in fact dream. You have to do that when you remember dreams, and you have to do that when you watch Game of Thrones, because the writers never intended to write, they expected that to be someone else’s job. There is another show that mixes mundane melodrama with magic in the hazy dreamscapes which require its viewer to fill in the blanks from contextual clues: “Twin Peaks”. In one the mundane melodrama gradually reveals itself mystical, demonic and uncanny with its lapses into nonsense — the other begins with dragons and frost demons set on destroying all life and culminates with a committee of dunces telling dick and fart jokes and debating the softness of local whores’ titties in the ruins left by the worst war crime in their country’s history. If your dream is Lynchian, it’s probably a significant omen meriting some interpretation – or at least worthy of keeping in memory as a seed for future inspiration. But if it’s like the dream of spring offered to us by HBO, it is probably just a cigar – enjoy it while it lasts, but don’t think too much about it.
The general problem in this adaptation of Game of Thrones is the same problem that’s present in the Lynch adaptation of “Dune”, in the “Star Wars” sequels, and in the recent remakes of 80s sci-fi like “Total Recall”: the lack of interest by the writers in the source material which they are in charge of adapting, and no vision of their own to bring to life by means of adaptation. The priority by the people in charge of an adaptation should be to capture some essence of the work being adapted, an essence that someone who is familiar with the original work would immediately recognize, and which one who is not familiar with the original work will be able to appreciate. Near 1 to 1 adaptations following a text faithfully are admirable if done with a compelling style or vision, but as a general rule, such are uninspired, evidencing either laziness or a lack of imagination on the part of the writer. This is generally the course taken by TV-movie or mini-series adaptations of novels, which are usually low-budget projects with low prestige and thus a talent pool that is unlikely to include visionaries, and more likely to include dispassionate mercenary ghost-writer types, mediocrities, and commonplace hacks. For an example of the “auteur” and “by-the-numbers” types of adaptations compare Kubrick’s “Shining” with the Sci-fi channel miniseries. “Psycho” and “Omen” are both classic films. However their, essentially, shot-for-shot remakes are not held in any esteem nor remembered much except as to their inferiority to the original. One of the issues of Lynch’s “Dune” is how literally and directly he chose to adapt the novel, which evidences his lukewarmness toward the project – the problems with the film did not lie with its deviations, but in its simple lack of inspiration. The moments in Lynch’s “Dune” that deviate from Frank Herbert’s story are the best moments in the film – they are the goofiest, scariest, funniest, the most memorable – but they are pure Lynch, with only a hint of “Dune” flavoring. What we can see is that Lynch wasn’t feeling Frank Herbert’s vibe. He never felt it. He doesn’t feel it now and he will not feel it later, that’s why he disavows the movie today, though he’ll never escape the fact that it is his film forever, his little red-headed bastard. Lynch’s act of disavowal is a good showing of humility, a public mea culpa to the disappointed audiences for messing up a story he is aware he should have never been the one to tell.
There is another problem with the more recent lot of poor adaptations which no one can malign Lynch with: contempt for the intelligence of the audience being reflected in the writing. When your reputation is in the creation of the surreal, uncanny and fantastic, you are probably not the sort of person who spends his time worrying about whether “audiences will get it,” but about whether the details of your vision are properly depicted. I have no doubt in my mind that Lynch probably holds the average person of plebian tastes in contempt — but he has the good social sense to not attempt to pander to such people in his artistic works. He makes what he makes in the style that he wants. Tarkovsky’s adaptation of “Roadside Picnic” in the film “Stalker” is a fine piece of cinema which bears very little direct relation to its source material, but does go after capturing a certain vision and theme, the essence aforementioned, with the help of the writers of the original work. But Tarkovsky’s Stalker isn’t an easy film to pick up and watch. It’s slow and contemplative, but it can come off as meandering and pretentious too. Tarkovsky once commented to the people complaining about the length and slowness of his films: “I make the openings so long and slow so that people who shouldn’t be in the audience have a chance to leave.” Tarkovsky’s films are visual poems, and if you are the sort to think that poetry is kinda gay, he’s probably not the guy you wanna watch. If Tarkovsky attempted to make a movie for people who think poetry is kinda gay, he would not be able to do it. It’s not who he is. It’s not what he does. That’s not his audience and that’s not his style. He does what he wants the way he wants to, and he produces great films, or not so great films, but they’re always his films. As reviled as he is, the same can be said of Michael Bay, whose works are of a particular, recognizable style — and Michael Bay does have a sense of how to adapt a written story to screen as evident in one of his better films, “Pain and Gain.” Michael Bay might make films for the lowest common denominator, filled with machismo, hot girls, sleek cars, big explosions, whatever, but you get the sense that he does all of this because he’s getting a kick out of it, because that’s just the type of thing he likes to do. On the other hand, the director or screen-writer who has to conform the stories he is telling to Q-ratings, market research, or to studio ideas of what audiences want, merchandising expectations, and so on, who writes to pander to the lower common denominator even against his own sense of good taste, who cuts ideas or simplifies complex story arcs because he’s unsure if audiences, advertisers, the network or the studio will like them, neuters his project and in so doing insults his audience more than David Lynch ever could by calling you a retard for watching Netflix on your smartphone. At best such a writer will produce a serviceable product fit for market consumption. At worst he will have another big-budget trash-fire. In either case, he will not produce a great and memorable work – he is doomed to mediocrity or failure. A work that dumbs itself down to appeal to dumb people will never, ever, be as good as a smart work that expects its audience to be smart or to fuck off. Dumb audiences prefer content that makes them feel smart for watching it. What makes them feel smart watching a show isn’t feeling smarter than the people running the show, but one that makes them exercise their thinking muscle even for a second. Smart and dumb people alike loved Breaking Bad. But if a dummy suspects the people behind the content he’s consuming are dumber than he is, he doesn’t feel smart, but even more so a dummy for being fooled by bigger dummies. All those dummies watching Game of Thrones in the early seasons felt smart having to keep track of the characters and shifting alliances and multiple running plot lines, even if they didn’t always keep up. Those same dummies in the later seasons, smelling something fishy, start feeling real dumb for having high expectations as they encounter a narrative disappointed after a narrative disappointment.
Considering this, what’s wrong with “Game of Thrones”? It’s simple:
The men behind the show fall into the “hack and mediocrity” category of TV writers. Their grand-strategy through the 8 seasons of the show was to write as little as possible, while taking as much credit as possible. Nearly all the best scenes, character interactions, and story-arcs on the show are lifted directly from George R.R. Martin’s books. Here we have that first sign of an uninspired adaptation – directness. To compound the appearance of laziness, the writers early on decided to not include flashbacks. Supposedly, it was a “cheap writing device,” but given the fact that the very novels they’re adapting are full of chapters where characters reminisce about their past, often entirely through inner dialogue, such reasoning rings hollow. The real reason seems more that non-linearity and subjectivity require creativity, forward-planning, and understanding of the world and its inhabitants, of their significance to the narrative. Sure enough, if the story being adapted was already finished, the direct, concrete, present-focused adaptation could not be faulted for its fidelity if that approach was adhered to for its entire run, and a lack of flashbacks would not necessarily be a deterrent to telling the story of a Song of Ice and Fire, as necessary information can be conveyed by other means. Yet when the showrunners agreed to adapt the books, and held on to that role over the years, they knew what they were getting into: they were adapting an unfinished work. While the risk of having to finish the story ahead of the books they are supposed to adapt was small at the outset (smaller than the risk of being canceled and never finishing anything), it should have been an eventuality planned for from the outset as well. Examining “Game of Thrones” holistically, it becomes clear that whatever outline the author had provided for the showrunners was woefully insufficient to comprise a skeleton for an 8 season TV show, especially for writers whose adaptation strategy was to edit and re-arrange book chapters into filmable scripts without doing very much of their own writing and planning.
George R. R. Martin probably checked out of the show at about the moment he realized that this is how the writers of the show were approaching his source material. Naturally he gracefully bowed out and basically shut the fuck up about Game of Thrones. “The Last Kingdom is a good show,” instead he’d tweet. “They better not cancel the Expanse.” “Hey does anyone care about this Wildcards thing I keep talking about? I am going to keep talking about it regardless.” It was maybe a dick move on his part to stop contributing to and promoting the show, as if made out of resentment for the people who would be completely adrift without his work. There was a rumor promulgated by the actor who played Barristan Selmy, that George R. R. Martin had already finished his books, and was simply waiting for the television show to run its course to publish them. If that is true, it is extremely funny, and perhaps even a shrewd move on George R. R. Martin’s part. There is legend that the reason Paul W. S. Anderson’s “Resident Evil” films have almost nothing to do with the content of the video games is by request of Capcom, who did not want people to feel like they did not need to buy the video game because they had seen the movie. If this is true, the fact that Paul W.S. Anderson made half a dozen Umbrella themed action comedies starring his mail order bride makes perfect sense. It also makes sense for Capcom to want to segregate a core brand from its subsidiary franchise. The Resident Evil films are exemplary for being terrible, yet that does not tarnish the video game Resident Evil brand, as the two are so strongly divergent. Although I do not believe old George had in fact finished his books, I do think he kept back a lot of his outlines and notes for future books from the showrunners in the later seasons, having lost faith in their ability to adapt them adequately, or at least wishing, like Capcom, to persuade people to buy his books without feeling like they’ve already consumed their content by way of HBO. The writers, whose goal was always to avoid writing as much as possible, were trapped in the uncomfortable situation of…. having…. to…. write! And boy did they start writing. You start seeing signs in Season 4, much more in Season 5 — by Season 6 you can tell that George R. R. Martin has vacated the building to screen episodes of better TV shows at his private movie theater back home.
David Benioff and Dan Weiss’s frenzied attempts at cobble together an HBO worthy TV show after spending the first four years of its run coasting on the work of an actual writer become increasingly desperate and visible as the show runs its course — petering out at the very end and falling over exhausted. Everyone from George himself, to HBO execs, to the fans, each was pushing them to take more time, to continue making full-length seasons, to tell the show’s story. Everyone, except for of course, the ever correct and ever smug cynics, and perhaps George himself, was under the illusion that there was a story that the pair was trying to tell using the books as a basis. People wanted to believe that the two guys in charge of a world-wide phenomenon television program knew what they were doing. They didn’t. They never did. They never had a story. The plan was to have George write all the content, they and a few other writers would edit and rearrange it, the cast and crew would bring it all to life, and everyone would profit. But then there was nothing left to edit or rearrange and turn into a script. You could no longer take another’s content, slap your own watermark on it, then get your engagements, subscriptions and donations. Imagine that. OC is required, but OP is a fag, can’t meme, and needs ot lurk moar. Now the writers tried subtle trickery to avoid writing as much as possible, and still appear like their adaptation had artistic integrity. Slow pans over scenery. Close ups of a character’s emotional face. Cuts to characters giving others meaningful glances without saying a word. Character motivations are constructed from these images within the viewer’s head, and he is fooled into believing that this is all subtle visual storytelling, rather than what it is: a refusal to tell a story — simple padding. Empty visual calories. The actors have no idea what they are doing in these scenes, the writers never explain to them their motivations. Both the actor and the viewer is left to fill in the gaps himself — the writer never bothered to. If you sit and watch the “Behind the episode” featurettes that air after each show, you start to notice the smugness in the writers that is the same as that of a conman who had just sold the Eiffel Tower. “Arya killing the Night King is something we decided on about three years ago…. creatively, it made sense to us, because we wanted to do it,” is such a gem – the Night King, and Arya killing him, were both things the writers decided on in Season 5, yet between Season 5 and Season 8, absolutely no work is done to make this something meaningful or sensible within the established setting. Creatively, that just made sense to us, because wanted to do it. What they mean is, “We made up a new magic bad guy because we were not creative enough to center a story any other way, and we decided the character with the highest Q-rating will kill him. We don’t expect you to notice that this is as far as we went with that idea. We expect you to go “Wow, badass! I didn’t see that coming! Holy shit!” and then tune in to the next episode.” There is a contempt betrayed by these careless creative decisions, and in the manner in which David and Dan talk about the way they make those decisions – as if you will not notice that they’re playing for a fool and stringing you along just long enough for them to cash out. Hope you were pirating the episodes the whole time, bruh.
The 8 year cultural winter known as HBO’s “Game of Thrones” has finally ended, leaving many cold with disappointment or hot with discontent. Enough essays of analysis, criticism and appraisal of the show will be written in the coming weeks to make all five of George R. R. Martin’s doorstoppers look like a tourism pamphlet. People will debate its “cultural impact” and “artistic merit” for a few years more. If George R. R. Martin actually delivers up new books instead of stringing his loyal brand-consumers along, perhaps it may see a revival of attention and more distanced re-appraisal. But Game of Thrones will not go down as a classic, a showcase of the storytelling power of its medium, or even as an overly ambitious, but fair attempt to adapt something impossible. By the time Game of Thrones ends, it is less valuable than it was when began. Its world is less interesting, its characters less compelling, and despite very few mysteries truly resolved, it is far less mysterious. Over the course of its run the show shrank, and it kept shrinking more and more rapidly down to nothing at all, like a dream not powerful enough to survive the shock of regaining consciousness. It’s not “The Wire,” it’s not “Breaking Bad,” it’s not even “Babylon 5” — it’s not even something as good as something as cringey as “Code Geass.” If it was an anime, it would be Berserk 2016. I believe there is no harsher comparison that can be made than this, so let’s just let it die. In 10 years we can all have a cringe-chuckle about it.