A mild response to some Game of Thrones reviews

My friend and fellow writer’s group member, Michael J. Sullivan, recently wrote a guest-post in which he defended fantasy fiction against some unwarranted attacks from reviewers. In particular, he used George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones on HBO as a specific example of a general problem. Now, I think I have made it well-known that I am not a fan of fantasy. But I love HBO’s series and because of that series I started reading Martin’s books and I discovered, to my horror, that I love his books, too.

Sullivan points to two reviews that irked him, one by Gina Bellefante in the New York Times, and the other by Troy Patterson in Slate. So this morning, I went off to read the reviews, wondering what the fuss could be all about. Bellafante’s review made me laugh. She starts out, you see, complaining about the financials:

With the amount of money apparently spent on “Game of Thrones,” the fantasy epic set in a quasi-medieval somewhereland beginning Sunday on HBO, a show like “Mad Men” might have the financing to continue into the second term of a Malia Obama presidency.

To me this sounds like sour grapes, like someone saying, instead of using their money to produce the shows they choose, HBO should make a donation to shows that I like, Mad Men for instance, so that they can continue, despite dwindling ratings. Okay, so you don’t like fantasy. Fine, me either, for the most part. But this statement seems kind of silly.

She then seems to complain that Game of Thrones is too intellectually challenging for her:

Keeping track of the principals alone feels as though it requires the focused memory of someone who can play bridge at a Warren Buffett level of adeptness.

This may be true, for Bellafante, but I had no problem keeping track of the characters. My memory used to be a lot better, but with age it has been worn down to simply “average.”

Next she complains about the weather. She likens it to “a vague global-warming horror story.” I, too, have wondered about the weather. Why the long summers and even longer winters? I imagine that as the stories unfold we’ll learn more about this. Meanwhile, the science fiction writer in me has come up with an explanation: the world upon which these events take place resides in a much more elliptical orbit than our own world. Summers are shorter because as the planet swings closer to the sun, it moves faster, and as it moves farther from the sun, it moves more slowly. This not only satisfies me, it is also scientifically accurate. Not once did I think this was a narrative on global warming.

She complains about the sex and violence. Part of the draw for me was the grittiness of the show. Fantasy that I have read always seems pristine in a way, above notions of sex (although not violence). There are always clearly evil characters and clearly good ones. But the lines are blurred in Game of Thrones, as they are in life, and that works in its favor. Bellafante writes:

The imagined historical universe of “Game of Thrones” gives license for unhindered bed-jumping — here sibling intimacy is hardly confined to emotional exchange.

Okay, she doesn’t like the incest in the story. Yes, it is icky and creepy, but you know what, it’s there in the book, too. In fact, a key point that I think Bellafante misses is that the HBO series follows remarkably close to the book on which it is based. HBO isn’t throwing in extra sex and violence for the sake of garnering additional readers; it is all there in Martin’s book. If anything, HBO has cut out of some of it (although not much). To that end, Bellafante is completely wrong when she writes:

The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise.

Read the book! It’s all there, and I doubt Martin was thinking, ah, let me throw in some illicitness in order to attract more lady-readers.

Troy Patterson’s review on Slate is no better, but at least he is honest from the outset:

The reviewer happens to have an anti-weakness for that general sensibility and those armor-clad generic trappings. Hey, his loss, he knows, but, for instance, he cannot trust his taste to tell him if the Harry Potter books are written well.

This is fair warning not to take anything he says hereafter seriously, or at least take it with a serious grain of salt. His statement implies that anyone who doesn’t like epic fantasy won’t like Game of Thrones. But I generally don’t like epic fantasy and I like Game of Thrones. I imagine there are others in the same position. (And why would someone who doesn’t like epic fantasy in the first place agree to review epic fantasy? Doesn’t that seem a bit like stacking the deck?)

What irks me most about reviews like these is that they presume that HBO is writing these scripts out of thin air and tailoring them to specific audiences when as far as I can tell that is not at all the case. I have been impressed with how closely HBO’s writers have stuck to Martin’s book. My impression is that when Martin wrote the books, he wasn’t thinking of an HBO series, he was trying to tell a good story and do so in a way that was just different enough from others in the genre to give it something unique. Whatever that was it was enough for me, and I just have to laugh sadly at the likes of Bellafante and Patterson, both of whom come off looking like sore losers.

4 thoughts on “A mild response to some Game of Thrones reviews

  1. Great post Jamie – I was just mentioning to Robin the other day your new found appreciation for fantasy through Game of Thrones – I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it.

  2. I have to say, I was surprised the Slate chose someone to do the review who didn’t like Fantasy to begin with. That would be like me reviewing Romance novels. I feel like there had to be a freelancer somewhere the Slate could’ve hired that at least liked the genre. Just my two cents.

  3. The editor was hoping to get someone like you — someone who probably enjoys shows like the Wire, and get a “good review” from someone who “generally doesn’t like fantasy.”

    It turns out some people just don’t have a head for names, and like their stories to be a bit neater than Martin’s can be.

    I like Martin. I like Tolkien.
    Thank you for giving it an honest try!

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