is george r.r. martin a warg? and does this excuse my fascination with jaime lannister?

Last week, as I was putting together my post on Game of Thrones, I watched nearly every GoT trailer in an effort to find one that made the TV show look good. But I just couldn’t find one I liked.

Maybe it was the music, or that one hammy line of Stannis Baratheon’s, but I think it was as simple as feeling as though the show had missed a certain something.

Reading the last three books of A Song of Ice and Fire, I have found myself surprisingly drawn in by almost every character, and I don’t think the show is going to do that. Sure, I like all the big plot twists and the battles and the feeling that history is writing itself in front of me, but the novels are compelling in large part because George R.R. Martin sits down and tells a bunch of smaller stories of people making their own way through the tumult. Even when his world is impossible to take in with a single gulp, he paints it through personal experiences.

I don’t feel this way about the show, or at least not to nearly such a degree. I’m going to toss two suspected causes out there.

The first is more or less TV’s fault generally, insofar as the medium doesn’t usually have the same ambitions as film. Film, at its worst, is TV on a much bigger screen, but at its best, film is more adventurous in its art and more willing to see the world from a single character’s perspective. TV mostly strikes me as taking its most important job to be getting that plot out there and squarely in front of the spectator, with no confusion possible, whereas film more often feels free to go off on tangents, use impressionistic devices, and merely cultivate a feeling at the expense of the drumbeat of plot points that tends to define the tube. At its best, in other words, movies can look like this:

When cinema (say it with a British accent) is really firing on all cylinders, it manages to convey a taste of that feeling of being someone else — a feeling I don’t ever recall having with TV.

I’m blaming TV right now for its lack of imagination, but there’s something else in the Game of Thrones books that the moving image more generally could never quite capture. (I’m officially moving my indictment away from TV especially here and on to the whole art of stuff flickering on screen.) What moving images by their very nature can’t really approximate adequately is an important part of Martin’s writing, a feature I’d take for granted if it didn’t really distinguish the books from the show. Here’s a bit of the second paragraph of the third book, A Storm of Swords, which begins following a nasty guy named Chett:

I should be safe back at the Wall, tending the bloody ravens and making fires for old Maester Aemon. It was the bastard Jon Snow who had taken that from him, him and his fat friend Sam Tarly. It was their fault he was here, freezing his bloody balls off with a pack of hounds deep in the haunted forest.

The italics are Martin’s, a device he uses throughout the books to indicate characters’ thoughts. In practice, this saves him from lots of quotation marks, but it also lets him slip into the character’s heads and slip right back out. But the second part of this quotation just ratchets that effect up. The narrator voice has slipped back into the third person (no italics), so in theory now we should be getting an objective view of the world, but it’s clear that we’re still seeing things through Chett’s perspective, colored by his anger. We the readers don’t think of Jon Snow and Sam Tarly in those bitter terms, but Chett does, and so the voice of detached omniscience becomes instead an extension of the character.

Martin uses this technique a lot, and it’s so common in literature more broadly that it has a dry-sounding name, “free indirect speech” — or “free indirect discourse” if you’re feeling discursive, or “free indirect style” if you’re feeling stylish. (If an English major somewhere hasn’t done this already, one ought to investigate the parallels between this mode and, in the universe of GoT, skinchanging, the magical ability to take over animals’ minds.)

Those three little desiccated words explain a lot of the gap between the show and the novels. The voice driving a book, the prime narration, can be and often is separate and aloof from the characters it observes, seeing them in an objective way that seems like the natural mode of cameras. (This assertion will probably cause conniptions among some of the theory-minded, I’m sure, but I think mine is a fair assessment using the roughest sense of the word “objective.” And, moreover, it just feels true.) But this free indirect discourse comes up on you and insists upon the impression that the characters have of the world, and the barrier between that third-person objective view and their subjective view is elided and broken down.

The upshot is that through the books, I am compelled by the stories of really despicable people like Jaime Lannister, whom we were introduced to, more or less, when he shoved an innocent boy off a tower, hoping to kill him. And because of this free indirect business, I am actually attentive in the parts of the book dedicated to the Iron islanders — for my money the bunch that exhibit the most emotional dysfunction in a series just about packed with the stuff.

Film can approximate this and try to imitate that feeling, but I think it’s ultimately a trickier medium to do that in, even if I have a blog about it.

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