Let’s get something out of the way before we begin: I love Game of Thrones. I just made a whole set of Game of Thrones Magic cards with my significant other. While I’m a lifelong reader of fantasy novels, I admit that I only got around to reading Martin’s series after watching the first season of the HBO adaptation, which I adored — all witty rejoinders and grand gestures with one’s sword hand. Of course, like many other readers, I tore through the novels immediately after the first season ended and still had almost a year to wait to see A Clash of Kings brought to life. When HBO finally obliged, I was disappointed. Season 2, at least in my mind, couldn’t hold a candle to Season 1 – too unfocused, too exposition-heavy, too distractingly far from the book’s original storyline. After watching the first few episodes of Season 3, my feelings are mixed; the confusion that cropped up in Season 2 is still a problem, but a healthy amount of the show’s original bombast and glee has reappeared.
When it comes down to it, the problem with Game of Thrones is simple: there are too many characters. Or maybe more specifically (and more grandly), the story George R.R. Martin is telling is just too complicated to turn into a television show. I know, this is a crotchety, old lady opinion —- “I just can’t follow it! What’s that dwarf’s name?” — but the fact that I’m the person having this reaction highlights what’s wrong. I am not an old lady, but a gently seasoned follower of complex fantasy storylines. And in the book, they make sense.
The first book was extra manageable, both for readers and (I imagine) for the team who adapted it for TV. Most of the main characters are together, if assembled in different configurations, and the story is relatively simple. That’s why the first season was so great: we were getting to know our characters, they were making moves, and everything seemed possible. The second book was all political maneuvering and exposition, which made for a less interesting show — though it shouldn’t have. The third book is where the action happens, where we reap the fruits of all that setup. But are we already too confused? The action, especially the kind of action Martin is so fond of (betrayals, sudden deaths, revelations that the character you thought you knew is actually someone else), only moves us if we care about the characters, and filling episodes with handfuls of short, chopped up storylines — not to mention giving so much precious air time to jerks like Theon — does not accomplish this.
Look: I’ve read all the books, and when I watch the show, I’m not always sure what’s going on. It may be a function of the changes HBO has made fighting my memories, but it may also be because there’s just too much going on, even for a viewer with a built-in frame of reference. I’m a purist, and my instinct is to reject any changes to my beloved books in their on-screen adaptations, but even I have to wonder whether some storylines couldn’t have been cut – or at least thought out more thoroughly.
Which brings me to my main question: is there a way to fix it? Mad Men, the other show currently fighting for TV fans’ anticipatory attention, features a smorgasbord of characters whose shifting alliances and bedmates could easily get confusing (though the characters’ features are admittedly less obscured by beards and helms). Instead of trying to cram every storyline into every installment, however, Mad Men often chooses to give each character his or her due in a single portrait-like episode, circling the focus around. Of course, most of that show’s characters are in the same place, which makes secondary plots easier, and it’s all much less complicated and not quite as bloody. Attempting this approach would be an incredibly ballsy move for Game of Thrones, but it might make the show more enjoyable on an episode-to-episode level.
What do you think, dear readers? Is there a way to clarify the shifting alliances and rapidly widening world of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire while maintaining its integrity? Or does it all still make sense to you? Weigh in below.