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Game of Thrones as Cynicism Porn
Spoilers for like, everything, man.
I noticed with the Red Viper’s death, a lot of people have had an “I should have seen this coming” reaction. Also I notice a few friends considering dropping out, since it appears evil characters get away with everything while the good are punished excessively. The Red Wedding was the most extreme. Oberyn was to be expected - an adherence to formula.
Where Martin exaggerates everything, the show slices away the sense of history of the world, robs it of its legends and myths of messiahs and second comings and theories of parentages and legends of heroes. In simplifying the story, D&D have only held on to that exaggerated sense of cynicism, cutting out the optimistic aspects, relegating the tale to formulaic misanthrope porn.
The most prominent example is the utter character assassination of Stannis Baratheon.
In the show Stannis seems like a crazy religious zealot. In the book he is pragmatic and just. You can find a good rundown on it here.
By the end of book five, Stannis is set to fight Roose Bolton for Winterfell. The Battle of the Ice. To me, this is the closest thing the series has approached to a straight up Good vs. Evil battle.
One of the things I’ve always felt about the story, particularly the first three books, is that they served as the first act of a three act structure. Martin was a screenwriter at one point, and did envision the series as a trilogy originally. Certain ticks feel like they mark the endings of Act 1 (Tywin’s death, Stannis at the Wall, Starks destroyed for the most part) and the end of Act 2 (Jon Snow’s death feels like a classic Hero’s Journey Empire Strikes Back Downer ending, and most fans speculate he will come back).
Act 1, if anything, was a tearing down of classic fantasy archetypes. Ned, Robb, Robert, Oberyn, Rhaegar, all of them possessed classic cliched hero traits. The best friend, the chosen one, the avenging son, the foreigner seeking justice, the misunderstood child. They all die in war. Stannis almost succumbs to this but is pragmatic. Dany starts to learn just because she feels entitled to something, she still has to put footwork into learning about it.
What happened in that first act was all those classic fantasy heroes bickered and fought amongst each other and assured mutual destruction of one another while real threats grew north of The Wall. It was all very cynical.
But then, out of the ashes, we began to see characters who would otherwise be scoundrels or secondary heroes in another book come around. Jaime became sympathetic. Brienne proved herself a survivor. Stannis learned to be pragmatic, Dany learned being a ruler is complicated. As this second act progressed prophecies and legends of heroes of yesterday popped up, people began holding out for a messiah. The war may be robbing Sansa of her innocence and turning Arya into a sociopath but Nymeria is roaming the land, head of a wolf pack. Optimism dripped into the narrative. That kind of darkest before the dawn stuff. The North remembers. Promise me, Ned.
Fans began theorizing about who is the last hero. Who is Azor Azhai reborn. Who are Jon Snow’s parents? We begin to see that the fantasy hero cliches of Act 1 led to civil war and cannibalization of the kingdom, and begin recognizing in more realistic terms what it takes to survive while being a good person in Westeros as Tyrion and Brienne struggle. Jon is not a good leader, and bad things happen because of it.
And that is a great fantasy fiction lesson. That storybook cliches do not work. That you do have to bend and reconcile your worldview with new information in order to keep going, that you’re going to need to make sacrifices. That’s something a lot of young adult fiction needs - the books provide room for imagination, for accepting a chance at hoping for a better tomorrow, if you’re willing to accept the world for what it actually is instead of what it should be, and are willing to work towards that vision. The show is a constant series of darker and meaner events.
And without that breadth of history, those chances for a second coming to be earned based on evidence Martin supplies in his narrative, the show only takes up these cynical superficialities. The gore and death and power plays. I think the showrunners themselves are too caught up in that drama when the entire point of that first act is the drama itself is petty.
There’s a radical shift between Storm and Feast which throws off a lot of book readers because suddenly their political intrigue and heroic characters are all dead and gone. I just hope the show handles this transition well - so far it’s been far too cynical. For viewers, if all their favorite characters get killed off and they feel like there’s nothing to look forward to in the world of the show, will they keep watching?
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I Enjoy Superheroes
To me, “grim” or “serious” superhero movies seem like a case of twentysomethings - adults by all means - unwilling to give up their toys, while simultaneously being uncomfortable with calling them toys, perhaps out of some kind of insecurity or larger cultural problem within the US, or something. Who knows.
All I’m saying is Superheroes are for children. Not in the sense that anyone over eighteen should not be watching superhero movies or reading comics, but in the sense that they are these fictional characters, these mythological figures who serve as beacons of hope, optimism, civic duty, social proactivity - these are entry points for young children to learn and explore questions of ethics and philosophical inquiry.
This is why good children’s entertainment is still enjoyable by adults, because we can appreciate these didactic aspects of their stories (we also enjoy that they’re crafted with care and not looking down on us like idiots). The Iron Giant, Wall-E, Frozen, Marvel’s output, hell I really like Japanese Toku shows like Kamen Rider OOO and Jetman. They’re simpler than shades of grey dramas but they’re comforting, inspiring, nostalgic. Sometimes they’re good reminders of simple but true lessons we may have forgotten.
It’s fine to like these things. Just be honest with yourself about what they are.
Which is why something like Zack Snyder’s mopey Batman just doesn’t do it for me. Especially after seeing the ultra colorful Guardians of the Galaxy trailer today. Guardians is owning up to being a comic book adventure. Man of Steel was too ashamed of itself to call itself a Superman movie.
Like they think it can trick the audience or something.
Kryptonians aren’t real. There is no deeper insight into the human condition a Superman movie can explore by having Superman be mopey for an hour. This isn’t a character study. We know as an audience that the genre dictates he will come around and save the day. The best Superman stories tend to be reactive to the hero, a sort of Socratic dialogue where humans, villains, aliens, whatever have you, end up clashing ideologically, not physically, with Supes. We know where he stands.
Don’t be scared of wearing the red underwear. That kind of courage can inspire others.