By James Nelson
I know how that might sound, but I’m not planning on bashing either the TV series or the books, both are fantastic works and I’m a huge fan. My problem with Game of Thrones is not it’s content, but what it’s done to entertainment. Everywhere I turn lately I’ve found myself inundated with books and TV shows trying to emulate the formula of Thrones and it just doesn’t work. So here I am to say, please … for the love of all that is holy, stop trying to remake Game of Thrones. Spoilers follow.
World-building does not make a story
For you laymen out there, “word-building” is the term used to describe a creator’s efforts to construct a setting in a realistic enough manner as to create an entire world. George R.R. Martin is just the latest in a long line of fantasy authors to do this sort of thing. J.R.R. Tolkien is by far the most famous for it (you’ve read those appendices, right? After all, how can you have the Ring of Power without Celembrimbor or have the Ainur without Eru? Am I right!?).
The problem is that it takes authors years to create a believable world and fill it with the layers upon layers of minutiae that grants such wonderful inference to every plot and subplot, thereby rewarding everyone who did bother to read the hundreds of pages of material superfluous to the plot. The greatest example of this (to me) is that is on the bridge of Khazad-dum when Gandalf is staring down the Balrog. If you’ve read The Silmarillion and the appendices to LOTR, then you know that the wizard are maiar (lesser angels essentially) and not human. The Balrog is also a maiar, but corrupted and brought to the side of Morgoth (Sauron’s mentor). So when we watch this in the movie, without any inference, we only see that this really old wizard is taking on this fire demon of epic proportions, and there’s no way he can win, when in fact they are essentially the same type of being and the fight is a lot more even than we are lead to believe. The world-building that goes into this is wonderful and really helps to add depth to this encounter, which was foreshadowed for so long, but without the context of the appendices you really can’t understand the depth of how amazing the scene is … or at least, that’s what the people who emphasize world-building want you to think.
In reality the scene was excellent because our heroes had to run past hordes of deadly orcs, through a tomb of dead dwarves, and barely escaped with their lives, until the ultimate sacrifice is paid by the fellowship’s leader, Gandalf, the wizard who had touched all of their lives and up to that point, the only person in the book who you knew would make it out because he’s freaking Gandalf. It’s true that extra depth is added to the scene when you know all this stuff about the maiar and the struggle between the Ainur and Morgoth’s armies, but if Tolkien had burdened the reader with all this extra backstory before we ever got to the fight then Lord of the Rings would have needed to be broken up into six volumes instead of three.
Game of Thrones exemplifies the best and worst about integrating world-building into a story. You have to do it in such a way that’s subtle, but not so subtle that if it’s central to the plot that the reader misses it. This is easier to do for a book, but a series can’t spend the extra time on things that aren’t necessary, but season one of GoT is a classic example of “if you don’t watch the season three times you won’t be able to keep up with who is who.” This is partly because the whole season is a final chapter for the previous generation of heroes (Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark) and a beginning for the new heroes (the Stark children, Samwell Tarly, etc).
When world-building is done really bad, like in The Bastard Executioner, you get a bunch of characters in a land that looks too familiar with bad guys doing outlandish things because of bad writing. Or, if you’ve read a Patrick Rothfuss book lately, you get a intricately woven world filled with a million characters but you still can’t figure out why you read all 600 pages of the first book if none of it has come into play by page 900 of the second book when it can all essentially be boiled down to, “this guy traveled here, and he was told this story by this person, and then he traveled further and was attacked by this person, blah blah blah.”
Just because you’ve created a dynamic world doesn’t mean you have good characters or a great plot. You don’t have to look further than Doctor Who to see that.
You don’t have to have a million characters to tell great stories
This is where Thrones has caused a great amount of damage, and watching the premiere of The Bastard Executioner showed me this. The two hour pilot was crammed with characters, and granted most of them were dispatched by the end of the pilot, it got me thinking about how every fantasy novel now a days has a million characters, and following each one if like reading eleven different books, so much so you wonder if you’re even reading the same book. An example of this is the First Law trilogy (which I love), but in many ways none of the characters arcs really connect (looking at you Collum West) with everyone else’s. That has largely to do with the type of story that the creator wants to tell, but a story with a narrower focus tends to do better on TV. Otherwise you can end up with an entire episode about a character that you hate (like that episode in Star Trek: The Next Generation “Sub Rosa” where Dr. Crusher is dealing with a ghost).
I know that I just bashed Doctor Who in my previous bit about world-building, but when Who is done well, it’s the best example of how a show with narrow scope. It has grand ambitions telling stories about all time, but there are really just two (sometimes three) characters in the show. You don’t have to touch on fifteen character’s every episode, you just tell a story. More is usually better. Thrones gets away with it because they use their character’s eyes to build the world.
What Happened to the Good Guys?
In case you haven’t realized it, there are no “good” guys in Game of Thrones. There are definitely good people in it (Brienne of Tarth, John Snow, Daenerys Targaryen) but no one serves the role of the good guy. All the key characters are protagonists, but they all fit on various parts of the moral compass, and most fall closer to the darker side. In a way this injects a lot of realism into the world, but after five seasons I can’t help but feel like the characters who are less morally compromised are always the ones getting the shaft (or in the case of Princess Shireen, something infinitely worse).
Books, movies, and TV shows are constantly adopting this model of realism, and to a large extent that helps with the drama and tension of the series, but these stories are ultimately for entertainment and moral reinforcement. I need to know that in the end, Frodo and Sam are going to get to Mount Doom and destroy the ring. I need to know that Private Ryan is going to get saved. I need to know that you can’t murder a good man in front of his daughter, then murder that man’s eldest son, wife, and unborn child, and win. There has to be some justice for the Starks to justify all their suffering (and mine as a viewer). I need to believe in my heart of hearts that Jesse Pinkman is living a normal life out there. I’m not saying we end every story like it’s an episode of Matlock or anything, but I need to know that in some way the good people will prevail over the bad people.
If we can avoid doing all these things in our writing, then we can make sure our stories stay engaging without running into many of the problems and complaints people have about Game of Thrones (like the repeated use of sexual violence against women, for instance). I need a hero in my shows, otherwise they start to look too much like real life.
After all, there are heroes in real life.