In my last post I talked about the power of fandom in television, and how every so often something hits the small screen that just strikes that perfect chemistry to ignite a passionate relationship between viewer and show. HBO’s Game of Thrones, the epically popular adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s still-continuing fantasy saga A Song of Ice and Fire, is currently that show. It’s loved dearly by millions of devoted viewers worldwide, but after last night’s ‘shit-got-real’ episode: ‘The Rains of Castamere’ aired, that relationship hit upon some hard times. Some hard times indeed.
Game of Thrones is a unique beast. Fantasy was never everyone’s cup of mead, but Game of Thrones, like the Lord of the Rings before it, is proof that there is love for fantasy-lit, so long as it’s done well. Obviously there is a geek inside every man, and it stirs when you place a well-penned high-budget production before his eyes. Just look at George R.R – he’s either an old-timey fisherman or a medieval fantasy nerdlord. You wouldn’t pick him as the most loved/hated man in the world right now.
Spoilers ahead – what Mr Martin has here is two groups of fans of the same story finely balanced between two vastly different mediums, many years apart. When Robb, Catelyn, Talisa and doubly-unlucky Ned Stark were brutally slain by super jerk Walder and his traitorous buddy Roose ‘fuckhead’ Bolton – the reaction was huge. For the show watchers it was pure shock and for the book readers its was the culmination of long-held tense anticipation, for they knew this day would come, having had a 12-year heads-up on the story. And those courteous enough not to blurt out the titanic spoilers before it went to air were both eager to see the infamous scene played out and amused to see their non-book-reading friends’ reactions to the horror.
As is customary these days whenever something big on TV happens, Twitter nearly had a meltdown. For hours, Twitter’s birds became Westeros ravens, sending endless messages of exasperation, sorrow and rage from distraught viewers. It was no doubt the same tidal wave of emotions that would have engulfed the book-readers when they first read that particular scene; albeit a far more introspective and personal moment of grief. But the disbelief and betrayal felt by the Starks was mirrored by those of us watching them – those gut-piercing sharp, icy pangs you feel when any relationship that takes a unexpected and dramatic turn for the worse. You develop a love for the characters, endure with them their hardships and then as soon as things seem somewhat rosy – BAM! they all end up on the cold stone floor with blood oozing from their betrayal-wounds.
At my place, my roommate and I sat silent, eyes like dinnerplates, only able to grunt ‘c’oh’ and ‘shit’ back and forth. But for many it seems it was just too much to bear. Social media was flooded with: “That’s it, I’m done with Game of Thrones. That was too much! #Why?!” and “I can’t believe they’d do that – I hate you George RR Martin! I’m never watching again!!!1!1!! #devastated #RIPstarks” etc etc. There was such a glut of tweeted anguish that someone even found the time to create an account to document it all. It was like a natural disaster. Even Buzzfeed posted a bizarre set of loosely GoT-related memes “to help you get over your Game of Thrones depression” . [Personally, it was also a particularly bizarre case of déjà vu].
Tears and jeers aside, the other interesting aspect to this is the way Game of Thrones / A Song of Ice and Fire has taken engagement to a different level. I can’t think of any other literary trope that has ever offered such a diverse and unique range of experience for its followers, helped by a confluence of the internet, generation gaps and a genre defined by its fostering of fandom. The whole ‘the books are better’ is age-old, but the sheer quality, popularity and deft retuning of the HBO adaption has offered a special purpose for the book readers beyond simply comparing and critiquing the source material to the television adaptation. Billy Connolly once remarked that there is nothing more satisfying to some than knowing something that others don’t. It’s true – being more informed than someone else carries a certain smug gratification, and it seems to have played out here in interesting ways.
Videos sprang up alarmingly fast on Youtube: ‘Red Wedding reactions’ , hundreds of them, by book readers secretly filming their non-book reading friends watching the show – knowing that some heavy shit was about go down. The readers indulged in a second-hand thrill by watching others handle the revelation. Take for example this comment posted on Reddit.
“When they cut from Dany to the wedding my roommate (who hasn’t read the book) made a comment that nearly caused me to spoil it for him.
Why do they keep showing us the wedding? I want to see some blood.
I was tense the entire episode. Awaiting the inevitable. I managed to keep my cool and didn’t spoil anything. But that comment nearly did it for me…. I wanted to warn him…”
There were many similar accounts, readers feeling like they’ve been holding their breath for so long – trying not to smirk when their non-reader friends tried to make predictions or expressed their feelings of hope for the reunification of the Stark family. Oh the innocence of ignorance. No doubt there will be more of this (though there’s a sense that this particular plot twist was the most jarring of all so far as it is written), which only means more shell-shock and more reaction videos. It’s like the battle-hardened veterans of the book watching on as the green rookies taking hit after hit, just as they had done years ago – when the war was still young, though no less violent. The bloodied and bruised non-readers will look to those who have lived it before, desperate to know if there is hope after all… but the grizzled vets can only look down to them and say: ‘Don’t let go of your steel, soldier, you must learn this for yourself before we explore new lands together.’
I mean, seriously people this is Game of Thrones. Surely we learned our lesson when we saw Ned Stark’s body relieved of its head. Surely someone heeds the regular foreshadowing of sinister developments weaved in at every opportunity. This isn’t conventional storytelling and George R.R. Martin is brilliant at eschewing conventional storytelling for perpetual tension and unease. He’s actually bold enough to say that anything can happen and we’re the gullible fools who assume that spells victory for the good guy underdogs. Wired’s Erik Henriskson explains it well: “It’s in Game of Thrones‘ key moments–like Ned’s death, like the Red Wedding–that the series’ vicious and unsentimental pragmatism shines through with brutal, bloody clarity: This isn’t a story that’s going to end like its characters want it to. And it isn’t a story that’s going to end like the books’ readers or the show’s viewers want it to, either… All the characters–well, all the Starks–are basically Charlie Browns who are really excited to kick that football that Lucy’s got all set up for them. Which means all of us readers and viewers are Charlie Browns, too. George R.R. Martin is a really good Lucy.”
Ultimately, it should only be taken as the highest compliment by Martin and the GoT producers that when they throw in a gruesomely unexpected knife-twist, their fans vow to leave. Because it’s not that they’re bored of it, nor disinterested by it – but because they’re so emotionally invested that when something goes awry there’s nothing to do but flip out in a fit of impassioned desperation. If I were a fiction writer, that is exactly the reaction I’d hope for. If you can write so well that killing off a couple of characters leads to books being thrown, thousands of spite-filled messages and photos of shattered souls curled up in tear-flooded foetal positions on couches – then you’ve done it, and done it like a boss.
It all feeds into the fascinating world George R.R. Martin created, which exists beyond pages and screen and lives in the hearts and minds of all its followers. It helps too that the entire story is not over, so the ultimate resolution is still a tantalising prospect for everyone – even George himself. He has no idea yet how he plans to end it (so he says, anyway) – but says he imagines it to be ‘bittersweet’ – a Shakespearean prospect if I ever heard one. And who’s to say there will even be a resolution? Remember what this is again… if you thought this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.
… and go Stannis!