January 31, 2013

The Early Adopter’s Conundrum

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As fans from all over the world wait excitedly for the next installment of the critically acclaimed and commercially successful HBO T.V. series, Game of Thrones, I feel like a spectator, divorced from the rising tide of Internet hubbub and word-of-mouth anticipation that accompanies pop culture events of this kind. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Game of Thrones neophyte, unaware of what the fuss is all about. As a reader of the novels long before the TV series became more than a speck in the minds of HBO execs, I feel like I’ve been privy to the birth of a cultural meme, however modest. I was a Game of Thrones hipster, having read the books before they became cool.

The books were my companions growing up. My 13-year-old self spent happy hours following the violence, shadowy conspiracies and sordid sexual trysts endemic to the series. I read this series before I did Harry Potter. They accompanied me through some momentous landmarks in life. They were among my go-to books to re-read when I didn’t have money to buy new ones (somehow the teenage me never got it into his head to visit the library). The third volume was released in 2000; I was introduced to the series just in time for the fourth volume to come out after a half-decade long wait. Eventually, however, the downtime between successive releases of volumes became too long. That, combined with my vastly expanded reading horizons as a result of financial independence, meant that my engagement with the narrative of the series faded. It became more of a fond but fading memory of my childhood.

I did buy successive books when they appeared, of course — not that very many of them came out during these past five years (one, in fact). But the experience of reading them was never the same. It lacked an essential spark, that vital essence that hooked me in the first place. Many readers felt the same way. They attributed it to a decline in the quality of writing, of the sluggishness of pacing. Others thought that George R.R. Martin was getting too caught up in his world, and that the plot was growing too large and complex to control. I shared the same sentiments, but thought that part of it was my fault; the books were simply released too infrequently to sustain my engagement. So, perfunctorily, I read itss latest iteration, A Dance With Dragons, without having re-read the first few books, which was my custom. I filled myself in on forgotten characters and events using the ubiquitous wiki pages created by more hardcore fans than I.

So when the HBO adaptation was released to near universal acclaim, I was bemused by the sudden upsurge in interest in the series, now transformed and uplifted into an entire franchise. It was fun to hear people bemoaning the gratuitous sex and violence of the series, which apparently had more of a visceral impact on viewers of the television series than it did readers of the books. I sat, stoic, through the first few episodes, before I decided that the series wasn’t really for me. The settings were too pedestrian, the budget too limited and the characters too different from my mental image of them, to be compelling. I did find interesting, however, other people’s reactions to the series. After one friend near clawed her eyes out over a momentous character death in the first series, I could only smirk and tell her that she ain’t seen nothing yet. In a way, it was almost like vicariously experiencing the books from a fresh perspective, and the schadenfreude moments didn’t hurt either. But actually watching the episodes? I wasn’t averse to doing so if an easy opportunity presented itself, but didn’t particularly feel compelled to actually making the effort.

I feel that if I do actually start following the series, it’ll take over as the dominant account of the story in my mind. Pictures speak a thousand words, as the stale old adage goes, and moving pictures more so. Martin’s prose is functional, lean and moving but his imagery isn’t particularly masterful, and the sight of floating castles does more to imprint itself on the mind than a mere description of it. When that happens, who knows what that might do to my subjective experience when reading successive novels, when they come out in a decade’s time? The Lord of the Rings movies, excellent though they mostly were, already did that to my subjective experience of the book. I can’t imagine Frodo as anything but a baby-faced Elijah Wood, or hear the Howard Shore soundtrack whenever I read sections of J.R.R. Tolkien’s prose. If anything, I should studiously refrain from watching the series if I really wanted to preserve that impression of the books that I have in my mind. But I know that if someone were to hand me a box of DVDs as a gift, I’d still watch them. If only to see how they portrayed this or that from the books.

I think the HBO series has been a good thing in all. It’s given Martin a new legion of fans, generated exposure to the notion that fantasy can be legitimate literature and provided some swashbuckling action and intrigue to brainwash today’s generation into maintaining the capitalist status quo of class relations. Admittedly, Martin’s blog, formerly a place where he’d provide running updates about his writing process, has mutated into a platform from whence he relentlessly advertises HBO merchandise and posts trailers and pictures of behind the scenes happenings from the Game of Thrones set. But it’s rekindled a new interest in the series in me, and in people I know, who hitherto probably wouldn’t have touched the books with a ten foot pole. I loathed Joffrey’s guts before it was cool, and all that. But deep down, a selfish part of me thinks that it might’ve been better if it never happened. It’s a tiny little yammering voice, admittedly, but one that still lobbies for my attention. I’ve seen other franchises – Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials – receive big screen adaptations, and they’ve fundamentally altered the relationship between reader and book by introducing a loud, attention-seeking visual element to the mix. Some tiny part of me yearns for that antediluvian age where reader could curl up with a good book and not have to wonder which A-list celebrity would best fit his or her mental image of the protagonist.

Original Author: Colin Chan