During his lifetime, C.S. Lewis wouldn’t grant the movie rights to his cycle of fantasy novels, The Chronicles of Narnia, because he was skeptical that Hollywood could do the stories justice. By contrast, George R.R. Martin gave HBO the rights to his A Song of Ice and Fire novels before he’d even finished the tale of power struggles in the kingdom of Westeros. This Sunday, the sixth season of HBO’s hugely popular Game of Thrones series based on the Martin books debuts, and it represents something unusual in screen adaptions: a test of whether the television show’s creative team can make sense for viewers of a story that began with promise two decades ago, but which has disintegrated into a bloated, confused, nihilistic, and—crucially—unfinished tale. The writers and producers have already changed substantial parts of Martin’s original story. While the author lingers with an apparent case of writer’s block, HBO is set to air episodes with plotlines racing ahead of what Martin has published so far. Whereas Lewis feared Hollywood would debase his tales, Martin seems to be gambling on HBO to help redeem his.
Martin, a former scriptwriter for the revival of The Twilight Zone, had been writing fantasy and science fiction for 25 years when he published A Game of Thrones to critical acclaim in 1996. The first novel in the series displayed Martin’s talent for robust and vivid language, and featured sharply drawn characters such as the honorable but politically naïve Ned Stark and the droll but profane imp Tyrion Lannister. Martin kept control of a complex narrative in the book, weaving together the stories of Stark, his family, Tyrion, and an heir to the deposed king of Westeros, Daenerys Targaryen.
But the book also displayed what turns out to be, in retrospect, tendencies that undermine Martin’s later work. Though Stark is the central character of much of the novel and appears to be its ultimate hero, Martin has him executed near the end of the book—an unexpected twist that won him critical praise. Martin apparently took that approval to heart, because the saga over time became a killing field for principal characters, especially the heroic type, who often depart suddenly, leaving a gaping hole in the narrative to be filled by new, less sympathetic players. Martin at times seems unsure about these choices. When he dispatches Stark’s wife Catelyn and his eldest son Robb in book three of the series, the author appends an epilogue in which a bedraggled, zombie-like Catelyn reappears, apparently resurrected by some unexplained power in order to do further narrative duty. She then promptly disappears again over the next 1,000 pages, except for a brief, obscure episode at the end of the fourth novel, where she helps execute a former follower (who then also mysteriously reappears alive in the fifth novel).
I was convinced by the end of the third book that Martin had little idea of where he was going or how to get there. I stopped reading. His plots, if you can call them that, had frayed to the point that the characters’ stories were unrelated and uninteresting. I might never have returned, but as HBO scored with its series, I began to wonder if Martin had finally unknotted things.
The answer is “no.” Martin hasn’t found his way out of his narrative labyrinth. In fact, the story has become so complex, and the characters so dispersed, that he decided to divide what had been the intended fourth installment into two separate novels that supposedly take place simultaneously, with the plot told from the alternating points of view of more than two dozen characters. To accomplish this, he banishes entire storylines and major characters, including the Imp and several Stark children, from the 1,100-page A Feast For Crows, and then adds an extraordinary note to the book in which he does what no fiction writer should ever need to do—explain to the reader what’s happened to his story and to the characters who’ve suddenly vanished.
When those characters reappear in the fifth installment, A Dance with Dragons, Martin’s storytelling has gone, like many of his characters, beyond redemption. The Imp Tyrion—having dispatched his powerful father with an arrow to the groin—flees overseas, is captured by slavers, and winds up riding a pig in a circus jousting act he performs with another dwarf—leaving me wondering whether I hadn’t accidentally picked up a Game of Thrones satire penned by the staff of the Onion. No such luck. Martin tops off the novel with an old strategy: appearing to kill off several key figures, including the only surviving Stark who seems to have a chance of reestablishing order in Westeros—Ned’s bastard son Jon Snow. Whether Jon is actually dead is the subject of much speculation among fans, and it appears that the HBO series will settle that question before Martin gets around to publishing his next installment. Talk about the tale wagging the dog.
HBO has managed to hook viewers on Game of Thrones with high production values, a splendid cast, and deft manipulation of Martin’s story. Emmy winner and Morristown, New Jersey native Peter Dinklage—who deserved an Oscar for his role as Finbar in The Station Agent—leads an otherwise largely British cast, including the redoubtable Sean Bean (Boromir in Lord of the Rings) as Ned Stark, and the imposing Lena Headly (Queen Gorgo in 300) as Queen Cersei. The cast is aided by scripts—especially those adapted from latter books—that sometimes distill Martin’s turbid chapters into 30-second scenes, giving viewers at least a sense that the story is moving along. Even more crucially, perhaps, the scriptwriters began altering Martin’s story in a way that goes to the heart of his failings—giving the most sympathetic and interesting characters larger roles as the story unfolds. With season six, however, the producers must go where Martin himself hasn’t yet gone (though reportedly the author let them in on his plans for the characters). The outlook for some reasonable resolution to the story is not promising. What was supposed to be Martin’s final novel has now ballooned, according to him, into at least two more books. More ominously, press reports suggest that another novelist has been brought in to help Martin finish.
Age could be responsible for Martin’s current woes, but much of his earlier failure seems related to hubris. As he garnered praise for the early books, Martin suggested he was writing not just “epic fantasy” but something new and unpredictable. After a time, however, he seems to have become a prisoner of his own invention, incapable of sending his characters in any direction that might help resolve his story—perhaps for fear readers might actually figure out where he’s headed. Martin also rejected the moral certitude of the fantasy genre. Instead, he proffered a more ambiguous and chaotic world, where the most worthy characters suffer en route to death and disgrace, rather than redemption. Now, it seems like Martin can’t decide who should prevail in this nihilistic universe he’s constructed.
Even so, Martin has won a cult-like following among fans and critics. The success of the HBO series has only burnished his reputation, though readers have grumbled online about the novels’ more bizarre plot twists. Exegeses of Martin’s texts now proliferate, illuminating his supposedly deep, nuanced worldview—which some even praise as “postmodern.” Others have declared Martin an “American Tolkien”—though the Lord of the Rings author had the decency to bring to an end his stories of wizards, elves, and hobbits.
In a world quick to proclaim “instant classics,” Martin’s wrong turn in the last decade or so is a reminder that finishing, and especially finishing well, still matters. “Begin at the beginning,” the King tells the White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” That’s a word, “stop,” that seems to have eluded Martin.
Photo: Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in HBO’s Game of Thrones (Helen Sloan/HBO)