Posted by: birdmaddgirl | 8 May 2013

gut reactions: ender’s game of thrones

reader, you may or may not be aware of my abiding love for fantasy and science fiction. it’s true that i’m not as up on either genre as i’d like to be; i’ve got some major gaps. but i grew up on this stuff and frequently turn to it when my brain just cannot handle any more academia – or because i just love to be immersed in it. i want to talk absolute gut reactions to a couple of high profile projects. these are not researched thoughts, but they do have the weight of decades of genre reading behind them, so while they are off-the-cuff, they are not ignorant opinions.

ender’s game: the first trailer launched yesterday for the film adaptation of orson scott card’s award-winning novel. (side note: card is very public about opinions that i find offensive and distasteful, if not downright inhuman at times. there’s a lot of controversy swirling around about boycotting. i have lots of thoughts about the separation of art from the artist that i won’t delve into here. suffice to say that although there’s obvious conservative thinking going on in ender’s game, the book does not incorporate any of card’s controversial perspectives. focus!) ok. so there’s an award-winning cast – which the trailer absolutely beats you over the head with. (side note 2: ben kingsley is fabulous, but my disappointment in the failure to case a Maori actor as mazer rackham is major. what about that guy from blow? or anybody else. plus, the face tattoo seems like a bad case of racial othering to me, but i’m willing to reserve judgement for the moment.)

focus! yes. so this trailer gives very little in terms of the broader storyline and psychological drama that underpin the novel and lift it above the mass of space shoot-em-ups. i suppose that it’s aimed at people  unfamiliar with the book. but who is really supposed to be excited about this film based on these two minutes of footage? i mean, everything looks gorgeous (this may turn out to be one of the best visual adaptations of a novel to date). but everything about is so vaguely, generically sci-fi. aside from the title, this could be the trailer for just about any old sf story. the music, the font, the editing choices – bland, bland, bland, bland. if i knew nothing about the book, what i would take away from this is: oh a bunch of famous actors got paid a lot of money to be in a slick but probably substance-less aliens vs. humans war film. yawn. as someone who knows the book decently well (i’ve probably read it 5 times or so over the last 20 years), i’m not convinced by this trailer that the film is going to live up to the hype. maybe the next trailer will be the one that convinces me one way or the other. based solely on what i see here, meh. there’s not enough there there to push me to want to see a big screen adaptation of something that lives so vividly in my head.

game of thrones: hbo can seemingly do no wrong and their fantasy series is an undoubted cultural hit. i don’t watch a lot of tv – full time work plus grad school will do that to a person – and for quite a while i was debating whether to try the show or the books first, so i was in no hurry to get to this. in february, i  finally decided that i’d give the tv series a go. oh man. this is surprisingly difficult for me to write about. i’ve talked about it with several sff-minded friends who are fans of martin and of hbo. i desperately want to like this. but. well, frankly, i’m rather ashamed that this is many people’s only significant reference point for fantasy, aside from tolkien.

i watched the first episode. i can’t decide now whether i’m willing to spend any more of my time on this or not. let me start out by saying that the production values and cast are great overall. and although i can’t compare to the books, my impression is that hbo does a pretty good job of creating the world. what falls apart for me is martin’s story. it strikes me as outdated, bigoted, and just plain lazy.

i desperately want to like this. but sex and gore appear to be used mainly pruriently. i’m not opposed to sex and gore, but i’m uninterested in it as window-dressing.

i desperately want to like this. but that dothraki wedding scene is some straight up 19th century imperialist colonialist racist atrocity. i am so powerfully disgusted that this is probably a real deal-breaker for me with the series. i’ve asked if there is something that will happen down the line that would complicate this set up, that would make me say that martin is exploring tropes and doing something interesting with them. not a single person has been able to reassure me on this point. the most common response is “maybe this series isn’t for you…”

this episode gives me the sexist heebie-jeebies, too. i’ve been told that daenerys’s character evolves in interesting ways. i’ve not been told that there’s a strong female character who doesn’t have to go through sexual abuse to be part of the “strong female character” contingent. (no, i’m actually not referring to the post-wedding sex scene per se – her brother’s sexual abuse and commodification is extremely problematic for me.) a bullshit, lazy way to write a strong female character. (side note 3: so people want to boycott ender’s game because card vocally gay-bashes – although this is not at all part of the work – but apparently no one wants to boycott game of thrones, which incorporates problematic racial and gender depictions as part of the storyline? i don’t get it.)

these are some pretty damning criticisms right out of the gate. i could comprehend if not excuse a bit of this in older works. but the thing is, martin is writing this series right now. this isn’t throwback 70s fantasy (although even then, it’s pretty lame). it’s 2013 and this is what we’re being fed as fantasy worthy of adaptation by hbo.

the saddest thing is, there is a wealth of thoughtful, exciting fantasy out there. great fantasy and sci fi have the ability to push the boundaries of the possible, to help us to question the reality we live with everyday, to encourage us to imagine a different and better future for ourselves.

after watching just the one episode of game of thrones, i have a hard time seeing martin’s story surprising me. it looks like a lazy writer taking advantage of character and setting as cloaking devices to hide a lack of real intellectual engagement. are there even any real plot twists that i can’t see coming? i keep begging people to tell me i’m wrong. this is one of a handful of cultural doors that is open to the people who otherwise don’t consider fantasy as something they are interested in. i want it to be all of the amazing things that i see in the works of luminaries like butler, gaiman, bradley, pratchett, mccaffrey, kay, mieville, lackey, le guin, asimov… i’m mostly pulling names out of the way-back machine, which just underscores for me how martin is not moving the genre or culture forward. no one has really tried to convince me i’m wrong.



  1. I have a “defense” of GRRM. The reason why his story contains so many archaic and problematic constructs is because it’s not supposed to be a new story. It works to subvert conventional popular fantasy tropes. You can do this by creating an entirely new piece of fiction unfettered by misogynist and racist bullshit [or “the boy king” trope, or the “teenaged girl who is on a terrible journey but will learn a lot and overcome and live happily ever after,” or even the “Lancelot lover,” all of which are also subverted in ASOIAF – Robb the boy king is a fumbling boy and nothing more special than that, and then REDACTED [I mean, oops, spoiler], Sansa learns how to be resourceful over time, that’s certain, but her circumstances get worse and worse, and her counterpart Arya is doing pretty great but is on a path to being a sociopath, and even Daenarys has complete delusions of grandeur even as she does do some pretty kickass stuff, and the Lancelot lover [daring, risky!] is the queen’s brother [ew!]] or, to establish the standard tropes, and then overturn them. GRRM does the latter. So he uses all of the colonialist misogynistic and nonsensically fantastical material that you find in traditional fantasy, he establishes it firmly in his world, and then he works to dismantle and subvert it. It is really very brilliant.

    Please also keep in mind that the show is not the books. Sometimes Benioff and Weiss get it. Sometimes they do not, in really big, absurd, embarrassing and offensive ways. I suggest reading the books and forming your judgments from there – the show is just a counterpart to them that is entertaining to watch because when they DO get things right, it’s a delight to see those characters come alive on the screen.

    Full disclosure, GRRM also happens to be a big pervy perv who likes to write about women’s breasts. So, there’s some heavy male gaze stuff in there. He’s not perfect. But aside from that, I fully appreciate the way in which he handles female characters. The show, and the fandom, that’s another matter.

    • thanks for writing out all the opinions!

      i think what i’ve taken from hearing folks get behind this show is that the only possible way for this to work for me is to read the books, and no way that is happening in the next two years.

      it’s looking like the best bet for me would be to shelve the series and wait for a better time. i’m not sure that watching hbo’s interpretation alone is going to make me feel alright about it.

  2. I’ve read the first two books of Martin’s series and watched the first season of the show. I have to admit, I’m into it. I found the books to be compellingly written and I really came to care about the characters.

    It’s easy to write off the sexism by saying that, in the sort of medieval world Martin is writing, that sort of attitude would be the norm – but then, why not write a different world? But then there’s a lot of precedent for sexism even in different fantasy worlds – think of McCaffrey (when I reread the book where Lessa is the lead, I was shocked by all the sexism I didn’t see there when I was a kid). I have to agree with you that Martin isn’t doing anything mind-blowing for the genre here; he’s not LeGuin or Butler or Asimov. But not everyone has to be, and LeGuin and Butler and Asimov don’t always write compelling character.

    Also, as of the end of book 2, nobody has sexually abused Arya yet. Of course, she’s only 11, so there’s still plenty of time.

    • i certainly agree that not everyone has to be a genre-buster (i read terry brooks!), but the added cultural weight of the hbo stamp of approval makes me want this to be something that’s really at the forefront of what fantasy is capable of.

      i guess part of my issue is that i know that i’m not reading the books at all any time in the next 2 years. everyone who really loves it seems to have read the books. maybe i should just shelve this for now…

      • Yeah, I think you should just hold off on this one. I don’t know that I agree with all of Katherine Rose’s opinions on it, but I think it may be better than your initial perception on watching the show.

  3. also full disclosure, I seriously side-eye any “fan” of the show who hasn’t read the books. sooooooooooo

  4. this article does a much better job of articulating part of what i’m not super keen on with the world-building for GoT:

    this isn’t to say that i don’t get the arguments i’ve heard that there’s some dismantling going on (or that i’m unwilling to give it a shot at another time), but my gut reaction is disappointment and this explicates lazy writing much more clearly.

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