A Song of DVR and Kindles

By Ben PackApril 4, 2014

A Song of DVR and Kindles

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

I’VE BEEN SUCKED INTO a fantasy world reminiscent of medieval England with dragons and evil ice-men. In the past I’ve fallen for Middle Earth and I’m young enough to have obsessed over Harry Potter, but for the most part I’m a nonfiction and non-genre novel reader. However, in anticipation of HBO’s fourth season of Game of Thrones airing April 6th, I’ve been feverishly re-watching the series and re-reading the books, which go by the title A Song of Ice and Fire. They may be guilty pleasures, but I’ve enjoyed setting aside reality for a bit. I’ve also been surprised.

The show can be campy and a bit (okay a lot) like soap opera, but the characters spout witty dialogue, and it’s never long before they either take off their clothes or slit someone’s throat. Power, greed and lust are all on display — human relations found in any age or world, real or imagined — but if you’re looking for some deeper message about contemporary life, I think you risk ruining the fun. This is spectacle storytelling which pairs best with popcorn and candy, not fine wine and pâté. If the show feels prurient at times, remember it’s TV not Proust, and hopefully that’s enough to make you relax and enjoy.

In contrast, the books are far more nuanced. Each chapter follows one of 31 characters and we’re trapped in their limited third person perspectives. As a result, all the information we receive is slanted. Villains from one POV suddenly become the protagonists of another. Oftentimes the characters I hated became characters I grew to love (or at least pity). This format creates a sense of depth. Unlike the stereotypical fantasy battle between good and evil, there’s little black and white here — just thick moral grey. The reader gets a complex world to discover, but it also has gaps. If a POV character isn’t present for a scene, we can only infer it. If a POV character encounters someone new, we may only get description, even if we have seen that new character in an earlier chapter and know his name. In a sense, this makes the novels highly episodic — each character has her separate arc and it’s only by piecing the episodes together that the reader can understand the broader scope of the story. Indeed, this format is what makes the novels so pleasurable — they are like giant puzzles tempting the reader to figure out what the author George R.R. Martin is only hinting.

By no means is Game of Thrones the first TV series to present us with blood and sex under the guise of a longform story. These serialized shows form the bulk of contemporary must see TV from the Sopranos to House of Cards. Martin’s books also aren’t the first to use multiple points of view or subjective narration to tell a bigger story. What makes the show and the books remarkable is how they appropriate each other’s forms. In many ways the books resemble old TV shows, episodic and nonlinear, while the TV series has successfully imported the more linear and longform cohesion of a novel, as well as some of its respectability.

This is a major shift. Twenty years ago most scripted television dramas were procedural. Every week the same characters showed up to catch a different criminal or solve a new medical mystery. You could bet that the details from episode two wouldn’t be relevant in episode 10, let alone 50. As a result, characters rarely changed. How could they if the stakes never carried over week to week? Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote was always nosy and more clever than the police; Columbo barely switched clothes. Of course there were exceptions (Twin Peaks for instance) but even shows with serialized elements, such as The West Wing, usually had crises that got resolved within the episode, and while the characters might grow a little bit here and there, President Bartlet was always pleasantly irascible and Sam Seaborn was always too charming for his own darn good.

These procedural shows are still around and often popular (see NCIS), but static characters and plots that rarely carry over are in many ways a relic of the way we used to watch TV. Before DVRs and on-demand if you missed an episode, that was it; you had to hope for re-runs. Networks wanted the ability to syndicate their shows and re-air them in any order, creating further pressure to keep each episode a self contained unit. Even if you bought the home videos (remember those giant box sets of VHS tapes?) chances are you cherry-picked your favorite episodes to re-watch. It’s not that you can’t sit down and marathon all of Law and Order from beginning to end — and I’m sure some people have —  but with 456 episodes, not all of which were great, why would you? Pick any episode, and you know what you’re getting. The biggest discontinuity you will likely encounter is Jerry Orbach disappearing after 2004.

In contrast, Game of Thrones only makes sense if you watch it from beginning to end. It’s one long story with lots of characters and what happens in episode two affects what happens in episode ten. Events that occur in the pilot — for instance Ned Stark being called to the capital to serve as the king’s hand — still reverberate throughout the series. If Ned hadn’t gone, he would likely still be alive and his children wouldn’t be dead or in jeopardy. Then again, if Ned hadn’t gone, there wouldn’t be much of a story.

Unlike their procedural counterparts, the characters in Game of Thrones also change over time — they have arcs. Danaerys, the daughter of a murdered king who is sold by her brother for an army and then raped by her owner/husband, goes on to birth dragons, sack cities and free thousands of slaves — hardly a weak victim anymore. Sansa Stark, daughter of Ned, starts off in love with the loathsome prince Joffrey (a character so much fun to hate, it’s difficult not to adore him). She’s impressed by lemon cakes and fine clothes. By season three, her father’s been beheaded before her eyes, and while she may still be a pawn, harsh truth has finally dawned on her naïveté. If the books are any guide, more changes are in store for her and the other characters too.

These evolutions keep us tuning in week after week (or binging episode to episode). We want to find out what happens to our favorite characters, and if the show succeeds on one level more than most it’s in presenting a range of people we emotionally connect to from handsome Robb Stark to the quick witted dwarf Tyrion Lannister, expertly played by Peter Dinklage. Due to the serialized nature of the story though, there’s no conclusion at the end of each episode, just another cliffhanger. We will never know what happens to our favorites until we watch the next episode. And we won’t ever know if they are safe because unlike most shows, Game of Thrones kills main characters with alarming regularity (read: Robb, Ned, Catelyn, Khal Drogo, the list goes on).

This linearity of plot and character helps disguise the spectacle — or at least lend it some respectability. As a thought experiment, imagine Game of Thrones as an episodic show. If the characters didn’t grow or enter into jeopardy, if the story didn’t always end in a dun-dun-dun but resolved by minute 55 like a procedural TV drama, what would we be left with? Essentially sex, violence and pretty clothes. Perhaps this is unfair — an episodic version of Game of Thrones would never get made. What would it even be about? The mystery of who stole Danaerys’ dragons? The show works because it’s married the longer linear format of a novel with the visual appeal of television. Take away the linear aspects and you have great characters starring in primetime porn. Take away the visual spectacle and you have an arcane plot with too many threads and not enough excitement to keep us from wandering off to find ice cream or check email. Obsess too much over one or the other, and the show unravels at the seams.

Indeed, my problem with re-watching episodes is that there’s not much to contemplate a second time around. One of the reasons I liked the show the first time is that it fills in a lot of missing scenes. Since the POV characters in the books aren’t always present, and since the television camera imposes a more objective point of view, the series is in the strange position of often showing more than the novels. Instead of getting innuendo that two characters are gay, we see one shave the other’s nipple before bending to his knees. Instead of having to infer backroom deals, the characters openly plot behind closed doors. The visuals may be more blunt, but after getting teased by the books, it’s also satisfying to see what can only be guessed from the page. On a second viewing though, there’s not much left to do except watch the characters screw and kill each other — often times gratuitously. There’s an entire scene from the first season where Little Finger, the conniving Master of Coin, pontificates about power while two naked whores practice sex. That may be titillating in round one, but in round two it’s clear there’s nothing here except skin and exposition. Unlike other linear shows which continue to offer depth upon multiple viewings (The Wire for instance) Game of Thrones falls apart.

When I claim that the show imports the linearity of a novel, I should also clarify that what I mean is we read these texts from beginning to end. Of course many books (and TV shows such as True Detective) skip around in time, but with the exception of people who peek at the last page of a book first, most of us start on page one and then read page two, three and so forth. The decision to jump in time is the author’s decision, not the reader’s. Game of Thrones depends on this linear move from one episode to the next. Procedural TV does not — and strangely, neither do the books.

A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t require that the reader return to page one. Because each chapter follows a different character, I can opt to stick with one point of view and read it through to the end. Indeed, I didn’t begin re-reading with the first book, but the third, because that’s the one I like best — it has the most stunning twists: the red wedding, which came at the end of season three in the TV series (and halfway through the novel) is just the tip of the iceberg. This is the book that pivots from a war amongst five kings, to something more mysterious, dark and magical. And while I started off reading the chapters in order, I quickly discovered that I preferred to skip the sections on Jaime and Catelyn, and focus instead on Danaerys and Ned’s younger children Bran and Arya, who are my favorites.

In this sense, re-reading the books is less about the plot and more about spending time in the company of characters I love — something which bears similarity to old TV shows. With episodic television, we tune in each week (or run marathons on Netflix and Hulu) because we like the characters and want to spend time with them. Since the plots rarely carry over, the only thing to bring us back is the people and perhaps their situations. The same holds true for A Song of Ice and Fire. Like Law and Order you can start from the beginning, but you don’t have to.

If moving around at will seems like a corruption of the author’s original intent, I’d point out that in his opening notes Martin calls attention to the fact that the books don’t move chronologically either. He writes in a preface to the third novel that “the opening chapters of A Storm of Swords do not follow the closing chapters of A Clash of Kings so much as overlap them.” Things get even more muddled in books four and five, which Martin divided along the lines of geography rather than time, “but only up to a point.” In the fifth book, he writes in a “Cavil to Chronology” that “A Dance with Dragons is a longer book than A Feast of Crows, and covers a longer period of time. In the latter half of this volume you will notice certain viewpoint characters from A Feast of Crows popping up again. And that means just what you think it means: the narrative has moved past the time frame of Feast and the two streams have once again rejoined each other.” Martin chose these divisions as a way to bring order to the vast territory he wanted to cover, but after breaking the novel’s linearity, he also left the door open for readers to move around as they please.

Familiarity with the plot from a first read obviously enables the ability to jump around because you don’t have to worry about how the different threads interweave, though even on my first trip through the novels, I found myself skipping ahead to follow the characters I preferred. The lengthy number of named characters (there are over a thousand) also prompted Martin to include a thick appendix, which I find myself flipping to all the time for reference — often becoming engrossed in various footnotes instead of the chapters I’m supposed to be reading in order. At a certain point, particular stories also become independent of the more connected characters found in the capital Kings Landing. Once Bran leaves Winterfell, he’s more or less on his own. Danaerys has always been on the other side of the fictional world and the same eventually becomes true for Arya and Tyrion. Admittedly these story lines are supposed to eventually re-intersect (assuming Martin doesn’t kill the characters), but the ability to re-order the chapters as I please is too tempting to ignore. Since a number of my favorites only get four or five chapters per book, re-reading these sections as individual units is not only satisfying, but also easily done in a single sitting or “episode.”

Although Martin began writing A Song of Ice and Fire in the early 1990s, the advent of e-readers has made it dramatically easier to take advantage of these nonlinear possibilities. I’ve read all five books on a Kindle Fire, which offers a number of ways to move between chapters that a paper copy does not. I can search for names and key terms with a few finger taps, which means I can not only skip chapters (something paper readers can do too) but I can find every mention of a minor character or obscure term. As noted earlier, the limited points of view mean that a large part of the fun in the books comes from piecing together puzzles. When read together, passing references can suddenly give rise to new meaning and theories. For instance, the giant derelict castle Harrenhal gets a number of minor references, and it’s even the setting for a few scenes; if you’re not paying attention, it may seem like just a creepy location. With closer attention though, it’s clear (at least to me) that this is one of the most important locations in the entire series. Its history is a lesson in hubris and conquest, and the events that transpired there a generation before the books’ events begin are key to explaining the wars and world we’re thrown into in the present timeline.

While an e-reader enables these discoveries, it also allows for idiosyncratic indulgences. There’s a minor character named Cold Hands whom I love. In the books he is little more than a plot device. All he does is bring Bran from the Wall — a giant ice barrier over 700 feet high and hundreds of miles long — to a secret destination farther north, and yet I find him fascinating. There’s the implication of a much deeper story behind this creature — we’re told he’s been dead a long time (hence the cold hands), but he’s clearly benevolent, saving key characters in times of crisis. I like that surprising incongruity — we don’t expect corpses to reanimate for the purposes of good — Western literature from Mary Shelley to George Romero teaches us how awry such efforts always turn. Indeed, I think one of Martin’s greatest strengths is his ability to subvert our expectations. When sharing my enthusiasm for Cold Hands though, people typically express confusion — why exactly do I care so much about this character? While I may obsess over this detail, I’m confident other readers are pouring over different points instead. An e-reader encourages each of us to get sucked into our favorite characters and plots, thus turning what is normally a standardized experience (reading from page one forward) into a more customized, journey. I feel an ownership over the novels — something I’ve never felt with the show — and that’s the driving force of my obsession.

Just as DVRs and on-demand viewing have changed television, allowing series to become more linear and novel-like, e-readers seem to hold potential for revolutionizing the way we read and connect to literature. Lots of books are now published exclusively for electronic devices (with behemoth Amazon leading the way) but I’ve had a difficult time finding books written purposefully for e-readers. For the most part, we’re still reading books on screens the way we read them on paper — and authors are still writing as though words are only printed on pages with ink. One of the things that ushered in the current golden age of serialized television was changes in the technology and the way we all view shows. Without a DVR or on-demand, we probably wouldn’t watch a series like Game of Thrones though — it’d be too annoying to keep up. What Martin’s dragons and evil ice-men reveal is that a similar transformation could take place with the published word. If only books would start resembling old TV.


Ben Pack lives and writes (and watches Game of Thrones) in Los Angeles. He also teaches writing and critical reasoning at USC.

LARB Contributor

Ben Pack lives and writes (and watches Game of Thrones) in Los Angeles. He also teaches writing and critical reasoning at USC.


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