For someone like me who hasn’t read the George Martin fantasy novels on which HBO’s Game of Thrones is based, the first several episodes of each new season would be better entitled “Game of Pausing in the Middle of Every Scene to Look Things up on Wikipedia.” Despite the reasonably extensive “Previously on…” preludes to each episode, I frequently find myself lost as to the basic facts of what the hell is going on. (And if you aren’t caught up on the series and are wary of spoilers, you might want to stop reading.) Characters I don’t remember ever seeing are suddenly involved in apparently consequential scenes with major figures, and they’re all talking like we should be intimately familiar with them, their families, and the past events in which they’ve been involved; certainly the other characters don’t exactly give us a lot of clues. (That almost all the male characters are white dudes with shoulder-length brown hair and beards doesn’t help one bit. My kingdom for The OC‘s easily-remembered brunette-brunette and blonde-blonde romantic pairings!) In last night’s episode, for instance, the Hound defended himself against a group called the Brotherhood Without Banners, who we’d met previously but whose deal I could not begin to explain to you without extensive recourse to the web. When some one-eyed dude started j’accusin’ the hell out of the Hound, it was clear they knew each other from the past, but I had no idea why. When the scene ended with the one-eyed dude sternly challenging the Hound to a trial by combat, I was sure something important had happened, but I am still at a loss as to exactly what that thing was. I’m not even 100% sure the dude has one eye; he could just be wearing a rad bandanna.
This is not a complaint, or not exactly a complaint. Game of Thrones is a series I look forward to with excitement and watch with enjoyment, but its approach to adapting novels for the screen is much different than what we’ve seen in the past. Despite the way many TV shows have begun to use the 13-22 hours of airtime they’re given each season to tell longer stories, the time commitment and narrative expectations for novels are just much different than they are for TV and movies. (Novels don’t need to end each chapter with a major event, for instance, while TV shows very much do lest they be charged with not being consequential enough.) As such, almost every screen adaptation of a novel or series of novels has decided to cut major parts of the original story. Chunks were left out of the respectful-to-a-fault Harry Potter movies, and even the four hours Peter Jackson got for each movie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy had to cut whole sequences. Other times, things are recombined and invented wholesale, as with the addition of Galadriel and the far increased presence given to Radagast in The Hobbit, or the way the movies in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy bowdlerized bits and bobs of several story arcs from Batman comics over the years. In all cases, the strategy was the same: selectively borrow from the source material in order to make the story work within the constraints of the new medium.
Game of Thrones, however, seems to be doing something different. While it’s still altering the original story somewhat, it’s also relying on the audience to either possess or seek out additional information beyond what’s shown on screen. This is something that’s only possible because of the last decade of TV dramas. The programming mantra through the 1990s was that a viewer should be able to tune in during the middle of an episode and still know what’s going on — and since past episodes weren’t available on easily-accessible DVDs or downloads, there was no reason to rely on an audience’s deep knowledge of the show. That started to shift in the 90s as fans began putting extensive compendiums of show lore online, which in my memory began to really take off with Chris Carter’s The X-Files, and by the time we got to 2004’s Lost, the entire show was premised on an audience that was actively engaging with the show outside of its regular timeslot.
Thus, Game of Thrones, which is supposed to be comprehensible even for people who haven’t read the books, is able to make the most of its screen time by eschewing the sort of hand-holding that most shows would feel compelled to include. (“Why John, I thought you died in that helicopter crash that gave my father amnesia, at my wedding!”) These sort of narrative strategies are something the show excels at, as the oral history of last season’s finale makes clear. The creators are using some very clever tricks to save money without sacrificing the story’s fidelity. As one recap pointed out, for instance, they spent a whole episode last season with Daenerys’ dragons kept inside a sealed box — so they wouldn’t have to pay for the CGI. That money could then get plowed into major battle sequences, when we really need to see all those extras and special effects. They’re essentially adapting the show by not wasting a dollar or a moment, and if they were to take the time to have Robb Stark give us some exposition about why, exactly, he’s meeting with these two white dudes in a castle and what their family’s deal is and there was a battle? Or something? then they wouldn’t have time to include all of Sansa’s storyline. So if viewers need to go online and look things up to figure all that out after the fact, then so be it. There are entire Wikis devoted to it.
All this said, it’s a work in progress, and this particular non-source-material-reader hopes they and others refine this technique a bit. TV shows, after all, aren’t consumed in the same way novels are; I’ve had to bookmark my page in Wolf Hall a few times in order to keep my Boleyns straight, but the book is waiting for me when I get back. To continually do this with a TV show that’s supposed to be pushed at you for a steady 53 minutes is much more jarring. Some concessions to the kind of narrative strategies screenwriters have developed through the years to remind us of what’s going on at the beginning of each scene would be appreciated. But that doesn’t diminish the show terribly much: the kind of grand climax that closed last night’s episode would work in any show, regardless of source material. It seems notable, however, that this was precisely the kind of scene that a viewer could have understood even if they tuned in midway through. (“Why John, I had no idea you spoke that language!”) The two things are not incompatible. If Game of Thrones could find a way to meet in the middle a little more often, it wouldn’t diminish from the revolutionary approach they’ve taken to their adaptation.
Or maybe I just need to read the books.