Slate, New York Times to fantasy buffs: Grow up

Reviews of HBO's adaptation of "Game of Thrones" paint fantasy fiction as silly trash aimed at boys only

Topics: Game of Thrones, Television,

Slate, New York Times to fantasy buffs: Grow upPeter Dinklage as Tyrion in HBO's "Game of Thrones."

I try to stay away from reviewing other people’s reviews; “There but for the grace of God” and all that. But two recent pieces on HBO’s “Game of Thrones” — by Troy Patterson of Slate and Ginia Bellafante of The New York Times — demand a response because they’re deeply condescending.

Patterson’s Slate review, titled “Quasi-Medieval, Dragon-Ridden Fantasy Crap: Art Thou Prepared to Watch ‘Game of Thrones’?” is less a review than a creative writing exercise, penned in the style of….well, it’s hard to say what, exactly. It’s not a parody of George R.R. Martin’s prose, which tends to avoid the turgid, translated-from-the-ancient-Hobbitesese diction that marks inferior sword-and-sorcery novels. It seems more like a goof on what Patterson imagines fantasy fiction to be.

There are unscalable slabs of expositionistic dialogue clogging the forward movement of the story. Sonorous and/or schmaltzy talk substitutes for the revelation of character through action. There is the sense of intricacy having been confused with intrigue and of a story transferred all too faithfully from its source and thus not transformed to meet the demands of the screen. For long stretches of each episode, the reviewer hangs on to consciousness only by trancing out on the strings of digits of the anti-counterfeiting watermark at the top of the screen, hanging on to the serifs by the nails.

The sex and violence also add interest, the former being unhealthily kinky, the latter abusively deft, both conducted with adolescent passion. No matter how dull the body of each installment of ‘Game of Thrones,’ it pulls itself together for a meticulously choreographed finish that builds its own discrete tension. The episode endings create anticipation like small marvels of cliff-hanging that erase the torpor of foregoing knightly knonsense from memory and get you hankering for the next look at the opening title sequence (which is a little masterpiece of welcoming design). Many of these cliffhangers depend on the infliction of imaginative horrors on women, precocious children, and four-legged animals, often with quite a light touch.



A casual persusal of Martin’s writing reveals that it bears little relation to Patterson’s spoof. But even if the sendup were accurate, the exercise would be misguided. This is a review of a TV series. Parodying Martin (if indeed that’s what’s going on here) would be as beside-the-point as parodying James M. Cain in a review of HBO’s “Mildred Pierce.”

I’m also puzzled by Patterson’s complaint about “expositionistic dialogue clogging the forward movement of the story.”As I wrote in my own review, “Game of Thrones” is off-puttingly dense, but economical; most of the scenes run less than two minutes. It lacks filmmaking flair and a sense of humor, but it’s intelligent and serious. When characters speak, their conversations always revolve around important details of story and characterization, and their locutions are rather plain — far less rhythmically distinctive than the dialogue in “Deadwood,” “The Wire” or even “The Sopranos,” to name just three HBO dramas considered worthy of serious discussion. There’s no, “O this, o that.” Nobody says “thou.”

The allusions to “imaginative horrors” inflicted on “women, precocious children, and four-legged animals” falsely imply that the series has a penny dreadful sensibility, and that its adult male characters don’t suffer as much indignity, injury and death. “Thrones” is violent, but it’s not remotely as nasty as John Boorman’s “Excalibur” or such current HBO shows as “True Blood” and “Boardwalk Empire.” And when it comes to inflicting trauma on its characters, it’s democratic. Women, children and animals suffer, but so do men. The series is aware that it’s set in an adult male-dominated world and builds that awareness into its scripts. Several key subplots — notably Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) getting strategically married off to a barbarian prince — are specifically about how women adapt to oppressively patriarchal circumstances. And Patterson’s description of a “luxuriantly offensive” sequence that’s “either a gladiatorial rape tournament or a ‘Jersey Shore’ homage” is funny but misleading. It’s actually Daenerys’ wedding reception, and it’s seen through the heroine’s eyes as a deranged Bacchanal — a horror show that makes the oppression she experienced back home seem tame.

At least Patterson cops to never liking fantasy fiction, and even admits (hilariously) to canceling a date in college once he found out that the young woman in question attended Renaissance festivals dressed as a “serving wench.” (That detail would have increased my interest, but to each his own.) Better to concede your prejudices upfront than re-frame them as proof of intellectual superiority and smear a genre and its fans as stupid, childish and low-class — which is what Ginia Bellafante does in her New York Times review of “Thrones.”

Like Patterson, Bellafante somehow gets through a whole review without mentioning a single character or scene in detail. The piece is mainly interested in blasting TV for sexing-up the costume drama while de-carnalizing scripted shows set in modern times.

That’s an intriguing premise. Unfortunately, Bellafante’s gripes don’t compute. “It says something about current American attitudes toward sex that with the exception of the lurid and awful ‘Californication,’ nearly all eroticism on television is past tense,” Bellafante says, ignoring the likes of “Hung,” “Rescue Me,” “Skins,” “Episodes,” “Weeds,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Archer,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” and “True Blood,” which the author herself cites as an example of HBO degrading its brand.

She also says that “the imagined historical universe of ‘Game of Thrones’ gives license for unhindered bed-jumping.” That’s not true. Sex, like violence, has consequences on “Thrones.”

Ned Stark’s bastard son feels so profoundly out-of-place — illegitimate in every sense — that he joins the border guards and moves far away from his blood family. The poor young man’s whole life is “hindered”; he’s a walking, talking consequence of illicit sex. The dwarf Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) is seen cavorting with prostitutes, but the show lets us know that this is his only means of satisfying a powerful sexual appetite. His dwarfism neutralizes any sexual advantage that his royal bloodline provides. There’s a moment in the second episode where another character chides him for paying for sex — a remark that shakes Tyrion’s self-image as a master cocksman. Daenerys Targaryen’s status as a sex slave to her barbarian husband isn’t treated in a titillating way; their couplings are depicted rather coldly, as transactions or negotiations. (She makes Khal Drogo look at her face during sex to force him to see her as a person rather than as a receptacle.)

Then there’s this doozy of a passage:

“…[Y]ou get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to ‘The Hobbit’ first. ‘Game of Thrones’ is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.”

Say what? The implication that women are predisposed to enjoy explicit sex scenes and female nudity may or may not be true, but it flies in the face of conventional industry wisdom about what women want from film and television. Filmmakers and TV producers are more likely to try to appeal to women by avoiding or deleting graphic sex and nudity while leaving in the kissing, cuddling, and heart-to-heart talks — a patronizing strategy descended from the Old Hollywood “women’s picture” and the early days of TV soaps. Is that what Bellafante is alluding to? If so, she’s confusing the issue by conflating relationship melodrama with softcore porn.

As for the detail about Martin’s work being “boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half,” (a) I doubt Martin would have spent so much time on the book’s trysts, affairs and marriages if he didn’t find them personally interesting, and (b) Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ursula K. le Guin, Carol Berg, Holly Phillips, Juliet Marillier, Lynn Flewelling, Jacqueline Carey and Sharon Shinn would be surprised to learn that they’ve been writing “boy fiction” all this time.

You could make a compelling argument that pay cable’s costume dramas try to eat their cake and have it, too, by treating specific historical circumstances as an excuse to put naked flesh on display. (Starz’s “Spartacus” series sure do love their orgy scenes.) You could also argue that the nudity on “Thrones” objectifies women more than men. But I don’t think either of those things are what Bellafante is getting at.

What is she getting at? Not much, beyond proclaiming, “I’m a girl, and I don’t like fantasy fiction, therefore girls don’t like fantasy fiction, so you boys can just bugger off with your Dungeons and Dragons nonsense.”

Imagine if a review of “Deadwood” had mocked the very idea of a Western series telling morally complex adult stories, or if a review of “The Sopranos” proceeded from the assumption that gangster tales are inherently worthless as popular art. You can’t. It’s unthinkable.

These reviews are also disappointing because they’re penned by critics I like. Patterson is one of the sharpest, funniest TV reviewers out there, and Bellafante is the only one of the New York Times’ primary TV critics who doesn’t write as if the medium were innately unworthy of her time. Something about the subject matter brought out their inner snobs. No other popular genre would be treated with such knee-jerk distaste by critics for major publications.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>