Over at The Atlantic, where we’re running a roundtable on HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s series. My contribution, a piece on Game of Thrones’ place in between aspirational fantasy like Harry Potter and Twilight and grim realism like The Wire, is up:
Instead, there’s the grinding brutality of quasi-medieval life. And it is brutal. There are two beheadings in the show’s first 15 minutes. Men choke to death on their own blood when they’re wounded in tournaments, and kill their horses after unsuccessful jousts. When a young princess has sex with her Ghengis Khan-like husband for the first time, the camera watches her weep as he undresses her, prying her hands away from her body as she tries to hold up her clothes. It may not be the same as watching Dr. Melfi get raped in a parking lot stairwell on The Sopranos, but the emotions are no less complicated, and the physical and emotional discomfort that play across her face are no less real.
It’s not that other fantasy series don’t create lovable characters or compelling anti-heroes and put them through a lot. But there’s an ugly edge to Game of Thrones that’s absent in some of the other most popular fantasy series of our times. Harry’s encounter with a snake inhabiting the body of a dead woman in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a genuinely creepy passage, but the horror serves a higher purpose: forging Harry into a hero and cementing his emotional bond with his lost parents. Similarly, there’s something pristine about Bella Swan’s ordeals in the Twilight books: whether she’s being physically attacked, risking death by exposure, or sacrificing herself to save her unborn child in a truly stomach-churning caesarean section, her pain is a sign of her fortitude and purity, proof of her special goodness. Frodo Baggins is, for religious skeptic J.R.R. Tolkien, the closest thing that exists to a martyr in the Lord of the Rings. Those stories tell us about ourselves and our world only by inference: They are better than we are, but that doesn’t give us much of a benchmark as to whether we are all saved or fallen.