Bloggingheads: ‘Game of Thrones’ And The Extent To Which TV Can Be Like Novels

The Week’s entertainment editor Scott Meslow was kind enough to sit down with me to record an episode of Bloggingheads that touched on two subjects dear to my heart: Game of Thrones and Mad Men:

In particular we talked about the idea that television can be a novel, an idea popularized during the heyday of shows like The Wire and The Sopranos. I absolutely agree that television shows can function like novels, in that they can tell long-arc stories, develop characters in a rich way, and play with large themes. But there are technological divides that separate what they can do. In a book, you can stay within the medium and flip back and forth if you don’t remember who a character is, or need to check back in on an event that happened previously. Increasingly, large books hold character guides and world maps. The entire universe of the story is there in a single volume. And that means you can throw an enormous amount of material at a reader. But in a television show, if the world gets big enough, you may need to venture outside of the medium to refresh yourself, whether you’re checking Wikipedia for a character name, switching disks to see an old scene, or skimming through Netflix to find the right moment. If you can’t remember something, you may have to break the spell.

And I wonder if Game of Thrones, which has pulled together an enormous number of characters in a book, may be reaching the limits of the extent to which a television show can act like a novel. Alan Sepinwall, whose review of the third season we discussed in this episode, noted in that piece that “On The Wire, for instance, characters frequently crossed paths, and when they didn’t, you could tell how one person’s actions were affecting someone else far away. On Boardwalk Empire, the narrative strands don’t always seem clearly tied together at first, but they inevitably come together in satisfying fashion by season’s end. Both Martin and Game of Thrones are playing a longer game than that.” And I think that long game poses challenges. It’s hard to remember the names of more than 200 characters you aren’t seeing every episode and as part of the same storylines, especially when you don’t see them written down, and especially when ten months pass in between the last time you’ve seen them and the next time you do. And as someone who obviously read the books before the show started, I wonder if it’s not just harder to remember these characters in the glut of information, but whether it’s hard to get attached.

Now, obviously Martin’s books have been released on a cycle that by the standards of television look leisurely. But they’re also able to give much more space to each character — sometimes for good, sometimes for ill — unconstrained by the production budgets, writing, production, and editing cycles, and standard length of a television episode that inevitably provide structure to the show. That means he writes a fair amount of digression and worldbuilding into the books, but also that he’s not bound by anything except how many pages his publishers can bind into a single volume, and even then, if he’s got to spill over into more volumes, they’re going to be nothing but happy. And those digressions, and the amount of time it takes to read the books, just give readers more hooks into the stories, the characters, and the settings. Sprawl, for good and ill, is a characteristic of books in a way that it never can be of television. I’m not saying that means the books are better than the show. But I do think that they expose some of the irreducible differences between reading and watching television once you reach a certain scope.