Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Dance With Dragons, Finally

Have you ever waited six years for anything?

A college freshman waits less time to earn a degree.  A defeated presidential hopeful, for his next run at the White House.  An underdog Olympic medalist, for a chance to show the world that her triumph was no fluke.  But six years is exactly what fans of George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire epic have had to endure since the release of the fourth book in the series, A Feast for Crows.  Worse, due to the narrative choices that Mr. Martin made (not necessarily bad ones), this is the first we've seen of some of the series' most compelling characters since the third book, 2000's A Storm of Swords.

ASoIaF is the best fantasy fiction currently being written (though some of Brandon Sanderson's stuff comes close).  That said, the series has lagged a little in its more recent volumes: A Feast for Crows is the slowest and least interesting book in the series, and Dance is only slightly better.  (Its proximity to the first season of the excellent HBO adaptation only served to contrast it to the fast-paced, at-times shocking first book.) But, as many a fan has pointed out, mediocre George RR Martin is better than nearly everything else out there.

More than half of Dance is devoted to just three characters: Jon Snow, Tyrion, and Daenerys.  Jon has always been among my favorite characters, so it was a welcome sight to see him commanding about a fifth of Dance.  And of the book's three "main characters," Jon's chapters are definitely the best.  There's a sense of progress throughout, from when Jon beheads his old rival Janos Slynt, through his gradual peacemaking with the wildlings and re-establishment of the garrisons along the Wall, to his climactic scene in Castle Black rallying the wildling chiefs to march against Winterfell.

Speaking of Winterfell, why not make a battle at Winterfell the climactic scene in the book?  It would have touched the stories of plenty of POV characters--not only Jon but also Asha, Davos, Theon, and Melisandre--and a massive, pitched battle would have been exactly what the book needed to cram some excitement into its last quarter.  Also, even though the Bastard of the Dreadfort claims it, I doubt very much that Stannis is dead.

The big cliffhanger to Jon's story is that he maybe, possibly, could be dead.  He's not.  His story isn't finished yet, his destiny not fulfilled.  And without Jon, we would have no narrator to describe the events at the Wall and the looming battle with the Others.  Plus, you can't set up a march against the Boltons at the head of three thousand wildlings and Tormund Giantsbane by your side and not deliver on it.  (Also, Tormund Giantsbane for best minor character?  I vote yes.)

Unfortunately, the rest of the "main character" chapters aren't as good as Jon's.  Daenerys has admittedly never been my favorite character--which is increasingly a bad way of looking at the series--but at least her chapters in previous books have constituted a sort of travelogue, a way of getting some insight into the rest of the world beyond Westeros.

Even that grinds to a halt in Dance.  After relatively brisk stays in Pentos, the Dothraki Sea, and Astapor, we find Daenerys settling herself into Meereenese politics.  It would be a fine story if it were told by itself.  But as a handful of chapters in the overarching plot, it doesn't work.  Dany is smitten with a mercenary captain (whom we don't care about because he was just introduced in this book), betrothed to a local noble (whom we don't care about because he was just introduced in this book), attended on by a different local noble (whom we don't care about because he was just introduced in this book), and the list goes on.

All of this is mighty far away from Westeros, which makes it really difficult to become invested in.  One of the many reasons that ASoIaF is so compelling is that Westeros is so very nearly like our own world that there's a sense of proximity to it.  The cultures, customs, and names of the Westerosi are vaguely familiar in a way that makes them seem more human than most other fantasy authors' characters.

But Ghis, Slaver's Bay, and Valyria are distant and bizarre.  Mr. Martin succeeds in creating a foreign, almost alien, culture that's intriguing--but at the price of removing our attachment to it.  Virtually every Daenerys chapter in Dance feels like a speed bump in the book, distracting our attention from the characters and places we've thought so much about over the last fifteen years.  If those speed bumps meant that Daenerys were about to get back on the highway of the main plot, that would be fine.  But what does she have to show for her months in Meereen and her chapters in Dance?  A trio of feral dragons and a marriage to a man who is probably out to kill her.

With Daenerys planted firmly on the throne of Meereen, it falls to Tyrion to be our tour guide through Essos, but our beloved dwarf would rather brood on his past than point out landmarks.  Yes, you shot your father Tywin with a crossbow while he was on the toilet.  We read all about it in A Storm of Swords.  We understand that your feelings about it are mixed and that it's constantly on your mind.  That does not mean we need to read about it in every one of your many, many chapters in Dance.

Nor do we need to read about you choking Shae with her jewelry or your obsession with finding Tysha or how much wine you've had to drink or if you were winning or losing at cyvasse.  Every Tyrion chapter can be reduced to some combination of those thoughts, and after three or four iterations of it, it ceases to be interesting.  Tyrion's personality and occasional encounters with other branches of the plot and POV characters save his story from becoming a complete trainwreck--but barely.

Even his great cliffhanger falls flat: he's going to convince a turncloak group of mercenaries to... turn their cloaks again?  At the end of the book, I realized I didn't even remember how Tyrion's chapters had ended because the "climax" seemed like such a non-event at the time.

Fortunately, not all of Dance is as dreary and inconsequential as the adventures in Essos.  Ironically, the characters with the fewest viewpoint chapters have the most interesting things to say.  Melisandre's lonely chapter shed some important if oblique insights on her relationship with the Red God and even more on the destiny of Jon Snow.  (Hint: if you ask to see Azor Ahai reborn in your fires, and all you see is Jon Snow, maybe it's time to rethink the whole Stannis bit.)

My favorite character in the series remains Jaime, and his one chapter was excellent.  It mattered to the story, it told an interesting detail about the world, it showcased how his character has developed, and it reunited him with Brienne, another POV character (not to mention confirming that Sandor Clegane is alive).  Cersei's lesson in humility was deeply fulfilling to watch and kept its pace nicely.

There's a certain morbid thrill in watching Arya develop into an assassin, and it's going to be a very bad day for her hit list when she returns to Westeros.  And Dance definitely needed more Bran.  His scant few chapters were chock full of mythology and magic, and I look forward to the day when he becomes a flying tree. 

Even Jon Connington's handful of chapters are interesting.  By my own logic, I shouldn't care about him because he was introduced so late in the game... but given that he's already involving himself in Westeros instead of huddling in some corner across the Narrow Sea, he hasn't made himself an unwelcome addition.  The news that Prince Aegon is still alive was a nice twist, and we finally got an answer to the age-old question of "whose side is Varys on, anyway?"

(Maybe that's the secret to bringing back the intensity and excitement of the first three books: limit George RR Martin to no more than five chapters for any one POV character!)

In the end, if fans are disappointed by Dance, it's not because they disliked the book--after all, this is A Song of Ice and Fire, and we would gladly read seven hundred pages of Rickon Stark playing with his direwolf if that's what Mr. Martin gave us.  Instead, the disappointment comes from the dread of what comes next: do I really have to wait another World Cup and a half to get book six?

Currently listening: "The Police and the Private," Metric

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Deathly Hallows Part 2

A few days before the premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, my roommate Zach asked me if the Harry Potter movies were any good. He'd asked a much tougher question than he thought he had.

When you're adapting a book to a movie or TV show, you're necessarily dealing with a story, characters, a setting, and sometimes even dialog that aren't your own.  So whether you've made a "good" movie or not often rests less on your cinematic skills than on the quality of your source material.  For instance, say you're a film studio that's charged with adapting a certain book into a movie.  It's not a very good book--it has a cast of unrelatable characters and a plot pockmarked with holes--but you do your best.  You direct it artistically, produce it professionally, and depict it faithfully to the book.  Have you made a great film?  By independent artistic standards, probably not, even though you've done your job well, and fans of the book will probably like the movie very much.

On the other hand, say your film studio somehow lands the job of adapting the hypothetical Greatest Story Ever Told, one with a cast of delightfully complex characters and an intricate, powerful plot.  Again, you do your job, doing justice to the book and turning out a well-made film.  Have you made a great movie this time?  Possibly--but how much credit can you take for it?  And in either case, you're going to have the purists who cry foul if you so much as change one character's hair color arguing against the interpretive artists who lament an adaptation that's too faithful, lacking an original spin put on by the filmmaker.

I thought about Zach's question for a few seconds, and I told him, "they do a good job visually representing the books," knowing full well I hadn't answered his question.  Whether the Harry Potter movies are good disproportionately depends on whether you think the Harry Potter setting is any good, characters are any good, story is any good.

For example, Minerva McGonagall (played by Maggie Smith, both the most underrated character and actress in the entire series) marshaling the defenses of Hogwarts is an impactful, triumphant scene.  It looks great on film thanks to director David Yates, but without JK Rowling having written it four years earlier, it never would have been part of the movie.  Similarly, the epilogue is among the worst scenes in the movie.  (I'm in the "epilogue is more corny than cathartic" camp, though I recognize that not everyone shares that opinion.)  But short of excising it completely, what was Mr. Yates supposed to do about it?

Instead, where the film adapter can succeed is in illustration of the books and its themes, in using cinematic devices to emphasize the most important ideas and events in the novels.  As much as Part 1 of the Deathly Hallows story is about diving deeper and deeper into despair, Part 2 is about reconciling all the emotional highs and lows of the story into a coherent (and ultimately happy) ending. 

(For all the awkwardness caused by calling a movie Harry Potter Part 7 Part 2, it's clear from both the first installment of Deathly Hallows and this one that splitting the movie in half was exactly the right decision.  The two movies together run a total of 276 minutes, and they really do need at least four hours of that to tell the story completely.)

Both narratively and cinematically, one of the artistic successes of Deathly Hallows is how sharply it contrasts with the earlier volumes in the series.  Innocence, childhood concerns, and a world that's firmly steered in the right direction by its adults give way to tragedy, adult emotions, and moral compasses that don't function any longer.  Mr. Yates does a fantastic job of illustrating this, however briefly, in the landscape shots of Hogwarts after its destruction and in the Snape's-memories-in-the-Pensieve scene that shows footage from the first movie.

Speaking of Snape, Severus Snape is by far the most interesting character in the Harry Potter story.  You could call him the only truly three-dimensional character, and while you might be overly critical, you wouldn't be wrong necessarily.  So it's fitting that the character is the recipient of the best acting performance in the series.  Alan Rickman's Snape is egotistical, sardonic, and antagonistic--but vulnerable in the right time.  It's an iconic performance, one that will be sorely missed now that the metaphorical train has moved "on" from King's Cross Station. 

But we're going to miss a lot more than that.  One of the reasons that Harry Potter resonated so strongly with this generation was that the story was timed just right to coincide with our lives.  Sure, I was twenty when Harry was seventeen in the last book, but I'd been a teenager right alongside him.  And Harry Potter and I were both eleven-year-olds slightly enchanted by fantasy and magic back in 1998.  A twenty-year-old reading through all seven books would likely find the story derivative, even juvenile; an eleven-year-old would find the entire experience far too intense and wouldn't be able to appreciate the gradual maturation of both the characters and the series.

That's why we think Harry Potter is good.  A skeptic might argue that Harry Potter is a story that's been told a thousand times and populated by stock characters, and all JK Rowling did was change the narrative perspective.  But maybe that's all she needed to do.  To bring the logic around fully circular, the people who are going to be attending a midnight showing of a Harry Potter movie, camping for four hours on Kittredge Avenue next to the Berkeley Public Library, are going to be people who think the Harry Potter story is at least good--most of them going much further than that.  So maybe the real test of whether an adapted movie is good is whether it pleases the fans, and by that standard, Deathly Hallows Part 2 succeeds unequivocally.

Currently listening: "Come Clean," Eisley