Can the Targaryens Conquer Television?
The perils of adapting the "prehistory" of George R.R. Martin and J.R.R. Tolkien
After Game of Thrones wrapped up its once-impressive television run with a remarkable multi-season artistic debacle, I wrote up a theory of the fantasy genre for the Times. Great fantasy does two distinct things, I suggested. First, it creatively retells the origin story of the modern world:
As Alan Jacobs suggested in an essay for The New Atlantis several years ago, fantasy stories are concerned with the transition that the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor described in his immense and daunting tome, “A Secular Age”:the movement from a premodern world in which human lives and societies are understood to be permeable to supernatural forces (dark and light, divine and demonic) to a modern world in which both civilization and the individual psyche are “buffered” against angels and devils and fairies and the like.
In this sense fantasy novels are creative retellings of our own society’s origin story. But because they assume the reality of magic, they are also stories that embody a certain anxiety about whether that transition is permanent, or whether it might someday be reversed.
Then at the same time, the genre also lets its authors write a kind of historical fiction whose unique appeal is that even the most historically-literate reader can’t know in advance how the story ends:
For this part of fantasy’s allure, the magic is interesting but secondary. It’s there to create interesting “what if …” scenarios, to raise the narrative stakes, to make the world feel a little more exotic, or to explain (in cases where the fantasy world is explicitly ours, except with more dragons or more fairies) why this version of history is different from our own. But the important thing is the political storytelling and the sociological invention — the machinations of statesmen and soldiers and queens and cutthroats, under the weight of particular institutions and traditions, in a world more violent and extreme and death-shadowed and therefore (let’s be honest) more narratively interesting than our own.
The narrative collapse of Game of Thrones the TV show happened along both dimensions simultaneously: The main magical plotline was resolved in a single episode halfway through the final season, as if the showrunners felt the political storytelling was more interesting and fundamental and all the supernatural business faintly embarrassing … except that their rushed ending also undercut the political realism, the verisimilitude that the show at its best achieved, and left the story with neither magic nor machiavellianism to offer, just the dumbest elective monarchy in world history:
Two years later we still don’t have Martin’s own version of the story’s ending (Narrator: And we never will …), but we do have two new attempts at big-budget fantasy storytelling looming on the TV horizon. One is another Martin adaptation from HBO, entitled House of the Dragon, that’s supposed to tell the story of the ruling Targaryen clan a couple of hundred years before the events in A Song of Ice and Fire. The other is Amazon’s $450 million crack at adapting the events of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Second Age into a Lord of the Rings prequel series.
My initial reaction to both projects is that they’re bad ideas for the same reason that so many sequels and reboots and prequels in other genres turn out to be bad ideas (while, yes, often making gobs of money): Because they’re adapting a property rather than a story. It’s true that in these cases, unlike with some cash-ins, you do have existing narrative structures to work with, drawn from Tolkien’s Silmarillion and Martin’s Westeros pseudo-history Fire and Blood. But narrative structures aren’t the same thing as actual storytelling or character development, of the kind that the LOTR and Game of Thrones novels offered to their adapters, so these projects will only succeed if their screenwriters can effectively graft a richer story onto the outline supplied by the “historical” materials. And after watching how David Benioff and D.B. Weiss managed when they only had Martin’s outline to work with rather than a full-fledged novel to adapt … well, let’s just say I wish HBO and Amazon had invested in adapting some successful, completed fantasy sagas instead of just going back to Martin and Tolkien’s worlds.
Then there’s the more specific problem that adapting fantasy-world pre-histories tends to take you away from the two core strengths of the genre. First, because if you move backward in time from a moment chosen originally by the author as a liminal, end-of-magic/return-of-magic moment, you’re likely to end up somewhere a little more boring and banal: Either a point in the fantasy world’s history when magic is ubiquitous or a point when it’s simply absent, both of which offer less of a frisson than the departure of Galadriel or the birth of Danaerys Targaryen’s dragons. Second, because the very nature of a prequel deprives you of the political open-endedness that’s part of what makes fantasy’s gloss on the historical novel so effective: The HBO show was gripping precisely because we didn’t know how the political “game” in Game of Thrones came out in advance, but watching House of the Dragon will be more like watching a TV show about the real Wars of the Roses, in which no matter how the story twists and turns you know that the Tudors (or, in this case, Aegon III Targaryen) will be on the throne when all the fighting stops.
My suspicion, as someone who has read both The Silmarillion (abashed nerd voice: well, okay, I’m not saying I’ve read every word … okay, maybe I just read the appendices in Return of the King a few dozen times …) and Fire and Blood, is that these problems will loom larger in the Martin than the Tolkien adaptation. If Amazon is going back to the Downfall of Numenor for its prequel, it’s chosen another liminal moment in the Tolkien corpus, a great transformation in the order of his world that’s actually bigger in certain ways than the evanescence of elven magic at the end of Lord of the Rings. It’s a different kind of story, where disaster flows from elite hubris — among the elves who forge the rings of power and the Numenoreans who try to claim eternal life — rather than being averted by the grit of hobbits, and it has some characteristic prequel problems insofar as you know that its villain, Sauron the Deceiver, will be back for another round no matter what the heroes do. But there are the bones of a good fantasy epic in the story, if Amazon has found a team of writers who can make them live.
The great war of the Targaryens that’s apparently the basis for House of the Dragon, on the other hand, just strikes me as a little … boring? It’s set in a period when the Targaryens are just a big squabbling ruling family rather than violet-eyed weirdos in exile across the sea, when their dragons are relatively numerous and therefore a touch predictable — more a technological superweapon than a harbinger of magic’s strange return — and when the political stakes for Westeros are relatively low. Yes, the civil war in question sets in motion the decline of both the dragons and the dynasty, but for the Targaryens it’s a really slow decline, not a dramatic pivot point: The endgame is basically, then they ruled for another hundred-odd years but they were never quite so powerful as before. Kind of a letdown, if you ask me.
Honestly I found all of Martin’s Westeros pre-history, both in Fire and Blood and in A World of Ice and Fire, to be a bit of a slog, with way too much stasis in its political arrangements to be really interesting: The civil wars come and go, but the basic alignment of great houses endures for an implausible length of historical time. (The Lannisters and Starks have apparently ruled their domains for thousands of years, making the Hapsburgs look like pikers.) But the Targaryen family drama felt especially turgid, a soap opera populated by indistinguishable creeps with “ae” in their names, in which you can always skim a page or skip ahead because know that no matter how often sibling rivalries lead to mass murder and rebellion, the whole family drama has generations left to run.
Maybe with the right overripe script you could make this outline into an effective I, Claudius or Succession-style portrait of the Worst Family in the World. That’s the hope. But I’m more excited to visit Numenor than to go back to King’s Landing once again, even if I expect both trips will end in disappointment.