Game of Thrones translates better to the screen than Lord of the Rings


I read Game of Thrones back when it was a relatively nerdy thing to do (I’m not bragging; the geekiness of it at the time cancels out any hipster cred I could claim now) – back when I had to tell people that it was “fantasy, but also good”. So seeing the books translated into an HBO series (insert shout-out to the casting directors for being awesome) is pretty exciting, and seeing it done well is even more exciting.

During the (EDIT: second-to-last episode) of Season 2 – specifically, the siege scene – there was this shot of Stannis’ army lifting up ladders to the walls of King’s Landing, and one of my friends said that it looked like the Two Towers. Upon further thought, I realized that I liked the film representation of the King’s Landing siege – and the Game of Thrones books in general – better than I liked the Lord of the Rings adaptations. As the LotR movies were the most significant and noticeable film event in my life so far, this was a pretty strange realization. So I tried to figure out why I thought that Game of Thrones was doing a better job on screen.

I do love extravagant battle scenes, and the LotR movies delivers, but I always feel kind of jerked around by the battle scenes in LotR. I was watching The Two Towers and noticed how formulaic the Helm’s Deep battle sequence is. The tactics are interesting enough, but the camera just focuses on giving us series of tantalizing deaths to push my hopes one way or another – we’ll see a handful of individual “good team” deaths accompanied by tragic music, only to then be fed a series of orcs getting killed by archers to keep us hopeful and interested. Tactically, Helm’s Deep isn’t a very interesting battle – good team is losing/bad team is scary, Gandalf comes back with Eomer, good team is winning again.

EDIT: I have been informed that I am woefully underinformed, and this giant scary battering ram’s name is Grond and is NOT from the battle of Helm’s deep. I’m keeping this picture up, though.

In terms of effects and extravagance, the LotR team did an incredible job. The scenes are beautiful. But the use of repeated grisly deaths and cruelly interesting kills just to jerk around the viewers’ emotions started to feel like a cheap tactic.

A quote you wouldn’t hear in Lord of the Rings: “Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them!”

In Game of Thrones, however, I noticed the battle in the Season 2 finale was different. For one thing, there wasn’t a specific side to cheer for – I mean, everybody likes Tyrion and Sansa, but it probably wouldn’t be a terrible thing if Joffrey were kicked off the throne, and what’shisface’s (the Stag guy’s) bitterness is relateable, and not necessarily borne of some intransigent evil. The scene also depicted more of the tactics and the actual progression of the battle, I thought, than dragging the viewers along by alternately dashing and keeping up their hopes.

The whole story of Game of Thrones, I think, falls short of the story of LotR. Martin relies too much (like Ayn Rand in We the Living) on making us disappointed – true, the events are appropriately random and unexpected, but (is it ridiculous to say this?) random and unexpected for 1200 pages gets sort of predictable. Or at least, rhythmic. But the honesty of the characters and the anti-gloriousness of their predicaments makes it more suited to visual media than LotR. The broad, mythic scope of LotR made for beautiful movies that would never quite live up to the epicness of the books. In the end, even after all of the stunning shots of New Zealand, the story was too big to be sold.

In LotR, we know , essentially, that the good team is going to win. In Game of Thrones, while the Stark family is pretty unabashedly Good, the rest of the characters are up for grabs. Villanous actions in LotR are generally due to some inherent evil (orcs, Uruk-Hai, Sauron), but villainous actions in Game of Thrones are usually the product of a relateable motivation (love, fear, greed) and aren’t generally limited to specific characters. Game of Thrones is morally messier, and while LotR calls upon values like honor and steadfastness, the characters in Game of Thrones are constantly questioning the actual merits of those values

Questioning the merits of virtue
Jaqen: “A girl has no honor!” Arya: *shrug*

LotR is a myth. Grittiness of character is not its thing – it excercises a style of storytelling that requires suspension of disbelief and an appreciation value of behavioral archetypes. In LotR, Aragorn becomes king and is reunited with Eowyn – in Game of Thrones, Eddard Stark dies in the middle of the first book. LotR’s plots make for fabulous books, and the prose and the world Tolkien created is LotR’s real strength. Game of Thrones by no means compares to Tolkien’s prose, but it makes for interesting characters, engaging dialogue, and non-predictable battles. Because of this, Game of Thrones is way, way better for visual media.

In Game of Thrones, Robert says of killing people: “They never tell you how they all sh** them selves, They don’t put that part in the songs.” Lord of the Rings was the song, and Game of Thrones is showing us the parts the songs leave out. Each type of story is legitimate in its own right – but Game of Thrones seems to translate better to the screen.

5 responses to “Game of Thrones translates better to the screen than Lord of the Rings

  1. chrishartline

    Great post (although the siege scene is in the second to last episode of season 2).

  2. I think I agree with your general idea, that Game of Thrones translates better to film. But I do have to point out that Grond (the big scary battering ram) was used to break down the gates of Minas Tirith, and was never anywhere near Helm’s Deep. That doesn’t have much bearing on your points about the two works, but it was too painful a mistake for me to leave uncorrected.

    I have my own issues with Game of Thrones (salacious, vulgar content does the opposite of appealing to me), but again I agree that it has great merit as a kind of storytelling.

  3. Great post, although the giant scary battering ram is really named “Grond” and is from the battle of Minas Tirith. Grond! Grond! Grond! Grond!
    Now I for real have to read Game of Thrones…

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