Whose Story is it Anyway?

Ok.  So up at the wall Jon Snow is dealing with this election thing to decide who will be the new Lord Commander, cause the guy who was in charge before was killed at Craster’s and then Jon had to kill all those guys and get his wolf back.  Anyway, so there’s an election, and its between this one guy whose been there for like eighty years or something, and this other guy who was sort of in charge and was really mean to Jon Snow, and kept making sure everyone knew he was a bastard and hated him cause he knew Jon was a better fighter.  Just as they’re about to do the election, Samwell Tarly steps up and points out all the great things that Jon has done and all the other Night’s Watch guys cheer and agree so they add Jon’s name to the election.  When they finally do vote, it comes down to a tie between Jon and the mean guy who hates him, but it’s decided by the old blind guy that used to be a Targaryen prince or something and he votes for Jon so he becomes the new Lord Commander.  But, see now he has to deal with the fact that one of the people who thinks they’re the King, Stannis, is there, and he wants Jon to help him lead an army south to take back Winterfell, but Jon wants to stay at the wall.  And then there’s the Boltons who have moved into Winterfell, and in the book Ramsay, the son of the guy who killed Robb Stark, marries this girl who they disguise as Jon’s sister Arya, in order to create some sort of political claim to their ownership of Winterfell, but Arya is actually in Braavos learning to become an assassin.  But in the TV show they change that to Sansa to keep the actress in the show, cause the books haven’t gotten to that point.  So that’s why they’re changing all the plot-lines and stuff.  

The above is a paraphrased answer that I gave to someone yesterday who began our conversation with: “I’ve heard there’s a lot of changes between the books and the TV show, what’s a good example?”

Regrettably, for her, my explanation kept going for quite some time.

For those entirely ignorant of current popular culture, the television show Game of Thrones premiered the first episode of its fifth season on Sunday (or, for those who don’t mind pirating, the first four episodes, which were leaked online).  This season, as admitted by those producing and writing the series, differs more in content front the story-line in the books than the previous four seasons.  This means that a number of characters have been dropped, and that certain story-lines have been amended or altered, including the ‘Sansa’ details mentioned above.  This has, expectedly, raised the hackles of a number of fans, to the point that names like Lady Stoneheart and Coldhands have become signifiers of anger and rage-filled disappointment.

lady stone heartcoldhands

Here’s a good example: http://gotgifsandmusings.tumblr.com/post/115991793402/unabashed-book-snobbery-gots-10-worst

While not a devoted adherent to the idea that an adaptation must remain as accurate as possible to the source material, the conversations I’ve been having with friends and colleagues (including the illustrious Beth Singler, who quite helpfully pointed me in the direction of some of these sources), have indeed piqued my interests concerning the precarious notion of who gains ownership over stories, when those stories get told and re-told by different people in different ways.

This likewise brings me to a passage from Clifford Geertz’s Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author, that I think might make some sense of this issue:

But perhaps the most intense objection, coming from all quarters, and indeed rather general to intellectual life these days, is that concentrating our gaze on the ways in which knowledge claims are advanced undermines our capacity to take any of those claims seriously.  Somehow, attention to such matters as imagery, metaphor, phraseology, or voice is supposed to lead to a corrosive relativism in which everything is but a more or less clever expression of opinion.  Ethnography becomes, it is said, a mere game of words, as poems and novels are supposed to be.  Exposing how the thing is done is to suggest that, like the lady sawed in half, it isn’t done at all. (Geertz, Works and Lives, 2).

While Geertz’s argument here is pointed at the issues we might find ourselves confronted with were we to consider the ‘literary aspects’ of ethnographic construction (everything is fiction?), I think his statement also speaks to the issues some people are having with the choices being made by the creators of the TV show.

The show is an adaptation, which also means that it is an artifice of an artifice.  It’s the interpretation of two individuals designed for the purpose of presenting a story through an entirely different perspective.  Yet, this is not something unique to just the differences between the show and the books.  In fact, because each and every individual reading of Martin’s novels is in itself an adaptation, and since no two minds are mirrored images of each other, each time someone reads the texts (or watches the show), we get an innumerable number of adaptations.  This is demonstrated by my description above.  While in my mind I can see the episode, and remember the way the texts are designed, when I précis this into a description, I have adapted the story to suit my own story-telling purposes.

I would argue that this is like revealing the ‘magic’ of the magic trick involved in any sort of story-telling, from ethnography, to fiction, to the stories we tell each other about our day-to-day existence.  Seeing how the lady is sawed in half, or rather, seeing how the illusion makes it look as if she might be sawed in half, is the same as realising that all stories, by their inherent ‘artifice’ nature, are adaptations.  In this way, there is never, nor can there ever be, a genuine ‘truth,’ an original ‘source,’ or a ‘right’ way of telling a story.  This is perhaps even more apparent when a story is an adaptation of a story.

For these reasons, I would further argue that the adaptation provided by the TV show should be seen as nothing more than just another adaption, and therefore should not be understood as different from our individual readings of the novels.  The TV show is just another way of trying to tell Martin’s story, which is also just an adaptation of the story within his own mind.  While the TV show might look different than the novels, the novels likely look different than what’s in his mind, which is something we will never see.

This is a reminder.  It’s something that we can relate to when we consider the stories we hear from others about themselves, about others, the ones we tell about ourselves, and the ones we tell about them.  In a world where everything is fiction, or rather, where everything is artifice, the notion that an adaptation is telling a story incorrectly is rather moot.  Even when the ‘original’ author might agree.  In the end, all stories are adaptations, even when they are initially told.  Which also means that all stories, just like looking at the discourse that gives meaning to a word, rather than just defining it, are neither right, nor wrong, by the mere fact that all stories are nothing more than re-tellings of a story none of us will ever see.