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.

Especially Our Snipers

During our two years in Texas, the bumper sticker pictured above was one of the many sort of ‘stereotypical’ images we saw stuck on car bumpers or blown-up in large print along the highway.  These were little reminders that Texas was a very different sort of place than the Southern California we had grown up in.  In current retrospect, this is as equally true now that we’ve lived in Scotland for almost half a decade.  Seeing similar images recently also reminded me of a long-forgotten story.

Years ago, when I was still in my undergrad days, I took a course taught by the Chaplain of the University I was attending who despised bumper stickers like this.  They were not, as he would argue, just poorly worded propaganda, they were pragmatically one-sided as well.  Quite appropriately, he referred to the statements made on them as ‘bumper sticker arguments,’ opinions or beliefs tightened up into a few words for the sole purpose of making a proclamation about the person who fastened them.  These were not the sort of affirmations one makes in the company of colleagues or respected rivals.  These were not arguments made with intellectual debate in mind.  Rather, as he would tell us, these were the sorts of arguments that come from individuals who’s minds are already made up.  People who attach these things to their cars were announcing something.  These were the sorts of people who did not want to debate or discuss the content of the sticker, but would rather you know, simplistically, that this is what they believe.

Looking back, I would argue that this is only slightly true, mostly because while I agree that these sorts of statements do in fact represent the opinion of the individual who attaches them to their vehicle, I also believe they harbour a narrative quality as well.  That is, not only are they a summarised position, a guide-post signifying for the reader what the attacher believes about something, they are equally a way to isolate for that latter person a conceptual part of their identity.

In recent months, and in a similar manner, there has been a great deal of discussion and debate about one of the films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards.  american sniperSpecifically, it seems the discussion has been about the validity, or even ‘truth,’ behind the story of Chris Kyle’s experiences in Iraq and the United States between 2003 and 2013.  American Sniper tells the story of Kyle’s four tours in Iraq, touching briefly on his life leading up to his first deployment, his relationship with his wife, Taya, the reputation he gains as the most ‘lethal sniper in US history (160 confirmed kills out of 255 probable), as well as the hardships he suffers during his time in combat, and the emotional scars left after returning home.  It concludes, with a somber and subdued tone, with images of his memorial at Cowboy’s Stadium in Dallas, Texas.

Based on an autobiography that Kyle co-authored with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice, the film depicts him as a haunted, kyleyet determined ‘American patriot,’ portrayed quite remarkably by Bradley Cooper, who has equally been nominated for the Best Actor Oscar.  Directed by Clint Eastwood, the film takes a number of liberties from Kyle’s story so as to create a narrative not only told in distinct parts, but that clearly determines a dichotomy between protagonist and antagonist.  In the latter, a character called ‘Mustafa’ is entirely conjured in order to depict Kyle’s mirrored counterpart; an equally lethal sniper that haunts (and hunts) Kyle throughout his time in Iraq.

For these reasons, we might even argue that the film is a story of a story, an adaptation of an individual’s own adaptation of events based upon his own recollections.  This is, perhaps, where much of the controversy about this film seems to arise.  That is, since Kyle’s murder in 2013, and because films tend to transmute ‘true stories’ into mythologized tales, the facts tend to become somewhat blurred.  For instance, and what seem to be the focus of much of the debate about him, there are three specific stories that seem to have invoked the most criticism:

  1. Kyle shot and killed two men attempting to steal his truck in 2009 and was excused of all charges (a police report was not even filed) because of an intervention by the Department of Defence.
  2. Kyle shot and killed ‘at least 30’ armed looters from the top of the Super Dome in New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina.
  3. After a verbal altercation in a bar in San Diego, Kyle punched and ‘knocked out’ former Minnesotta Governor, and fellow Navy Seal, Jesse Ventura.

For more detail on these stories, see the article on Kyle on Snopes.com, and the well-written piece for the New Yorker, “In the Crosshairs,” by Nicholas Schmidle.  Or, at this point, and thanks to the film’s popularity, simply google Kyle’s name.  Something will come up.

While this controversy is indeed something worth discussing, and while Kyle’s life is indeed an interesting story, it is not the focus of this post.  Rather, my intentions herein are about the narrative of Kyle’s story, and how we so easily seem to shift these sorts of stories into concepts, overlooking, or even pragmatically ignoring, facts for the sake of legend.

Kyle’s story, or at least the one re-imagined in Eastwood’s film, works as a narrative concept for individuals on both sides of the discussion.  On one end, he depicts a national hero, a patriot who willingly gave his life for his country, protected his fellow troops, defeated the enemy at all costs, and who died trying to assist his fellow soldiers suffering from the physical and emotional scars left by the tragedy of war.  On the other, he is an example of violence begetting violence, a man obsessed with proving his masculinity, who equally depicts the religious zealotry exemplified by the war in Iraq.  But again, I would argue that separating his character into these two depictions once again overlooks the fact that his story is merely a narrative interpretation, one narrative interpretation, of a single point in history.  Whether it is true or false, it is a narrative, a story built with and from discourse.  Even when mythologized, even when we find ourselves leaning in either direction between promotion and criticism, his story is just a story.  His narrative is just a narrative.  It is, in each of these interpretations, a conceptual representation, both bumper-stickered and debatable.

Perhaps a better way of making this argument comes from another of Clint Eastwood’s films about war.  The leading narrative in Flags of Our Fathers tells the story about how the iconic image of six US soldiers raising a flag on Mt. Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima was in fact a construction, or if nothing else, a mythologized image used for the advantage of boosting stateside morale.  A fiction in the sense that it depicts a second raising, the film chronicles how the image was used by the US Government and promoted by three of the surviving soldiers captured within.  No more than three minutes into the film Col. Dave Severance (played by Harve Presnell) makes the following statement:

What we see and do in war, the cruelty, is unbelievable.  But somehow we gotta make some sense of it.  To do that, we need an easy-to-understand truth.  And damn few words.  And if you can get a picture … now, the right picture can win or lose a war.  

iwo jima

Whether or not there is any sort of truth to the myth, whether the facts depict a truth that we might quantify in any sort of ‘real’ sense, we need narratives.  Even if they present material that for some of us is outrageously fictional, narratives are just as essential to the individuals who use them to define themselves, as they are for us in our own means of self-definition via the ways we interpret them.

In this way, when we see ‘bumper sticker arguments,’ perhaps the better response is not an immediate reaction, such as the Chaplain above seemed to have promoted.  Rather, when we see these sorts of images, perhaps we might be better off simply understanding that they represent a narrative, a means with which certain individuals define themselves, either for or against the statements made.  Whether we want to simply believe them as true, research the facts within, or work to disprove them, they will always be stories.  After all, Chris Kyle now lives solely in legend, but only because he now exists solely as a character within a story; a fate that awaits us all in time.  For pragmatic reasons, then, the stories others tell, the stories we tell about them, and the stories we tell of ourselves, work as identifiers, assisting us in making sense of life in our determined search for meaningful fictions.