Today, I’m going to take a look at the 2003 big screen attempt at adapting Marvel’s green giant, Hulk.
The plot of Hulk is summarized on IMDb as follows:
Bruce Banner, a genetics researcher with a tragic past, suffers an accident that causes him to transform into a raging green monster when he gets angry.
The screenplay for Hulk was written by Michael France (Cliffhanger, Fantastic Four, The Punisher), John Turman (Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer), and James Schamus (The Ice Storm).
The character of Hulk was created by one of the most influential duos of comic book creators of all time – Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Hulk initially debuted in The Incredible Hulk #1 in May of 1962, and was intended as a re-envisioning of stories like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein.
Hulk was directed by Ang Lee, who is known for such films as Life of Pi, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Brokeback Mountain.
The cast of Hulk includes Eric Bana (Munich, Troy, Chopper, Star Trek), Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind, Requiem For A Dream, Creation, The Rocketeer, Noah), Sam Elliott (Road House, Ghost Rider, The Big Lebowski, Justified, Fatal Beauty, We Were Soldiers), Josh Lucas (American Psycho, Poseidon, A Beautiful Mind), and Nick Nolte (Mother Night, Cape Fear, 48 Hours, Warrior, Blue Chips, Luck).
The cinematographer for Hulk was Frederick Elmes, who shot the David Lynch movies Blue Velvet, Eraserhead, and Wild at Heart, as well as films like Moonwalker and Horns.
The editor for the film was Tim Squyres, who also cut the films Life of Pi, Gosford Park, Winter’s Tale, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The music for Hulk was composed by Danny Elfman, one of the most prolific currently-working film scorers. His credits include The Simpsons, Batman, Spider-Man, Darkman, The Frighteners, Edward Scissorhands, Men In Black, and countless others.
The production history on Hulk goes all the way back to the 1990s, though the film had to wait until technology made it feasible before moving significantly forward. At one point, there was even a plan to have Hulk be portrayed by animatronics.
Hulk was given a 30-second commercial during Super Bowl XXXVII as part of its promotion, which cost the studio $2.1 million on its own.
Edward Norton, who would later play the character of Bruce Banner in a future film adaptation, was offered the lead role in Hulk. He turned it down, reportedly due to issues he had with the screenplay.
Upon its release, Hulk got a mixed reception. Currently, it holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 62% from critics and 29% from audiences, alongside an IMDb user rating of 5.7/10. Financially, it opened strong at the box office, but rapidly lost steam in following weeks, totaling out with lifetime theatrical gross of a lukewarm $245 million on a $137 million budget.
For the sake of full disclosure, I’ve been planning a post on this movie for years. I’ve re-watched it at least three times since I started the blog, and every time I have had different thoughts on it, and never wound up finishing the post. This is a movie that occupies a weird space in comic book movie history, and there are some interesting analyses of it out there that are worth checking out.
Probably the biggest boon to the movie is one of those “egomaniacs” – Nick Nolte’s portrayal of David Banner. Nick Nolte is, in my opinion, one of the most underappreciated actors out there, probably due to his bizarre personality and behavior. He puts in a performance here that is pitch-perfect for what was needed of him – an obsessed, deranged, abusive father who values his scientific work over the people around him. At its core, this is a movie about relationships and trauma, and Nolte’s character is the darkest and most volatile source of both for Bruce Banner. Without Nolte’s performance, there would be no chance for this film to hold together.
All of that said, there are definitely problems with this movie. Probably the most often derided element of the film is its computer effects work, which is wildly inconsistent. Some sequences are pretty astounding for being 15 years old, whereas others (like the infamous dog battle) just look embarrassing now. It is worth pointing out, however, that even in the latest Avengers movies, portrayals of Hulk vary in quality quite a bit.
I tend to think of Hulk as being what a comic book movie might look like in a parallel universe. Elements like the experimental editing effects are interesting, in that they definitely mimic the comic book form. In intention, this creative decision was not unlike Whedon’s “hero shots” from his Avengers movies – an earnest attempt to adapt a visual signature from one medium into another. Ultimately, the perception from audiences is what made the difference: audiences like Whedon’s take, and didn’t go for Lee’s.
Something else that Lee captures from comics that most adaptations forego is the earnest melodrama that seeps from the pages of so many books. It is easy to call Lee’s Hulk bland and boring, and more talking heads than action – but that is pretty accurate to a lot of comic books. People forget about the quantity of text bubbles in a lot of comics – there’s a lot of ruminating, plotting, and introspecting in a whole lot of Marvel sources – something that mostly hasn’t translated to their adaptations, though probably for good reason.
The biggest problem with Hulk, in my mind, is pacing. This movie is too long, too slow, and feels even longer and slower than it actually is. Every time I see this movie, I think the ending is coming far sooner than it actually does – this is because the waveform of the movie is all off. Typically, a movie builds up to a climax, and then resolves. It is a pretty simple visualization:
Ang Lee, perhaps due to a pioneering spirit or a bad working relationship with his editor, failed to conform to this structure at all with Hulk. For folks who have seen this film, here’s an experiment – what is the climax of this movie?
If you had asked me before this latest re-watch, I would have said the pursuit of Hulk through the desert and into the city was the climax. It is a visually compelling sequence with high stakes and a lot of emotion. It may resolve with a whimper, but it felt like a pretty distinct peak in the action to me – afterwards, the film slows down again, and seems to be moving into falling action. Instead, there is another huge battle, at the point where I felt like the movie should be ending. Ultimately, there’s isn’t really any falling action, outside of a concluding scene that primarily takes place through a phone call.
When movies forgo the traditional structure, it take a skilled hand to keep an audience engaged. We are Pavlovian creatures when it comes to movies – we’ve been conditioned to subconsciously understand the story structured of the film. In a way, we act as a metronome when we watch movies. If the film doesn’t keep pace with the beat of our expectations, then we get bored and disinterested, unless it goes above and beyond to hook us in. Lee makes the mistake of forgoing the traditional structure without using anything as a hook, the there is a sense of arrhythmia to the screenplay. That’s why this movie feels even longer and duller than it actually is: it ain’t got no rhythm.
It is worth noting that this kind of failed experimentation is a real risk inherent to auteur film-making with comic book properties, or any kind of previously established intellectual property. Sometimes, the director’s vision resonates wonderfully with audiences, and you’ll get a Guardians of the Galaxy or a Black Panther. Other times, you are bound to get an experimental bore of a film with more ambition that sense. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the response to Hulk is part of why Marvel has held the creative vision of its films so close to the chest for so long. It is high-risk, high-reward. However, now that audiences have caught on to some of the monotone elements of Marvel movies, the studio has started letting auteurs do their thing, like Coogler, Gunn, and Waititi. The same goes for Fox and James Mangold, as well as the Deadpool team.
On the whole, Hulk is kind of fascinating on an academic level – this is what happens when an auteur takes a comic book movie off the reservation and off the established rails. That said, this movie isn’t fun or engaging in the slightest. I’m still not sure if this quite qualifies as a bad movie or not, but it certainly isn’t an effective one.
Today, I’m going to take a look at the Brian Bosworth biker movie, Stone Cold.
The plot of Stone Cold is summarized on IMDb as follows:
A tough Alabama cop is blackmailed by the FBI into going undercover in a violent Mississippi biker gang.
Stone Cold was directed by Craig Baxley, a veteran stuntman who also directed Action Jackson, I Come In Peace, Left Behind III, and numerous episodes of The A-Team.
The screenplay for Stone Cold was written by Walter Doniger, a long-time writer and director with listed credits going back to 1941, including hundreds of episodes of Peyton Place, and numerous episodes of Kung Fu.
The cast of Stone Cold is led by Brian Bosworth, a contemporaneous football star and public personality from the University of Oklahoma Sooners and Seattle Seahawks. The rest of the cast includes noted character actors Lance Henriksen (Aliens, Hard Target, The Terminator, Pumpkinhead, Near Dark, Super Mario Bros.) and William Forsythe (The Rock, Raising Arizona, Virtuosity, Out For Justice, The Substitute).
The cinematographer for the film was Alexander Gruszynski, whose other credits include The Craft, Tremors, Hamlet 2, and a number of Tyler Perry’s Madea films.
Three editors were credited for work on Stone Cold: Edward A. Warschilka (Escape From LA, The Running Man, Vampires, In The Mouth Of Madness, Big Trouble In Little China, Child’s Play 3), Mark Helfrich (RIPD, Season of the Witch, Red Dragon, Action Jackson, Predator, Revenge of the Ninja), and Larry Bock (How High, Critters, The Mighty Ducks, Alligator, Final Justice, Joysticks).
The music for Stone Cold was composed by Sylvester Levay, who also provided music for Cobra, Hot Shots!, Mannequin, and the television show Airwolf. Levay even won a Grammy in 1975 for writing the pop song “Fly Robin Fly.”
Interestingly, the original director for the project was Bruce Malmuth (Hard To Kill, Nighthawks, Pentathlon), but he was fired shortly into filming and replaced by Craig Baxley. Due to Baxley’s vision for the film differing significantly from Malmuth’s, most of what had already been filmed was scrapped. Later, the film would go through extensive cutting again in order to avoid an NC-17 rating from the MPAA.
Stone Cold was primarily filmed on location for the film’s plot along the Gulf Coast, in cities like Mobile, AL, Bay St. Louis, MS, and Pensacola, FL, with some filming also taking place in Arkansas.
The IMDb page for Stone Cold features one of the best pieces of film trivia I’ve come across. Not only is it thorough, accurate, and esoteric, but it about one of the most minor details shown in the film:
The meal Brian Bosworth makes for his Nile monitor (the big lizard) is not at all suitable for that animal. Reptiles cannot digest citrus fruit (orange juice) or dairy/chocolate (snickers bars). Technically the potatoes & bananas wouldn’t be bad for the monitor but fried food (the potato chips) wouldn’t be good for it just like the candy bar but potatoes and bananas are not part of the animals diet either. Nile monitors are carnivores and only the eggs would have been appropriate for it. People who keep Nile Monitors as pets would be feeding it pre-killed mice/rats, rabbits, baby chickens, parts of full grown chickens, ground turkey, ground beef, fish and if they keep other animals they might even feed them ones that died of natural causes as well.
Stone Cold proved to be a significant financial failure upon release, taking in only $9 million on an estimated production budget of $25 million. Critically, it didn’t fare much better, though audiences have begun to appreciate it for its cheesiness. Currently, Stone Cold holds an IMDb user rating of 5.9/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 25% from critics and 63% from audiences.
To begin with, Stone Cold is nothing if not delightfully over the top. The explosions, bike chases, stunts, and costuming are all top-grade cheese, and make for a delightfully greasy early-90s action film. It may not be quality cinema by any means, but it is a hell of a time capsule back to a bygone era of atrocious fashions.
As far as the performances go, for a non-actor athlete, Bosworth isn’t too bad here. Compared to Michael Jordan or Shaq, he is a natural on the screen. However, as is pointed out in the Time Out review of the film, Lance Henriksen “steals the movie from under Bosworth’s nose.” Not only is Henriksen clearly having fun with this role, but they is maybe the most lively he has ever been on screen. His usual characters are cold, stark, or steely – this turn as a grinning, murderous maniac is a quite welcome change. Apparently, he even wrote all of his own lines for the part, which probably made the performance all the more organic.
There honestly isn’t much more to say about Stone Cold – you know what you are getting here. I personally think it is a good time, particularly if you dig up the Rifftrax-enhanced version of the film. I also appreciate some of the “Redneck Riviera” filming locations, which doesn’t pop up on screen terribly often. If you are looking for a bad movie for a party with some casual folks, this isn’t a bad pick.
Today, I’m going to look at the 1997 horror film, Wishmaster.
The plot of Wishmaster is summarized on IMDb as follows:
A demonic djinn attempts to grant its owner three wishes, which will allow him to summon his brethren to Earth.
The film’s screenplay was written by Peter Atkins, who was also responsible for the horror films Hellraiser II and Hellraiser III.
Wishmaster was directed by Robert Kurtzman, an accomplished special effects artist who has won awards for his work on movies like Late Phases and Vampires. His directorial credits, which are far fewer than his effects credits, include The Demolitionist and The Rage.
The cast of Wishmaster includes Tammy Lauren (The Young & The Restless), Andrew Divoff (Air Force One), Robert Englund (A Nightmare On Elm Street), Chris Lemmon (Thunder In Paradise), Wendy Benson-Landes (Burlesque), Jenny O’Hara (Devil, Mystic River), Kane Hodder (Friday the 13th Part VII, Friday the 13th Part VIII, Jason X), George “Buck” Flower (The Fog, They Live, Starman), and Tony Todd (Candyman, The Crow).
The editor for the film was David Handman, whose other credits include Jason X, DeepStar Six, and Jason Goes To Hell. The cinematographer for Wishmaster was another horror veteran, Jacques Haitkin, who shot such films as Shocker, Maniac Cop 3, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Evolver, and A Nightmare On Elm Street 2.
The music for Wishmaster was provided by yet another horror stalwart – Harry Manfredini. His credits famously include Friday the 13th, House, DeepStar Six, House II, Jason X, A Talking Cat!?!, and Swamp Thing.
The effects for the film were provided by one of greatest horror effects teams of all time: Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger, and director Robert Kurtzman. The trio have contributed to such films as In The Mouth of Madness, From Dusk Til Dawn, Scream, Army of Darkness, Night of the Creeps, Predator, Dr. Giggles, From Beyond, Day of the Dead, and The Mist, as well as television shows like The Walking Dead and Fear The Walking Dead.
The executive producer for Wishmaster was late horror icon Wes Craven, who was responsible for horror classics like Last House On The Left, Scream, and A Nightmare On Elm Street.
Wishmaster was made on a $5 million budget, on which it brought in $15.7 million in its domestic theatrical run. Critically, the film currently holds a 5.8/10 user rating on IMDb, and Rotten Tomatoes scores of 24% from critics and 38% from audiences. Despite not making a huge financial or critical splash, Wishmaster still wound up being a franchise, with a total of three sequels made in subsequent years.
Wishmaster has one of the most essential elements for a b-level horror franchise: a fun, hammy villain. Even better, it also benefits from an interesting gimmick – giving a classic Faustian, deal-with-the-devil concept the horror flick treatment. For both of these reasons, I’ve seen Wishmaster often compared with Leprechaun. While I think Leprechaun does a better job of going into the realm of the absurd with its many sequels, I think the Wishmaster character strikes a more effective balance of menace and humor. Both, however, are mostly delightful b-level horror romps.
Where Wishmaster is particularly weak is in its cast beyond the titular monster. Despite the presence of a handful of horror icons, they are relegated almost entirely to glorified cameos, leaving the brunt of the acting load to a less-than-stellar central cast. Leading the pack is Tammy Lauren, who delivers all of her lines with the cadence and tone of a daytime soap opera player, which isn’t what you want from a horror lead.
Speaking of the cast, it seems bizarre to me that this production would pull together so many horror standbys, and under utilize almost all of them. If this had been pulled off like the “dream team” that it could have been, I can’t help but think that this could have the makings for a horror classic.
One aspect that Wishmaster did not skimp out on were the effects, which makes sense given Kurtzman’s background. The practical effects in particular are pretty stellar when they are at their weirdest, which is a delightful amount of the time. That said, there are some moments of digital effects that have aged very poorly.
While Wishmaster on the whole isn’t much, it is decent enough as a formulaic popcorn horror film. If it had been made a few years earlier, though, I think it would have suited audiences better. Particularly in the wake of Scream, audiences were a bit too knowledgeable and burned out on the old conventions of the genre, which were worn thin by over a decade of repetitive horror franchise flicks. All of that said, I think this is a fun flick to go back to now. Horror fans at least should give it a spin if they haven’t already.
Howdy, loyal followers! Today’s entry in Ivy On Celluloid is going to be a little different. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking at the 2018 Con of Thrones, the largest fan-run Game of Thrones convention. My topic was highly related to the work I’ve been doing here: analyzing fictional portrayals of higher education. Below is a loose adaptation of the presentation I gave there, which took a look at the Order of the Maesters from Game of Thrones and A Song Of Ice and Fire.
Maesters and Mortarboards: Connections between Education in Westeros and Real World History
Let’s start with some introductions. I’m Gordon Maples- I have a BA in History, an in-progress MEd in Higher Education, and a pretty low-traffic film blog which you are currently reading. In fact, if you are reading this, there’s probably a 50% chance that you are a spam bot. If so, I appreciate your long-time support.
One of the things I have been writing about a lot recently is the intersection of my interests – film, history, and higher education. My Ivy On Celluloid series is dedicated to analyzing the depictions of higher education on film, and trying to dig up historical bases for those portrayals.
This brings me to Game of Thrones: while I was doing research for Ivy On Celluloid, my SO was watching through Game of Thrones for the first time. As I was watching along with her, I couldn’t help but think about the mysterious Order of the Maesters. While it isn’t a perfect 1-1 comparison, the Maesters are the equivalent to a medieval education institution in Westeros. But, how far does it diverge from its real world counterparts, both past and present?
Before I go any further, it is worth throwing a content notice on this: things are doing to get a bit dark towards the end of this post, as I get into the history of unethical experimentation and violence in research. Also, there is a non-zero chance that this is going to get super boring. Right about the time I get to the organization charts, you’ll be wishing you had your time back.
First off, let’s get some Maesters 101 out of the way – here’s a Game of Thrones Season 1 DVD extra that can get you up to speed:
Now that you have the basics, let’s look at the origins of this order, according to the Wiki of Ice and Fire:
Most accounts credit [the] foundation [of The Citadel] to Prince Peremore the Twisted…Peremore invited numerous scholars, including wise men, teachers, priests, healers, singers, wizards, alchemists, and sorcerors, to Oldtown. After Peremore’s death, his brother, King Urrigon, granted land alongside the Honeywine to “Peremore’s pets”, who developed the tract into the maesters’ Citadel.
So, basically, a long time ago, a Prince of the Hightowers got a bunch of dorks together to hang out and think about stuff in Oldtown. Then, after he died, the King granted the order some land, on which they built the Citadel. I will point out the variety of the dorks, though: the fact that wizards, alchemists, sorcerers, and priests were involved is really fascinating, as I’ll get into later.
Before I get back to the the origins of the order, let’s take a second to talk about the nomenclature of the institutional hierarchy. Doesn’t that sound neat? Here we go!
When a student comes to the Citadel, they immediately become a Novice, until such time as they prove their proficiency in a field to the satisfaction of the preeminent expert in that field (the Archmaester). At that time, they receive a chain link of a metal corresponding to their field of study (I’ll get more into curriculum later).
Once they have a chain link, the student becomes an Acolyte. Until they collect enough chain links to make a full chain (a distinction that isn’t exactly made clear), they remain an Acolyte indefinitely. Apparently, a good number of students at the Citadel never move beyond this level, either for lack of ability or lack of interest. Oberyn Martell, for example, is technically an Acolyte, because he earned a link for mastering poisons. However, he never intended to complete his chain to become a Maester.
Should an Acolyte earn (x) number of links, they are made to go through a ritual, in which they are tasked with lighting a glass candle over the course of a night in an empty room. This task, however, is not meant to be completed (more on this later). Then, they take a vow of celibacy and service to the realm, and formally become a Maester. They are assigned to a paying House, and serve the lord of the keep to which they are assigned. At the time of the events of Game of Thrones, there are 300 Maesters.
If a Maester proves to be the preeminent expert in a field of study, they can be appointed to the title of Archmaester. Archmaesters are located at the Citadel, and teach classes in their specialty to Acolytes and Novices, and also serve in the Conclave – the governing body of the Citadel and the Order of the Maesters, which selects the Grand Maester and determines the changes of the seasons. At the time of the events of Game of Thrones, there are 21 Archmaesters.
Archmaesters, are, for the record, my favorite group of people in Game of Thrones. They basically try to do as little bureaucratic work as possible, even with their very limited responsibilities as a Conclave. The perfect example of this is the selection of the Seneschal – the executive officer of the Conclave. In an annual ceremony, the Archmaesters randomly draw stones in a sort of lottery election. The winner/loser in this lottery has to be the Seneschal, and actually do bureaucratic work for a year. They so dislike responsibility and power, that they basically draw straws for it. The loser becomes the most powerful Maester for a year. This is counter to every other system of power and thought in Westeros.
The last Maester-related title is the Grand Maester. When I first read ASOIAF, I assumed the Grand Maester was pretty powerful guy. Like, he must be the top Maester, right? He works directly for the King! As it so happens, the Grand Maester has no power over the other Maesters. He is essentially a permanent emissary assigned by the Conclave to have the King’s ear. Even better, the Conclave has a rich history of picking the oldest and least effectual dude available to assign to King’s Landing. Prior to the appointment of Pycelle to Grand Maester, they had appointed three consecutive octogenarians, all of whom died in the service of the same King. King Aegon V had to specifically request that they stop shipping him old/dying guys to sit on his council, after which they sent him the forty-something Pycelle, who has since become yet another octogenarian.
Now that we’ve dug into the bureaucracy and titles of the Maesters, let’s look at real life for a second. If you thought Westeros was complicated, they ain’t got nothing on us.
To the best I can gather, a Novice is a pretty close parallel to an undergraduate student, who is yet to earn a degree. An Acolyte covers everything from a graduate student (who has earned an undergrad degree) to potentially an Assistant Professor. This is because the tenure process, which stands between the titles of Assistant and Associate, is a pretty close parallel to the oath taken by the Maester’s, and their permanent assignment to a keep. It isn’t a perfect 1-1, but it is pretty close. An Archmaester is probably close to a Full Professor, Academic Dean, or Department Chair, as these titles are all reserved for experts in their fields, and typically have a degree of bureaucratic responsibility. The Seneschal, for lack of a better equivalent, is pretty close to a Vice President/Provost or a President of a University.
To visualize all of this, let’s compare organization charts! Woo!
Here is the organization chart of Southern Methodist University, a roughly 12,000 student institution in Dallas, TX. It is on the small side of a large University – Ohio State University, for example, is five times the size of SMU.
Gee, that’s probably pretty hard to read, huh? That’s because THERE’S A WHOLE BUNCH OF NAMES ON THERE. Modern Universities are massive institutions, with tons of people making up the cogs and gears. Here’s something even better: the chart above only covers the Academic Affairs branch of SMU’s chart: which is only a fraction of the total organization. Even better, this chart only goes as far down as the Dean level – Department Chairs are totally omitted.
For the sake of comparison, here is my improvised organization chart for the Maesters:
First off, you can see the 300 total Maesters at the bottom. Above that are the 21 Archmaesters making up the Conclave. One of the Archmaesters, denoted by a frowny face, is the unlucky one having to do actual work as the Seneschal. Off to the side is the Grand Maester, denoted by a red box emblazoned with the word “OLD.” Unlike the SMU chart, this is the entire organization. There are, essentially, only two tiers of power (unless you count the Seneschal on his own). It is a pretty simple organization structure, that is very easy to explain. It even fits in a single image, without leaving anyone out! It turns out that the Maesters’ disdain of bureaucracy has created a pretty lean system.
On to the next topic, let’s talk about Church! Remember when I mentioned the collection of dorks who made up the original Maesters? One of those dork categories was “priests.” While the Order of the Maesters is not explicitly a religious order, this is a bit of a nod to one of their closest real life counterparts – the monastic schools of the medieval age.
Here is a quick excerpt I dug up, which talks about the role of the monastic schools in education in the medieval age:
Through the mid-eleventh century, monastic schools [were] the most stable force in education…much of the schools’ curriculum focused on teaching them to read and write Latin, and preparing them to join the ranks of the church…These monasteries [became] great repositories of knowledge, in that many of the books of the day were copied by hand in monastic scriptoria and stored in their libraries.
-“Medieval Education and the Role of the Church.” Arts and Humanities Through the Eras, edited by Edward I. Bleiberg, et al., vol. 3: Medieval Europe 814-1450, Gale, 2005, pp. 342-345. Gale Virtual Reference Library,
If some of that reminds you of anything, it should. The Citadel library is definitely inspired by the libraries of monastic schools, and the curriculum of the Maesters training is almost all focused on training more Maesters.
You don’t have to look far to see more quasi-religious elements of the Maesters. I mean, why else would they require celibacy? I see this as a pretty clear nod to their real life origins. Even their Conclave is based on Catholic bureaucracy. Likewise, their aesthetics are pretty clearly monk-ish in nature.
In the world of ice and fire, GRRM essentially decided to split the real life institution of the Church into two independent parts: the Faith of the Seven, and the Order of the Maesters. And, honestly, it kind of makes sense. It was around this age in reality that the experts and scholars from the monastic schools split off into their own institutions – early Universities, like the University of Paris. As you might recall, the Maesters were granted land and recognition by the crown – in reality, the orders had to organize themselves into guilds, and then form universities on their own.
All right, let’s get on to some symbolism! When you think symbols of academia, you probably picture a few different things. Maybe a diploma? One of those funny hats (a mortarboard)? A tassel? If you are Finnish, you might picture a sword and top hat! There are definitely a few different ones out there.
Regardless of what you associate with academia in the real world, the Maesters absolutely have reality beat. On top of their iconic chains – the physical embodiment of their mastered arts – Archmaesters also get a ring, rod, and facemask forged of the metal of their specialty. Below, you can see a depiction of Archmaester Ebrose in full regalia. Because his subject is medicine, he is adorned with silver. Awesome.
Speaking of chains and metals, let’s get into the curriculum of the Maesters. As I mentioned, the chain is the physical embodiment of a Maester’s completed curriculum – the metals of the links indicate what they have learned. In the real world, the closest thing to a chain is a transcript, which isn’t nearly as dramatic or visually compelling. It makes it much harder for everyone to know how many degrees / much debt you have.
The curriculum of the Maesters is intriguing, particularly in how it contrasts to the history of education in reality. The subjects that we know are taught in the Citadel include medicine, astronomy (nautical navigation), warcraft, poisons, higher mysteries, math and economics, ravenry, history, herblore, and castle-building, each of which have their own metals assigned to them. However, this is not exhaustive. Again, we know there are 21 Archmaesters, each with a specialty. However, there may be more than 1 Archmaester per subject – that detail has never been clarified.
This contrasts pretty starkly with reality. For a very long time, education curriculum was limited to the trivium – grammar, logic, and rhetoric – and the quadrivium – arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. For the most part, these subjects were meant to provide a general, rounded education. However, in time, many became frustrated that colleges weren’t preparing people practical, career-based knowledge. In the United States, populist pressure for technical and agricultural education eventually led to the formation of A&M colleges in the late 1800s, which focused on practical education that readied students for specific careers. The purpose of education continues to be debated today, with people deriding and/or defending the merits and demerits of liberal arts and/or technical college ad nauseum. However, the Maesters managed to just skip over the conflict entirely. It didn’t take a cultural revolution to get them to teach practical knowledge alongside a traditional curriculum – they just sort of did it organically.
Now, I want to touch on one of my favorite Maester-related topics – scholasticism and the supernatural. To set this up, I want to show a clip of a conversation between Maester Luwin and Bran Stark. Note the way Luwin talks about the supernatural and magic.
This is representative of how the Maesters regard magic as a whole – they not only don’t give it credence, but they actively discourage research into it, and treat it explicitly like fantasy. While there is an Archmaester of the higher mysteries, very few students study it, and those who do are siphoned of their enthusiasm for it. Luwin is a good example of this – as a young man, he dreamed of magic, but his studies dispelled him of his fantastic notions.
But, you might be curious – why do the Maesters dismiss magic? This is because they have a basis in the logic of scholasticism – the method of thought that gave rise to the scientific method, and modern scientific thought and reasoning.
Scholasticism was…practiced in medieval schools. [It uses] techniques of Aristotelian logical inquiry to link Christian revelation, church doctrine, and the mysteries of the natural universe in a deeper and more reasonable understanding …The scholastics drew upon…logical analysis…establishing a common method of inquiry…and attempting to reason their way to a logical conclusion.
“Medieval Education and the Role of the Church.” Arts and Humanities Through the Eras, edited by Edward I. Bleiberg, et al., vol. 3: Medieval Europe 814-1450, Gale, 2005, pp. 342-345. Gale Virtual Reference Library,
We are led to believe that magic and the supernatural, as it exists in ASOIAF, does not have a basis in logic, and is therefore beyond the scope of scholasticism. This is true for reality as well – the academy is very focused on the observable, material, and real. If you want to put that to the test, ask a field biologist at random about Sasquatch, or any given Astrophysicist about alien abduction stories. The difference between reality and ASOIAF is that, in Martin’s world, magic was only dormant, not non-existent. Beyond this analysis, this just good world-building – the non-magical Westeros we are introduced to is more believable and tangible, and characters start exactly as skeptical as we are of the old stories and legends that seem beyond belief.
However, this disdain for the supernatural leads us to one of my favorite tinfoil-hat theories from ASOIAF. I’m going to let AltShiftX describe Marwyn the Mage and the basis for what is known as The Grand Maester Conspiracy.
Remember how I said that I love the Archmaesters? Well, Marwyn is my favorite of the lot. My take on the Grand Maester Conspiracy that he proposes is that there is nothing to substantiate it. Personally, I think he was just messing with Sam, the newest Novice at the Citadel, as he was on the way out of town. Keep in mind, the conversation happens as soon as the two are introduced. Basically…
Sam: Hi! I’m Sam!
Marwyn: We killed the dragons, Sam. The Maesters intend to destroy magic, Sam. Sam, they are after me, and I am under suspicion. Sam, I must go now. Goodbye, Sam!
I just can’t wrap my wind around how else to take this interaction. This is a strange old man trying to rattle the rookie, and I absolutely love him for it.
In any case, suspicion of the Maesters is not unique to Marwyn’s crackpottery. The common folk, for good reason, aren’t particularly fond of the Maesters. They have a bit of a reputation, as the servants of high houses, of not much caring for commoners, particularly when it comes to medical care. Even many highborn folks are suspicious of them, due to their perceived concealment of their true identities.
I dare not even trust my maester…[they] are supposed to put aside old loyalties when they don their chains, but I cannot forget that [Maester} Theomore was born a Lannister of Lannisport!”
Wyman Manderly, Davos IV, ADWD
Likewise, the Maesters having total control of communications has led many to suspect that they manipulate information to their own ends, as best serves their agenda.
The Maesters read and write our letters, even for such lords as cannot read themselves, and who can say for a certainty that they are not twisting the words for their own ends?
Barbrey Dustin, The Prince of Winterfell, ADWD
This is not unlike a lot of populist and right-wing criticisms of higher education today. It isn’t uncommon to hear allegations that higher ed institutions brainwash students, or have a liberal agenda, or that they don’t teach real or accurate information. So, the Maesters deal with a pretty similar issue of public suspicion here.
However, the Maesters aren’t quite as elitist as they may initially sound. While they are definitely sexist and have a preference for high-born students, they don’t turn away common folks who wish to pursue knowledge.
Boys and young men from all over Westeros come to study, learn, and forge their chains at the Citadel. There is no age requirement, and despite the prejudice of the archmaesters to status of birth, males of every social status are allowed to forge their chain. As such, baseborns, bastards,younger children of lords, and even royalty can study together at the Citadel.
A Wiki of Ice and Fire, Maesters.
For a society that is so dramatically feudal and divided by class, the Maesters allowing commoners access to education is pretty unexpected. It also makes for an interesting comparison with reality:
In antiquity, education…was implicated in the structures of power, and specifically in training the rulers to rule and the ruled to be ruled. It was a largely exclusive process, and birth and class, rather than ability…were the operative criteria for determining who would be given training and knowledge. It created the empowered as empowered, the subjects as subjects.
Too, Y. L. (2001). Education in Greek and Roman Antiquity. Leiden: Brill.
Even today, education institutions are immensely elitist. Increasing access to quality education for women, racial minorities, and those of lower economic means is a major research focus and popular issue in education today. A huge part of that, however, is due to the cost of education, which easily stretches into the tens of thousands for a huge number of students seeking higher education. In Westeros, in contrast, the best education in the world, taught by the top masters in any given field, is completely free. The Maesters charge a fee for their services to all of the great and aspiring houses that house a Maester (which is all of them), and collect taxes from citizens of Oldtown. All of that money is put into the running of The Citadel, and the education of Novices and Acolytes. Basically, the richest of society subsidize the education of any (males) who wish to seek it. It is socialism with swords, y’all.
Now, let’s get on to the dark stuff. Qyburn is the current Hand of the Queen, and thus currently one of the most powerful people in Westeros. He is also a former Maester, stripped of his chain due to a series of unethical medical experiments centered on how to subvert death, executed on unwilling participants and prisoners.
So, there’s a long, long history of unethical experimentation in reality. There’s a whole wikipedia page just focused on unethical human experimentation in the United States. To be frank, this is important information for people to know – some terrible things have been done in the name of science and research, both inside and outside of the academy. Look up The Tuskeegee Experiments, The Stanford Prison Experiment, and Project MK Ultra, just as a start. It is a depressing wikipedia hole to go down, but an important one.
I want to mention two specific examples, because of their similarities to Qyburn. The first of these is a man named Dr. Leo Stanley.
Dr. Leo Stanley served as San Quentin’s chief surgeon for nearly four decades….Throughout, Stanley fixated on curing various crises of manhood. Under Stanley’s scalpel, prisoners became subjects in a series of eugenic treatments ranging from sterilization to implanting “testicular substances” from executed prisoners—and also goats—into San Quentin inmates. Stanley was convinced that his research would rejuvenate aged men, control crime, and limit the reproduction of the unfit.
The Strange Career of Leo Stanley: Remaking Manhood and Medicine at San Quentin State Penitentiary, 1913–1951 Author(s): Ethan Blue Source: Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 78, No. 2 (May 2009), pp. 210-241 Published by: University of California Press Stable
Dr. Leo Stanley was a eugenicist – he believed that actions should be taken to purify and improve humanity through genetic means. For the most part, that means he was a super-racist, hated people with disabilities, and was an all-around asshat. To these ends, he used his position as a prison surgeon to do a variety of experiments on non-consenting prisoners, including what was described above: implanting goat testes into people, and forcing sterilization. He was, not unlike Qyburn, a man who was absolutely sure that what he was doing was right, and for the best for humanity. He also abused his position to conduct wildly inappropriate experiments. Unlike Qyburn, he was never stripped of his degree – in fact, he was lauded by many, and worked for decades conducting his experiments on prisoners.
Another example I want to look at is Dr. Julius Hallervorden, a Nazi.
On October 28, 1940, Julius Hallervorden, a professor of brain anatomy,went to the extermination center in the Brandenburg jail. He was present when fiffty children were murdered by carbon monoxide. He dissected their brains immediately after…After the war he became subdirector of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt. There he published many papers on the brains…Certainly it was not Hallervorden’s idea to kill the children. He did not open the carbon monoxide valve. But to profit from the murder in such a way? Hallervorden’s science seems to be excellent. This makes the situation even worse in my eyes.
LaFleur, W. R., Böhme, G., & Shimazono, S. (2007). Dark Medicine : Rationalizing Unethical Medical Research. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Just to recap, Dr. Hallervorden was a Nazi, was present for the murder of fifty children, and then immediately dissected their brains. For years after the war, he continued to publish on his childmurder brains, and even held a prestigious post a brain research institute in Germany. His contributions to brain research are still defended by many today, despite his complicity in and benefiting from the murder of children. I bring this up, in part, because people justify his actions in much the way Qyburn justifies his own. Also, it is worth noting the contrast between the treatment of Qyburn with the treatments of Stanley and Hallervorden. Qyburn lost his chain for his actions. Stanley and Hallervorden are still defended today, and got to retire with their degrees.
I will say that there are thorough institutional review boards at Universities now, that aim to prevent unethical experimentation in the academy. Still, that doesn’t undo past actions, and defenders of atrocious experimentation practices are still out there. However, it is hard not to note how much more swiftly the fictional, medieval Maesters dealt with ethical violations than the real institutions.
This concludes my run-down on the Order of the Maesters, and how they relate to the real-world history of the academy and research. This may have been interesting for you, or it might not have been. I hope it was the former, but if it was the latter, that’s tough. Thanks for reading!
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