I have a love/hate relationship with Game of Thrones. Or, more accurately, I have a love/hate relationship with the consequences of its popularity. At first, everything was great. A complex, well written fantasy series was being taken seriously by the public and then its popularity exploded with its television adaptation. Fantasy as a genre was being taken seriously beyond Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Let’s be honest, it was a long time coming. But now we’re beginning to see that reviving the genre cost a dear price: originality.
George R. R. Martin’s book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, paved the way for swathes of other dark, well written series such as Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy and Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. It grabbed millions of readers by the scruff of their necks and fed them a steady diet of intrigue, betrayal, melodrama, and a significant lack of closure. But it’s still not the be all and end all of fantasy – Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series has sold twice as many copies, but it doesn’t seem to have the same pop culture resonance as Martin’s series.
The TV Show
The TV adaptation, Game of Thrones was able to tap into the cultural milieu of gray morality, anti heroes, and a stark (pun intended), “realistic” take on life, thus finding its way into the pantheon of the so-called “Golden Age of Television.” It was a necessary step in cleansing the genre’s collective palate from the production line of cheap Tolkien knock offs, eschewing elves, Dark Lords, and the concentration on the mythopoeic in favor of a focus on politics and melodrama that rivals the best of historical fiction. The genre’s very own “Scouring of the Shire.”
But the problem with the gritty, pseudo realistic approach of books and shows like Game of Thrones is that it descends into cliché just as swiftly as the Tolkien clones ravaged Middle Earth. Look at similar shows like Camelot, Spartacus, Black Sails, and movies like Conan the Barbarian – where is the joy and wonder and sublime discovery of the “Other” in fantasy and historical fiction? Where’s the fun from movies like The Princess Bride, even Stardust, or the imaginative scope and depth of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings? Why is everything shot as if the color’s been drained out of it?
Game of Thrones works because it is well written, produced, acted, etc – not simply because it’s got brutal violence and explicit nudity and dark overtones. Yet that’s the direction shows are taking, because unfortunately that’s how it works. I’m holding out hope for future fantasy series, but I think it’s going to be a while before a new, truly creative and original take on a classic series will get made for the big screen or the little screen.
Hope for the Future?
Terry Brooks’ regrettably pedestrian Shannara series, once one of the most maligned of the Tolkien clones, is now being made into a TV series by MTV, and I’m doubtful that it will stray too far from the now proven GoT model. The antithesis of the Game of Thrones mentality is Susanna Clarke’s 2004 masterpiece Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell. A sprawling tome that rivals the scope of Dickens with the wit of Austen, and the unpredictable magic of George MacDonald. It’s currently being adapted by the BBC, and I’m hopeful that as long as it doesn’t ape Downton Abbey too much, it will prove that there are other avenues besides the over the top spectacle of blood, sex and political intrigue that Game of Thrones has become.
I love Game of Thrones for what it has done for the genre, but I hate it because its popularity is discouraging others from taking risks on new, different variations within the same genre. We don’t need more boring, safe television or cinema. We need content that pushes boundaries and doesn’t settle for the status quo. So thanks, Game of Thrones, thanks for ruining television.