Not many people would know it by looking at me, but I am a huge fantasy nerd. It’s honestly a large part of the reason I began playing Runescape. Nothing grabs my attention like intricately forged swords, colossal and terrifying dragons, magic (with certain parameters), and all the typical nerdy things associated with the fantasy genre. I would wager that most drawn to Runescape are generally into other types of fantasy as well, be they other games, movies, books, television shows, what have you. I’d also bet that many of us have been laughed at for our interests and hobbies, as much of society sees a deep interest in such areas to be fringe and strange. However, one television series (based on a series of books) is taking huge strides in eliminating the stigma that so often follows fantasy works and those who choose to indulge in them.
“Game of Thrones” is, if you haven’t already heard about it, a television series now through its fifth season following the yet incomplete book series by George R.R. Martin titled “A Song of Ice and Fire”. The show has been a hit ever since the first season, which touted big-name actors like Sean Bean, Charles Dance, and Peter Dinklage. In fact, its viewership has steadily rose every single season with the fourth season closing out at around 19 million viewers watching each episode, which is either going to be very nearly matched or surpassed as the numbers roll in as the fifth season comes to a close. Let’s also remember that this is not a cable television series available to everyone with basic cable, this is an HBO series, only available to those who pay the premium to add HBO shows onto whatever their television provider already offers. Numbers don’t lie, and “Game of Thrones” has easily become HBO’s most popular series of all time.
All this for a series of books started in the 1990’s by an old bearded guy wearing a sailor hat. Well, ok the series is more than that but my point remains. To offer a bit of context, the main plot of the story begins in a fantasy world with very few initial magical elements that increase as the series progresses. The focus of the books and the show is on the political rise and fall of characters we become attached to, the constant scheming of these characters to thwart one another with the ultimate goal of sitting the Iron Throne. Of course, along the way there is sex, violence, intrigue, dragons, cute wolf puppies, and a constantly looming threat of apocalyptic winter and the beings that come with it that all but a few characters even bother to acknowledge the possibility of. Sounds like your typical fantasy series that succeeds in the books, and never fully makes it on the screen for a multitude of reasons. Why, then, is this series able to thrive while others have fallen to pieces?
For one, “A Song of Ice and Fire” (ASOIAF) is mostly low fantasy, not high fantasy. The difference between the two primarily relies on the system of magic in place and its importance in the plot. In ASOIAF, the world we come to know is much like our own, with only a few things being different. The magic is clearly defined (for the most part) and plays a minor role in comparison to character development and overall plot. High fantasy, on the other hand, is more like J.R.R. Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings,” where the world is fundamentally changed from ours in many large ways. Because “Game of Thrones” is based on a world much like our own, it makes it easier to relate to for those that aren’t as used to the fantasy genre. It makes characters more real, places more tangible, and overall plot development easier to grasp.
Secondly, the content is about as real as real gets. The show and the books make it a major point to drive home that this world isn’t a white army facing some black, evil, big bad. It’s all a tale of varying shades of grey, doing what they can to survive. And much like the real world, nice guys with good intentions don’t always win. Without lacing this article with heavy spoilers, George R.R. Martin was and is not at all afraid to kill off widely-loved characters if he sees they have a reason to die. Much like our world, you can live a good and just life only to get massively stabbed in the back by some jerk trying to leapfrog you on the way to the top. This show doesn’t bend the rules to help those we see as “good” or “righteous”. This is what really made the first and third seasons of the show explode in viewership. “Game of Thrones” was able to make you love the characters, feel pain as they died, and then return to the show for more because you realized in your heart that their passing was only bound to happen. Whether this speaks to widespread cynicism, sadism, or realism, I can’t say, but it’s obvious that people are loving it because each time the show does something ballsy and causes an uproar, more and more people decide to tune in on Sunday nights.
Lastly and most importantly, money and luck. It’s all about the greenbacks, in the end, but you need a smidge of fortune to make it all come together. Yes, the first season compared to the fifth season’s budgets vary drastically, but HBO being HBO was able to fund a much more serious attempt at the first season than most have been in the past. Right off the bat they were able to snag a few big names in addition to many unknowns that turned out to be golden actors. The casting directors Robert Sterne and Nina Gold knocked the actors out of the park. Not only that but all the supporting crew making the costumes, special effects, make-up, music, and practically everything else did fantastic jobs from the first time film rolled on set. With enough money to fund a good crew and solid first few episodes, “Game of Thrones” was able to put itself on the proverbial map, and since then, story and production together have led to steady increases in viewership.
Today, “Game of Thrones” is everywhere. Other television shows, mainstream magazines, talk shows, music, practically everywhere you look. For all intents and purposes, the series is paving the way for fantasy to really strike a chord with the general public on a more consistent basis. Like the show or not, you have to admit that it’s doing wonders for the fantasy genre as a whole. And speaking for other fantasy nerds, I’d say that’s a very good thing.