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The Curious Case of Game of Thrones

Show of hands: how many people believed, back in 1997, that George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire would become a full-blown cultural phenomenon?

Game of Thrones (poster)Anybody?

I didn’t think so.

And yet, here we are. In one week, the fourth season of Game of Thrones will premier on HBO. These ten hours of television are, perhaps, the most anticipated of the year. Game of Thrones is epic fantasy gone mainstream.

In these last weeks leading up to the premiere, Game of Thrones has received the Vanity Fair treatment, thrown a massive premiere gala (complete with faux dragon skulls) in New York City, been the subject of innumerable write-ups in entertainment mags, and has run neck-in-neck with a Malaysian plane crash on Twitter. This is, unequivocally, not a “niche” or “genre” show anymore.

What I’d like to know is…why?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a massive ASOIAF fan. I’ve read the books as they’ve come out, and I was over the moon when I heard HBO had greenlit the show. When it premiered, I thought it was the best adaptation a fan could have wanted. But I never in a million years expected it to get this big.

Harry Potter (movie poster)Part of my amazement stems from years and years of being the only reader of fantasy that I knew. Sure, kids had read Tolkien and some had even read Stephen King’s Eyes of the Dragon, but no one I knew could talk Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms or Eddings. Fantasy was weird. Plain and simple. That weirdness was part of the draw for me. Now…not so weird, is it?

Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, Battlestar Galactica, J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, the Marvel Cinematic Universe—all of these things are mainstream. Much like Star Wars won over a generation in the late 70s and early 80s (a generation, by the way, that is now consuming media at a rate never before seen in history), Game of Thrones has won over the current viewing public. Strength of material certainly plays a major role—Martin’s books are, in a word, amazing—but so, too, does the time in which we’re living.

The Walking Dead (poster)A push for realism has been a hallmark of the first decade and a half of the 21st Century. Look no further than the rise of reality television. I would argue that the success of Game of Thrones (and The Walking Dead, and everything Marvel is doing) is a reaction to the reality-as-entertainment movement. I’ve said in this space before that, for me, the appeal of fantasy has always stemmed in part from escapist desires. I’d argue that the millions of viewers HBO draws for Game of Thrones prove that my theory can be extrapolated to a larger portion of society. We live reality. A reality that is increasingly stark (forgive the pun) and disturbing. So an hour a week watching zombies or dragons or oddly Shakespearean motorcycle gangs provides a welcome respite from the difficulties inherent in 21st Century living.

Maybe I’m completely off base. Maybe millions of people are tuning in for the occasional nudity. Maybe mainstream media is being bought off in some type of HBO-initiated payola scheme. Or maybe…just maybe…the world at large is figuring out what we always knew: that the world of fantasy is one rich with story, characters and emotion. That magic and dragons do not always equal “kids’ stuff,” and that sometimes, reality is overrated.

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6 Comments

  1. Avatar Philip Overby (@Philip_Overby) says:

    I think it really comes down to characters above everything else. GoT is cool visually, has surprising deaths, dragons, and the like, but when it all comes down to it, I think people have grown attached to these characters. They hate to love and love to hate a lot of them, so it all comes down really to investment. That’s why I fell in love with the books, because I’ve read plenty of fiction with dragons, wars, and politics, but Martin made me care about the struggle over the Iron Throne only because of the characters involved in trying to seize it.

  2. Avatar Splicer says:

    I believe a part of the crowd that tunes in for GoT is there simply because they are titillated by the violence (and the sex). This would be the same crowd that enjoys the death and murder porn of Final Destination, Saw and Hostel, and who like soap operas.

  3. Avatar James says:

    I see it differently:

    Ice and fire works so well because it’s so true to reality.

    It’s sexed up reality.

    Magic and dragons often do equal “kids stuff” and that’s why in Martin’s work they take second place behind characters and intrigue.

  4. Avatar Herb says:

    I do believe that Game of Thrones was the right material at the right time to seize upon the cultural zeitgeist and take fantasy mainstream. It is certainly a certain, hyper-realistic, type of fantasy that gives a lot of people who haven’t let go of their childish desire not to be seen as childish plausible deniability, but given the success of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings movies, not to mention the superhero movies, etc., shows that it goes far beyond that. What I don’t understand is WHY. The explanation given here–“A reality that is increasingly stark (forgive the pun) and disturbing”–has one stark problem. It isn’t remotely true. We are far wealthier and far less likely to die violently than at any other time in human history. Are we just delusional? Do we seek escape in a brutal fantasy because we live a utopian science fiction? Do we look back at history and see our current position as anomalous, and thus frighteningly precarious? I just don’t know.

  5. Avatar Andy Baxter says:

    Star Wars, when you really look at it, is the most generic fantasy storyline ever (simple farm-boy ends up being the son of the big bad guy and defeats him etc).

    That was massive back in the day.

    GoT works because it is (so far) completely removed from the generic. “Good guys” die on a regular basis and this makes nothing certain. It keeps you guessing.

    The shocking moments in the books make for excellent TV. Episode 9 of the 3rd series almost registered on the Richter Scale. 🙂

  6. Avatar Danny Adams says:

    Sounds like as good an explanation as any.

    I discovered Ice and Fire back in 2007. I bought myself what turned out to be a first edition of A Game of Thrones for $10, got Martin to sign it for me at a local convention shortly afterwards, and when I told people that he’d signed the book most of them said “Never heard of it”. Now I have to hide it. 🙂

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