Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Quick, name me an epic TV genre project or historical drama from the last five years? I have my own list, but no matter what shows we come up with, they will all have one thing in common: they all owe their existence to Game of Thrones.
The number of shows are staggering: Vikings, Outlander, Marco Polo, Tut, Bastard Executioner, The Last Kingdom, Into the Badlands, The Expanse, The Shannara Chronicles, Of Kings and Prophets, and Preacher. A look at the calendar shows we also have the upcoming American Gods, Knightfall, Emerald City and The Handmaid’s Tale. That’s a powerful legacy for a show we can’t even get nostalgic about yet.
Game of Thrones has already left a big footprint. Here are 5 ways it’s changed fantasy and TV simultaneously. Click Next to begin the list.
5. “Groundbreaking success based on beloved source material” is now a TV model
Do you love an obscure piece of fiction but think no one will adapt because of (insert reasons)? Thanks to Game of Thrones, you’re almost certainly be proven wrong.
Martin famously wrote his books to be “unfilmable” after years of frustration working as a screenwriter primarily in TV, where his ideas were always shut down due to cost. The idea of the books was to make a high fantasy as grandiose and epic as possible while remaining as grounded and hard-hitting as Martin’s previous work. He certainly succeeded in the latter but as for the former, HBO and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss proved him wrong, to the joy of the planet and his wallet.
Before Game of Thrones, Martin’s books were praised and loved by many but they weren’t a global phenomenon. The show definitely is and the books have rightfully followed its success in the sales’ charts. Outlander, The Expanse and The Shannara Chronicles are similar “unadaptable” fantasy and sci-fi series that have enjoyed the same treatment. The Golden Age of TV has now revolutionized the world of adaptations and anthologies. No film, trilogy or even series could do the justice HBO and Game of Thrones have done with Martin’s source material.
4. Acceptance and elevation of the fantasy genre on TV and in pop culture
Fantasy can absolutely be a money-making genre in Hollywood. But beyond crossover megahits like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, several of these adaptations fell flat for one reason or another. Percy Jackson struggled to make its sequel, which subsequently bombed and The Chronicles of Narnia sputtered out after only three films. A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Mortal Instruments films both became one-offs because of disappointing returns (guess what? they both have TV adaptations in the works now. Go figure).
But Game of Thrones hits all quadrants it is aimed at. First, it gets a massive audience, legally and otherwise. Second, it’s captured the zeitgeist across demographics. NCIS this is not. Third, it’s an award-winner; the fifth season won the Best Drama Emmy. As a fan of Kevin Smith’s SModcast with his former producer and friend Scott Mosier, I listened with derision as he dismissed the show simply because it’s fantasy and then listened with delight when he jumped on the bandwagon after binging it. Same deal with friends of mine. This is not a unique story. Barriers to fantasy storytelling have been knocked down by this show and genre fans benefit.
3. Money, violence, “sexposition”
I grew up on fantasy but as I got older, I will admit I thought some lacked edge. Not so with Game of Thrones, which absolutely embraces the tawdry sex and violence that are my guilty pleasures. Ian McShane may have been dismissive when he called the show “just tits and dragons” but to me he summed up an undeniable part of the appeal. It coincided with American Horror Story and other shows that took explicit sex on television to the next level. Also, Game of Thrones is the show that inspired the term “sexposition” wherein information is imparted while watching or partaking in sex. This has been featured throughout the show but has lost its prevalence as the show aged.
It also showed the real effect of violence. Since the show eschews typical fantasy conventions, it doesn’t have Orcs or some other soulless mook the heroes can mow down indiscriminately. The weight of taking a fellow human’s life is given necessary weight, such as last week when Arya refused to assassinate an actress just because the Faceless Men told her to.
Additionally, as of the show’s sixth season, it is now the most expensive on TV, possibly ever, with a price tag of $10 million an episode. As D.B. Weiss has said, they’ve crossed into mid-level blockbuster range for a whole season. That’s a long way from the showrunners having to petition HBO to pony up an additional $2 million to make Season 2’s epic “Blackwater,” its first battle episode. One imagines a reason to limit the episode counts for seasons 7 and 8 is to concentrate the money for an epic finish. This show has raised the bar for big-budget blockbuster entertainment on TV.
2. The show is about politics and drama upfront, with magic emerging in the background
While many cheered at the end of The Return of the King when the rightful king Aragorn married his elf queen Arwen and all seemed right in Middle-earth, George R.R. Martin was thinking was “What’s [his] tax policy?” And did he continue his war on orcs? “Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”
As he succinctly puts it, “ruling is hard,” whether you’re Ned Stark discovering the king’s heirs are bastards born of incest, Dany trying to control foreign lands or Tyrion readying a city for siege. From the beginning these are the things the story reveled in, not spell-casting or quests for magical weapons. For all the show has done for the genre, it outright disdains many of the conventions it is known for. The books and show have demonstrated a willingness and desire to not only break with tradition but to go in the opposite direction.
That said, it does seem to want to have its cake and it eat it too. Martin debated even including dragons in the story because of his pragmatic realism but was convinced by his editor otherwise, a decision he’s happy about. Game of Thrones also indulges some standard tropes like having an evil “Dark Lord” (the Night’s King) and his typical army of cannon fodder (“wights” or reanimated corpses, in this case). I’m a fan of that stuff and, as a fantasy writer they’re fun and almost inevitable on a grand scale, but it does speak to how the books and show Trojan horsed a high fantasy show inside a geopolitical drama.
1. The story is unpredictable and the stakes are not only high but earned
Ned Stark losing his head. The Red Wedding. The Mountain versus the Viper. Jon Snow’s “death” and, just recently “hold the door.”Or going the other way, Jaime Lannister, the same guy having an incestuous affair with his twin sister first seen pushing Bran Stark out a window, now beloved by fans. More recently, Bran discovered Ned Stark’s legendary duel with Ser Arthur Dayne “Sword of the Morning” wasn’t won through honor but treachery. These twists not only because they are well-timed surprises but because they are in every case earned. Like a magic trick, the answer is lying in front of you.
But beyond even these contextual changes and perception shifts, the show and books have, from the beginning, been unpredictable about what the story was even about. This sprawling tale of a world war coinciding with the return of apocalyptic magic includes a couple dozen POV characters amidst a cast of literally hundreds. With the role of protagonist so often changing hands, drawing the story’s conclusion is much harder than “Harry defeats Voldemort” or “Frodo destroys the ring.” The show has conditioned me to the point that I literally expect the White Walkers to win and the show to end in a graveyard, the final statement on humanity’s inability to get their shit together. But Martin has promised a “bittersweet” conclusion and I’m not sure the annihilation of the human race qualifies.
One fan theory I read a while ago posited that the story was actually about the world’s transition from a Medieval norm to a high fantasy realm and to deconstruct both as essentially crapsack worlds. The transition is becoming visible on the show as it moves toward the endgame the books haven’t. Fantasy elements previously in the background are coming to the fore, like the dragons, prophecies and White Walkers. Our final protagonists are solidifying: two Targaryen products of prophecy aka a resurrected Jon Snow and a Dany re-dedicated to taking Westeros, the vengeful Stark sisters Sansa and Arya, their brother Bran, the clever dwarf Tyrion and his incestuous twin siblings Cersei and Jaime.
Some of this is relenting as the show enters its final phase. With any conclusion, there will be resolution and catharsis, things the show and books have kept like carrots on a stick for hungry fans for, oh, about 20 years. Indeed, some of this resolution is already occurring i.e. the premature ends of Stannis Baratheon and Roose Bolton, the Jon/Sansa reunion, the double White Walker/Hodor reveal etc.
The finale’s rumored title of The Winds of Winter (after the unpublished sixth volume in Martin’s tale) is the first time the show is taking a book title. On one hand it’s signifying it’s loyalty to the source material. On the other, it’s the showrunners’ fond farewell to the familiar shores of Martin’s writing as they get to be the first to tell how the game of thrones ends.