I never thought I'd read a worse review of Game of Thrones than that one in The Guardian, but The Telegraph managed to do it.
I don’t know if any of you are fans of The Lord of the Rings. I am, sort of.
I say sort of, because – brilliant though the books, and the Peter Jackson movie adaptations, undoubtedly are – JRR Tolkien never really worked out how people behave, or how they talk to each other. Gollum aside, every single one of the characters is a bland cipher. Aragorn: tortured hero! Frodo: small tortured hero! Gandalf: infinitely wise badass! Pippin and Merry: interchangeable comic relief! Sam: dependable bumpkin! Etc. He also doesn’t really get jokes, or romance. It’s a great read, and equally enjoyable on screen, but when you compare it to almost any non-genre writing, the characterisation is tissue-thin, the moral themes infantile, black-and-white. A children’s book for grown-ups.
And, what’s more, it has set the tone for fantasy novels ever since.
This is a real shame. Compare it to sci-fi, which has grown, over the years, into grown-up writing. Iain M Banks puts as much care and attention into the characters in his wonderful Culture novels as his alter ego Iain Banks does in his contemporary-set fiction. The recent Battlestar Galactica TV series was a little cheesy in parts and lost its way at the end, but brought complex shades of grey into its moral universe, and shone an uncomfortable light onto our own. These examples are by no means isolated.
But fantasy, it seems to me at least, has always struggled to break out of its Tolkien-crafted straitjacket. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time struck me as the worst, a seemingly endless series of books (I think it was 12 when I stopped counting some time back at the end of last century) filled with Portentous Capital Letters and Grand Themes, all of it fairly uncomplicated Tolkien rip-offs and with barely more intelligible characterisation. And the number of ludicrous swords-’n'-sorcery films that trot through the cinemas most years since The Fellowship of the Ring came out is just wearying. Fantasy has, stupidly, garnered itself a largely well-deserved reputation for immaturity.
Which is why Monday’s first episode of Game of Thrones (Sky Atlantic), the HBO adaptation of the first book in George RR Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire series, came as such a relief. If you’ve read the books (I was introduced to them a couple of months ago and devoured all four in record time, and am now impatiently awaiting the fifth), you’ll know what I mean. This is a book where no character gets left as a Total Baddie or a Pure-Hearted Goodie. Everyone has dark sides and positive aspects. Everyone gets a backstory, everyone gets a motive.
And, even better, it’s not just Magic Powers and Mighty Dragons. For a fantasy world, it’s remarkably shy of using fantastical beasts. An early moment in the frozen woods of the North aside, the entire first book is essentially about people. Kings, queens, lords and knights, admittedly, but human ones. It’s grand and epic, but it’s human – the fantasy gets introduced later, when it has much more impact.
Obviously, the books are one thing. But HBO’s adaptation, from the first episode, is extremely promising. They had a lot of characters to introduce and a world to create, all in the space of an hour, but they have done a sterling job. And that opening scene that I mentioned, in the frozen woods, is genuinely, quakingly scary.
That’s one way it’s got Adult Themes, of course: there are at least two beheadings, one guy gets disembowelled rather graphically, and there is a wide selection of frozen, dismembered corpses. Further, there’s a lot of nudity, including several whores pleasuring a dwarf, a decent sprinkling of incest, some very public sex (placed in remarkable proximity to the disembowelling, incidentally) and no shortage of bad language. But, as Steve Rose wisely said in The Guardian, there’s more to making fantasy mature than simply injecting sex and violence. Luckily, Game of Thrones – with its finely drawn characters, moral uncertainty and genuine horror – has a lot more than just sex and violence.
I watched this with another Song of Ice and Fire-obsessed friend of mine. There was always the danger that it would be a huge let-down, and it still could be if the rest of the series does not live up to the first episode. But, if we’re lucky, HBO’s Game of Thrones could be the series that makes fantasy grow up.
You suggest that fantasy hasn't "grown up" in the decades since LotR came out, and that the plethora of derivative doorstoppers is proof that the genre is still immature. This strikes me as incredibly myopic: that's like saying the crime thriller hasn't evolved since Christie based purely on the countless derivative airport novels crowding the shelves, or that romance hasn't evolved because of the unnumbered Harlequin romances and Mills & Boon choking shops.Now, to wash the sour taste of Tom Chiver's astoundingly ill-researched piece (because, as we all know, fantasy hasn't evolved in the past 50 years, except where it, you know, has), here's a better example of Game of Thrones journalism, in that the reporter, Leo Stiles, actually knows what he's talking about.
Let's not even get into the fact that LotR is far more nuanced and subtle than you give it credit for: even if you go by the idea that LotR is childish, Game of Thrones is hardly the beginning of "blood, boobs and horror" in fantasy. You can trace that all the way back to the foundations of the modern genre. Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, A. Merritt, C.L. Moore, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson: all antedate The Lord of the Rings, and all have written compelling fantasy with brutal violence, frank sexuality, moral ambiguity, and multi-faceted characters. There are even more than those I've just listed, going all the way back to the 19th Century. Even after Tolkien you have the likes of Moorcock, Donaldson, Mieville, Saunders, Wagner and more who eschew the facile Middle-earth imitations of Brooks, Jordan, Eddings, and the like.
What you present as being fantasy is no more accurate than saying all historical fiction is exactly like Dumas, or all science fiction is exactly like Asimov: there's simply too much variety within the genre to paint them all with the same brush.
You know that the fantasy and horror genres have gone mainstream when two of the best TV shows of the past couple of years feature zombies and kingdoms under threat from mythical beasties.
While fans of the genres have long known that there was more to this sort of thing than silly place names and gratuitous gore, it has taken two of television’s powerhouse studios to show the masses what they are missing.
AMC went out on a limb late last year with The Walking Dead, a drama that took the pulpy premise of a zombie apocalypse and forged a taut and engrossing series that stood out for its acting, storytelling and an ability to make you care in between the gore and horror.
TV powerhouse HBO looks like it will be repeating this trick with Game of Thrones, which premiered on Sky Atlantic last night and despite its creators have long since regretted describing the show as the ‘medieval Soprano’s, the description isn’t a bad one - even if this fantasy series is so much more than that...
Machiavellian doesn’t even cover it as the story moves from one scheme to another and the source novel’s dense plotting drives the show forward, including some shockingly vile deeds even within the first episode. Make no mistake, no character will be safe and you can expect to see a serious body count before the end of the first ten episodes that make up this first season.
The show certainly doesn’t shy away from its fantasy roots but the opening episode, save for some otherworldly beasts beyond the Ice Wall and brief mentions of dragons, is grounded in a realism that instantly draws you in. If it wasn’t for the strange place names, Game of Thrones could easily be mistaken for an historical drama in the mould of The Tudors, albeit a non-rubbish version.
Sure, it isn't perfect, but it's a damn sight better than the alternative.