Friday, 21 January 2011

The trailer for A Game of Thrones "Isn't Really Fantasy"

Pop quiz, folks: does this trailer...

  1. brutalize anything we've seen of "Conan"?
  2. destroy anything we've seen of "Conan"?
  3. annihilate anything we've seen of "Conan"?
  4. obliterate anything we've seen of "Conan"?
  5. defenestrate anything we've seen of "Conan"?

We even see a tiny glimpse of Khal Momo (whose overall look I'm still not sold on as not being Mongolian-enough), as well as the delightful addition of Yorkshire Stark and Lancashire Lannister accents, further cementing the whole "War-of-the-Roses-with-a-few-fantasy-bits-and-pieces" feel of the setting that's the series' biggest strength and weakness.  I can say that it looks very high quality in motion, and miles beyond Legend of the Seeker and other such shows.

This latest trailer isn't quite as good, in fact it looks awfully Jacksonville Lord of the Rings, mixed with a little Dexter for good measure.  Still, excellent production values for a TV series, and most people love Jackson's Lord of the Rings and Dexter.

Unfortunately, as was painfully obvious, we're now starting to get the usual fools out of the woodwork.  There are those who think Martin's doing something profoundly paradigm-shifting, that he's doing something truly tremendous and unusual that's never been done in fantasy before, such as Pop Culture Ninja:

Martin’s swashbuckling adventures rife with political intrigue, dark portents, and fascinating characters aren’t quite your average genre fare.

Oh, of course, can't think of any other fantasy series with political intrigue, dark portents, or fascinating characters.  Nope, none at all.
Worse than that are those who think that if it isn't a strict copy of the stereotypical view of Middle-earth (itself far from the real McCoy) it "isn't really fantasy."  Such as The Dartmouth:

Showrunner David Benioff has called called the show “‘The Sopranos’ in Middle Earth.” But even though the series takes place in a fantasy world with its own geography, nations and languages — much like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth — don’t expect any magic, elves or orcs. Assuming “Game of Thrones” stays true to its source, it will be a series about humanity at its worst — more “Braveheart” than “Lord of the Rings.”

In the name of... what?  "Don't expect any magic, elves or orcs" - you mean apart from, for example, the Others, described thusly:

According to legend, the Others are said to hate iron, fire, and sunlight and seek to kill all creatures that have warm blood in their veins. They ride dead horses into battle leading legions of the undead and also use pale white ice spiders the size of hounds as trackers. Thousands of years ago they nearly overwhelmed Westeros in an invasion before being defeated in an unknown manner.

"Oh, but the Others might not strictly count as elves!" - lest we forget there are mythical beings like the Children of the Forest in A Game of Thrones?

The children were small, dark and beautiful. They wore clothes of leaves and bark and wielded weirwood bows and swords and arrow-heads made of dragonglass. Their wise men were called greenseers, and they carved faces into the weirwoods to keep watch over the forest. Their gods were the nameless gods of nature that are now called the Old Gods. They are the oldest known inhabitants of Westeros. When the First Men came over the Arm of Dorne and began to settle the land, they chopped down the weirwoods, which led to open war. The children used magic to shatter the Arm, but they could not prevail against the invaders. Finally, the two peoples came to a peace agreement in a meeting on the Isle of Faces in which the children retained the forests and the First Men agreed to halt the cutting down of weirwoods. This peace lasted for four thousand years until the Andals came and began chopping down the trees again. Under persecution, the children retreated to the Far North, where some claim they still live today.

And as for the horrific shambling hordes of the forces of darkness, how about the undead?

A wight has black hands, bright burning blue eyes, and a scent like a grave. They are relentless in their pursuit of killing, and cannot be killed save by burning. They keep moving even if they have lost limbs or been split nearly in two, and any parts hacked off continue to function on their own as well. No animal will come near one.

And giants?  And black-and-white striped tigers?  And wolves the size of ponies?  And freaking dragons!?!  How else can one explain what happens to Daenerys, but some sort of sorcery?  As for "humanity at its worst," how can one forget the incredible pathos of Denethor, the poor deceived Southrons, the treacherous Saruman, and the unforgettable Gollum?  Really, there aren't many less magic, fantastical creatures or non-human races in Westeros than there are in the already magic-deprived Middle-earth at the end of the Third Age.

Even worse, some of the cast members are saying the same sort of thing:

Michelle Fairley (far right), who plays Catelyn Stark, says of the epic series, ''It's not so much fantasy. It's really gutsy and glorious. We just happen to be wearing costumes and armor.''

So fantasy isn't normally gutsy and glorious?  One wonders if Ms Fairley doesn't consider Macbeth or The Tempest to be "gutsy and glorious," unless she thinks they aren't fantasy either.  Actually, I don't want to know.

But then again, I've come across people who say Tolkien - yes, Tolkien - isn't really fantasy.  I'm not kidding.  They usually use terms like "mythologized history," "fictionalized mythology" or some such.  Heck, I even come across people who think Conan the Barbarian isn't really a fantasy film, despite all the freaking magic.  If Conan and Middle-earth aren't really fantasy to some people, then... I can't think of a way to finish that sentence.

Of course, there are those who say Martin's work is more grounded in "realism" than Tolkien's Middle-earth.  Well, let's not get into that can of worms, suffice to say that a world which experiences decade-long winters would "realistically" result in a culture very different from a feudal Medieval society.  Not to mention the 700-foot tall, 300 league long wall of ice blocking off the Scots Wildlings, undead warriors vulnerable only to obsidian, a small woman stepping into a blazing fire and emerging almost unscathed, and - you know - the freaking dragons.  Even if you adore A Song of Ice and Fire, to call it more grounded in realism than Middle-earth is stretching things.


  1. Whenever the mainstream discovers a genre, I mean the real core of a genre, and discover that it is not at all like their preconceptions about the genre, they try to divorce their newly discovered "quality" stuff from the rest of that awful drek that is "fantasy". We know the truth.

    It's the same bullshit that thinking that Ronald D. Moore engaged in when he created CAPRICA, trying to create something that would "transcend" the sci-fi genre. Well, we see how well that turned out.

    At the end of the day if there isn't magic, elves and other fantasy creatures (and the ubiquitous CGI used to create them) then viewers will tune out. If people want to watch soap opera they don't want it dressed up like a convention full of LOTR fans. Conversely, is people want to watch fantasy they won't appreciate being given a soap opera dressed in medieval garb and having no-nothing show-business types telling them that it's "better" than fantasy.

  2. Remind me again why I should care about this? I realize I've already offended geek pieties by questioning the genius of J.J. Abrams, but I've long wondered why Martin's over-long cribbing of the Wars of the Roses but with even more deviant sex is supposed to be so brilliant.

  3. I'd gladly watch Sean Bean recite names from a telephone book.

    But yeah, back on point, the old prejudices against fantasy have never gone away. It's still not deemed serious (and certainly not respectable) by the "learned" critics. Even JK Rowling tried to claim Harry Potter wasn't fantasy.

  4. At least we know that George R.R. Martin would never make such a ridiculous claim about his own work. He's very much in the "defenders of fantasy" camp.

    While I never did make it further than A Storm of Swords (and I think the prose is a bit workmanlike), Martin's a very accomplished fantasist when it comes to short stories. The Dreamsongs collection is a must-read, and it's in short fiction, I think, that he really excels. I'd rather see more novellas like the Dunk and Egg stories than more toe-crushing volumes in A Song of Ice and Fire.

  5. For a lot of (stupid) people, "fantasy" means "crap".

  6. +1. "Fantasy is crap. This is good. Ergo it isn't fantasy." (Speaker is immediately eaten by talking squid...)

  7. Well done!

    Tom Shippey has argued that the dominant literary form of the 20th century was fantastical literature, which would include Howard, Conan, Kurt Vonnegut, William Golding, "magical realism" and all that. It'll never catch on, because real authors aren't the same as fantasy authors. I mean, fantasy is children's books with magical elves, and literature is real.

    Anyway, Braveheart is a fantasy movie.

    What have the people who think A Song of Ice and Fire isn't "average genre fate" been smoking? I really liked it, but it is precisely that: stereotypical, average fantasy.

  8. Yes, Martin's work is fantasy. Clearly.

    But despite the fantastical trappings (dragons, undead, etc., etc.) Martin's stories are as different from Tolkien as are Howard's & Lovecrafts.

    Go to the bookstore, and randomly grab 10...hell, randomly grab 100 fantasy novels. Most of them are going be Tolkien-clones like the Belgariad or Sword of Shannara or Wheel of Time. Young Farm Boy With A Destiny sets out to save the world from the Big Bad. 99% of them are the same story with the same characters again and again and again.

    Granted, there's a few works out there that aren't blatant rehashings of Lord of the Rings, but in all honesty the "Fantasy" section at the bookstore could probably be more accurately labeled as the "Lord of the Rings Clone" section & we all know it. Hence, we can forgive casual readers who, upon being confronted by a fantasy book that is NOT yet another Tolkien clone while at the same time presenting such well-written characters for declaring Martin's work as unprecedented & grounded in realism. Disregard superficial trappings like dragons, and in terms of the narrative and the characters Martin's work IS more grounded and realistic than crap like the Belgariand & the Wheel of Time.

    As for the HBO production - it looks like it's going to be everything the new Conan movie isn't: a faithful adaptation of the original work with high production-value.

  9. I feel there needs to be a balance. The trailer for Thrones looks good to me (though I don't care for the books much) because it looks real, like an echo of history. I'd rather see a fantasy film that looks like medieval Europe than one that looks like Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. I think a decent Conan film should look more historical than fantastic because I think that's what Howard was going for. I'm all for demons and monsters and such, but they seem more incredible against a background I can believe.

  10. I think these kinds of claims are old news with respect to the novels as I've seen so many kids earnestly argue that the books are the most sophisticated and adultish works in the history of everything but I guess it'll just be a little more pervasive if the show hits as well as everyone's hoping.

  11. As for these "not fantasy" arguments, I address them somewhat here:

  12. Can't really disagree with anyone, really.

    Anyway, Braveheart is a fantasy movie.

    And what a fantasy it is!

  13. [CaptainObvious] Fantasy is a taboo word, really.

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