“Winter Is Coming.”
The newest inheritor of the fantasy genre’s transition from page to screen is the HBO series Game of Thrones, the show’s title and first season being based off of George R.R. Martin’s first novel in Song of Fire and Ice. While lumped into the “fantasy” genre due to its sword-and-shield style, it hardly seems fair to dub it as such. There is little magic, only rumors of dragons, and no elves in sight. The enemies at work are not wicked demons or madmen sorcerers bent on ruling the world; only the lengths and gambles and sacrifices people make of themselves and others to attain power. And there seems nothing fantastical about that.
Set on a massive continent that resembles an elongated England (complete with a giant ice barrier in the north that dwarfs Hadrian’s Wall), the so-called “game” is one of spanning political and military rivalry between the multiple lords that rule various parts of the Seven Kingdoms. At the head of these lords is a King who sits on the Iron Throne, and supposedly rules despite all the inner turmoil. Around this prize the various families dance close to each other – all ready to strike rivals down at the first sign of weakness in service the King or to themselves.
“Fear cuts deeper than swords.”
Martin is a fan of English history, and so found some basis for his story in the medieval period of The War of the Roses. It shows in the manner of combat: knights in armor on horseback, colorful banners, ideals of courtly love mixed with grim tactics, castles and maidens, jousts and the power of lineage. There is also, of course, politics. Often in the middle ages wars were won or lost before they were fought by having the right set of alliances and backers. The same holds true here.
Because of its weighty background Game of Thrones boasts a complex and slow burning plot. Events in Episode One ripple on through to the Season’s conclusion and beyond, and there is absolutely no filler. Therefore, it does little to try and convey the gist of the story here, suffice to say this:
Though there are many storylines throughout the book, arguably the most crucial one centers around Eddard (Ned) Stark (played by Sean Bean), a loyal soldier of the current King who serves him by safeguarding the North near the Wall. However, Ned is soon called on by the King to serve as his chief adviser in the capital. This soon puts him at odds with the family of the viperous Queen, the Lanisters, who are trying to further solidify their own power within the Seven Kingdoms. The results turn out to be deadly.
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
Despite the allure of the show as a weapons drama with knights and kings ready to strike at any moment, it’s really the inter-personal politics and relationships that make Game of Thrones so compelling. In the midst of a specter of danger all the characters are acting in a believable fashion to where you think you know what their next moves will be. But then, something twists, tables turn, and people turn on each other. Admittedly, half the fun becomes knowing that any of them are at risk for their lives and that no one is safe.
And yes, it’s a graphic show. The HBO script doesn’t caper away from violent gore, sex, nudity, incest, and so on. And perhaps that’s the pull in the story. As the audience we are drawn in by the swirling sense of reality and fantastical landscapes, and the people. They all become real for us, as good fantasies do.
Game of Thrones is brutal, charming and smart television, and marks a great triumph for the genre in its wide acceptance. Fantasy is not an easy genre to intake. It requires that give, that willing suspension of disbelief that for the longest time seems to have only been reachable by a select audience easily dubbed as nerds or escapists. But then, somewhere along the line things changed, and fantasy became cool.