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HBO Plays with Fantasy in A Game of Thrones

“Winter is coming,” and so is HBO’s adaptation of the first novel in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, A Game of Thrones. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, A Song of Ice and Fire is about the Realpolitik of a fantasy kingdom called Westeros. Its inspiration is supposedly the Wars of the Roses, vaguely reflected in the names of the main contending houses, Stark (York) and Lannister (Lancaster). The replacement of flowers with a direwolf and a lion, respectively, should signal something of the series’s tone. And, as you can see in the preview HBO recently released (above), the supernatural elements in the books tend in the direction of horror more than your stereotypical fantasy novel. (Indeed, the scene with the Others seems a little fast-zombies to me.)

The question is: Can A Game of Thrones do for the fantasy genre what Battlestar Galactica did for science-fiction?

***

I first started formulating my research project on nerd culture in the post-War (of the Ring) period, and I was interviewing people while Avatar was going like gangbusters in the box office, and so how genres often associated with nerdy audiences—genres like fantasy, superheroes, and sci-fi—fare in the mainstream has been an important index of the whole “revenge of the nerds”/“geek chic” issue.

I had a memorable discussion of this phenomenon with one of my interviewees, the manager of a game and comics shop. As part of a series of questions about his own engagements with nerd culture before taking up gainful employment within the scene, I asked about his taste in movies and TV shows:

What about movies? Certain sort of fan favourites? I don’t know if you’re into, like, sci-fi or fantasy...

I’m really big into sci-fi. Fantasy a little bit. I just recently watched How to Train Your Dragon. That was awesome. Just totally gripping, really amazing, super cute, and they improved the 3-d, so the 3-d experience didn’t suck like it was before. Obviously, I really liked Avatar. I’m a bit of a … nnnature-loving hippie kind of sympathizer. Not actually hippie, hippie-sympathizer. So all of the anti-corporate tentacles in my brain danced in glee as those mercenaries were ripped to shreds by nature’s wrath and all that stuff.

Yeah, so, um, I find it’s very strange why sci-fi doesn’t really succeed. It’s actually a thing in the movie industry that sci-fi is a long-shot all the time. […] So, yeah, sci-fi has been a long-shot in movies, in television shows for a long time. I don’t know if you know about Firefly?

Yeah.

Uh, Battlestar Galactica? The best sci-fi movie—er, television show, of all time was almost cancelled twice.

The new one or the old one?

The new one. ((laughs)) It was almost cancelled twice. It almost died in its … like ... And people were like, “huuuuh,” drooling over this show, and it was almost cancelled because it didn’t have enough viewership. People are just … like, everyday people are like, “Oh, laser guns and aliens? Fuck that.” You know? Even though there was no laser guns or aliens in it. There was robots and … humans …

Bullet guns.

Bullet guns. Like, real bullet guns and stuff like that.

But when sci-fi does succeed, it seems to succeed really big. Fantasy as well, I guess. The Lord of the Rings, Avatar

No, no. Fantasy is never a long-shot. Fantasy is very successful. People just dig fantasy. They can relate to it, you know? They’ve read fantasy books when they were a kid, you know? They, they ... dragons and this and that and the other. It’s part of our inherent culture. Sci-fi is sort of this, you know—began in the 1920s, and it was this like weird idea of thinking about the future in a way that was … through the lens of technology, you know? So, there’s all sorts of religious people and people who don’t like change who are, like, totally not down with it. You know? Most people, I think, like looking backwards and romanticizing the past instead of looking forwards and being hopeful about the future.

While both genres are unquestionably related to nerd culture—indeed, there is an argument that SF&F fandom is the most recent common ancestor of the whole range of contemporary geek cultures—this interviewee makes distinctions between them in terms of mainstream appeal, integration into other, more established cultural forms, and political ideology. Part of this is simply a question of frame of reference: Which examples of each genre are being referenced?

In recent years, “realistic” and “gritty” have become the bywords for film adaptations that seek simultaneously to exploit the name recognition of existing franchises with a general audience and to court the grown-up fanboy audience.* The “dark” remake/reboot/reimagining allows producers to draw on childhood nostalgia while targeting a more profitable, adult audience. I’m thinking, for example, of Bryan Singer’s X-Men, Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, Star Trek: Nemesis, and Pokémon: Apokélypse.† At the same time, ensemble casts in which every character is a horrible human being has become the lazy television writer’s shortcut to Drama—something I first noticed while following BSG and Mad Men at the same time.

A Game of Thrones certainly provides ample scope for applying these signifiers of serious artistic purpose to a genre that has previously wallowed in Romantic quests and fuzzy underpants. Against a background of political backstabbing, Martin paints his characters in shades of grey: everyone who starts off with good intentions takes a winding road of compromise to a Very Bad Place, everyone who starts out as a straight-up villain becomes strangely sympathetic over the course of the novels, and everyone is subjected to their share of tragedy and violence. There's intrigue and incest and beheadings; it all sounds very “mature.” But it remains an open question whether audiences—and especially HBO audiences—will still find this compelling when you add dragons.

***

*The other option for resolving this problem is, of course, camp. E.g., Batman: The Brave and the Bold, which has gained a lot of attention amongst the nerd-blogger set for the references and homages it has wrapped up in a fun, kid-friendly, Silver-Agey package. Another fruitful comparison might be 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead, on the one hand, versus Shaun of the Dead and Fido, on the other hand.

†Okay, that last one is a fan film totally mocking this trend. But, check it out, you can totally see Harbour Centre and the AQ, and I'm pretty sure the newscaster was the external examiner for my MA defence.

Will the “Real” Nerds Please Stand Up?

This Menswear . . . This Monstrosity!