The medieval fantasy genre has stayed in a very distinct wheelhouse for a very long time. Dark forces gather and threaten everything that is good and pure in the world, forcing a band of heroes to struggle against seemingly impossible odds to save the world.
The formula has worked in varying degrees for years, with the most obvious success story being Lord of the Rings. One of the few medieval fantasies to see mainstream success, the film trilogy made more than a billion dollars in box office revenue alone, was critically lauded and earned several Academy Awards.
While the Lord of the Rings films made fantasy more acceptable to the masses, the effect did not carry over to television. The majority of the attempts to bring the genre to TV came in the form of throwaway shows geared toward teenagers and young adults.
But HBO’s Game of Thrones has changed all that by turning the genre’s conventions on their heads. Instead of presenting a classic story of good against evil, Game of Thrones chooses to dwell on the gray area in between.
There is no “great evil” for a group of heroes to fight, at least not one that is central to the plot. Instead, the story focuses on the interplay of a wide variety of deep characters. And those characters cannot be restricted to generalizations.
Some are more sympathetic than others, but none are easily defined. The supposed hero of the story is fatally flawed, while the villains are the smartest and cleverest. Just when you think you have someone figured out, they prove otherwise.
We’ve all grown up on stories of the little hero vanquishing the big bad guy, to the point that it has become expected. But that is not what Game of Thrones delivers. The people you cheer for fail more often than they succeed. They fight and they die, regardless of their allegiances.
As the plot unfolds, there are also subtle questions asked of the audience that again do not have black and white answers. Is mercy always right? Do good men make good leaders? Does absolute power corrupt absolutely? Or does power attract people who already are corrupt?
These are the kinds of questions we’ve been trained to answer easily, but in the Game of Thrones universe things are not as simple. The show indirectly asks you a question, but never answers it. It leaves that up to you. It doesn’t spoon feed the audience, instead allowing each viewer to personalize the experience with their own opinions.
The world of Game of Thrones may be fantasy, but the people in it are realistic. They are not idealistic principles to which all people should aspire, but rather they are what all people already are. They love their children and will do anything for them. They want to be great, but often are foiled by their own imperfections.
We get a full understanding of their hopes, fears, desires, strengths and weaknesses. Even when we hate what someone does, we understand why they do it. We can relate to both their internal and external struggles.
On top of all that realism is peppered a very small number of mystical elements that add an additional layer of dread to the proceedings. Characters are fighting personal battles while the threat of an endless winter and monster invasion hang over their heads, with some of them paying the threat no mind.
The ways in which Game of Thrones has altered the traditional fantasy formula are staggering and give it the potential to be a truly revolutionary TV show. The production matches the detail of the story, and the opening title sequence alone shows more creativity than some entire series.
HBO has made sure to get every detail just right, from the food to the costumes to the set pieces. Everything has been meticulously created, making Westeros seem like a living and breathing place. It becomes easy to lose yourself in such an expertly developed world. It speaks volumes that I have read the books and know what will happen, yet I still have been on the edge of my seat in every episode.
Thus far the series has been a ratings success for HBO, rising in total viewers almost every week. With two episodes left in its first season, it already has been picked up for a second season and has been nominated for Best Drama in the Critics’ Choice Awards.
If Game of Thrones can continue to build viewership and garner more seasons, it has the potential to become one of the most memorable shows created in recent years. Part fantasy, part historical fiction, part family drama, it manages to combine several elements together seamlessly to create one of the most engaging experiences currently on television.