This entry contains spoilers, specifically for those who have not yet watched Game of Thrones.
This week was a somewhat interesting one for me, as I was able to screen two pieces that essentially epitomize two polar ends of a particular genre – the fantasy epic (or “high fantasy.”) On Sunday, I watched what will likely go down a benchmark installment of the series Game of Thrones, entitled “Baelor,” in which the series’ closest approximation to a main character, Eddard “Ned” Stark (played by Sean Bean, also the series’ “star”) was killed off in what was only the ninth episode. Two days later, I began what will be three straight weeks of rewatching, in theatres, each installment of Peter Jackson’s blockbuster adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy with The Fellowship of the Ring (these will be remastered versions of the Extended Editions – which have rarely been shown in theaters, having been produced mainly for the home DVD market). This coming Tuesday, I’ll be attending the screening of the next installment, The Two Towers, and the week after that will be a viewing The Return of the King. In viewing each film, I was struck by their obvious similarities and dissimilarities, and the ways in which each succeed on their own terms and in their own way. They also put into perspective how each of the works, and their source material, broaden the view one can take of a film and literary genre that most would perceive rather narrowly – myself included.
I’m sure The Lord of the Rings (or LOTR) really needs very little introduction for those who are reading this now – based on the fantasy epic first published in the 1950s and which represented a major literary milestone in the true maturation of the “epic fantasy” – the films are among the most financially successful and best remembered movies from the last decade. Made simultaneously by Jackson and a massive cast and crew, the three films generated billions in box office and merchandising, as well as substantial critical acclaim and awards recognition (the last film Return of the King, was awarded the Best Picture Academy Award and ties the record for most Oscars won by a film in a single year). It tells concurrent stories, the main of which focuses on Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), a young hobbit (or halfling) from the pastoral Shire who must make an epic journey, against all odds, into the heart of the land of Mordor to destroy the magical ring of the Dark Lord Sauron and vanquish him forever. (Why any Dark Lord in good standing undertake the seemingly self-defeating strategy of putting all of his evil power into a ring still has been never been explained to my satisfaction, but in tales within which orcs play a significant role, sometimes logic must abide). With the distant support of his friends, including the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan), the exiled king Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), and the elf-turned-teen heartthrob Legolas (Orlando Bloom) , and the immediate support of his fellow hobbit Samwise (Sean Astin), Frodo ultimately completes his mission and saves Middle Earth from the forces of evil.
Game of Thrones, which began airing earlier this year on the premium cable channel HBO, is based on another epic fantasy series, begun in the 1990s and still progressing, A Song of Ice and Fire, by New Jersey’s own George RR Martin (the television show takes its name from the series’ first novel). The series relates the political and familial intrigues of the royal houses of the very tenuously aligned Seven Kingdoms of Westeros – a massive continent-sized nation in an alternate fantasy world where seasons are known to last years – as each family tries to impose their will over the future of the kingdom. Predominantly, the series thus far has told the story of the Starks (headed by patriarch Ned), a good-hearted and honorable noble family from the Northernmost Kingdom of Winterfell, who are drawn into the machinations of the wealthy, powerful, but also highly dysfunctional Lannister family, who are in-laws of the reigning king, Robert Baratheon. Having read and recently re-read Martin’s original novel, I can attest to the fact that the Game of Thrones or GOT, thus far, has hewn very close to its source, right up to the shocking and heartbreaking execution of Ned.
Though each represent the genre of high fantasy (so defined by the fact that the action is set in an alternate fantasy world), LOTR and GOT are thematically, stylistically, tonally, and aesthetically incredibly different (despite the fact that characters played by Sean Bean die relatively early in each). LOTR is an all-ages, epic story of very well defined good characters battling obviously evil characters, set against a backdrop where magic and monsters are commonplace, and war is righteous and noble part of tradition. Characters from various races (such as hobbit, elf, dwarf, and man) fight side-by-side with or against each other, and good ultimately conquers evil with almost all the noble characters seeing their way through in the end (LOTR is also a phallocentric world centered on the exploits of men, with the only women present being those who ultimately choose to define themselves in masculine terms).
Alternatively, the very R-rated GOT exists in world that is unsparingly gritty, brutal, uncompromising, and, perhaps shockingly, highly realistic. Magic exists in the universe of the show, but its occurrences are fairly rare, and its existence, as well as the existence of mythical monsters, regarded as superstitions by the majority of the show’s characters. In GOT, concepts of good and evil really do not apply, as the very political nature of the stories dictate that the best characters are those that are able to balance their ability to be cruel and kind in the face of extremely realistic dilemmas. Nothing emphasizes this better than the fate of Ned Stark. Though noble at heart and committed to honor, Ned is ultimately destroyed by the fact that he is unwilling to place the good of all over his own personal honor, leading him to fall prey to the much more devious Lannisters and the series’ closest thing to a true villain, the scheming Littlefinger (Aiden Gillan).
Yet even the villains themselves also often have motivations that are empathetic, and even sympathetic. And again, it must be emphasized, this series earns its R-rating – sex, incest, prostitution, rape, molestation, gore, and violence are all fairly par the course in Westeros. One important character is even graphically executed by having molten metal poured on his head.
In many respects, GOT represents a similar step forward in fantasy filmmaking, just as Jackson’s LOTR had ten years ago. But whereas Jackson’s trilogy brought the fantasy genre up from its strictly B-movie sword-and-sorcery antecedents, GOT strives to elevate to the level of the adult prestige drama, using extremely well drawn characters, intense, adult situations, sex, violence, and moral ambiguity to present the fantasy genre in a way many have never see before (and, gratefully for me, does it without the self-reflexive and obnoxiously smug irony that seems to permeate so much genre material these days). The series is not unworthy of criticism, however. Being an HBO series, the sexual content is often ratched well into overdrive, to a degree that is sometimes rather uncomfortable to watch. Another scene from the series that has also garnered some degree of infamy, featured the villainous character Littlefinger describing his motivations while “auditioning” two female prostitutes for his high class whorehouse, leading to a fairly explicit and prolonged lesbian sex scene. Another of the major story threads, involving the exiled teenage princess Daenarys (Emilia Clarke), involves her being married off to a barbarian king who rapes her on her wedding night, which is filmed in extremely voyeuristic fashion, leaving little of Daenarys’ body to the imagination. Simultaneously, as Jace Lacob pointed out in an article on The Daily Beast, the horrors of rape, an aspect that the novels emphasize as a way of illustrating the unpleasantness and brutality of medieval life and sexual politics, is largely downplayed for overly-titilating softcore. However, I would largely lay most of the blame for this on HBO itself, as the overabundance of nudity and sex is a staple for the network’s original series, occassionally to their detriment (see the award-winning The Pacific for some notable examples of this). With that said, I don’t think it has compromised the series’ overall quality and drama, though it has certainly diminished its prestige and mitigated my enjoyment at times.
This past Sunday’s episode, one of the best of the series thus far, took the series’ ambitions to yet another level when it chose to follow through on the death of its star character (just as it had occurred in the novel). When I went on the internet on Monday, while checking up on how well Super 8 did at the box office (in relation to my previous blog post), I found myself drawn into reading much of the certainly vitriolic response that was formulated in response to Ned’s execution. Fans and previous readers of the book like myself of course knew it was coming, but for most everyone else the event seemed to be quite the shock. Many appeared to be up in arms, and called it an abomination to have actually killed off the main character just as the first season was about to come to a close (the season finale is this weekend). Some even claimed to have sworn off the series, and stated their intention to essentially badmouth to everyone they know. On the other end of the spectrum, many are in awe of the raw audacity of it all, and applaud the program’s willingness to break the rules of normal televisual series narrative. As someone making his way through the rest of the books in the still-incomplete series, I find both sides to be somewhat wrong.
Certainly, I think the first group is overreacting and being overly dogmatic to the rules and comfortable expectations of series television. And I love Sean Bean, too (Sharpe rules!), but I don’t see how anyone can doubt that Peter Dinklage, as dwarf and black sheep of the Lannisters, “The Imp” Tyrion, hasn’t completely stolen the show at this point.
Perhaps surprisingly, I also disagree with those admiring the, for lack of a better term, “balsiness” of this move – it would be one thing if a newly original series had decided to go off and kill the main character a few episodes in, but Martin has laid a lot of groundwork that the showrunners are now following, and I can tell you, it’ll only get better from here.
But as I sat down and waited for Fellowship to begin two days later, I couldn’t help but feel concerned that perhaps I would now look back at this film I loved when I first saw it ten years ago (when it really rekindled my love of movies after September 11 had made them all feel so insignificant) with some feeling of triviality. I wanted to leave that theater still holding the movie in my heart, and I was worried, that in a post-GOT, that it might not be possible.
Thankfully, it was. Granted, certain parts of Fellowship don’t completely hold up. Peter Jackson, to his credit, sought to wring every drop of drama and impact out of Tolkien’s narrative, but as a result, there were more than a few moments that felt extremely overwrought (like Samwise’s needless near-drowning at the film’s end). And frankly, the multiple teases of Frodo’s demise get pretty tiresome.
But the magic was still there – the effects held up brilliantly, the characterizations hold up perfectly, and, like I have many times before, I found myself wilfully getting lost in this world of elves, orcs, and magic rings of ridiculous power (I mean, really, if I have God-like power, why on Middle Earth would I put it all in a RING?!? Why don’t I…I don’t know… JUST KEEP IT? I’m digressing…).
So fortunately, I find that looking forward to both the end of this season of GOT (not to mention future seasons, as it’s already been renewed) and two more weeks of LOTR (and two installments of The Hobbit) to not be mutually exclusive concepts. More than that, though, watching two such radically different exemplars of the fantasy genre in this fashion makes me realize that we all may be looking at something that only has room to grow and mature in the meta sense, just as the western, the space epic, and the superhero movie have done before. As LOTR showed then and GOT shows now, worlds of magic need not be looked down on as escapist subject matter for young children, nerds, or stereotypical maladjusted adults. They can also be art.
(I’ll be posting my thoughts of the next two installments of LOTR when I see them, and Game of Thrones, as warranted.)