'Game of Thrones': A Brutal Fantasy With Mass Appeal

HBO's new series, Game of Thrones, premieres on Sunday. This week, we're featuring five different takes on the show, which is the first foray into fantasy for a network that has built its programming on grimly realistic stories like The Sopranos and The Wire. Atlantic correspondent Alyssa Rosenberg began the conversation, and The American Prospect's Adam Serwer and Mother Jones' Nick Baumann continued it. Now, Amber Taylor picks up the thread:



HBO's new adaptation of George R. R. Martin's bestselling series of fantasy novels is yet more evidence that television, not motion pictures, is now where truly sweeping, complex stories are being told. Although I've been an evangelist of the books for years (even going so far as to have spare copies of Game of Thrones for ready lending and conversion), it's heartening to see a fantasy narrative given a respectful and serious airing. Because magic is so peripheral in the early episodes of Game of Thrones, the fantasy trappings are not a long leap from these already familiar to viewers of shows like Rome, The Tudors, or The Borgias. And after they've been hooked by the characters and complex plot, even people normally allergic to swords and sorcery won't be able to change the channel.

As Alyssa observed earlier this week, fantasy too often is dismissed as mere escapism. But recent years have shown that there is a growing appetite for gritty stories like those Martin and HBO are serving up. Martin's books are part of a cresting wave of "hard fantasy" writing that seeks to ground itself in unflinching portrayals of feudalism and medieval warfare. In place of the cardboard-cutout, can't-lose protagonists common to the most conventional epic fantasies, Martin and other writers in this tradition embrace the fact that readers become more emotionally involved with characters who are actually vulnerable. The effect of this is that nobody in these stories, as in life, is safe. We cannot be sure that good shall triumph, which makes those instances where it does—even partially—all the more exulting.

HBO understands this aspect of the books and runs with it. Game of Thrones draws you in not by presenting the viewer with a easily identifiable hero to project one's self upon, but with an ensemble of characters with sometimes sympathetic, often imperfect motives. We are immediately drawn, for example, to Peter Dinklage's wry and pragmatic Tyrion Lannister, even as we are repulsed by the acts of his family, to which he is forthrightly loyal. And Ned Stark, the closest thing Game of Thrones has to a hero, is a loving father who is nevertheless willing to dispose of his children in politically useful but dangerous ways.

Newcomers to the material may struggle. I was grateful when the young men of Winterfell had a shave, as scruffily bearded teenage boys wearing big fur capes tend to blend together. And the demands of adapting a brick-sized novel to ten episodes mean that we get much less coverage of the Lannister clan's history and interpersonal relationships, to the dramatic advantage of House Stark. But even by halfway through the season, we can feel wheels inexorably turning, and the triumph of any one faction would be bittersweet, since even the most scheming family has at least one character whom we long to protect from the coming winter.

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Amber Taylor, an attorney, blogs on culture and law at PrettierThanNapoleon.com.

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