Fantasy's Spell on Pop Culture: When Will It Wear Off?

From Harry Potter to Game of Thrones, fantasy series are big hits. But are we in a bubble?



A little over a decade ago, I picked up a book at a used bookstore. On the cover, a lone rider crossed a snow-swept field on a black horse. A raven flew above the man's shoulder and a snow-covered castle loomed off in the background. By all accounts it was as generic an illustration as any other fantasy book at the time. I had never heard of it before, but it had a catchy title: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin.

After reading the prologue I couldn't put it down. I read the first chapter standing in the bookstore. By the end of the second I knew it would be a late night. A Game of Thrones, I could tell already, was going to be different, and it was going to be good.

Shortly after reading the first book, which was originally published in 1996, and its sequel A Clash of Kings, the third book in the series was published. A Storm of Swords came out in October of 2000, and was the most gripping of the books to date. Although it was longer than all three Lord of the Rings books combined, I read it over the weekend.

It was five years before the fourth book, A Feast for Crows was released in October of 2005. Six more years passed before the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons, was published last month.

Much has changed in the fantasy market between my long weekend of reading in 2000 and the publication of Martin's latest book: Fantasy, it seems, has gone mainstream. And as the genre has become more and more popular, pushing book sales and spawning film franchises, you have to wonder: Are we in a fantasy bubble?

In the past decade, Peter Jackson filmed and released all three The Lord of the Rings films. J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books turned their creator into a billionaire. Numerous other children's fantasy series have mushroomed up as the audience has expanded and spread out across generations. The Golden Compass books stirred up controversy with religious conservatives, while the same religious conservatives adapted C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia into an ongoing film franchise.

A Game of Thrones has also benefitted from fantasy's entry into the mainstream. HBO has already aired the first season of its adaptation of Martin's books, and suddenly everyone is talking about the series. On blogs and Twitter people make cracks about the Lannisters when referencing the deficit debate. Major magazines (including The Atlantic) have published roundtables discussing both the show and the books.

It's almost disconcerting. After all, fantasy used to be for dorks. You didn't take a girl out to see a fantasy flick, and your grandmother didn't read Dragonlance. Books like A Game of Thrones and Harry Potter have changed all of that. When I began recommending Martin's books to friends, I didn't limit my recommendations to fantasy readers. To my great surprise, many people I knew who sniffed at fantasy before told me they couldn't put the books down. They joined in the chorus of impatient fans urging Martin to just get on with it and publish something already.

Other fantasy series are in the works and being prepped for high-cost adaptations. HBO is adapting popular fantasy writer Neil Gaiman's American Gods into a six-season series. Peter Jackson is producing a two-part film release of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.

Fantasy has become big business. The success of Stephanie Meyer's vampire Twilight books translated into blockbusters at the box office. Fantasy as a genre grew by 20 percent between 2005, when A Feast for Crows was published, and 2010, when Twilight was at the peak of its popularity. Book sales at the suddenly antiquated brick-and-mortar book stores across the country rose sharply this July when A Dance with Dragons was released.

Meanwhile movie studios and book publishers are both eagerly sniffing out the next Harry Potter or Twilight to prop up otherwise lagging book and ticket sales.

All of which raises the question: have we reached peak fantasy? Aside from Martin's books, much of the best-selling fantasy out there has been distinctly non-genre work like Twilight, which no self-respecting fantasy purist would ever be caught dead reading, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, by Rick Riordan, or Harry Potter (though whether the Harry Potter books qualify as true fantasy is more controversial, with many fans and many detractors in the fantasy traditionalist camp). There have been other successes, such as the popular Hunger Games trilogy, which is in production for a film version due in theatres in 2012, but Hunger Games is less fantasy and more speculative or science-fiction. With few fantasies capable of transcending the genre/mainstream divide, can publishers and studios continue to rely on fantasy to provide blockbusters?

Fantasy lends itself well to trilogies and to longer series. Harry Potter was seven books long, but Warner Brothers squeezed it into eight films. A Game of Thrones is the first book in Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series, which may be as long as eight books by the time it's finished. If HBO can afford the tab, it could make as many as eighty or more hour-long episodes. And if loyal fans keep coming back for more, these long shows and multi-film franchises represent a huge cash cow for both publishers and studios. The trick is finding more and more fantasy books with loyal—and large—fan bases.

Therein lies the rub. There's a reason fantasy wasn't mainstream before. It's a genre that appeals to people who play D&D and get their kicks reading about elves with names like Tanis Half-Elven and Galadriel. Unless publishers can keep finding the next big crossover, fantasy may once again return to its less mainstream, and considerably less profitable, roots. People can only take in so many teenage vampire romances and wizarding schools. It's possible that the next Harry Potter is just around the corner, of course, but it seems like no matter how many "Is Such-and-Such the Next Harry Potter?" articles I read, the books never quite gain enough momentum to go mainstream. Books like Lev Grossman's The Magicians gain wide critical acclaim, but then run into the immovable object that is the hardcore fantasy fan base.

As much as I'm enjoying the bubble, I won't care too much if it bursts. Fantasy has simply gotten better over the past decade, and most of the best titles will never be adapted into an HBO series or a movie anyways. The really good stuff these days also tends to be really edgy. R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing series is so dark I'm not sure it would make an R-rating if it were translated to the silver screen. Many other contemporary fantasies are similarly adult, with lots of sex and lots of violence. Steven Erikson's Malazan books are also dark, but more problematic from a filmmaking standpoint, as the popular series spans several distinct time periods, countless perspectives, and a sprawling epic storyline. The various storylines are not obviously connected with one another even after several books. Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series suffers from the same kind of shortcomings. What works in epic fantasy doesn't necessarily translate onto the big screen.

Plus fantasy costs too much money to produce. Dragons, spells, and fantastical worlds are expensive, even in the age of digital animation that has made this all possible. It's one thing to adapt A Game of Thrones, which is as much medieval adventure as it is high fantasy. Martin's work has little overt magic, and few magical creatures. Compare this to the work of Jordan, Erikson, or Bakker and you begin to see how studios such as HBO might be leery of the investment.

The big studios, however, shouldn't always look to new writers and new works to find their next jackpot. The Chrestomanci books by Diana Wynne Jones would be almost certain hits, in spite of (or perhaps thanks to) their similarity to the Harry Potter books. Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series would also make a wonderful series of films without stretching budgets too thin. And there are many others.

The fantasy bubble may still be a long ways from bursting, but I wouldn't expect it to last forever. For fantasy fans, this shouldn't be too demoralizing. Too much magic has always ruined good fantasy, after all.