Game of Thrones transformed the TV landscape—and brought fantasy to a new, literary audienceby Lucinda Smyth / July 25, 2017 / Leave a comment
On paper, HBO’s Game of Thrones should be automatically classed as naff, low-brow television. With lurchy shock twists, gratuitous nudity, wooden acting, gimmicky celebrity cameos, and hammy Olde Englyshe dialogue, there’s more than enough here to offend anyone’s tastes. (Despite a budget of $10 million per episode, the special effects are also laughably camp.) Yet last week’s season premier drew 16 million viewers in the US, many of whom then went to the internet to publicly post their opinions. Game of Thrones is not only the most-watched show on TV—it is also the most talked-about. And, crucially, it is consistently talked about in a way that is usually reserved for highbrow fiction.
If you stumble upon a Game of Thrones blog late on a Monday night, you won’t just find nerds salivating over Daenerys and the latest plot developments. The scope and detail of their insights are extraordinary: obscure references to Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Tudor history abound; character analyses are stuffed with winks to Kierkegaard and Sartre. It’s not just the internet who speaks in this way, either. In 2013, John Lanchester penned a 4000-word paean to the series in the London Review of Books. The University of Glasgow is now holding an introductory course entitled “Game of Thrones and Philosophy: Politics, Power and War”, with a primary focus on game theory, but also “bringing in Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau” for good measure.
Some backstory may be necessary here. The HBO show is based on a series of novels written by George R.R. Martin, the first of which was published in 1996. With three more books following over the next ten years, and the ageing Martin churning them out at an increasingly slow pace, fans’ relief was palpable when HBO acquired TV rights in 2008. (The producers have been told how it ends.) The first episode aired three years later. Martin kept publishing, but not fast enough, so the TV series is now ahead of the novels. In this sense, the highbrow critical reception is particularly interesting: while scif-if and fantasy addicts are renowned for their obsessive attention to detail, TV watchers aren’t. Ten years ago a fantasy series on television with this much intellectual heft would have been unthinkable. So what’s happened?