It’s a blueprint of sorts: take bloodstained high fantasy novels, then give them the prestige TV treatment. Fantasy fans, who are used to dodgy fare like BBC’s Merlin, will flock to an unusually lavish production. Fans of racier costume dramas like Spartacus or Rome will flock to its familiar spectacle. The result is a bigger tent than anyone could have guessed. Even after a scalding denouement which burned anyone who’d ever loved it, Game of Thrones looms large as a cultural phenomenon. If anything, its controversial ending has intensified a hunger for more.
Netflix and Amazon hurriedly set up their own supply, following much the same blueprint. Witcher and Wheel of Time successfully recapture Thrones’ cinematography and ornamentation. Collectively, their elaborate sets and breathtaking location work continue to startle and impress. Clearly, whatever painful budget lessons Rome taught HBO reached them as well. Their acting talent, drawn from British theater and the ranks of superstardom, is certainly up to snuff. Their respective source materials even hail from the same decade as George R.R. Martin’s 1996 novel. Essentially, Andrzesj Sapkowski’s Witcher saga and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time are from the same graduating class as Martin’s creation.
In their rush to establish competition, however, these shows have flattened some of the attributes which made them unique in print. They seem to misunderstand the source of not only Thrones’ success, but that of the properties under their control.
And like with most things in this genre, that goes back to Tolkien.
Tolkien did not publish Fellowship of the Ring to raucous applause. The literary establishment of 1954-1955 did not understand the mythmaking project nor why others would be interested in it. It was cherished by a small sect of admirers, among them poet W.H. Auden.
In the 1960s, Lord of the Rings exploded in popularity. Hippie counterculture found much to love in the pipe-smoking, provincial hobbits, and much to hate in the industry-minded, fascistic orcs. Over five years after its release, the trilogy began to sell tens of thousands of copies (many illegal).
In that time, they achieved apotheosis and became synonymous with the fantasy genre. Indeed, their voice became so strong that tearing away became torturous. Tolkien washed away the work of Robert E. Howard, Dunsany, and the fantasy authors before him. Dark lords, artifacts of power, dwarves, elves, and halflings littered the pages of every fantasy book in the English-speaking world. A little game called Dungeons & Dragons encouraged children everywhere to make their own version of Middle-earth.
History has forgotten most of the imitators’ names and their stillborn trilogies, though some, like Salvatore’s Drizzt books, keep going. Most imitations were, like Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara or Dungeons & Dragons, sincere acts of adolescent passion. Others were committed in cold blood. By his own admission, David Eddings admitted that his Belgariad cycle was inspired by envy of Tolkien’s book sales.
Sincere or not, fantasy writers despaired of ever breaking free. “His oeuvre is massive and contagious—you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try. The best you can do is consciously lance the boil,” wrote China Miéville. Mieville’s solution was to throw in with the New Weird, a fantasy movement which tried to ignore Tolkien and focus on Lovecraft and Howard. No sense in trying to beat Tolkien at his own game. Best to pretend that he never existed at all.
Within such a pessimistic environment, the perseverance of Martin, Sapkowski, and Jordan becomes remarkable. Unlike Mieville, none of them exited the arena which Tolkien defined. Each retained monarchies, magic, and the other hallmarks of high fantasy, but they illustrated how to extract Tolkien’s sensibilities from them. These literary prizefighters entered the 21st century with reputations large enough to warrant their current adaptations.
Among the wizard and ranger archetypes, Sapkowski inserted his witchers, exterminators of mythic beasts. He spun them as private investigators, and his initial short stories read like whodunnits with basilisks and beasties. Like a classic noir detective, the witcher hero Geralt is called in to sort out the liars and solve the case. This fictional profession provided a unique perspective on a Tolkienesque world.
Robert Jordan, on the other hand, integrated themes of eastern mythology and cyclical history. In the Wheel of Time, the battle between light and darkness is locked in a yin-yang relationship. Heroes and villains of legend literally reincarnate and carry on that battle down the ages.
And Martin? Martin broke down Tolkien’s rosier ideas about rightful kings. He introduced patterns of force from real monarchies. The overarching fate of Westeros may be the dead versus the living, but its moment-to-moment plotting was the shuffling of courtiers, bastards, and bloodlines. In practice, Martin included most of Tolkien’s recipe, but he gave a much more faithful portrait of medieval royalty. In Westeros, not Middle-earth, there was room for King Henry VIII.
Martin’s interpretation made it a prime candidate for adoption into the house that Sopranos built. HBO specializes in series that explore themes of power, violence, family, and sex, recreating the formula again and again in as many suitable genres as possible. Although each variation remains inventive, the script beats of sex workers, stabbings, and sordid backroom politics blend together.
Tony Soprano visits the Bada Bing strip club. Al Swearangen visits the Bella Union saloon. Tywin Lannister visits Littlefinger’s brothel. Hard-edged writing about the Way of the World is accompanied by naked flesh limned by the light of high noon, candles, or the stage. Scenes where power brokers meet in council chambers to make The Big Decision, usually to kill a character. Torture scenes and displays of violent, borderline sociopathy. Anyone who follows more than one such HBO show (with the possible exception of Succession) recognizes these sketches. This is a visual and narrative language that HBO speaks fluently, and it resonates with the core themes of Game of Thrones. Of course it worked. After all, they’ve been doing it long enough, and Martin’s world runs parallel to theirs.
Conversely, Witcher and Wheel of Time haven’t struck that union between their visual language and material. They transplant those HBO scene sketches and seasonal beats into their own work, seemingly on impulse.
In the first five minutes of Wheel of Time’s first episode, an Aes Sedai (sorceress) hunts down a male One Power user (sorcerer), torments him, and then either gentles (magically lobotomizes) him or kills him. Her name is Liandrin, and she’s a minor character and sadist from Book Two. In the first five minutes of its second episode, a Whitecloak (religious inquisition) officer mocks an Aes Sedai before burning her at the stake. His name is Eamon Valda, and he’s a minor character and sadist from Book Eight. It’s almost as if they’re locked in a game of one-upmanship with Joffrey and Ramsay Bolton, the memorable sadists from That Other Show. In between Liandrin and Valda, we have trysts, post-coital conversations, bathhouses, and shots of Lan’s (Daniel Henney’s) magnificently shaped hindquarters in candlelight.
Poking up from beneath the bathwater, there are glimmers of the easternish, New Age sentimentality Jordan portrayed in his books. Most of them involve Egwene and explanations of the One Power. But then they sometimes stray into feeling like Jackson’s trilogy, that other fantasy juggernaut.
Netflix’s Witcher suffers from a different symptom of the same affliction. For the most part, Thrones’ sex and grit suit it. Like most noir stories, the Witcher books were never far from the gutter. The show’s secondary protagonist Yennefer, for example, was a femme fatale in her short story “The Last Wish.” She was just an obstacle tempting the detective into throwing both the case and the moral high ground.
But the Netflix series chases the serialized nature of Thrones, eschewing its detective elements almost entirely. In Season 2, “A Grain of Truth,” Geralt and his charge Ciri are fleeing from Nilfgaardian shock troops and take refuge with his friend Nivellen, a man cursed with the visage of a beast. Nivellen greets them warmly. Of course, not everything is as it seems. One thing leads to another, and it culminates in a grand, courtyard-wrecking CGI fight between Geralt and a vampire. Then it’s back on the road to Kaer Morhen, back to the main plot.
In the short story version, Geralt discovers a slaughtered merchant and his daughter on the road. He follows the killer’s tracks to Nivellen’s mansion and, believing that he’s feral, nearly exterminates him. Nivellen explains his curse to a skeptical witcher, inviting the reader to deduce fact from falsehood. In the end, Geralt deduces the existence of the vampire. The act of actually slaying it takes a paragraph.
This is one example of Witcher succumbing to its continents-spanning plot of court intrigue. In this case, it betrays the brain behind the sword, reducing Geralt to a Jon Snow lookalike. It’s an oversight made more glaring because the popular video games based on the same character get it so right. Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has grisly crime scenes, detective vision, and morally gray NPCs to question—traits which demonstrate a firmer grasp of Geralt’s literary roots.
When any style as strong as HBO’s or Tolkien’s seizes a genre and, by happenstance or force of will, opens a path, it is difficult to preserve one’s own. Sometimes, as in David Eddings’ case, the culprit is greed. Sometimes it’s a lack of distance from your inspiration, the inability to put it out of mind. But the best ones—the ones people remember—will stop, remember their own identity, and speak clearly.
Sean Weeks is a student of classics and mythology who’s wandered slightly off course. If you want to join him in his odyssey, you can visit him at www.weeksauthor.com.
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