It’s kind of a blueprint: take bloodstained high fantasy novels, then give them the prestige TV treatment. Fantasy fans, who are used to dodgy fare like the BBC’s Merlin, will flock to an exceptionally lavish production. Fans of more racy costume dramas like Spartacus Where Rome will flock to its familiar sight. The result is a tent bigger than anyone could have guessed. Even after a searing denouement that burned everyone who had ever loved it, game of thrones occupies an important place as a cultural phenomenon. On the contrary, his controversial end intensified the thirst for more.
Netflix and Amazon hastily put together their own offering, following much the same plan. Witcher and wheel of time resume successfully thrones cinematography and ornamentation. Collectively, their elaborate sets and jaw-dropping location work continue to surprise and impress. Obviously, whatever the painful budgetary lessons Rome learned that HBO has also reached them. Their acting talent, drawn from British theater and the superstar ranks, is certainly on par. Their respective sources even come from the same decade as George RR Martin’s 1996 novel. Essentially, Andrzesj Sapkowski Witcher saga and that of Robert Jordan wheel of time are from the same class as Martin’s creation.
In their rush to establish competition, however, these shows flattened out some of the attributes that made them unique in print. They seem to misunderstand the source not only thrones success, but that of the properties under their control.
And as with most things in this genre, it goes back to Tolkien.
Tolkien did not publish Fellowship of the Ring to loud applause. The literary establishment of 1954-55 did not understand the myth-making project or why others would care. He was cherished by a small sect of admirers, among them the poet WH Auden.
In the 1960s, the Lord of the Rings exploded in popularity. The hippie counterculture found much to love in pipe-smoking, provincial hobbits, and much to dislike in industrial-minded fascist orcs. More than five years after its release, the trilogy has begun selling tens of thousands of copies (many of them illegal).
Around this time, they reached apotheosis and became synonymous with the fantasy genre. Indeed, their voices were getting so loud that tearing themselves away was torture. Tolkien brushed aside the work of Robert E. Howard, Dunsany, and fantasy writers 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 around the world to create their own version of Middle-earth.
History has forgotten most of the names of the impersonators and their stillborn trilogies, though some, like Salvatore’s Drizzt books, continue. Most impersonations were, like those of Terry Brooks Shannara Sword Where 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 the envy of Tolkien’s book sales.
Sincere or not, fantasy writers despaired of ever breaking free. “His work is massive and contagious, you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try. The best you can do is consciously start the boil,” writes China Miéville. Mieville’s solution was to join the New Weird, a fantasy movement that tried to ignore Tolkien and focus on Lovecraft and Howard. No point trying to beat Tolkien at his own game. Better to pretend he never existed.
In such a pessimistic environment, the perseverance of Martin, Sapkowski and Jordan becomes remarkable. Unlike Mieville, none of them stepped out of the arena defined by Tolkien. Each retained the monarchies, magic, and other hallmarks of high fantasy, but they illustrated how to extract Tolkien’s sensibility from it. These literary fighters entered the 21st century with a reputation big enough to justify their current adaptations.
Among the wizard and ranger archetypes, Sapkowski has inserted his wizards, exterminators of mythical beasts. He turned them into private detectives, and his early stories read like thrillers with basilisks and critters. Like a classic dark detective, the witcher hero Geralt is called in to unravel the liars and solve the case. This fictional profession offered a unique perspective on a Tolkienesque world.
Robert Jordan, on the other hand, incorporated themes from Eastern mythology and cyclical history. In the wheel of time, the battle between light and darkness is locked in a yin-yang relationship. The heroes and villains of legend literally reincarnate and continue this battle through the ages.
And Martina? Martin shattered Tolkien’s rosier ideas of legitimate kings. He introduced force patterns from real monarchies. Westeros’ overall fate may be the dead against the living, but its instant plot was the mix of courtiers, bastards, and bloodlines. In practice, Martin included most of Tolkien’s recipe, but he gave a much more accurate portrayal of medieval royalty. In Westeros, not Middle-earth, there was room for King Henry VIII.
Martin’s interpretation made him a prime candidate for adoption into the house that Soprano built. HBO specializes in series that explore themes of power, violence, family and sex, recreating the formula again and again in as many appropriate genres as possible. While each variation remains inventive, the storyline beats of sex workers, stabbings, and sordid behind-the-scenes politics blend together.
Tony Soprano visits Bada Bing’s strip club. Al Swearangen visits the Bella Union salon. Tywin Lannister visits Littlefinger’s brothel. The sharp writing on The Way of the World is accompanied by bare flesh illuminated by midday light, candles or the stage. Scenes where power brokers gather in the council room to make the big decision, usually to kill a character. Scenes of torture and demonstrations of violent and borderline sociopathy. Anyone who follows more than one of these HBO shows (except maybe Succession) recognizes these sketches. It’s a visual and narrative language that HBO is fluent in, and it resonates with the central themes of game of thrones. Of course, it worked. After all, they’ve been doing it for quite a long time, and Martin’s world parallels theirs.
Conversely, Witcher and wheel of time have not found this union between their visual language and the material. They transplant these HBO scene skits and seasonal beats into their own work, seemingly on a whim.
In the first five minutes of The wheel of time first episode, an Aes Sedai (witch) stalks a male One Power (sorcerer) user, torments him, then softens him (magically lobotomizes him) or kills him. Her name is Liandrin, and she’s a minor, sadistic character in Book Two. In the first five minutes of its second episode, a Whitecloak (religious inquisition) officer taunts an Aes Sedai before burning her at the stake. His name is Eamon Valda, and he is a minor and sadistic character 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. Between Liandrin and Valda, we have hot dates, post-coital conversations, bathhouses, and photos of Lan’s (Daniel Henney) beautifully shaped rear end by candlelight.
Rising from under the bathwater, there are glimmers of the Eastern and New Age sentimentality that Jordan portrays in his books. Most of them involve Egwene and One Power explanations. But then they sometimes wander off feeling like the Jackson trilogy, which other fantastic juggernaut.
by Netflix Witcher suffers from a different symptom of the same condition. For the majority, thrones sex and courage suit him. Like most dark stories, the Witcher books were never far from the gutter. The series’ secondary protagonist, Yennefer, for example, was a femme fatale in her short story “The Last Wish.” She was just a tempting obstacle for the detective to throw out both the case and the moral.
But the Netflix series continues the serialized nature of thrones, almost entirely avoiding its detective elements. In Season 2, “A Grain of Truth”, Geralt and his manager Ciri flee from Nilfgaardian shock troops and take refuge with his friend Nivellen, a cursed beast-faced man. Nivellen greets them warmly. Of course, all is not as it seems. One thing leads to another, and it culminates in a big yard-destroying 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 version, Geralt discovers a shot merchant and his daughter on the road. He follows the killer’s tracks to the Nivellen mansion and, believing him to be savage, nearly exterminates him. Nivellen explains his curse to a skeptical witcher, inviting the reader to guess right from wrong. In the end, Geralt deduces the existence of the vampire. Killing him takes a paragraph.
This is an example of Witcher succumb to his plot of court intrigue spanning several continents. In this case, he betrays the mastermind behind the sword, reducing Geralt to a Jon Snow lookalike. This is an oversight all the more glaring since popular video games based on the same character do it so well. Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has grisly crime scenes, a detective’s outlook, and morally gray NPCs to interrogate – traits that demonstrate a deeper understanding of Geralt’s literary roots.
When a style as strong as that of HBO or Tolkien takes hold of a genre and, by chance or by force of will, opens a path, it is difficult to preserve one’s own. Sometimes, as in the case of David Eddings, the culprit is greed. Sometimes it’s a lack of distance from your inspiration, the inability to forget it. 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 has strayed a bit from his course. If you want to join him on his odyssey, you can visit him at www.weeksauthor.com.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.