What made a worldwide TV audience embrace Game of Thrones to point where it became a legitimate phenomenon, and how did it manage to succeed while defying the odds for a “high fantasy” program? On the eve of the premiere of its final season, we look at five things that made all of us become obsessed with Game of Thrones.
1. It’s Faithful to George R.R. Martin
Benioff and Weiss tell the story of how they got involved with Game of Thrones.
When you adapt any kind of lucrative and beloved property into another form of media, you run the risk of not capturing what was special about the original work. The success of franchises like Harry Potter, The Walking Dead, The Lord of the Rings, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe all share a common factor of treating the source material with respect and being as reasonably faithful as one could expect while occasionally making necessary changes to enhance the television or cinematic experience.
That is the path that showrunners and executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss followed when they set out to adapt George R.R. Martin’s bestselling A Song of Ice and Fire series. Their original five-hour pitch meeting with Martin impressed the author, who countered with one question (he asked the pair what their guess was as to the true identity of Jon Snow’s mother). Benioff and Weiss pitched the series to HBO (which, given the nature of the material, was both reasonable and in line with Martin’s vision of the network as the only place where Thrones could really conceivably be done).
Since then, the producers, writers, directors, and actors have shown amazing devotion to Martin’s work. No, it isn’t an exact translation. Yes, some characters or elements have been combined or omitted. But the show’s ability to approximate the feel and direction of the books has been frankly incredible. That adherence to Martin helped cement acceptance of the show within the literary fanbase, and the program’s willingness to use the strong skeleton that was already there made it easy for new viewers to get hooked.
2. The Plot Is Clever and Full of Twists
In a scene loaded with symbols and hints of things to come, the Starks find orphaned dire wolf pups.
Martin knew what he was doing in terms of crafting the plot. He leaned on real historical intrigue, such as the battles surrounding the War of the Roses, and wove that and other ideas into a complex tapestry of seven kingdoms vying for control of the continent of Westeros. He populated the various houses with compelling and intriguing characters; some were bad people with some redeeming qualities, others were good people burdened by difficult things that they’d done. But almost none of them were boring. Weiss, Benioff, and the other writers worked from this blueprint to craft a well-paced show with an enormous variety of character types.
Additionally, the famous twists and surprises from the novels imported brilliantly to the screen. Big moments on the page like the Red Wedding, the Purple Wedding, that surprise execution in season one, and more became legitimate pop culture touchstones after they appeared in the show. In an age where it’s harder to have watercooler TV conversations due to fractured viewing audiences, it seemed like everyone had a take on the latest Thrones development. Having the show run on HBO only helped with this, as some of the more shocking moments, particularly related to violence or sex, would have never flown on a broadcast network. On HBO, the producers could keep Martin’s intent intact, and they mined it for ratings gold.
3. The Cast Is Stellar
Peter Dinklage discusses his time as Tyrion.
Speaking of gold, Game of Thrones has that literally and figuratively in casting director Nina Gold. Thanks to her and the minds behind the show, the series boasts what showbiz observers like to call “champagne casting.” That’s the idea that you’ve done such a perfect job of filling a role that it’s time to break out the bubbly. Thrones has been impeccably cast from the start, from Sean Bean’s noble but foolish Ned Stark to Lena Headey’s diabolical Cersei Lannister and beyond. Casting child actors that grow into strong adult actors is particularly hard, but Gold and company pulled it off more than a dozen times, securing the likes of Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark), Maisie Williams (Arya Stark), Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran Stark), and Jack Gleeson (Joffrey Baratheon). Kit Harrington, the man that would become the brooding center of the show, Jon Snow, landed Thrones as his first television role, period. That was also the case for John Bradley (Jon’s buddy, Samwell Tarly). For Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen ), it was her first regular series.
The enormously appealing cast was almost immediately embraced as fan favorites, but perhaps none more than Peter Dinklage. As Tyrion Lannister (easily the most popular character in the books), Dinklage has given a complex and quotable performance, managing to be sympathetic, comedic, vengeful, and charismatic, sometimes within the same scene. He was the first actor cast of the entire ensemble, and he’s won three Emmys and a Golden Globe for the role.
4. The World Is Its Stage
Season 5’s Battle of Hardhome took a month to film in the Magheramorne quarry in Northern Ireland.
The budget and support afforded by HBO has allowed the series to film in locations like Ireland, Iceland, Malta, Croatia, and Spain. The real-world settings, combined with top-flight set construction and effects, lend Westeros the feeling of a concrete and believable fantasy world, similar to Peter Jackson’s masterful use of New Zealand in The Lord of the Rings series. The frozen wasteland beyond the Wall in Thrones is all the more convincing thanks to the actual Icelandic landscape. The setting does a good deal of work for the actors, allowing them to be believable in environments that vary from deserts to a Europe-like autumn.
5. It’s Not Magic Right Away
A classic season 3 scene shows why you don’t mess with the Mother of Dragons.
Thrones opens with the suggestion of supernatural menace; its first scene, like the first scene in the novels, introduces the threat of the Others, the White Walkers from beyond the Wall. However, it puts that aside to build up the human characters and court intrigue. All the dragons are gone, the story tells us, and magic doesn’t really exist anymore. Or so we’re led to believe.
By delaying much of the fantastic in the fantasy, the series hooks the audience with plot and character. That’s when perhaps the biggest twist happens, and that is this simple fact: magic isn’t dead, and the dragons are about to come back. As the story expands and we begin to regularly deal with dire wolves, magic priestesses, shadow creatures, shapeshifting assassins, ice demons, zombie polar bears, and, of course, dragons, it’s all easier to accept because we as viewers have already embraced the complex and nuanced world that the various creators have built.
As we head into this short final season, the audience has a laundry list of questions. Can the alliance of Jon Snow and Daenerys overcome the Night King? What will happen when Jon’s true parentage is revealed? Will Arya take her revenge on Cersei? Is CleganeBowl going to happen? And, of course, who will sit on the Iron Throne? Whatever the answers, a worldwide army of viewers stands ready to complete the journey. Game of Thrones has been thrilling, engrossing, and sometimes exhausting, but at the end of all, it has been a distinct pleasure to watch.
Featured image: Promotion photo featuring Sean Bean as Ned Stark. (©HBO)