Sex and violence.
Robust and luscious naked bodies. Carnal offerings. Perfect specimens thrust upon our screens with a merciful abandonment of rigorously applied censorship laws.
Invigorating scenes of humiliation and torture – the gratifying upshots of brutal escapades resulting in brutal slayings and executions – one awful death following fast upon the other. Our appetite for grisly cinematic scenes is unendingly voracious. We are human, after all.
Never has gratuity been so finely tuned to excite our aesthetic appreciation of the finer points of a visceral visual spectacle coupled with electrifying human drama.
Truly, our species thrives upon the satisfaction of ribald thirsts and the bloodlusts of our status as would-be man-eating gods, such as we dare not admit to ourselves.
Behold, the obfuscations of our denials upon the mirror of truth.
Sex and violence rule the roost of the unforced feeding of popular appetites. Moralising the issue can’t hold up – the moral centre cannot hold – not when the appetites are fed so rapaciously, with such a delectable selection of choice meats on offer. The human carnivore – the insatiable, cocksure sensualist – cannot resist the lure of such nutritious boons.
If truth be told, the number one reason for the success of Game of Thrones isn’t the sex and violence – however constructively, lewdly, blithely or artfully done it might seem. Sex and violence are common elements in fiction that appear widespread across a multitude of books, films and TV series, none of which are even remotely as close to being as popular as Game of Thrones.
The accentuated sex and violence doesn’t do the franchise any harm, no. But this is not the reason for its success. The real reason for its success is a matter, solely, of technique and the manner in which it has been deployed by its creator.
1. TV Touchstones
The success of Game of Thrones has gone beyond all magnitude of expectation due to its remarkable rendering in television. It has done for Fantasy what nuclear weapons have done for the world. It is explosive on a scale never before seen.
That the TV series should be so successful, given the accessibility and popularity of the medium, is not necessarily a shock to those who were already familiar with the book series. But it’s a remarkable achievement all the same.
The success of the TV series is based, in the first place, on three probably obvious factors:
- Skillful and faithful TV adaptation of the events and characters in the written version – with some adjustments to suit the visual medium.
- (Following on from above . . .) the extensive involvement of the creator in order to ensure that continuity between the books and TV episodes is maintained at all costs.
- A highly talented pool of actresses and actors strutting their stuff to maximum effect – each and every one of them playing their parts to as near to perfection as you can get.
It follows from this that none of the success of the TV series would have occurred without the immense success of the books in the first place, which is the reason why, astutely, the producers of the TV series were at such pains to stick as close to the books as possible.
And the reason for the success of the books can be measured and pinpointed with some degree of formal accuracy, whereby we can begin understand exactly why the TV series has seduced the imaginations of the entire species to such colossal effect.
2. Imagined Worlds
Game of Thrones is thoroughbred Fantasy and, as such, belongs to a generic category which is popular, yes, but nowhere near as popular as Game of Thrones itself. The success of Game of Thrones is wholly and remarkably disproportionate to the generic niche that defines its place in the canon.
So what on earth is going on?
Hard core, experienced Fantasy fans (like me) are already attuned to the unrealities of the genre, so much so that the expansive leaps of the imagination it requires of us are largely done without question. Our minds are well-oiled and well-stretched and adaptable to whatever magnitude of exaggerations Fantasy fiction can throw at us.
The generic elements of Fantasy – the defining elements – are what we habitually crave and respond to in fiction. Like climbers who’ve grown accustomed to extreme heights, the exaggerations of Fantasy don’t faze us in the slightest but, instead, furnish us with exactly the kind of buzz factors we’re looking for.
This is not to say that Fantasy fans are accepting of exaggerations without insisting on their proper grounding in well-defined sets of rules (known, in Fantasy terms, as “world-building”).
We know that Fantasy isn’t real. But it needs to seem real in order to be effective. So a careful rendering of natural and supernatural laws, and the creation of a framework within which the actions and incidents of the story occur with rigorous measures of proportion and consistency, are wholly necessary. If not, then Fantasy becomes more like a prose version of nonsense poetry – not a hypothetical reality but a mockery of one (I’m looking at you, Tom Bombadil).
The experienced Fantasy fan is addicted to Fantasy elements and has a high level of tolerance for them.
3. Unimagined Worlds
By contrast, most people in the world (if they are privileged enough to have the access) prefer to keep their mental engagements with fiction quite rigid and tight and confined to expectations of realism as a priority, if not an actual precondition.
For them, fiction needs to demonstrate a mimetic correspondence to reality in terms of what is known to be possible in order to make it acceptable and capable of being taken seriously. This is all very superficial, of course, but that’s the way that 90% of human thinking happens. It tends to riff off of shallow assumptions and value-judgments rather than carefully wrought considerations or proven ideas.
Fantasy elements are not necessarily unattractive to the minions who prefer pitifully mundane soap operas to the lavish inventions of super-imagined worlds. But the defining elements of Fantasy don’t sit well with most people, whose imaginations, generic preferences and reading tastes are not so elastic, and in no way inclined towards “a willing suspension of disbelief for the moment” that Fantasy requires of them.
It is evident, then, that Game of Thrones is doing something that unlocks the in-built prejudices of the TV zombies. It somehow broadens the appeal of Fantasy beyond the closed doors of fandom. It reaches into the collective head space of the masses like a magic spell and, in doing so, sticks to a single, solid principle: of keeping it real.
4. Fantasy at a Distance
By placing the fantastical elements at a distance, on the periphery rather than the core ground of the fantasy setting, Game of Thrones makes Fantasy acceptable, palatable and reasonable enough for anyone to latch on to.
Wights, dragons, dire wolves, shape shifters, magic-users, do exist. But they are placed at a distance from the hub of human affairs, with no presence in the central arenas of King’s Landing, Winterfell, Casterly Rock, the Iron Isles, or Westeros whatsoever. The dire wolves are an exception; but their supernatural attributes are only hinted at rather than revealed with outright certainty.
Even the tabloid press, hell bent on feeding its readership with the artificial sweeteners of Reality TV and celebrity peep shows – cannot resist the allure of “Game of Thrones”. Fantasy that keeps fantasy at a distance hits a magic spot – a common denominator that, in the context of entertainment, strikes a chord on the human banjo that reverberates for all time.
At the same time, the fantastical elements are quite limited in number – can even be counted on one hand. But it is their absence from the foreground of the story, followed by their gradual infiltration of the core aspects of its plots and scenes, which defines them. This gradual infiltration has the effect of habituating our sensibilities to the extent and presence of the fantasy elements as predominant factors in the narrative overall.
The imagination is gradually stretched to accommodate the phantasmagoric influences of the periphery.
Martin, in effect, de-fantasises Fantasy in a way that allows it to reach and appeal to a far wider variety of readers than it normally tends to. He hypnotises us with psycho-dynamic inducements and thrills, and then, by glacial stages of exposure, as if exposing us to a phobic distress in order to cure it, he allows us to develop a capacity to make sense of the impossible, to make the impossible seem real within our crudely sceptical minds.
Game of Thrones rises to the challenge of taking on the bitter world of naysayers, doubters, scoffers and Philistines of all stripes.