From Rome to King’s Landing

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Missing Game of Thrones yet? Our watch has just begun, so we thought it’d be interesting to explore some of the influences on HBO’s most watched show.

Roman and medieval epics have lent a lot of their aesthetic and themes to Game of Thrones. In fact, one can say that Game of Thrones is a deconstruction of the epic and the fantasy genres. Some of its earliest literary ancestors include everything from the Greek epics to the stories of King Arthur. Martin himself has emphasized the influence of historical conflicts like the Wars of the Roses, and the history of the Capetians as chronicled by Maurice Druon in The Accursed Kings.

Originally, these historical and fantastical tales of heroism made their way to our screens primarily through adaptations of the classics, and of Shakespeare’s plays (the earliest film adaptation of Antony and Cleopatra dates back to 1908), as well as the Biblical sword-and-sandal stories made popular by Cecil B. DeMille. Over the years, historical figures such as Henry V and Spartacus would loom large on film and television. Live-action fantasy would also see some success onscreen, but on a more modest scale (Before the current century, Willow and Hook were two of the biggest performing fantasy films of all time, at a respectable but modest $57 and $120 Million). The demand for epics and fantasies would ebb and flow, but the 2000s saw a revitalized interest in the hybrid epic fantasy, due to a game changing trilogy of films.

If we look for Game of Thrones’ most recent direct ancestors, we have to acknowledge its debt to The Lord of the Rings. George R. R. Martin started writing his A Song of Ice and Fire well before Peter Jackson’s adapted J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal fantasy novels. Over the years, Martin had been approached for TV adaptations of his series, adaptations that would have been heavily edited for time and budget. Nevertheless, the confidence that Game of Thrones could be a good investment grew due to Rings’ success. Jackson’s films proved that fantasy – and high fantasy, at that – could be successful and critically acclaimed. Fantasy had finally achieved a mainstream success that had largely eluded the genre.

On TV, American audiences embraced Sci-Fi shows like Star Trek, The X-Files, and Battlestar Galactica, as well as horror fantasy like Buffy the Vampire Slayer over high fantasy. The high fantasy productions of the Syfy Channel had struggled to reach wider pop culture awareness. On the historical side, epics also had a hard time, again due to budget and time constraints. Most notably, the 1960s and 1970s saw a resurgence of Shakespearean adaptations at the BBC, with varying degrees of success, as well as the chronicles of The Caesars; I, Claudius; The Borgias; and The Cleopatras.

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Then came Rome. If The Lord of the Rings is Game of Thrones’ big screen fantasy ancestor, Rome is its history-based ancestor on TV. On the heels of the success of Gladiator, Rome brought the scope of the sword and sandal epic to the small screen. It presented itself as a series that, much like Martin’s Ice and Fire, would not shy away from the grit and violence of its setting. Not content with the staid, proper, all-white marble city of previous depictions, HBO (in collaboration with the BBC) allowed Rome the freedom to explore the sexuality, the viscera, the squalor and the very color of ancient Rome. The home of The Wire, HBO also had a history with novelistic plotting that allowed for numerous, interconnected characters all playing their parts in a complex narrative web.

Rome was cancelled after two seasons (it was originally meant to run for 5 and to conclude with the rise of Christianity) due to costs, but its award-winning run influenced subsequent series. Premium channels quickly mobilized to produce their own historical series, as these channels recognized their capacity to work with bigger budgets and more creative freedom than their broadcast counterparts. Showtime unveiled The Tudors, and then The Borgias. The Starz Network countered with its own historical figure, Spartacus, before venturing into the historical fantasy realm with Camelot. All of these series were heirs to Rome. In turn, their own contributions to melding the fantasy and historical epics set the stage for HBO to take a gamble on Game of Thrones, a show where viewers would once again find Rome’s delicate balance of politics, sex, and war, except this time with the added elements of high fantasy, and on the most epic of scales ever attempted. HBO could provide a platform for George R. R. Martin’s innumerable characters, locations and plotlines. HBO could allow Martin’s characters to exist in all their adult-rated glory.

Now that Game of Thrones has become its own cultural touchstone, it will be interesting to see how it will influence the television landscape in years to come. Perhaps adaptations of other high fantasy properties will soon follow.  Perhaps The Accursed Kings will be remade for a new generation. In the end, each iteration of the historical and/or fantasy genres creates opportunities for exciting epics to come, and the episodic nature of television provides the perfect platform for ever more complex and engrossing stories.

Rome is out on Blu-Ray and DVD now but also available on HBO Go at all times!

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