Growing up in rural America in the early 90’s, my chances of connecting with other people who felt the same way I did about fantasy were slim. It wasn’t so long ago that admitting to having read the dozen or so novels in the Sookie Stackhouse series would have automatically placed you into a category of extreme nerdy-ness. Today it seems as though the entertainment world (and HBO in particular!) has finally come to embrace the fantastical worlds of vampires, wizards, direwoves and super heroes. But why the relatively sudden change of heart? In a world where overdue notices, debit card fees and foreclosure postings tend to consume us it should come as no surprise to see people looking for quality fantasy worlds to escape to.
People tend to crave escapism regardless of what the Dow Jones Industrial Average is doing but it seems to have accelerated in this recent economic downturn. Much like George Lucas (Star Wars) and Stephen Spielberg (Close Encounters, ET) did in the late 70’s and early 80’s during the economic downturn at that time; world-builders are weaving similar tales today. Big screen ventures like Avatar and Iron Man are topping charts all over the world, of course but more indicative of this transition is the amount of fantasy programming now available in our living rooms.
Quality Fantasy is only now Possible (on TV)
So if George Lucas could create one of the greatest sci-fi/fantasy series of all time in the late 70’s on a shoe-string budget, why has it taken so long to realize quality fantasy programming on TV? There are several answers to this question including generational shifts, technological advancements and the rise of cable and premium cable television. Big sets and big name actors for a long time were only found in movies, not television. The money just wasn’t there and Oscar winning actors didn’t seriously consider work on television. It has only been recently that a network like HBO has been willing to spend $4.5m per episode on creating the world of Westeros for people to escape to via their living room couch. HBO is so confident in people’s need for escapist television that it’s willing to drop $45 million dollars on a single season of Game of Thrones with True Blood costing them only slightly less to produce. That kind of attitude towards fantasy as a money making machine just didn’t exist 15 years ago. Network big-wigs are finally seeing fantasy programs as profitable and sustainable even and especially in a downtrodden economy.
Escapism as Catharsis
Great fantasy gets you to view the world from angles not possible in reality based drama. Watching a movie such as American Beauty will most likely evoke memories of your own marriage troubles, girl problems and weird neighbors and while it does so beautifully and eloquently- many people are looking for a complete escape from the real world. Shows such as Lost and Game of Thrones take you to another universe entirely, where there are no 9-5’s or mortgage brokers or robo-calls from political candidates. When I met George R.R Martin in Seattle this year he spoke about how he tries to provide ‘vicarious experiences’ to his audience through the experiences of his characters. And fantasy allows you to do just that without the normal ‘rules’ that govern reality.
Stories like these, while often based on impossible premises are an effective way for many people to address issues in their lives while at the same time escaping from their every day realities. While a traditional drama program may address divorce, death and tragedy directly, a show like True Blood offers viewers another vantage point for which to grapple with these matters in an environment that is more accessible, less hostile and in many ways more thoughtful than literal. And isn’t that what true art is all about? Connecting to people and conveying emotions and ideas in new and interesting ways? You never know how profoundly a scene or a moment in your program is going to affect the viewer. And in worlds where literally anything is possible writers and show creators have a lot more tools in their bags these days.
The Perfect Storm
The struggling economy certainly isn’t the only reason fantasy programs have caught on in recent years. Several contributing factors discussed above are part of the larger picture. It took years for fans of fantasy to become mainstream fare for the average consumer. Perhaps we wouldn’t even be having this conversation if Peter Jackson hadn’t done such amazing work on The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Perhaps Game of Thrones would have never made it to HBO had it not been for the worldwide sucess of Harry Potter. And we may never have seen Sean Bean play Ned Stark on an HBO adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire if it weren’t for this gloomy little recession we’re in right now. So many factors had to align that no one would have dreamed to have aligned 15 years ago and networks like HBO are reaping the benefits of giving fantasy a chance on a large, dare I say prestigious stage.
But what do you think, fantasy fans? Are more people being drawn to fantasy because of the economic downturn? Are you one of the fans craving an escape from the daily grind? Is escapism television here to stay or is this just a temporary infatuation? Leave a comment below with your thoughts!