Over here at Trash Talk! we’re going to take a look at pop-culture through an artistic lens, more specifically exploring the dichotomy between high-art and low-art in movies, TV, comics, and video games. What’s fine cinema, and what’s trash? Sometimes the line may be thinner than you think.
High fantasy and science-fiction are two genres that are reviled by some for the same reasons that they are beloved by others. Whether it be pointy-eared elves, or pointy-eared aliens, it’s clear when you’re taking part in one of these works that you’re not in Kansas anymore. That flight of fancy can be too much for some, preferring more “realistic” fare (like, y’know, James Bond… that’s real right?). While, for others, Middle-Earths and planet Vulcans are the perfect escape from the mundane. Both genres have received a strong upswing in mainstream respectability, and pop-culture popularity, due in no small part to the advancement of computer generated effects, and burgeoning group of former fanboys who now sit in directors chairs. Peter Jackson’s take on Lord of the Rings took Hollywood by storm, and JJ Abrams turned Star Trek from a punchline back into the super-franchise it once was (arguably by giving it more of a Star Wars paint job).
At their core though, the sci-fantasy genres (and all fiction really), are at their best when they use their strange settings to explore the very real human condition. When you take people out of the mundane conditions we are all used to, and take for granted, and place them in some new, strange, situation, it allows for a unique exploration of what makes us tick. It’s this principle that has made HBO’s Game of Thrones such a sensation. By initially backgrounding its more fantastical elements, and foregrounding the human element, with politics, war, and plenty of sex, A Song of Ice and Fire broke from the pack of Lord of the Rings knockoffs (of which there are plenty), and made its adaption appointment TV. Writer George RR Martin uses his fantasy world as a window (and sometimes twisted mirror) into our own history, and as an exploration of human nature.
Based in part on the very real War of the Roses Game of Thrones is no Arthurian legend of the “One True King” laying claim to his rightful throne. Throughout season two there are at least a half a dozen different claimants to the throne to the invented land of Westeros. All are the heroes of their own stories, all see themselves as that “One True King”. Though highly fictionalized we are presented with a brutally faithful portrayal of the Middle Ages so many fantasy epics take inspiration from. Wars are bloody, and brutal, and often fought for petty reasons. The low-born die for the high-born in the chess match of power, and life is cheap. The most frightening aspect of all this is the realization of how little has changed from the imagined then, to the true now. Game of Thrones has done what many a school special could only hope to achieve, it’s made history not only interesting, but relevant. The general public might not be that inclined to watch a dramatization of dynastic squabbles (though, if done right, it would be endlessly compelling), but throw in the occasional dragon or zombie-knight and you have an audience. It’s a neat trick really. You’ll come for swords and sorcery, but you’ll stay for the incest, betrayals, and court intrigue.
No, there is no amorphous Big Bad leading a mindless army of mooks (or orcs, as the case may be) in Game of Thrones. There is a major threat looming over the land, though most characters don’t believe it even exists, and as the threat is further fleshed out I’m sure we’ll see even it has its own understandable motivations. Like in life, there are few outright villains in Game of Thrones. Even in the vilest character there is a kernel of understanding, a palatable truth and pain (save Joffrey, he’s the exception, man I want that kid to die). Like the few that see themselves as the rightful king, every character views themselves as the good guy. Again the colors of fiction used to paint a truth. You may backstab a friend, or overlook someone in need, but you were just looking out for yourself, so you’re not that bad. Right? Like our world, Martin’s fantasy realm isn’t filled with people necessarily out to get one and other, they’re just out for themselves, more often than not at the expense of others. True heroes are few and far between, and it’s usually not long before they lose their heads, literally. Their world, like ours, favors the selfish (even if history doesn’t always).
Many of us grew up watching Star Wars, or reading Lord of the Rings, but fantasy doesn’t have to be kid stuff, and Game of Thrones proves that. Sometimes truth can be too abstract for our textbooks, and real life has always been far more complex than Reality TV. Like a painting, or a song, that uses mood and tone to recreate an emotion or an event, fiction can be used as an implement to tell a truth more authentically than a mere history lesson ever could. Sometimes those truths are told with strangers you could meet on any street corner, and other times those strangers are wizards, and the world is nothing like you expected (Game of Thrones Third Season premiers this Sunday, 3/31, on HBO).
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