Fight on for TV's fantasy throne

By Sarah Hughes

Game of Thrones spawns wave of big-budget dramas aiming to copy success of HBO hit, says Sarah Hughes.

Outlander, starring Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heugan has built on the Game of Thrones' success.
Outlander, starring Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heugan has built on the Game of Thrones' success.

Across the world, fans of the epic fantasy drama Game of Thrones tuned in last night to find out how the brutal, breathtaking fourth season ends.

Would the sharp-tongued fan favourite Tyrion Lannister, unfairly accused of the murder of his evil nephew, be executed? Would The Wall fall? What would happen to the youthful killer-in-training Arya Stark?

But the Game of Thrones effect reaches considerably further than the 66-minute episode that the show's writers, David Benioff and DB Weiss, claimed earlier is "our best finale yet".

Last week HBO revealed the adaptation of George R.R. Martin's best-selling books was now its biggest hit, surpassing The Sopranos in viewing figures. It dominates the cultural conversation, referenced in everything from sitcoms to political debate. Now it is remaking television in its image.

The show's success has led to a proliferation of big-budget epic dramas.

Some, such as Vikings, are straightforward historical stories but set in a similarly brutal world. Others, such as the adaptation of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander saga that United States cable channel Starz is filming in Scotland, are fantasy tales that would never have been made but for the HBO show's success.

Outlander's executive producer, Ron Moore, recently told Entertainment Weekly that Game of Thrones "definitely opened the door and showed that fantasy and genre material has a strong audience on premium cable".

Like Game of Thrones, the Outlander novels - an addictive mixture of time travel, historical epic and romance - have a passionate following. The eighth book in the series, Written in My Own Heart's Blood, was released last week and expectations are high that the TV adaptation can tap into Game of Thrones' success to become a worldwide phenomenon.

Television's newest power, Netflix, is equally bullish about its epic drama Marco Polo, which will begin filming in Kazakhstan, Italy and Malaysia this August. The 10-part mini-series stars Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy as the explorer and is executive-produced by Harvey Weinstein in his first foray into TV drama.

Early descriptions have promised a very Game of Thrones-sounding mix of "political skulduggery, spectacular battles and sexual intrigue".

Yet Benioff and Weiss' mix of high drama and low morals is surprisingly tricky to emulate. The White Queen, which starts on Prime in NZ this week and was cancelled by the BBC after one season (although Starz may yet make a sequel), was a disastrous mix of schlocky dialogue and heaving breasts. The swashbuckling historical fantasy Da Vinci's Demons (currently screening on Vibe in NZ) is thought to be fun, but far too kitsch to take seriously; while of two recent pirate dramas, Black Sails makes copious amounts of guts and gore seem tedious, and Crossbones is more of a pantomime.

Nor is everyone convinced Game of Thrones' success has opened the floodgates for a host of fantasy dramas. "It's hard to find a fantasy epic that has a strong fan base already and that is as intricate as this one and then get to a point where the production values make the suspension of disbelief plausible," says Gawker's Michelle Dean.

Even a strong fan base is not always a guarantee of success.

Last week HBO's president, Michael Lombardo, admitted to New York magazine that it had pulled the plug on an adaptation of Neil Gaiman's fantasy American Gods because "even though we love the book, we love the idea ... we just couldn't get it right".

Meanwhile, those who enjoy the political machinations of King's Landing but would prefer it without ice zombies and dragons can sit tight and wait for next year's biggest treat: Peter Kosminsky's take on Hilary Mantel's Booker prize-winning Wolf Hall, starring Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis.

It might not be fantasy, but the schemers and dreamers of Henry VIII's court would make even Tyrion Lannister think twice.

For coverage of last night's Game of Thrones series finale go here.

- Observer

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