Marlon James, author of the mind-bending Dark Star trilogy while commenting on Michael. B. Jordan acquiring the rights to his 2019 novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf said , “our cinematic language of sci-fi and fantasy is still very European.”
James’ novel is a richly imagined world blending African history and myth. It is very different from the European medieval-inspired fantasy we have seen from the sword-and-sandal sagas, including Conan the Librarian (it would have been fun to hear Arnold Schwarzenegger promise to be back from among dusty card catalogues) to the bloody, brutal Game of Thrones.
The millennium saw an uptick in fantasy — psychologists will surely have a theory for that. 2001 brought in a revolution in fantasy films with the release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Ten years later in 2011, Game of Thrones, created a tsunami in the world of long-form television.
Over eight seasons and 73 episodes, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss created a brand new template not just for fantasy but also how content was consumed. Even as binging whole seasons became a norm, there were fans around the world waiting for episodes every Sunday night (6.30 am on Monday for India).
Based on George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novel series, A Song of Ice and Fire, Game of Thrones was a shot in the arm for the genre for many reasons. Budgeted and shot like a feature film, Game of Thrones, like Martin’s novels, were neo-medieval. They were not so much about quests or the ultimate triumph of good over evil, but more about ambition, power play and the basic fallibility of human nature. The blood, sex, gore and profanity were so many glittering, glossy cherries on this already overloaded cake.
Following three plot-lines — the battle for the Iron Throne of Westeros, the threat of the White Walkers in the North and the claims of Daenerys Targaryen, the last survivor of House Targaryen, Game of Thrones used magic sparingly. With not too many weird and wonderful creatures, dragons were a spectacular and welcome surprise in the series.
Dragons have been a constant presence in our myths and stories, prompting learned anthropologists, sociologists and our favourite, pop-psychologists, to posit a link between dragons and jolly dinosaurs. Samantha Shannon, whose 2019 fantasy novel The Priory of the Orange Tree is a feminist retelling of the story of St. George and the dragon, in an interview said, “the words that come to mind when I think of dragons are danger, wonder and possibility. They embody my desire for magic to exist. I love how unapologetically powerful they are.”
Dragons are an intrinsic part of the House Targaryen and in House of the Dragon they are present in all their sinewy, serpentine glory. Based on Martin’s Fire & Blood (2018), the 10-episode series is a prequel set 200 years before the Game of Thrones. The show, dropping on August 21, (6.30 am on August 22 in India) like the book, follows the Targaryens’ rise and fall from power.
With Ryan J. Condal (he has created the show with Martin) and Miguel Sapochnik as showrunners, House of the Dragon has an ensemble cast including Paddy Considine, Emma D’Arcy, Matt Smith, Olivia Cooke, Steve Toussaint, Eve Best, Fabien Frankel, Sonoya Mizuno and Rhys Ifans. Ramin Djawadi returns for composer duties.
Game of Thrones was followed by a slew of quasi-historical, revisionist fantasy shows that run the gamut of good, bad and indifferent. The Wheel of Time based on Robert Jordan’s book series despite the presence of the lovely Rosamund Pike plodded along while The Witcher based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s novels skated smoothly on Henry Cavill’s broad shoulders. Cursed, a revisionist look at Arthurian legend, was fun but got canceled after one season (sigh) and there is also the excellent His Dark Materials based on Philip Pullman’s iconic eponymous trilogy.
Speaking of iconic, Neil Gaiman’s long-believed to be unfilmable graphic novel, The Sandman, is streaming on a screen near you. A magnificent cast led by Tom Sturridge and gorgeous production values have given shape to our wildest dreams and nightmares. There is, after all a serial killer with eye teeth…
Hot on the heels of House of the Dragon comes The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Dropping on September 2, the one billion dollar show is set thousands of years before the events of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and tells of the forging of the rings and the rise of Sauron.
While both House of the Dragon and The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power continue the European medieval look and feel, with vaguely Latin-sounding words, it would be nice if the genre were to explore other histories and cultures.
A break from dark, wood-panelled bars, village greens, chainmail and knights would be welcome. Dragons, however, can and should stay.