From The Witcher to Carnival Row: Why the battle to bring us a new Game of Thrones is a futile quest

As a string of new fantasy shows clamour to replace HBO’s epic series, Ed Power explains why these calculated attempts are setting themselves up to fail

Friday 20 December 2019 10:31
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The Witcher trailer

Forget the Mother of Dragons and say hello instead to the Daddy of Split Ends. With Game of Thrones receding in the collective imagination like a moderately oversexed bad dream, Netflix has unleashed a flesh-flashing fantasy blockbuster of its own. The Witcher is adapted from a mildly successful series of novels and a wildly adored video game sequence. It stars Henry Cavill as an anti-hero with a silver sword, perky pecs and ludicrous bleached hair. But does the world truly need to see Superman mucking about in a land of pointy-eared elves, orgiastic nobles and gloomy castles? Netflix is betting that the answer is an ambiguous Kessa! (“yes” in High Valyrian and don’t pretend you didn’t know).

The Witcher brims with drool-worthy special effects and a king’s ransom in bare bums. Such is its confidence Netflix has placed an upfront order for two seasons. And with Cavill, as the mighty mullet-ed Geralt of Rivia trousering a reported $400,000 per episode, the royal coffers at Netflix’s Sunset Boulevard HQ have been plundered with gusto. What could possibly go wrong?

A great many things, potentially. First of all, it is a very open question whether there is an appetite for a new Game of Thrones. Has a TV drama ever aged as quickly as Once Upon a Time in Westeros? As we look back on the global mania that preceded last spring’s eighth and final season, it’s as if recalling a collective delusion to which we foolishly succumbed. GoT in the end nosedived in plausibility and indeed watchability. More than a few of us are embarrassed about having obsessed over it in the first place.

Was it, for instance, wise to invest so heavily in the plight of Daenerys Targaryen – which, criiiinge, I can still spell without having to look up – given the showrunners ultimately weren’t too bothered how things worked out for her? What, moreover, about the emotional energy staked on Jon Snow’s parentage, ultimately revealed to be Not Really That Big A Deal.

That’s before we touch on Game of Thrones’ problematic track record with sexual violence – and, indeed, its attitude towards the entire female gender. As Daenerys, Emilia Clarke has spoken of the pressure she was put under to go naked. She was required to do so, she was told, in order not to disappoint “fans” (a strange way to spell “pervs”). What was racy and edgy when GoT debuted in 2011 now looks distinctly old hat (by which mean rampantly misogynist).

So if The Witcher is counting on residual goodwill from the Game of Thrones audience, it may wish to think again (admittedly, its sex scenes are chaste compared to GoT’s). There is also the issue that the Netflix epic, as stated above, is based on the original novels by Andrzej Sapkowski rather than the more crowd-pleasing and action-packed video games. Rest assured the books are fantastic. They are, however, more in the sword and sorcery vein of Conan the Barbarian and Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone than in the post-Tolkien tradition in which George RR Martin was operating.

Henry Cavill in Netflix’s ‘The Witcher’

Martin’s novels rejected Tolkien’s primness. They were, though, very Lord of Rings in their world-building and sheer scale. Season one of The Witcher is, by contrast, based on the first entry in Sapkowski’s sequence – a collection of short stories featuring the titular Geralt and full of exciting battles, dark folklore and arcane magic. That pulpy sensibility carries through to the screen, with each episode self-contained to a degree. What’s missing is the political sweep of GoT. That simply isn’t what early Witcher is about. Netflix has given us flashing steel and Cavill looking perpetually annoyed. That’s continents removed from to the backroom skulduggery that drew so many millions to GoT.

The wider imponderable is whether, following the collective letdown we all went through with Game of Thrones, there is still an appetite for fantasy on the small screen. The Witcher isn’t the first to try to capitalise on the Westeros effect. Amazon has already been here with steam-punk fandango Carnival Row (with Cara Delevingne playing a fairy who, going by her accent, grew up a neighbour of Bono’s in South County Dublin). As has Netflix. With Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance, it posed the question: what would Game of Thrones plus Jim Henson’s Muppets look like? Answer: boring and difficult to follow.

That’s just the first wave. Amazon has emptied Jeff Bezos’s loose change jar by sinking $2.5bn into a Lord of the Rings prequel. It is in addition lavishing millions on a multi-season retelling of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time (a major influence on Martin). Lord of the Rings will no doubt prove a hit. How many of these other shows count as a sure thing?

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Fantasy, we should recall, has been here before. In the late Seventies, in the wake of Star Wars, the genre was swept up in an unlikely gold rush. Conan the Barbarian, The Beastmaster, Krull, Hawk the Slayer, Dragonslayer, Ladyhawke, Labyrinth, Willow and more lay enthusiastic siege to cinemas. The majority flopped. Hollywood eventually concluded mainstream audiences had no desire to see oddly dressed outcasts huffing and puffing in public (at least until The X Factor came along).

The impact first of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and then of Game of Thrones suggested that tastes have changed. Yet both had vast pre-existing fanbases. The Witcher is popular – but nowhere near the scale of Tolkien or George RR Martin.

The other lesson is that a breakthrough on television is often a matter of happenstance that can seem to have dropped from the clear blue sky. Looking back, I find it incredible that shows such as Breaking Bad – about a teacher suffering terminal cancer who turns to drug dealing – or Game of Thrones itself would chime with viewers. Each was lightening captured in a bottle.

The same could be said of this year’s must-see drama, season two of Succession. Who’d have imagined a scorched-earth comedy focused on the domestic travails of a Murdoch-esque media dynasty, from one of the creators of Peep Show, would be 2019’s biggest smash? It was the hit nobody saw coming, whereas The Witcher – so calculatingly calibrated in its grittiness and murkiness to be the next Game of Thrones – may succeed only in disappointing.

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