This past week the enormously popular HBO series Game of Thrones was awarded 12 more Emmys, bringing its grand total to 38, surpassing Frasier as the most decorated fictional TV series of all time. The show has been a global phenomenon since its debut in 2011 and many have compared its success to a similar realm of fantasy, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, a classic of literature and a movie franchise with its own share of accolades.
The Lord of the Rings was voted in 1997 as the “book of the century” and Peter Jackson’s original film trilogy was nominated for 30 Academy Awards, winning Best Picture for the Return of the King, the first (and only) fantasy film ever to win that award. In addition, the number of Oscars the film won in 2004 (11) tied it with previous record holders Titanic and Ben-Hur.
Besides being fantasies that have achieved great success with audiences, what other similarities do they share? Could a person say that Game of Thrones is the next Lord of the Rings, putting George R.R. Martin’s fictional tale on par with that of J.R.R. Tolkien or even surpass it as some claim?
Let’s take a look at some of the similarities and differences to discover if Games of Thrones will stand the test of time as well as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
Depth of Story
One of the obvious similarities they share is a certain depth; followers sense there is a much wider world than what is portrayed. Tolkien was a master at this, spending hours and hours dreaming of the rich histories of the various people of Middle-Earth and thoroughly developing each character’s backstory. The actions of Bilbo, Frodo, Gimli or Aragorn all stem from who they are and the culture they grew up in.
Martin also strives for a particular “realism.” His characters within the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are very complex and do not fit any particular mold. Martin’s story is also very expansive, taking inspiration from both J.R.R. Tolkien and Stan Lee.
Both epics also feature moral struggles experienced by essential characters. In The Lord of the Rings, we see it in Boromir, Bilbo, and Theoden to name a few. They want to do what is right, but are conflicted as to course of action, and tugged by their own personal desires as well as the common good of all.
Game of Thrones also has a list of characters who want to do what is good, but are often met with complex choices. The Starks are a good example, especially Ned Stark (coincidentally played by Sean Bean, who also portrayed Boromir in Lord of the Rings). He tries to hold up honor as he rules, but is later forced to make a grave choice that proves to be a turning point (for good or for ill) in the future of his family.
Corruption through the Search for Power
The notion that with power comes corruption is a common theme of both tales. The “one ring” stands out as the biggest influence on the people of Middle-Earth and turns many of its characters into servants of evil, willing to do anything to remain in power (Denethor and Saruman are prefect examples).
The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are plagued by constant power struggles, fueled not just by ambition but by a need to survive, as well. Almost all the main characters are engaged in the quest for power and experience corruption at various levels. This political struggle between houses is the very basis and driving point of Game of Thrones.
Portrayal of Sexuality
One of the key differences between the two is the focus on sexuality. Romance is primarily in the background of the Lord of the Rings epic and the emphasis in those relationships is a deep and sacrificial love (Aragorn and Arwen for example).
Game of Thrones on the other hand is set in a world without any particular moral boundaries and everyone appears to be having illicit sex with the wrong person. Martin claims that he added these scenes to create ”realism” in his novels, showing how sex has been a driving factor in the history of civilization. The HBO series exploits this aspect of his novels to the point where some consider it to be “soft” pornography.
Good vs. Evil
Another fundamental difference is the ultimate struggle between good and evil. In Tolkien’s masterpiece, he abides by the idea that good will ultimately triumph in the end and evil truly is evil. His stories focus on how meekness and humility are the only ways to destroy the armies of darkness. It takes a small hobbit, who has never fought before in any battle, to completely destroy an evil spirit that has plagued Middle-Earth for countless years. The armies of Gondor could never do what Frodo or Bilbo did in their adventures.
Martin, on the other hand, deliberately chose to portray evil as another “point of view.” There are no “bad guys” that are easy to identify as each character believes the other person is the one who is evil. Martin loves “gray characters” and never liked the idea that good ultimately triumphed in the end. He thought it was not realistic enough.
Even though both authors come from Catholic backgrounds (though Martin now labels himself an agnostic), Tolkien chose to write an epic that united truth, beauty and goodness, while Martin decided to isolate each transcendental to the exclusion of the other. For example, beauty, when divorced from truth and goodness, can be objectified and such is the case with sexuality in the world of Westeros. Sex is a good and beautiful aspect of life, but outside of the truth it can tear apart instead of unite.
In the end, it appears that Game of Thrones is more the product of the times we live in rather than a tale that might inspire people for generations. Martin certainly was able to bring a “realism” into his world, but one that only highlights the results of a fallen world in need of redemption. Tolkien, for his part, knew that whatever darkness there is in the world, it is but a “passing shadow.” Middle-Earth appeals to our heart of hearts and gives us hope for the future, knowing that some day all this suffering will end and goodness will prevail. That is a story we will always need to hear.
[Editor’s Note — Take the poll! Lord of the Rings vs Game of Thrones]