9:00 am EST, January 10, 2020

‘The Witcher’ isn’t trying be ‘Game of Thrones,’ and that’s why it’s great

Game of Thrones was great, and so is The Witcher. Both things are absolutely true, even though the two shows are nothing alike.

It’s hard to believe it now, given that it’s become one of the biggest cultural sensations and successful shows of the last decade, but there was a time when making Game of Thrones would have been considered a risk.

Game of Thrones was an epic fantasy narrative set in a completely made up world. Everyone and every place had strange names, and it was filled with dragons and magic and all sorts mythical lore.

That’s all par for the course for high fantasy fans, but general audiences aren’t exactly known for being enamored with high fantasy.

While Peter Jackson’s Lords of the Rings trilogy debuted to big box office success and critical acclaim in the early 2000s, similar high fantasy book adaptation efforts like Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, and a continuation of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series failed with both fans and critics.

So while Lord of the Rings helped to propel the genre of fantasy into the spotlight, high fantasy stories didn’t exactly grow in popularity in the wake of its success.

In fact, most of the most popular fantasy shows of the 2000s were supernatural dramas that firmly fell into the genre of urban and dark fantasy. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Charmed all ran in the early 2000s, the CW’s long-running urban fantasy show Supernatural premiered in 2005, and HBO’s dark vampire show True Blood premiered in 2008.

These were all shows that existed firmly in the genre of fantasy, but also existed firmly in the real world. They featured people and places with which audiences were familiar and to which audiences could easily relate. Fantasy elements were present, but they were present as intrusions to the natural order of things.

When Game of Thrones premiered in 2011, it brought with it the elements of high fantasy that hadn’t ever been glimpsed in a big budget television show.

It didn’t take place in any place remotely close to our world, but instead in the mythical, magical continents called Westeros and Essos. And while the medieval trappings of lords and ladies and castles were at least familiar, dragons, direwolves and the people called The Dothroki were decidedly not.

Dany and Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones season 1

Game of Thrones included many high fantasy elements, but lured in general audiences with its initial low fantasy, high human drama storytelling.

Yes, Dany ends season one with dragons, and later seasons would throw in even more fantastical elements like Greenseers, Melisandre birthing a killer shadow baby and the resurgence of the White Walkers, but the early storytelling of Game of Thrones was very much a human-centered drama that focused on court politics and the increasingly poor decision-making of Ned Stark.

This focus was a deliberate move on the parts of showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who stated that in their pitch to HBO, they promised to downplay the fantasy elements.

Indeed, for as many high fantasy elements as the show ended up adding in over time, in comparison with the increasing high fantasy of the books, what got added in was actually quite minimal. Benioff and Weiss stayed true to their pitch for the show, deliberately removing fantasy elements from the storytelling because they “didn’t just want to appeal to that type of fan.” They wanted to expand the fan base to people beyond the fantasy fan base to “mothers, NFL players…”

So while Game of Thrones did include the mystical, the mythical, and the magical in increasing measure over its eight season run, it never became the focus of the storytelling.

Unlike themes and ideas found in A Song of Ice and Fire, Game of Thrones wasn’t a narrative focused on where magic had gone, when and if it would return, and how the world would change when it did; rather, Benioff and Weiss’ Game of Thrones was a story about human, political power — who had it, who deserved it, and how it was best used.

The question fans of the show wanted answered most wasn’t who are White Walkers, or how will they be defeated, or what does their existence mean; the most important questions fans of the show wanted answered was — who will sit on the Iron Throne at the end?

If I was being cynical, I might say that Game of Thrones was a fantasy story told by two people who were embarrassed to be telling a fantasy story. If I was trying to paint Benioff and Weiss in a more favorable light, I might say they were being cautious about including too much high fantasy given the bad track record it’s had among general audiences. I suspect the real answer — inasmuch as there can be one — is somewhere in the middle.

Game of Thrones season 8

But regardless of how I, or really any other individual, feels about Game of Thrones, the reality is it was a major pop culture force that was hugely successful in terms of critical acclaim, fan appeal, and the almighty dollar.

That success has opened the high fantasy floodgates, with studios rushing to fill the high fantasy hole left by the departure Game of Thrones.

HBO has greenlit a Game of Thrones prequel series centered around the Targaryens called House of the Dragon, while Amazon is developing series based on two of the most popular high fantasy series of all time — J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. And, of course, there is Netflix’s The Witcher, based on Polish author’s Andrzej Sapkowski incredibly popular book series.

All of these shows have been billed — or described — as potentially being the next Game of Thrones.

It’s certainly understandable given the major success of Game of Thrones. However, drawing a straight line comparison between Game of Thrones and every show that comes after it, limits the way we think about storytelling in general and the genre of high fantasy specifically. While certain tropes and themes recur in the genre, there is no one, right way to tell a fantasy story, and to do so would take the wrong lesson from the success of Game of Thrones.

Inasmuch as (or when) it was great, it was great because it had a story it wanted to tell, a specific way it wanted to tell it, and it stuck to both. The success of future fantasy shows need to rely on the same thing — telling their own story, not some amalgamation or derivative of Game of Thrones‘ storytelling.

After all, just because Game of Thrones was a success, doesn’t mean it’s the only way way to successfully tell a high fantasy story.

Henry Cavill the Witcher

Unfortunately, that’s a perspective that seems to have been lost with quite a few viewers of The Witcher.

In fact, negative reviews of Netflix’s The Witcher have trended towards a narrative that is basically “it’s certainly no Game of Thrones.”

And indeed, if you were expecting The Witcher to be similar to the serious, somber storytelling of Game of Thrones, then the pulpy, wry and sometimes irreverent writing of show can come as a surprise.

But that isn’t the fault of the show, which holds little in common with Game of Thrones other than existing in another world and featuring a dragon about halfway through the season, but is instead a problem with pre-existing expectations coming into the show.

Basically, it’s not the show — it’s the viewer.

After all, it’s not like The Witcher is at all shy in telling audiences what it is or what to expect. The first episode begins with Geralt — a monster hunter with golden, glowing eyes and supernatural powers — killing a monster in the middle of a swamp.

While the second episode features a bard who sings half the time and has lines like, “There I am again, just delivering exposition.”

From the get go, The Witcher takes your expectations of it being the next Game of Thrones and rolls its eyes at them (or, perhaps, give a gruff hmmm at them).

This isn’t a knock from the show (or from me, mostly) at Game of Thrones, just that The Witcher gives the impression that it knows everyone is coming with a Game of Thrones hangover and wants to immediately let audiences know that that kind of storytelling isn’t what they’ll be getting.

The Witcher is a far more intimate story of good, evil, and the choices we make between the two than it is an epic tale of war and power. It boasts a large cast, but primarily focuses on the three main protagonists of Ciri, Yennefer and Geralt.

It has an overarching narrative, but is also incredibly comfortable with episodic storytelling. It isn’t at all ashamed of its high fantasy elements, but instead trots them out proudly for the audience to see and celebrate. It doesn’t hold your hand through its world building, but rather drops you in the middle of it and expects that you’ll be able to find your way on your own.

And while it realizes that life and death and everything in between ought to be taken seriously, it also realizes that those same things are very often amusing, irritating, or even downright absurd and treats them as such.

In short, The Witcher was never interested in telling its story through a Game of Thrones-esque lens; it instead told its own story, in its own way, in its own (nonlinear) time(line).

It was true to itself and what it wanted to do — and was confident enough to believe that it could pull that off — and that sincerity and that conviction showed through in the writing, in the production and in the character arcs, giving us an incredibly enjoyable, incredibly well-written story.

Yennefer

No matter the reaction to the final season of Game of Thrones, there’s no denying that its success has impacted the way audiences and — more importantly — studios see the genre of high fantasy.

A genre that was once considered a high risk has become incredibly lucrative, and it’s thanks to the response to Game of Thrones that we’re now entering somewhat of a high fantasy renaissance (in television, at least).

This makes it an incredibly exciting time for fantasy fans like myself, who will now get to see a wide variety of worlds that have heretofore only ever existed in our imaginations.

However, it’s important that creatives, studios, and viewers take the right lessons from the success of Game of Thrones in just the same way that The Witcher obviously did.

Rather than seeing the story and writing of Game of Thrones as a boilerplate to copy and paste into a different world, The Witcher instead looked at the elements that made Game of Thrones so successful and so good (for the most part) — high production values, an incredibly talented cast, characters worth rooting for, a commitment to a unified theme — and made sure to prioritize those when creating the show.

Doing so has given us two vastly different high fantasy shows that are nonetheless equally enjoyable for precisely the reasons that they’re so different.

Thanks to The Witcher, longstanding fantasy fans get to experience different types of fantasy stories they’ve only ever experienced in books, while newer genre fans get to see just how malleable and varied the genre of fantasy can be.

Game of Thrones showed us that the genre of fantasy can be used to tell serious, thoughtful stories about war and power, while The Witcher showed us that fantasy can tell exciting stories about good and evil, while also being fun and funny.

The Witcher succeeded precisely because it knew it didn’t want to be the next Game of Thrones — instead it wanted to be the best version of The Witcher.

And if there’s any lesson I hope that subsequent fantasy adaptations take from the success The Witcher, I hope it’s that one — that no fantasy fan wants the next Game of Thrones or the next The Witcher, but the best version of Lord of the Rings, the best version of Wheel of Time, the best version of House of Dragon.

I think that the success of The Witcher — which so closely followed the success of Game of Thrones — proves that.

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