When the US cable network HBO decided in 2006 to turn a series of fantasy novels into a TV show, it was a gamble. Game of Thrones was a swords-and-sorcery epic based on the work of a then relatively unknown American author, George RR Martin. It was the type of nerdy genre fiction that had never attracted a broad audience on television.
The plots were dizzyingly complex – at least five noble families, four separate functional religions, 14 different languages; an entire alternate world with its own climate and topography, seas, cities and hinterlands. To make it look believable would be hugely expensive, and that was assuming anyone could remember who all of the characters were.
There were other issues, too – the books’ quasi-medieval setting meant that the series would need to be eye-poppingly violent, and women would be continually ill-treated. Neither was likely to play well with a female audience. In the land of Westeros, at least at first sight, women were either prostitutes, accessories or stay-at-castle mothers. Royal exile Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, spent most of the first episode in the nude, mere collateral in an attempt by her brother to buy himself an army.
But the gamble (it cost $60 million just to make the first series) has paid off, and handsomely. Game of Thrones has become a global TV phenomenon, one that’s so popular it has become hard to measure just how many people have been watching the ten short episodes they are granted each season. It’s HBO’s most-watched series of all time, more popular than Sex and the City, Boardwalk Empire or The Sopranos, averaging 18.4 million viewers per episode. That’s just in the US – Game of Thrones has been sold by HBO to 170 territories.
The worldwide audience is likely to be greater than 100 million viewers, once you add the millions of illegal downloads that have earned it the dubious accolade of being the most pirated show in the world. To give those viewers the spectacle they crave, Game of Thrones has evolved into a vast production.
You can get punch-drunk on the scale of it all – the show shoots with two separate units working simultaneously all round Europe, meaning there are effectively two TV shows being made at the same time, from which the footage is woven into one at the end. Base Camp is in Northern Ireland, but Game of Thrones has filmed in Morocco, Iceland, Croatia, Greece, Spain and Malta. At any one time there will be nearly 1,000 people working on the series.
When they asked fans to volunteer as supporting artists in scenes filmed in Spain last summer, 86,000 applicants from all round the world offered to get themselves there, just for the privilege. Some shows don’t get that many viewers.
What’s gone unnoticed amid all the hullabaloo is that over the first four series there has been a subtle narrative shift. And the shift is that the female characters on the show have taken control.
As we begin series five, Daenerys has gone from political pawn to leader and queen, right now the most likely candidate to bring stability and peace to the war-torn Seven Kingdoms. Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) began as a grubby tomboy practising her archery. By series five she has become an assassin and a nomad, who’s still not 16, while her older sister Sansa (Sophie Turner) has emerged as a femme fatale.
Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) has seen her husband, eldest son and father murdered, yet she remains a power figure in the capital of King’s Landing, her other son remains on the throne and she will do anything to keep him there. All of them, crucially, are still standing – this in itself is a rarity in Game of Thrones. More than that, they are standing tall.