Ever since Game of Thrones burst confidently onto our screens seven years ago, the series has spawned more than its fair share of imitators. Every few weeks it feels like there’s some new tale of sword n’ shields n’ subterfuge hitting the airwaves, its actors coyly deflecting comparisons to HBO’s pop culture smash while media commentators breathlessly wonder whether THIS could finally be the methadone to our dangerous George RR Martin addiction.
Off the top of my head I can think of Vikings, Camelot, The Last Kingdom, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, The White Queen, Outlander, The White Princess, The Bastard Executioner, Knightfall and (most recently) Britannia as just a few of the series that, while telling different stories and occasionally branching out in brilliant new directions, almost certainly wouldn’t exist if Game of Thrones hadn’t come before them.
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But do you know what all these series have in common, apart from a vaguely medieval aesthetic and the fact that they’re trying to follow in HBO’s footsteps? None of them turned out to be the next Game of Thrones. Not one.
And there’s a couple of good reasons for that. One is that shared cultural moments like Game of Thrones come along only once or twice in a generation, so it’s slightly ridiculous to think there’d be a “next” Game of Thrones in the first place. If we look at another similar example, it’s not like any YA supernatural book or film franchises were able to match Harry Potter's success, with the possible exception of Twilight.
And the other reason is that for the most part, none of these shows actually did what Game of Thrones did in adapting an existing, sprawling fantasy series. Instead, they told stories of British and European history, myth or straight historical novels that happened to have some people in old-timey costumes in them.
Throwing some mud and swords at the screen does not an alternate Westeros make, but that hasn’t stopped production companies latching onto some of Thrones’ most eye-catching details –medieval aesthetic, grim tone, thrusting masculine rivalries – and opting to find their equivalent in more grounded worlds, or added a mere slice of magic to it (eg Britannia) without creating the fully-realised alternate world that Martin did.
It’s cheaper to make, more practical to realise onscreen and probably easier to sell as a concept, but it’s different to what Game of Thrones did. And while I’m not saying that a whole spate of fantasy saga-inspired adaptations would have done any better (as I said before Thrones is a real phenomenon, and those are hard to replicate), it is curious that so many production houses, producers and writers have looked at the HBO series’ success and tried to make the same dish without all the ingredients.
The fantasy is almost certainly part of what makes Game of Thrones great, so why not even have a go at including it? I’m hardly an expert in the genre but I can think of a few series I’ve read recently – Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, Peter V Brett’s Demon Cycle, Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards sequences or Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, say – that provide the sort of sprawling, political and high-concept thrills that make Thrones so popular, and I’m sure there are plenty more.
Sure, none of them have quite the inbuilt popularity that Thrones already did (it was one of the more mainstream fantasy novel series even before the TV adaptation) and some of these authors already have movie deals in the offing, but in the vast genre of medieval fantasy adventure there must be something that could at least take a stab at the crown.
Then again, if we look to the past an alternative answer offers itself. Maybe it’s just too soon for a worthy successor to emerge – a fact proven by Thrones’ own status as a younger brother to another massive medieval fantasy epic, Peter Jackson’s critically-acclaimed Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Lord of the Rings dominated the cultural landscape during its time in cinemas and definitely opened doors for George RR Martin’s long-gestating screen adaptation of his work, with the casting of Rings star Sean Bean in Game of Thrones’ first season almost certainly no coincidence. And even if it was, Thrones’ oft-cited “The Sopranos in Middle Earth” selling point meant the series didn't exactly wear the connection lightly.
The difference between the Rings/Thrones relationship and these newer imitators, though, is that there was 8 years between the release of The Return of the King and Game of Thrones’ first season, with the time in between full of projects that tried to imitate Rings’ style but without a few of the key ingredients. I’m thinking Keira Knightley’s King Arthur, Brad Pitt’s Troy or Orlando Bloom’s Kingdom of Heaven, which in hindsight aren’t a million miles away from some of the disappointing small-screen offerings that have sprung up in Game of Thrones’ wake.
Perhaps there will be a “next Game of Thrones,” but maybe it’s nowhere near coming to a cinema or TV screen or computer terminal any time soon. Maybe, like Thrones itself, it needs a little time to develop first, properly maturing into something that will provide an equally enticing portrait of human nature and power while also showing lots of cool dragon fights. We can dream.
But for now the Game of Clones continues. Looking forward, we’ve got Netflix’s The Witcher (based on the videogame of the same name) and, taking the cycle full circle, Amazon’s weird and incredibly expensive Lord of the Rings series, which might not even be the story of the Lord of the Rings.
And who knows? Both of these stories might have more chance at hanging off Thrones’ furry cloaktails (intentional bad pun) than the shows that came before, as they more overtly include fantasy plotlines and come from lucrative On-Demand platforms that might actually be able to afford the special effects to show them. (HBO, as a cable subscription channel, has a similar advantage.)
Or perhaps Thrones itself will spawn its own successor in one of the proposed spin-offs that are currently being developed – though to return to the Harry Potter analogy, it seems safe to say that they might fall more in a Fantastic Beasts niche and be popular without risking an eclipse of the original.
Whatever the truth, it seems fair to say that our best chance of finding another Game of Thrones in our future is to just wait a year, watch the final series on Sky Atlantic or HBO and then dig out the season 1 DVDs to start all over again. For all their efforts, these pretenders to the throne can’t hold a candle to the real thing.
Game of Thrones will return to HBO, Sky Atlantic and NOWTV in 2019