Last Sunday evening, the world seemed divided into two camps: the people watching the Game of Thrones series finale on HBO and the people watching the people who watched Game of Thrones. The way the show engrossed a swath of society—19.3 million people tuned in to the finale—was impressive to some and irritating to others but next to impossible to ignore.
The HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels was notoriously indecent, depicting orgies, abuse, and rape—some of which was described in the books and much of which was embellished on screen. Beyond that, it embraced nihilism and showed disdain for organized religion, noted Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Seminary and a WORLD News Group board member, on his podcast The Briefing earlier this week.
But plenty of shows have had all of that without inspiring the mass devotion that Thrones did. To understand why so many people liked the series, it helps to understand the appeal of its genre. Fantasy novels thrive at the intersection of disillusionment and imagination. It is no coincidence that fantasy fiction came into its own when J.R.R. Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings in 1954, not long after World War II. Enchanted stories of magical worlds can soothe hearts and minds weary from the bitter disappointment of life’s unfixable problems like disease, violence, and suffering. (Though an avid reader as a child, I had little interest in fantasy until the year after my parents’ divorce, when I suddenly devoured the The Chronicles of Narnia, The Phantom Tollbooth, and A Wrinkle in Time.)
Enter A Song of Ice and Fire, one of the most popular fantasy series since The Lord of the Rings. Martin’s tale is enchanted and relatable. He gives his characters the same flaws, insecurities, and struggles as the rest of us but then gifts each with something special to help them on their way—some get swords, some get spells, and some get dragons.
The books were best-sellers long before HBO got hold of the story, but the TV series made it accessible to an increasingly distracted public that may not enjoy sitting down with a thousand-page book (or five). On top of that, the story has a millennial-friendly, environmentalist worldview, and HBO spared no expense in bringing the dazzling world of Game of Thrones to life on screen. The recipe was just right for the cultural moment, and fans ate it up and loved it.
Until they didn’t. The final season brought its own disillusionment, with viewers complaining about the plot, the writing, the pacing, the overuse of symbolism, the underuse of symbolism, and even the lighting. There are online petitions to get HBO to redo all or parts of the final season—one on Change.org already had more than 1.5 million signatures as of Friday morning.
Fans’ reaction to the end of Game of Thrones is possibly even more frustrating than their original obsession with it. Our niche marketing–obsessed world is starting to treat art—whether literature, music, fine art, or drama—as a customizable, consumable good. It’s not enough to critique art; we want it made to our specifications, and if it’s not, we want to send it back for a do-over like a hamburger with too much mustard. That attitude, when taken to its natural end, would mean the end of art and the deflation of imagination.
Thankfully, George R.R. Martin, who has yet to publish the final two books of the series (he gave the HBO showrunners a synopsis so they could wrap up the series), seems to be resisting those childish demands. In a blog post Monday about the end of the series and the future of the books, he made a simple proposal: “I’ll write it. You read it. Then everyone can make up their own mind, and argue about it on the internet.”