In today’s era of modern television, the envelope is being pushed farther than ever before. Directors and showrunners are taking risks that up until now, had only been seen on the silver screen. Budgets are ballooning to the point where a single 50 minute episode might cost as much as an entire 3 hour movie. Genres like science fiction, high fantasy and graphic novels are being adapted to the screen much to the delight of people like me. People who have been doggedly reading and dissecting these stories since they were released and are invested deeply in their plots and mythos. In short nerds, it’s a great time to be alive. Who would have thought I would live to see a white walker stalk across my television screen or a giant squid dropped on New York City by a narcissistic mad man? Moments like those had previously only lived on the page and in my imagination. That wonder and awe felt in those moments is a double edged sword however. When something goes awry or doesn’t follow a pre-ordained “script” (at least as us fans see it), chaos and anger ensue. This duality has never been more evident than in the last year. 2019 saw the end of HBO’s Game of Thrones series and the premiere of HBO’s Watchmen. Both stories have rabid, dedicated fan bases who have notoriously been hard to please (I count myself among them). My question with this post is simple: Where did Watchmen succeed where Game of Thrones failed? Watchmen has been lauded this year as one of the best new shows on television while Game of Thrones has been derided for a disastrous final season. Let’s take a deeper dive into why that is.
A Song of Ice and Fire will likely go down as a high fantasy classic regardless of whether it is finished or not. George R.R. Martin’s epic about medieval politics, warfare and dragons was a success long before HBO decided to make a show out of it. Game of Thrones however became a cultural phenomenon after 1 season on HBO largely off it’s shock value and the unique way the subject matter was portrayed. Ned Stark’s head getting lopped off in the penultimate episode of it’s first season was as much shocking for new fans as it was when “book readers” read it for the first time. It suddenly became cool to talk about high fantasy and the world of Westeros in a “water cooler” setting. Those first few “Thrones” seasons managed to delight both new fans and old fans in the way the show was presented. George R.R. Martin’s involvement and writing credits helped to give it an authenticity for book readers while the violent, shocking images helped to make it a mainstream sensation to fans worldwide. The main problem with Thrones starts with Martin however. Adapting a show that had yet to conclude in its literary form was a risky endeavor. Martin and HBO had created a ticking time bomb situation in which each season that was released, tightened the noose on Martin’s neck to release the next book in the series. When the show finally caught up to Martin, HBO had to take the reigns themselves as Martin took a step back to (presumably) finish writing his fantasy epic. The two seasons in which HBO worked off zero original source material were two of the most frustrating seasons I’ve watched of television. The authenticity was gone and the show went off the rails. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are undoubtedly fans and knowledgeable on the subject matter but they are no Martin. Having to create and finish a story that they had only been working on for the past 7 years (as opposed to a lifelong project for Martin) was unfair but ultimately one that they willingly walked into.
Watchmen like A Song of Ice and Fire was a beloved literary work in the form of a graphic novel. Like Thrones, it also harbored its share of rabid fans looking to protect its legacy. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen film divided that fan base and took some unusual liberties with the story. That’s why when HBO announced a Watchmen television series, it was received with lukewarm enthusiasm. Fans like me thought ‘was it really necessary to dive back into that world?’ The television series did something totally different and unexpected though. In a way, the Watchmen graphic novel from 1985 is “Old Testament” while the show continues the story in a way that is decidedly “New Testament.” The show doesn’t seek to change or add to the original story at all, it simply picks up where it left off. It seeks to answer questions that were never answered in the novel and forge its own path. Watchmen’s author Alan Moore has famously been reluctant to promote or give his blessing to any new Watchmen projects. Prefering to let his and Dave Gibbons’ creation speak for itself. HBO basically said fuck that, we’re gonna do it anyway and I think that line of thinking made all the difference. Watchmen unveiled and brought to the screen aspects of the original comic that we never thought were possible. The Hooded Justice reveal, Dr. Manhattan’s secret life and Ozymandias’ exile were all master strokes in storytelling that come directly from the Watchmen sphere of influence. Centering the story around a new character in Angela Abar offered a deeper glimpse into a world that most of us fans had been craving to see after finishing the original novel. This new direction not only appeased fans of the original story but also hooked in new viewers.
So the question remains, what went wrong with Thrones? and what went right with Watchmen? Was it the dogged pursuit of authenticity and then the subsequent abandonment to the Ice and Fire story that fans derided in Game of Thrones? Was it the fact that Watchmen carried on it’s own legacy and vision rather than subvert to a vision drawn by fans and the original creator? I think it’s a little of both. Where Game of Thrones failed was in the long game. Finishing a story that hadn’t been written yet is quite obviously a tall task. It’s also a task that offered a no-win scenario. Original fans of the Ice and Fire series would never be happy seeing their long coveted secrets revealed on screen rather than in a book. Whole wiki’s were dedicated to R+L=J only to have it revealed to the entire world in an hour one day on a Sunday. Whole book arcs were dropped to the wayside to find a way to sprint to the end of the HBO series and I think the quality suffered. Keep in mind, it wasn’t only the book readers who were disappointed. Where Watchmen differed was (as stated above) in its attitude. Watchmen’s showrunner Damon Lindelof (no stranger to criticism himself) wasn’t afraid to veer into the weird and the unknown. Fans like myself expected the story to continue in some specific way but it’s almost like Lindelof didn’t care or didn’t give us the time to examine his method. He dropped us in the middle of a story and the middle of a world that was both vastly different and also strangely familiar. The particulars were there, but the information was doled out in such a slow and deliberate way we had nothing to complain about. Fans wanted to see the culmination of the story. By the end, the characters we had known and loved were present (Doc Manhattan, Silk Spectre, Ozymandias, etc.) but they were ancillary to the story we were currently falling in love with. Lindelof created a story that both continued a beloved one but was also able to stand on it’s own two feet.
In conclusion, both series’ were expected take liberties and risks with classic literary tales. Watchmen eschewed that notion of a preconceived story without losing it’s respect for the original. Thrones started out by adhering to the original story arc and lost it’s audience by going away from it. Watchmen managed to create a completely original story based on a world we were already familiar with in which they expanded on it and added layers. Thrones was tasked with continuing a story in which the ball was already rolling. A Song of Ice and Fire can only end one way and that way is still sitting in Martin’s head. I’ll always love Game of Thrones for what it was as an entertaining television show but nothing can compare to what Watchmen did in the way it made its audience think and feel. Either way, the fact that both these worlds have become relevant in modern television is a triumph that us nerds will be forever grateful for. Winter is still coming and the clock is still ticking and the success of both of these shows is an encouraging harbinger of what’s to come.