Genre Conflation and the Uncertain Future of Fantasy

As Outlaw King reminds us of the effects of Game of Thrones on modern entertainment, we must ask questions about what artful fantasy will look like going forward.

Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce in Outlaw King

Netflix looks ready to make an Awards season splash with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (a Coen Brothers Western) and Roma (from Alfonso Cuarón) due for release in the next few weeks. But first, the streaming giant released David McKenzie’s Outlaw King, similarly positioned by the company as serious prestige content. The film was released last Friday to a response summed up well by Vann Newkirk II on Twitter:

Outlaw King is not a great film – though it isn’t exactly bad either. British character actors, Scottish vistas, and some passable action set pieces can go a long way, and – as many have noted – the film works as a casual action epic for a weekend night, even if that is not how Netflix promoted it (more on that later).

Outlaw King is bland, but not for lack of effort. Rather, it is bland because it tries to hit an impossible range of notes, and fails to convince on all fronts. It touts its historicity, but but the briefest Wikipedia excursion undermines these claims. It weaves in palace intrigue and political drama, but lacks the time to make the players significant. Its reliance on a titular character suggests a biopic, but we never learn much at all about the Bruce’s life and character. The film also seems to know the certain beats and conventions expected from a medieval mud and blood film, but after two hours of feasts and castles and peasants and plenty of mud and blood, these moves seem arbitrary and dull. And then there’s the echoes of Braveheart, for better and worse: sequences of war which are almost distractingly violent; a gratuitous but still restrained though ultimately awkward sex scene; a surprise penis; a battle speech that is kinda badass but also kinda cheesy; James Cosmo; lots of yelling men; and, of course, a depiction of being hung, drawn, and quartered that I hope the kids are not around to see.

When Braveheart did it, it was wired. Outlaw King is tired. And thus, this film is the latest in what has been a line of disappointing medieval war epics which have all been inspired by Braveheart in the way all World War II films changed after Saving Private Ryan. Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood come to mind, and in each the lack of historicity is notable, and Outlaw King is the latest reminder that “we” have a piss-poor understanding of the medieval world. I’d go so far to say that no era of history has such a disparity between its hold on the Western imagination and the accuracy of that imagination. Well, that and anything undergirding American exceptionalism.

However, as much as Outlaw King fits in this tradition of history-illiterate entertainment, the Braveheart comparison has been matched by the inevitable reference to Game of Thrones. Just as every tall European who can shoot 3’s is compared to Dirk Nowitzki – despite there never being anyone else who has ever really played like Dirk – every show or movie featuring swords and horses and castles and political intrigue in the last 6 years has been in some way linked to Thrones, even though the series’ excellence has proven to be inimitable. The influence is obvious, of course, as one cannot watch a minute of Vikings or Knightfall or, indeed, Outlaw King without noticing glaring similarities.

But herein lies one of the faultlines in the tectonic plates of genre: the most recent medieval epics are related to Game of Thrones both by creators and consumers despite the fact that Game of Thrones is fantasy, not historical fiction. There are dragons and magic in Thrones, and Westeros is not medieval Europe despite the obvious congruence. Thrones has helped to cast a light on one of the most bizarre conflations in our collective imagination, which is the blurring of lines between medievalism and fantasy. In our imagination, knights are for slaying dragons as much as they are for scheming their way to lands and lordships, and the mysterious puppet masters are wizards as often as bishops. There are reasons for this conflation, some of them good. But the fact remains that, while Thrones has many of the elements which should, in theory, make for a compelling medieval tale of war and politics, and while, as many have noted, the showrunners are much more adept at handling political intrigue than the fantasy elements of the story, the show belongs to a different genre.

Now what remains to be seen is what Thrones, which is perched on this faultline, means for future works of fantasy. Projects like Outlaw King have made Thrones’ effects on medieval epics clear (backstabbing, shocking violence, nudity, grime, etc.), but will these elements find their way into works of high fantasy as well? Will the conflation between these genres mean audiences will expect works of fantasy to look like Game of Thrones (and thus Outlaw King), and will creators try to capitalize on those expectations?

This is especially relevant as Amazon’s play at creating the “next Game of Thrones” (remember now what I said about Dirk Nowitzki) is a billion dollar Lord of the Rings series. Perhaps the similarities to Thrones will only be superficial, but it’s a safe bet whatever Amazon comes up with will feel more like Thrones than the original trilogy (and certainly the Hobbit films) ever did. The Amazon Rings series (focusing on young Aragorn) is also one of a bevy of fantasy shows due for release in the next few years, including Wheel of Time on Amazon and The Witcher on Netflix. Attempts to replicate Thrones make sense based on the series’ commercial and critical success. This success is staggering by any standard, but especially so set against fantasy projects in general. For, like their medieval epic counterparts, almost every work of high fantasy in the last 20 years has been a critical and commercial failure (with the notable exceptions of Rings and Hobbit).

I’m not wringing my hands over a more violent battle scene in Middle-Earth or even a gratuitous Aragorn and Arwen sex scene, but I am keen to discover how the Thrones effect will impact the fundamental aspects of different fantasy worlds. By that I mean it might be obvious what will be added to fantasy worlds (violence, scheming, sex, grit), but it is uncertain whether or not these additions will be at the expense of the elements which make each work its own fascinating story and world. After all, works of fantasy literature are already rife with complex plots, graphic violence, and explicit sex and nudity. Thrones is actually less violent and sexual than the books, if you’d believe it. Moving from PG-13 to R is not necessarily out of step with the source material, but there is the risk that the move will coincide with a departure from the stories’ critical themes.

While the integrity of fantasy source material rests in the creative capabilities of the people who end up as showrunners, it is also subject to the vision of studio heads. Outlaw King works as a violent, good-looking action movie rather than serious prestige film-making, and yet that is what Netflix envisioned it as. Why? Presumably because it looks and feels a bit like Braveheart, Gladiator, and – yes – Thrones. There is still a sense that such content demands the seriousness which usually accompanies any costume or period drama. Once we go back in time, once we lean on British character actors and stunning vistas, once we delve into topics of war and power, we must do so with careful craft and a serious attitude. Conversely, fantasy is often cast as unserious or as “merely” a work for children. In the popular imagination, fantasy is for kids and then for nerdy boys and men living in their parents’ basement. Thrones is, I think, the first series to really and truly bridge the gap between nerdy subculture and popular entertainment (even Lord of the Rings maintains a stigma). If studio execs are faced with a choice between prestige awards-fare and niche Ren-fair, what do you think they’re going to do? It is, of course, a false dichotomy, but it is doubtful if the people making decisions can adroitly maneuver these nuances. Many modern fantasy adaptations have exhibited choices which show either an ignorance of or apathy towards the source material, and often to devastating effect. Some of the Harry Potter films are offensive in their lack of fidelity, and while I understand why it isn’t there, how can Lord of the Rings be Lord of the Rings without the scouring of the Shire?

Outlaw King is not worth much consideration on its own, but, as this blog shows, it prompts some important questions about the future of the fantasy genre. As a lover of that genre, I look forward with guarded eagerness to seeing what Amazon, Netflix, and others come up with. And, as it turns out, we won’t have to wait long, as we will see in April how the final season of Thrones looks in response to its own legacy and the unfinished work of its source material.

In the meantime, Bud Light is dilly-dillying around with that idiotic Bud Knight ad campaign and even that idiocy is incorporating medieval backstabbing with the old invite-your-enemies-to-a-feast-and-attack-their-castle move.

Which, now that I think of it, is a depressing mix of gritty medievalism and silly fantasy, and maybe another reason to be just a little anxious about what’s in store.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

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