Game of Thrones (GoT) is a cultural phenomenon that has come out of the blue to eclipse The Lord of the Rings (LoTR) franchise as the benchmark for geeky fandom.
Ok, so the Tolkien franchise is big - bilions of dollars big. Peter Jackson made a fist of bringing a much loved story to the big screen in a spectacular way. The first films earned high praise for Jackson's impressive marshalling of production design and visual effects. With the release of The Hobbit, a slim volume compared to the sprawling LoTR book, as a trilogy it seems obvious that the point of the movies is to rake as much money from the faithful as is possible before the whole thing peters out - as it inevitably must. There is nothing more to tell - though the Wienstein company could probably turn the Silmarrillion or Farmer Giles of Ham into something to make a quick buck.
But what is the comparison between LoTR and the other mega fantasy epic Game of Thrones? They could be kissing cousins - GoT obviously owes something of a debt to the genre created by the Oxford don Tolkien (though no more than Tolkien owed folklore like Beowulf) - but GoT has an entirely contemporary sensibility that makes The Hobbit and LoTR seem like a children's story.
Putting aside the sex and shocking, graphic violence GoT has something that LoTR films don't. Characters the audience cares about and can relate to. This is essential in television series. The epic arc of the story is one thing. Hobbits must dutifully wend their way from the Shire to Mount Doom - they must encounter the pre-ordained obstacles and a good many of the audience will know everything that is supposed to happen next - and if it doesn't they will bay for blood (none of which actually appears on-screen - gore would change the rating of the films and mean a much smaller pay-day for the producers that can't even be covered by kick-backs from the New Zealand taxpayer). The kidult sensibility of the LoTR franchise makes it unsatisfying for adults and a bit unsettling for kids. Its characters are faced with mortal terrors but respond with little more than glazed looks. GoT is filled with the passions of the characters and the audience cares about them - and is shocked when they are hacked from the screen in unforeseen plot turns. The 'Red Wedding' scene pulled the rug out from under millions of fans - though they were primed for a surprise season finale few would have seen it coming.
The most significant differences between the two products are:
GoT has fewer editorial constraints - the plot can be kept interesting and fresh, rather than bound to the traditions of a treasured convention. It is exciting and new.
GoT can play unfettered to an adult audience - the producers don't have to pander to the junior members of the crowd - which makes it unflinching in its themes and so overcomes the sillyness of its fairytale origins. It can be gritty and 'real'.
The characters can be modern in their sensibility. The way the Elves waft about in LoTR comes across as weird and harder to understand than Elvish. We can relate to GoT characters - even if they are misunderstood, clean shaved dwarves.
What's the takeout?
No matter how big your production is - it will always be better if your audience actually care about the characters. Even TV shows like the British soap opera EastEnders has a hugely loyal fan base because - even though the production values are low - every expense spared on lighting - we want to know what happens next and how the characters interact with each other. Why? Quite simply because…that's life. (We even care about dragons more if we have known them since they were babies).