The eight-season-long HBO television adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones was an international sensation, generating intense debates and controversies in many spheres. In 2016–17, an international research project gathered more than 10,000 responses to a complex online survey, in which people told of their feelings and judgements towards the series. The project was an ambitious attempt to explore the role that ‘fantasy’ plays in contemporary society. This book presents the project’s major outcomes. It explores people’s choices of favourite characters and survivors. It looks at the way modern works of fantasy relate to people’s sense of their own world, and what is happening to it. It explores the way that particular televisual decisions have generated controversies, most notably in relation to presentations of nudity, sex and sexual violence. The book uses the project’s distinctive methodology to draw out seven ways in which audiences watched the series, and shows how these lead to different responses and judgements. Notably, it leads to a reconsideration of the idea of ‘lurking’ as a problematic way of participating. A pair of complex emotions – relish and anguish – is used to make sense of the different ways that audiences engaged with the ongoing TV show. The book closes with an examination of the debates over the final season, and the ways in which audiences demanded ‘deserved’ endings for all the characters, and for themselves as fans.
This penultimate chapter examines the various controversies surrounding Game of Thrones relating to issues of adaptation and to sex and violence, among other things. Focusing on the Red Wedding and the rape of Sansa Stark, it shows how participants spoke about scenes that they found memorable and those that made them feel uncomfortable or angry. The chapter examines how moments of shock generated by the series could be accepted and appreciated as characteristics of ‘extreme storytelling’, whereas angry responses were associated with rejection of the TV show’s storylines, aesthetics or politics. It explores in detail the characteristics of responses to Sansa’s rape, placing these in the wider context of the way that debates about representations of violence – particularly sexual violence and ‘rape culture’ – have developed.
This chapter examines the claim that Game of Thrones is a lens for thinking about the world, and having metaphorical meaning, for example, in relation to climate change or the rise of politicians such as Donald Trump. The chapter considers how audience members describe the lands and peoples that intrigue them, what they understand ‘winter’ to mean in the series and how they think about the world of Game of Thrones and its relation to our world. Drawing on these responses it explores how these aspects illuminate audience understandings of the role of fantasy in contemporary culture.
‘If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention’
Martin Barker, Clarissa Smith, and Feona Attwood
The launch of season 8 of Game of Thrones was met with a storm of controversy, culminating in an online petition which attracted almost two million signatories. This chapter explores the reasons that people gave for complaining, in particular looking at what it means for a series to ‘end well’, and what it means to say that characters, or their fans, do not ‘deserve’ what happened to them.
How do we move from talking in vague terms about ‘the audience’, without falling into the vacuous opposite of saying that ‘everyone is different’? This chapter explains how the project’s qualiquantitative methodology, coupled with an idea developed from the sociologist Max Weber, enabled the identification of seven distinct kinds of audience for Game of Thrones, each with its own orientation to the TV show.
A great deal of theoretical work, notably from media psychology and cognitive film theory, has addressed the ways that audiences relate to characters within fictional works. This chapter reviews the main tendencies within this work, before testing some of its main claims by close examination of the ways that the project’s respondents chose, and talked about, their favourite characters and favourite survivors (notably Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, Arya Stark, Daenerys Targaryen, Jaime Lannister, Sansa Stark, Petyr Baelish, Lord Varys, and Cersei Lannister). The results reveal the very complex ways that audiences affiliate with characters, doing so in highly patterned but also selective ways (sidelining uncomfortable features).
This chapter reviews some recent ideas about how the nature of fictional characters (and especially fantasy ones) might be changing in response to broader cultural shifts. It then deepens the investigation of character choices, by examining in detail how different groups affiliated with five top choices: Tyrion, Jon, Arya, Daenerys and Jaime. The chapter examines the kinds of affiliation that audience members make with characters, and it explores how these relate to audience orientations towards the TV show and to gender.
Game of Thrones proved a huge success, but also the focus of many inquiries, debates and controversies. This opening chapter takes a broad look at the range of impacts and uses from the TV show, covering celebratory and marketing adoptions; its parallels with real histories and politics; its uses as metaphor for contemporary events; and approaches through media tourism. It considers debates over the adaptation from books to television, and over different representations (especially disablement and gender). Finally, it considers the thinness to date of actual audience research, and the problems with attempts to see the series from an ‘effects’ angle.
Audience research has changed dramatically under the influence of cultural studies, with its emphasis on pleasures, meanings, identities and communities, along with its critique of quantitative ‘effects’ research. But a number of researchers have sought to overcome the limitations of the associated qualitative research methods by developing qualiquantitative methods. This chapter outlines how such a method – trialled in a number of earlier major projects – was deployed for Game of Thrones, and explains the analytic procedures that followed.
This final chapter returns to questions of popular culture, imagination and fantasy and their connections to political activism and thought. Focusing on ‘unpredictability’, an element of quality TV and a key characteristic of the series, it examines how our seven types of audience member envisage different conceptions of ‘unpredictability’ and ‘futures’. Drawing on the notion of a ‘structure of feeling’ and in the context of the emergence of ‘Grimdark’ fantasy, the chapter explore ways of understanding audience responses of ‘relish’ and ‘anguish’ and what these suggest, both about Game of Thrones and broader questions about audience sensibility.