Grand Debates: ‘Game of Thrones’ vs. ‘The Lord of the Rings’

By Brent Glass

Tyrion and Frodo

A momentous occasion is imminent: HBO’s Game of Thrones (GoT) returns this Sunday, April 6, for its fourth season.  Fans have been planning their lives around it.  In one extreme example, a woman decided to forgo natural birth and have a Caesarean section, cementing the birth of her newborn child on the morning of April 5th – one day before the premier date.  Her husband will bring a laptop to the hospital on Sunday night so the new family can enjoy the not-so-family-friendly show minutes after it airs.  I’m sure the drugs administered to the new mother will help enhance the season premier.

Okay, you caught me.  I fabricated the entire story.  But I’m sure you can imagine some people going to such lengths.  Television shows, especially HBO shows, garner faithful fans who plan their life around that of a network.  This is true for all age groups.  Sure, the shows differ – adolescent girls shuffle around their middle school halls asking whether they watched PLL (Pretty Little Liars)last night while older folks sit around a Hardee’s at 7 AM rehashing the over-the-top jokes from the previous night’s NCIS.

Like other fans, I often can’t help myself from extensively discussing the events of my favorite shows.  I read the first two books in A Song of Ice and Fire two summers ago at my dad’s behest.  The easy-to-read prose and moral ambiguity pulled me in.  Two books were devoured in days.  Suffice to say, I enjoyed them.  However, I stopped early in the third because of a fantasy overload and a trip to California.  It wasn’t until recently that I decided to catch up on the show and pick up where I left off in the book series.  I was pleasantly surprised at how easily I was placed back in the war for Westeros and beyond.  Naturally, since I have caught up on the television show, I am ecstatic about season four premiering this Sunday.  As a result, I thought it would be nice to do something fun.

Today there are few champions among the world of fantasy.  The obvious stars are C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, and J.K. Rowling and their respective works: Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), and Harry Potter.  Two are too tempting not to compare: The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones.

Some will be quick to scold me for considering such a thing.  How can you even begin to determine the better franchise?  I know it may not be wise, but I’ve never claimed to be as much.  Thus begins another great debate.

Parameters:  All aspects of The Lord of Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire will be considered.  That means I will include factors from both the books and their visual media counterparts.  Additionally, The Hobbit will be deemed a part of The Lord of the Rings and thusly will be considered.

A last note:  I do not claim this is a definitive debate.  This topic could fill a book.  Maybe I’ll write it someday.  Let us begin.  *SPOILERS*  Oh, and there’s some language.

World  i.e. length of history of land, topography, seasons

To me, this is obvious.  George R. R. Martin has created a perfectly adequate fantasy world for his A Song of Ice and Fire.  Westeros has a deep history.  Throughout the series, we are introduced to past events that altered the fate of the world.  He has clearly articulated a diverse land complete with varying climates and terrains, but his Westeros looks a lot like a country we refer to as England… I like originality.

Westeros and beyond

J. R. R. Tolkien’s world far surpasses Martin’s.  A simple glance at both of their worlds can confirm as much.  Maybe it’s because Martin hasn’t had enough life to produce as much as Tolkien.  Tolkien died when he was 81 and Martin is 65; therefore, in theory, Martin has 16 more years to catch up.  Regardless, unless he made a concerted effort to have enough material to inspire something like this, I think Tolkien draws first blood.

A_Map_of_Middle-earth_and_the_Undying_Lands_color

Standings: LOTR leads 1-0

 

Posterity

GoT has certainly earned a large fan base.  Most people that have any sense of popular culture have at least heard about the HBO television series, even if only to complain about the depravity of it all.  There are many aspects of the show that are especially relevant of today’s time, therefore serving as a poignant commentary on current American affairs.  Politics are at work in Game of Thrones.  Every character has their motivation and often that motivation involves the demise of someone else.  Morals are quickly discarded if a personal gain can be attained at their disposal.  In this way, Game of Thrones makes a case for being regarded as a timeless work of art, enlightening the multitudes for years to come.

As strong a case as Game of Thrones presents, The Lord of the Rings presents a far stronger one.  LOTR has challenged readers for more than a half century and viewers for over a decade.  The message is not as specific but can appeal to just about anyone: the endless struggle between good and evil.  This battle emboldens people, creates a dutiful hope, and prepares people to “fight the good fight.”  The sentiment is quite the opposite of the despair and hopelessness presented in Game of Thrones.  There is a universality present in The Lord of the Rings, and that quality virtually ensures the posterity of Tolkien’s magnum opus.

Standings: LOTR leads 2-0

 

Sean Bean Factor

Sean Bean plays Boromir in LOTR and Eddard Stark in GoT.

Boromir vs. Eddard

I was faced with a case of déjà vu upon seeing Eddard Stark in the first episode.  Haven’t I seen this guy before?  It didn’t take too long for me to align the stars.  My second thought: he was born to play a lord.  Eddard Stark is arguably the most important character in the first season of Game of Thrones.  The viewer is predisposed to view the Starks favorably; they are as close to protagonists as we’ll find in the franchise.  Sean Bean played the ever-honorable warden of the northern lands turned “Hand of the King” turned… dead.  He loved his family and served the king well.  However, because of his “honor” and refusal to “stoop to their [those of the capital] level” he was decapitated at the end of the first season.

Unfortunately Sean Bean’s character in LOTR fared no better.  Well into the first chapter of the trilogy, Boromir finds himself leaning against a tree laden with arrows.  It was then, on his deathbed, that he set aside his pride and put someone before himself – finally acknowledging Aragorn as his king.  Before his last moments, Boromir was the character everyone wanted to kick squarely in the gonads.  He tried to steal the ring from Frodo and he foolhardily thought he could harness the power of the ring.  What a d-bag!

While both characters died honorably, Ned Stark was honorable before crapping his pants.  As a result, the Sean Bean factor goes to Game of Thrones.

Standings: LOTR leads 2-1

 

Humor

This is a tough battle.  Both authors have proved to be capable of delivering humor; very different humor, mind you, but humor nonetheless.  Tolkien’s characters are all very likeable.  Merry and Pippen act as a humorous chorus throughout the films, constantly lightening the mood and succumbing to their love of beer, food, and long bottom leaf for the merriment of the reader.  However, the humor is not comprised of cheap quips with no substance.  Each comedic moment illuminates the characteristics of a character or adds an element to the moment at hand.  His humor is very intentional.  That being said, one of the greatest strengths of Game of Thrones is the implementation of humor.

The main source of humor in the franchise is Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf with a love for booze and hookers.  Tyrion is always delivering a line of biting sarcasm, pure contempt, or wit – making his character the ultimate unsuspecting relief from all that is imploding around him.  Aforementioned, Martin’s humor is quite different than Tolkien’s.

Most people would characterize Tolkien’s humor as clean or wholesome.  While there are some innocent moments of humor found within A Song of Ice and Fire, the majority of comedy is a perfectly dirty conglomeration of sex jokes, profanity laden tirades, and untimely inappropriate remarks. Basically, it’s the humor most Americans know and love.  And hey, who’s judging?  Not the Imp.  Because of the ubiquitous humor in Game of Thrones, I give the battle to Martin – especially because of Tyrion Lannister.

Tyrion, Gods

Standings: Tied at 2-2

 

Audience Base

This is tough aspect to properly weigh.  Television shows base their ratings off of how many viewers tune in each week.  Dollar signs are not attached to individual episodes because it’s not as cut and dry as it is in the film industry.  Network shows are pressured by viewership.  If a show does not draw many viewers, the executives see lost commercial viewership – aka less revenue.  Premium cable companies’ goal is to sell as many memberships as possible; the membership is their life blood.  That is how they raise funds to produce new television shows and movies.  Thankfully they still report viewership and those are the numbers I used as a foundation.  However, films do not base success on viewership but rather sales of tickets.  In order to compare two like factors, I have taken the average ticket price in the years of their release date and divided it by the gross income.

Movie Year Gross Average Ticket Price Estimated Viewers
Fellowship of the Ring 2001 $871,530,324 $5.66 153,980,622
The Two Towers 2002
$926,047,111
$5.81 159,388,487
The Return of the King 2003 $1,119,929,521 $6.03 185,726,288
The Hobbit Pt. I 2012 $1,017,003,568  $7.96 127,764,267
The Hobbit Pt. II 2013
$949,926,432
$8.13 116,842,119

 

Astonishing numbers, really.  Expectedly, The Return of the King marked the peak of LOTR fandom.  Critics and fans agreed that the film bowed to no other work.  Even the Academy thought the film worthy of eleven Oscars.  In order to properly gauge the viewership of Game of Thrones I have accounted for encores, DVR playback, and viewing done via HBO GO.  Even considering all mediums, however, Game of Thrones’ average viewership was 13.6 million per episode.  When I compare this number with the lowest estimated viewership of LOTR (in this case The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), there is still about a 100 million person gap.

Standings: LOTR leads 3-2

Star Power

A great indicator for the longevity of a movie or television series is the star power present.  Stars can drive an individual to watch a program simply because said person is a part of the production.  For example: I will go see any movie with Daniel Day-Lewis in it – even if I have no idea what it’s about.  In this regard, LOTR holds an edge.

That is not to say the cast of GoT is talentless.  The first three seasons of the series revealed great scenes of acting.  However, virtually everyone in Game of Thrones was made by the show, and not the other way around.  Kit Harrington recently starred in Pompeii and other actors and actresses are becoming more well-known as the show continues to garner acclaim.  However, unless some mystical event takes place, GoT cannot surpass the caliber of acting displayed in the LOTR series.

While some actors’ careers were made by the trilogy (Elijah Woods, Orlando Bloom), others were already household names.  People like Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett, Viggo Mortensen, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, and Liv Tyler had been stalwarts of Hollywood before the The Fellowship of the Ring premiered in 2001.

Standings: LOTR leads 4-2

 

Ingenuity

A great movie or television show is generally clever, original, and inventive.  An artist can take risks and pioneer innovation though visual media.  Both Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings were clever, inventive, and original.  Obviously both were based upon book series, so the originality didn’t spawn from the storyline.  The ingenuity lay within the execution.

HBO did what it always does with Game of Thrones:  made something ballsy.  Shortly after starting the books, I was questioning how a network could create a television show based upon such twisted morals and smut.  But, it wasn’t just television stepping up to the task; it was H. B. OGame of Thrones rightly utilized modern advancements in computer generated dragons and landscapes, creating a visual masterpiece.  It would be wrong not to give credit to the creators of HBO.  Turning an epic novel series into a television show is no easy task – especially one that is as fantastical as A Song of Ice and Fire.  Nevertheless, Peter Jackson and his team were even more impressive with their LOTR series.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy began shooting in 1999 for 274 consecutive days.  All three films were shot concurrently, requiring Jackson and his team to meticulously consider every possible scene and location from the beginning of production.  No easy feat, especially when one considers how much footage there is in LOTR (the extended editions are just shy of 4 hours apiece).  Additionally, Jackson’s team showed directing and photography dexterity when they picked up a whopping twelve Oscar nominations for the first installment, ranging from Best Picture to Best Film Editing.  Critics and fans were duly impressed with Jackson’s and Lesnie’s (cinematographer) ability to capture the stark contrast of Frodo’s and Gandalf’s height, although their respective actors did not differ quite as much in reality (contrary to popular belief, Elijah Wood is not a hobbit).

Frodo and Gandalf Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen

LOTR leads 5-2

 

Aesthetics

A vital part of any epic fantasy is how it looks.  Is the landscape demanding to be beheld, soliciting the viewer to drop their jaw in a gape of stupor?  This battle is neck-and-neck.  Both Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Martin’s Westeros and beyond have awe-inspiring landscapes, ranging from arid deserts to a 700-foot wall composed of ice.

Westeros landscape

“Westeros”

Middle Earth Landscape

“Middle Earth”

Middle Earth:  Jackson’s idea of Middle Earth is certainly a sight to behold.  It is safe to say that Jackon’s rendition of Tolkien’s creation wasn’t too far from the imagined landscape of the creator.  I say as much because Tolkien’s thorough (sometimes excruciatingly thorough) descriptions included in the novels painted a solid picture of what Middle Earth was supposed to resemble.  Basically Tolkien created a guide for how to create Middle Earth within his works.  Jackson simply had to follow the manual.

Martin was not nearly as thorough in his description of his imagined world, but it was not a result of being lackadaisical.  Martin certainly didn’t cheat his way through the writing of his fantasy series; the shortest novel is 704 pages and the longest is 1056.  Martin took more time painstakingly dissecting the actions and thoughts of characters, rather than painting vivid landscapes.  This fact, however, does not guarantee LOTR’s superiority of aesthetics.  Martin has helped produce the HBO adaptation and surely had a say in the landscape of his world.  Many aspects are similar to LOTR: there are a wide array of climates, terrains, and people, all located in a relatively small sect of land.  As a result the judging is very difficult.  Consequently, the victory rests on the aesthetics of the people in these franchises.

People are beautiful.  That much is certain.  Some are fashioned to be easier on the eyes than others, but everyone is beautiful in some way.  I plan to base the analysis of this criterion on generally-accepted perceptions of the actors/ actresses portraying the respective characters.

First, Tolkien’s world.  Many people consider Viggo Mortensen a handsome fellow.  I’m pretty sure Aragorn had to be handsome.  Furthermore, Orlando Bloom held the “heartthrob-of-Hollywood” belt for quite some time – even if I did just invent the title.  That about does it for the men in LOTR.  However, there are a considerable amount of fair maidens (to mix stories) in Middle Earth.  The latest winner of the Best Lead Actress Oscar, Cate Blanchett, certainly demanded attention as Galadriel.  Liv Tyler also shared the spotlight as the eventual-queen of Gondor.  Lastly there was Miranda Otto as Eowyn, daughter of the fallen King of Rohan, and eventual love of Faramir.

Now to Martin’s.  The dragoness of Game of Thrones is no other than Emilia Clarke, aka Daenerys Targaryen, “the rightful heir of Westeros.”  She’s extremely attractive, to say the least.  Then there’s Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell, betrothed to the sitting King of Westeros, Joffrey Baratheon.  There’s a multitude, really: Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister, Rose Leslie as Ygritte, Esmé Bianco as Ros, Carice von Houten as Melisandre, and so on.  You get the point.  Additionally, there are a slew of men on the show readily referred to as dreamy, or some similar sentiment.  Fans of the show will agree, this battle goes to GoT.

Women of GOT

Standings: LOTR leads 5-3

 

Critical Reception

Admittedly, this is my stab at quantifying something like critical reception across mediums (film and television).  Ratings have become an elemental part of everyday life.  Savvy, and even not-so-savvy, users of the internet use ratings to guide them in a purchase, vent frustrations with a product, and so on.  We rank things on a scale one-to-ten to gauge the severity of virtually everything and I don’t claim to be any different.  On a scale of one-to-ten… 

I use ratings as a guide like many people.  It should be no surprise, then, that I also find myself frequenting sites such as “Rotten Tomatoes” and “IMDB.”  Both sites offer ratings by critics and audiences and I have an entire method of how I weigh the worth of each rating.  Fortunately, I’m not going to bore you with my methodology.  Rather, I’ll stick to a straightforward approach.  Below I formulated a table with the rating information on the two franchises.

In order to offer an easy comparison, I took the average of all the films involving Middle Earth.  The numbers present an open-and-shut case.  Granted, there are many aspects to consider (one being that Rotten Tomatoes’ TV portion is still in its beta stage), but Game of Thrones is the clear underdog and I like those kinds of stories.

Media Rotten Tomatoes (Critics) Rotten Tomatoes (Audience) IMDb
The Fellowship of the Ring 91% 95% 8.9
The Two Towers 96% 95% 8.8
The Return of the King 94% 86% 8.9
An Unexpected Journey 65% 83% 8.1
The Desolation of Smaug 75% 85% 8.1
Avg. of Tolkien Films 84.2% 88.8% 8.56
Game of Thrones 100% 96% 9.5

 

Standings: LOTR leads 5-4

 

Source Material

Most categories thus far have leaned heavily on the visual adaptations, but, like many avid fans whine,“The books are better!”  Unfortunately, I tend to be one of those people.  Though I like to think it doesn’t leave my mouth as a reflexive shout whenever someone brings up the subject.  When discussing the works of Martin and Tolkien a question presents itself: Who is the better writer?

GRR vs JRR

A great dichotomy faces this question.  First we must determine what makes a writer “better.”  Does it mean that the writer is able to create a readable prose, urging the reader to turn one more page?  Or, does it mean that the author has an endless vocabulary, perfect grammar, and an impregnable storyline?  Many have toiled over these questions in an effort to gauge writing prowess.  I don’t claim to have the answers, just the chutzpah to compare.

When it comes to having a flawless storyline and meticulous details, Tolkien towers.  Tolkien had a knack for creating vivid images with his words.  Unfortunately, however, his descriptions could become drawling; there are times when your eyes can hardly stay open because he just spent ten pages describing moss on a rock.  I would argue that’s not a positive.

Martin is also a detail-oriented writer but the history of his characters and his world aren’t as airtight.  Martin creates as he goes and, as a result, flaws can be found.  Additionally, Martin has been criticized for his wavering colloquialisms and use of clichés.  The man can create addictively-readable content, but addictiveness is a category in of itself.

I must side with the tried and true.  J.R.R. Tolkien wins another posthumous point.

Standings: LOTR leads 6-4

 

Addictiveness

Contrary to the “critical reception” category, “addictiveness” is entirely qualitative.  This category could also be called “binge-able-ness.”  A term Netflix influenced, “binge watching” has become extremely omnipotent of young people.  Get introduced to a new television show you like?  You could catch up this weekend and catch the season premier!  Hello, thirteen consecutive hours in front of a screen.

I didn’t see The Lord of the Rings trilogy until I was 14.  I watched all three in one sitting and became an adamant fan.  I still consider myself a fan, but I’m not convinced it is that addictive anymore.  The first film takes over an hour before the story fully captivates the viewer.  Sure, once the journey begins you crave more, but Game of Thrones grabs hold much earlier, and with a fiercer grip.

The first episode of the first season sets the stage.  After the series premier, the audience is informed that the show will be a show comprised of unthinkable twists, traitorous actions, and thrilling storytelling.  Like Lays potato chips, you cannot just have one episode of Game of Thrones.  The story is all-but-begging for you to continue; for you to watch the world burn.

Standings: LOTR leads 6-5

Cringe Factor

Blake Baxter discussed the “cringe factor” in basketball and football in Saying Something’s first grand debate.  He explored the stomach churning hits of football and the Shaun Livingston-like injuries of the NBA.  As his closing rhetorical question implied, for some reason a high cringe factor is a good thing.  For those familiar with both LOTR and GoT, it should be simple to discern the champion of carnage.

There are some cringe-worthy moments found in The Lord of the Rings.  The zenith of such for most people probably rests with the giant arachnid found in the The Return of the King.  Even non-arachnophobias tend to get the “heebie jeebies” during those dark scenes.  Similarly, it is difficult not to be ostracized by the birth of the Uruk-hai.  However, these moments pale in comparison to the darkness that protrudes from every orifice of Game of Thrones.

If your cringe-o-meter hit a five at any point in the first season, the second and third surely tested the limits of your scale; the third season especially.  My cringe-o-meter was hovering around an 8.5 during most of the Theon-torture scenes, but the scale was completely shattered after watching the “red wedding.”  Watching a pregnant woman get stabbed repeatedly in the belly might be my limit.

Red Wedding

Standings: Tied at 6-6

 

Mythical Elements

Any good fantasy should be judged upon their implementation of mythical creatures, spells, etc.  Obviously, Martin and Tolkien are two of the best myth-writers in the history of literature.  They have displayed an innate ability to create alternative universes complete with histories and elemental properties.  However, this is a battle royale and there must be a king.

The Lord of the Rings series (including the first two Hobbit installations) includes a smattering of mythical elements.  Middle Earth is supplemented by the races of Elves, Dwarves, Dúnedain, Orcs, and Hobbits.  Furthermore, there are wizards, theNazgûl, dragons, and a host of mutated giants and animals.  There is no lack of magic present in LOTR.  Wizards wield power unknown to the likes of other races and Sauron manages to live as an all-seeing-eye hovering at the top of a black tower.

Game of Thrones also boasts a smorgasbord of mythical creatures and beyond.  Of course there are the dragons.  Oooooo ahhhhhh.  But then there are the mysterious men of Qarth, the seemingly dark magic of Melisandre and the Lord of Light, the Wights (white walkers), wargs, and a vestige of ancient animals and beasts.  True enough, it is simple to see that Martin was heavily influenced by Tolkien.  But if we consider the scope of mythology present in their works, Tolkien wins.

NAZGUL

Standings: LOTR leads 7-6

 

Relevance

The relevance of a subject is paramount.  Who is truly geeked about economics (besides me)?  Not many.  But when one makes economics relevant, as Dubner and Levitt did with their Freakonomics, it suddenly becomes a best seller and praises can readily be found.

The Lord of the Rings will always maintain some relevance.  The crux of the story is as old as history itself: the ultimate battle of good and evil; of the pure and the tainted.  It’s safe to say that humans hundreds of years from now will be have similar questions to answer about life.  That is, of course, unless some unexplainable event takes place to completely eradicate evil; or, God forbid, eradicate good.  The subject is so broad and sweeping that it can appeal to masses of people.  However, this battle is about relevance today, not necessarily the range of its appeal.  In this regard, Game of Thrones holds the ace.

Game of Thrones has many themes extremely relevant to modern times.  Politics have become an everyday part of life.  Not necessarily political campaigns and appointed positions, but all matters involving the sharing of secrets, the exchanging of favors, and the shady behind-the-scenes actions constitute the idea of politics.  Today, people view politics as inherently dirty.  The word draws a variety of responses, but most often it would be along the line of: “I’d rather not talk about it.”  Game of Thrones is not shy however.  The show highlights the doings of government officials and their wars and diplomacy.  It illuminates the power of money and the influence it have on a “sovereign” body.  Sounds too familiar, huh?  As a result, Games of Thrones ties up the score.

Standings: Tied at 7-7

 

Future

It all comes down to this.  The future.  One may wonder how a book series written in the 1950s, whose author is dead, can have a future.  Well, the adaptations have proven the contrary and, given the nature of today’s Hollywood, it’s only a matter of time before there’s a reboot of The Lord of the Rings.  The storyline won’t change, but the special effects and the methodology of telling said story just might.  Tolkien has provided humanity with a great life’s work.  His world has allowed countless people to escape the doldrums of their real life and be absconded by the likes of Aragorn and Frodo.  The future is still bright for The Lord of the Rings.

Maybe ironically, Game of Thrones’ future could be its downfall.  Although the television show has not yet disappointed, it wouldn’t be the first program to peter out after a few great seasons (think Dexter).  Also, many readers have criticized some of the later books as not being up to par with the earlier installments.  But my main concern is what remains unknown.  Five of the seven books in A Song of Ice and Fire have been completed.  I’m not as worried as others that believe the story may not be finished because of Martin’s age (though it’s certainly a possibility).  However, I do believe there is a decent chance the ending sucks.  As consumers of pop culture have learned, artists can really screw up an ending to something great.  Consequently, The Lord of the Rings receives a point because its future is certain.  It will be considered a classic for years to come.

The war is over.

Final Standings: LOTR wins 8-7

King Aragorn

Brent Glass is a Michigander who graduated from Eureka College in May of 2013. He spent time at the Sagamore Institute in Indianapolis, IN (a non-partisan think tank) where he worked on political economy pieces for Detroit, MI and Elkhart, IN. Additionally, he spent the summer of 2012 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA, working on social media management. Currently he is creating a social media management business (Connect You Consulting) and working full-time as a Management Assistant to the owner of a car dealership. He plans to further his education in the fall of 2014 in pursuit of a Ph.D. in Urban Development.

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