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Face Off: HBO's Game of Thrones vs. the Lord of the Rings trilogy

04.10.2014by: Dave Davis
Last week's Face-Off column featured a battle of the ages as Marvel and DC comics characters butted heads in a major throwdown, and your responses were practically split down the middle between CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER and MAN OF STEEL.

This past weekend, HBO's scorching series "Game of Thrones" finally returned, and so it seems like a good opportunity to match that show against another famous fantasy epic, the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. (Note that this column refers specifically to the live-action adaptations rather than the source material.)
PROTAGONISTS
Members of the noble Stark family, bastard son and courageous Night's Watch steward Jon Snow, and slave-freeing "mother of dragons" Daenerys Targaryen
Brave young hobbit Frodo Baggins and his three loyal (if mischievous) friends from the Shire, the ranger Aragorn (aka Strider), elf archer Legolas, Gondor warrior Boromir, dwarf colleague Gimli, and the powerful wizard Gandalf
ADVERSARIES
The wealthy and devious Lannister family, endlessly hateworthy teenager King Joffrey, the throne-coveting Stannis Baratheon, the impending threat of the White Walkers, and the tribal army assembled by wildling Mance Rayder
The powerful dark lord Sauron, his lieutenants the Ringwraiths, the traitorous wizard Saruman, and deformed and troublesome schizo Gollum
OTHER CHARACTERS
Hodor; mysterious red priestess Melisandre; ex-smuggler Ser Davos "The Onion Knight" Seaworth; towering no-nonsense warrior Brienne of Tarth; wily master of coin Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish; conniving Margaery Tyrell; noted pillow-biter Ser Loras Tyrell; ambitious Renly Baratheon; constantly scheming Lord Varys; nomadic Dothraki leader Khal Drogo; devoted bodyguard Ser Jorah Mormont; quippy mercenary Bronn; turncoat Theon Greyjoy; so very many more characters
Elf royalty Lord Elrond and Lady Galadriel; "retired" adventurer Bilbo Baggins; Aragorn's elven love interest Arwen; Denethor, the mad steward of Gondor; Faramir, brother of Boromir; Theoden, Eomer and Eowyn of Rohan; Treebeard the Ent; and Bill the pony
NON-HUMANS
Aside from standard animals like horses, ravens and one angry pit bear, GoT has direwolves, giants, the mysterious White Walkers and their undead followers, three temperamental fire-breathing dragons, and the terrifying shadow-thing birthed from Melisandre's vagina
In addition to all the various humanoid races like hobbits, dwarves, elves, the wicked Orcs (and goblins and Uruk-Hai) and the oversized trolls, LOTR has the ancient talking trees known as Ents, eagles of remarkable size and intelligence, great Siege Beasts, mammoth-like Oliphaunts, nightmarish monstrous spiders, flying fell beasts ridden by the Ringwraiths, the frightening fire-demon Balrog, and an army of ghosts
STORYLINE
While dozens of characters have personal motivations and agendas, the primary goal of the major players is control of the Iron Throne and rule of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros
With assistance from a handful of allies, hobbit Frodo Baggins must endure the perils of Middle Earth and deliver the powerful One Ring into the fires of distant Mount Doom to prevent it from falling into the hands of Sauron, who would use its dark power to dominate the realm
FANTASY REALM
The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, divided into nine actual regions of varying climates (the North, the Riverlands, the Vale, the Iron Islands, the Stormlands, the Westerlands, the Reach, the Crownlands and Dorne) ruled by various Houses, in addition to the wildling territories north of The Wall, plus the landmass of Essos across the Narrow Sea
Middle Earth, which contains such destinations as the capital of Gondor, the Mines of Moria, the peaceful green hills of the Shire, the Misty Mountains, the ominous Fangorn Forest, the plains of Rohan, the lush elf realm of Rivendell, and the volcanic region Mordor, which one does not simply walk into
MAGIC
The volatile pyromancer concoction Wildfire, the illusionist warlocks of Qarth, the blood magic used to "save" Khal Drogo, and the powers of the Lord of Light, which includes resurrection, clairvoyance and the creation of murderous shadows
Gandalf uses spells to cast powerful fire and light, staffs can whip opponents through the air, the sword Sting glows blue in the presence of orcs, the doors to Moria are locked by magic, elven cloaks seem to hide their wearers, the Phial of Galadrial throws blinding light, and the One Ring can render its wearer invisible... and also dominate the wills of all beings
WARGS
People with the ability to project their consciousness into other animals
Large wolf-like beasts used by orcs as a means of transportation
ACTORS
Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Maisie Williams, Kit Harrington, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, Charles Dance, Jack Gleeson, Emilia Clarke, Natalie Dormer, Jason Momoa, Iain Glen, Michelle Fairley, Richard Madden, Gwendoline Christie, about a thousand other people, and Sean Bean
Elijah Wood, Sir Ian McKellan, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Sean Astin, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Andy Serkis, John Rhys-Davies, Miranda Otto, Karl Urban, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Liv Tyler, and Sean Bean
PRESENTATION
Though it relies on performances more than dazzle, HBO and showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss consistently bring feature-film quality production values to the small screen, with incredible costumes and impressive location shooting.
Once known only for horror movies like BRAINDEAD and THE FRIGHTENERS, filmmaker Peter Jackson's affection for J.R.R. Tolkien's books is evident on the screen, bringing the world of Middle Earth to life as he tested the limits (at the time) of special effects with the performance capture of Andy Serkis as digital character Gollum.
CULTURAL IMPACT
Fans of author George RR Martin's novels were already thirsting for an adaptation of the dense work, but the compelling twists, strong performances, epic scope, adult themes and deliciously dastardly characters attracted viewers not normally predisposed to fantasy material, thrusting the world of Westeros into pop culture (and offering fresh inspiration to cosplayers). Critical response has been positive and the actors have been recognized for their work, with Emmy and Golden Globe awards handed to scene-stealer Peter Dinklage.

While more "Game of Thrones" merchandise fills shelves every day, each new episode instantaneously burns across social media. Though it's taken some knocks for gratuitous nudity, violence and moral ambiguity, those are probably also reasons why many return to the series, and in ever-increasing numbers -- its Season 4 premiere pulled in the most HBO viewers since "The Sopranos" signed off seven years ago, and the show has (unsurprisingly) been renewed for two more seasons. Winter is definitely coming!
Though some Tolkien purists bristled at changes from the beloved books, the film trilogy is generally praised by audiences and critics (94% average at Rotten Tomatoes), gaining respectability (winning numerous awards including Oscar sweep for RETURN OF THE KING) while also making nearly $3 billion at the box office (on what was initially considered a risky investment) -- with each entry drawing larger crowds as people caught up on home video. Even before the existence of Twitter and the popularity of Facebook, hobbits and wizards and a little CGI curiosity named Gollum were ingrained in the popular culture. The trilogy on home video has since become an annual viewing tradition by many fans.

LOTR's success catapulted Peter Jackson to the A-list and prompted an adaptation of Tolkien's THE HOBBIT, which brought back Jackson and many cast members while stretching the material out to another trilogy.
LORD OF THE RINGS
"Game of Thrones" and LORD OF THE RINGS actually have many points in common -- a rich and fully realized fantasy world, complex relationships, ambitious scope, intricate history, established fans of the source material, and a decidedly memorable diminutive character. But they also have their differences: while LORD OF THE RINGS is more of a grand adventure, "Game of Thrones" is like fantasy chess with regular disembowelments and lots of sex. HBO's show may not have the budget and higher-profile actors of Jackson's movies, but those actors breathe life into characters far bigger than the screen they're on, thanks to shocking swerves, deliriously satisfying schemes and wonderfully shameful behavior.

"Game of Thrones" is very much a favorite of mine right now, but the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy's legacy and influence is undeniable, and it just barely gets the edge. However, in large part that's due to having the benefit of being a complete story, and a decade to settle in the collective culture and consciousness. We're barely halfway through seeing the saga of Westeros, and something tells me that when Martin's epic has been fully revealed in several years time, I'll be revisiting this match-up with a very different outcome. Hodor.

Agree? Disagree? Which do you prefer?
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