The Knights of Summer: Filling In The Post-Game of Thrones Void.
We've done it again people: we made it through another year of Game of Thrones and WOW what a finale! I might go as far to say that this was probably my favorite season, as each of the major houses in Westeros seemed to be settling all family business at the end, setting up what promises to be a crazy year for the show in 2017. Unfortunately, this now also means we're in the midst of our postseason doldrums until we get to see those White-Walkers and dragons again. So what to do in the meantime? Well, if there's a hole in your soul where John Snow and Sansa Stark used to be, here's some fun alternatives that might divert you until Season 7 rolls around.
10. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-03)
Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, and Sean Bean
Directed by Peter Jackson
So if you'd like, go ahead and chalk this pick into the category of "Most obvious as possible" or "no duh!", but on the other hand, we are talking about the most successful sword-and-sorcery trilogy of all time. Sure, The Hobbit Trilogy may diminish LOTR's stature simply by association in the same way that the Prequels diminish the original Star Wars films, but it's still tough to deny the films' greatness overall.
Peter Jackson's Oscar winners still seem like a miracle; transporting you to Tolkien's world in the minutest of detail. These are as epic as movies get, from battle combatants numbering in the hundreds of thousands to giant monsters and men dealing death to each other with horrible ferocity. The real power of Jackson's masterpiece trilogy though, lies in its quieter moments; from friends deciding to stay together despite all odds to Ian McKellan giving some of the most inspirational monologues of all time.
When I first heard of Game of Thrones coming to television, my hope was that they would be able to create George R.R. Martin's world and make it feel as authentic as Jackson was able to do for Tolkien, and I believe they've been able to do so and perhaps even surpass these movies in some ways. The world-building within both is a credit to their creators, and Jackson's films still remain a pillar that many modern adventure films are able to stand on.
9. Marco Polo (2014- )
Starring: Lorenzo Richelmy, Benedict Wong
I don't think anyone would argue that Marco Polo is in the same league with Game of Thrones when it comes to production budget or acting, but there are still plenty of pleasures to be found in this Netflix series. The distributor is finding some great success with its Marvel titles as well as critical and popular faves like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, and I'm sure that this show is an attempt to build on that momentum so it can either woo away GoT fans or simply be that show to watch when their favorite one has gone off the air for a year.
Like I said, there are a number of things to like here. There are no CGI dragons to be found, but lush art design and beautiful costumes are quite plentiful. The court of Kublai Khan is brought to life magnificently, and the series has its moments of stunning photography to match its wonderful sets and landscapes. While I wish that English was not magically the default language of the show, you still receive some very fun performances, especially Benedict Wong as the great Khan and Lorenzo Richelmy as the title character.
Action-wise the show also impresses. There's plenty of swashbuckling and thundering horses, and as an added bonus Polo receives a blind Kung Fu master in the form of Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu), a character so entertaining Netflix produced a spinoff movie. With terrific visuals, fun action and decent drama, Marco Polo isn't a top tier series, but it's certainly a fun one and you could certainly do much worse.
8. Black Death (2010)
Starring: Sean Bean
Directed by Christopher Smith
After the premiere season Game of Thrones went off the air, and I was searching for something to watch, this movie was the first thing I came across. It was exactly what I was looking for though. First of all, the movie has some shared casting with HBO's flagship show, most notably Sean Bean, who played Ned Stark in season one, and Carice van Houten, who plays a woman who may have supernatural powers, much like Melisandre, everyone's favorite Red Witch on Thrones.
Make no mistake, this is a dark and dreary movie. Part action, but mostly medieval horror, this picture is somewhere in between Excalibur and The Wicker Man. Taking place in 1348, the film concerns a squad of knights traveling to a local village in order to ascertain why it has not been effected by the black plague. What they find surprises them, but before long all hell breaks looks.
There's a palpable sense of dread that completely permeates this film. You can feel how much the plague has driven people to do terrible things, and everyone's paranoia is reaching a breaking point. Black Death isn't an epic adventure, but the movie is a dark journey into men's hearts that fans of GoT's more horrific elements may find entertaining.
7. Shogun (1975)
Author: James Clavell
Publisher: Delacorte Press
To be honest, the main reason I've included Shogun on this list is simply because it's my favorite novel of all time. I was first introduced to the story of English Sea Captain John Blackthorne in the early 80s when my father was obsessed with the TV miniseries that starred Richard Chamberlain and Toshiro Mifune. At the time I was taken aback by the story of an Englishmen marooned in ancient Japan, which almost seemed like an alien world, even when compared to 17th western civilization. In college, I finally started to read the novel after it was recommended to me by my roommate at the time, and what I found was an out and out masterpiece that completely overshadowed my previous experience with the story.
At over 1200 pages (of very, very small type), I carried the book around in my pocket for two years; reading it on my breaks and lunches at work or if I was ignoring my college professors. People back then would ask me why I had a dictionary in my pocket, but I wouldn't really care because it just gave me the opportunity to gush about it. It took me so long to read the book that it just sort of became a part of my life for a while. James Clavell's introductory novel in his Asian Series is one of the best adventure stories I've ever experienced, and if I knew it wouldn't take me just as long to read it again, I'd do it all over.
The book is a deep dive into Japanese culture, and Blackthorne's journey takes you through the country's customs and politics at the time. There's also romance and action galore, especially a giant battle featuring samurai vs ninja that still ranks as one of the best action sequences I've ever read on any page. If you want to take a look at a bygone world with grand sweep and wonderful characters, and you've already exhausted your Song of Ice and Fire collection, then this novel may be what you're looking for.
6. Rome (2005-2007)
Kevin McKidd, Ray Stevenson
Even though it only lasted two seasons, Rome was one of the main reasons I believed Game of Thrones could work on HBO. The Roman Empire has never been more thoroughly depicted; giving us the perspective of plebeians and patricians alike, from the dirty, dingy streets of the capital city where soldiers deal with taxes and religion, to the chambers of the Senate where politicians argue policy and plot murder.
Most Hollywood productions of Imperial Rome tend to feel like glossy postcards of its time period. It's difficult to get across how the civilization was a mishmash of different cultures and gods, and how people actually lived their day to day lives. Rome isn’t just told from Caesar's point of view, but also shows us the lives of two soldiers (Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson) and how the years away at war effects their families and how hard it was to integrate back into society when the fighting was done.
HBO has produced some of the best TV series of all time (The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood), but Rome (and also Band of Brothers) showed that the cable channel could also produce something on a truly massive scale that could compete with Hollywood blockbusters. At the same time, it displayed the advantages of long form storytelling by giving you characters that developed over years and years within the show's two seasons. It's not perfect, but Rome was a huge accomplishment that Game of Thrones is now getting to reap the benefits from.
5. Spartacus: Blood and Sand (2010-13)
Andy Whitfield, Liam McIntyre
Another show that definitely benefitted from the lessons learned after Rome's cancellation was Starz's unexpectedly great Spartacus series, which took just as many of its cues from Zack Snyder's 300 than it did HBO's elaborate show or the original 1960 film by Stanley Kubrick. If you're a fan of GoT's more exploitive elements, namely gory violence and lots and lots and lots and lots of nudity, then Starz's first major series is for you.
It's not hyperbole or an exaggeration to call Spartacus one of the most action-packed shows of all time. Every episode is packed with comic-panel inspired action as speed ramping, CGI, and excellent make-up fill the screen with blood-spurts, severed limbs and decapitations. The series even managed to evolve it's style of combat within its run as one-on-one fights and group battles gave way to full scale war, culminating in Battle of the Siler River, which is the best ancient battle scene I've ever witnessed on TV outside of Game of Thrones .
Speaking of evolution, the series also managed to developed from a visceral spectacle into a full-blooded drama with over the top, but compelling performances. Spartacus even managed to survive the death of original lead Andy Whitfield, whose battles with cancer caused delays in the show, but lead to a prequel series that only deepened the characters and mythology of the overall story. I don't think you'd ever call this TV show art, but fun and compelling? No doubt.
4. Heroes Die (1998)
Author: Matthew Woodring Stover
Publisher: Del Rey
It would be easy to pass Heroes Die on the shelf and mistake it for any number of random generic fantasy books. I know I would have if a friend of mine (my former college room mate who also recommended I read Shogun) hadn't told me I would absolutely love the thing if I just gave it a chance, and he was absolutely right. This wasn't some stodgy Tolkien rip-off; Stover's first Acts of Cain novel is a rip-roaring, sword-swinging actioner with heavy portions of magic and violence.
There's sort of Lord of the Rings meets The Matrix-vibe to Heroes Die that also reminds me of the Assassin's Creed video game series (though the book pre-dates all those film and video game series). The story takes place in the future, where the people of Earth have discovered an alternate universe where a Middle-Earth-like civilization called Overworld exists. Of course, instead of sending emissaries or scientists to this planet, we've developed a technology where we can project "actors" onto their world and have insanely heroic and violent adventures that people can relive on in our universe via V/R technology. The downside is that, like The Matrix, if you die on Overworld, you die on Earth as well.
The plot revolves around Hari Michaelson, who on Earth is a semi-retired superstar actor estranged from his wife, but on Overworld is the unstoppable killer Caine, an assassin for hire ready butcher everyone on a moment's notice in order to entertain billions back home. Hari is fine with never going back to face the dangers of Overworld and try to put his life back together, until a sorcerer kidnaps his wife and threatens to sacrifice her. Needless to say, death and destruction ensue shortly after.
The real strength from Stover's writing comes from his expertise as a martial artist and being able to describe in full detail what happens to a body when it experiences the trauma of violence. Stover also takes the subject quite seriously and doesn't sugarcoat his language, as the F-bomb to sonnet ratio should please most George R.R. Martin fans. Bottom line is, Heroes Die is a bone crunching fantasy epic that should please any aficionados of Tolkien or the Wachowskis.
3. Vikings (2013- )
Starring: Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick, and Clive Standen
Distributor: The History Channel
Game of Thrones-lite is how I've always referred to Vikings ever since I first encountered the series, but that's not entirely fair. While the show does share some visual similarities with Thrones and the political gamesmanship is also very much in keeping with the bigger series, Vikings has become a show that has absolutely been able to stand on its own, and stay very true to itself. Much like the Japanese in Shogun, Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) and his Viking clan are very alien to the ways of western civilization and our customs. There's a sort of "best of the worst" mentality when it comes to the show, as Lothbrok's people are definitely pillagers and murderers, but still more honorable than the other clans that they war with and somehow remain less evil than the Saxon and Norman kingdoms that they invade within the show.
Action-wise Vikings does some impressive, but very grounded work as well. You'll never get a "Battle of the Bastards"-sized encounter, but some pretty impressively staged battles are definitely not out of the question, and the series seems to revel in bloody theatrics.
I'm actually continually impressed by the action and look of this show, especially since it's produced by The History Channel and not a heavy hitter the likes of an HBO, FX, or an AMC. If you need a TV series to ween you off the highs of your Game of Thrones fix, then Vikings is always one of my first recommendations. Think of it as a sort of 12th-Century Sons of Anarchy, but way better than the last few seasons of that show or The Bastard Executioner. Travis Fimmel and Katheryn Winnick both do excellent work as the series' leads and the writing and bloodletting are both quite fantastic.
2. Northlanders (2008-12)
Writer: Brian Wood
Publisher: Vertigo Comics
If The History Channel's Vikings is a great introduction to Nordic traditions, then Brian Wood's anthology comic series gets you into the heads of those legendary warriors like never before. From awesome single-issue stories to epics that follow characters around in different volumes, Wood's series runs the gamut on every kind of viking story you could ever want.
You never get the chance to be bored, because once you think you've seen it all with this series, the writer ends up spinning tales that seem to come out of nowhere, whether it's stories about the different religions of the time, politics, what it was like to be a mercenary or a serial killer within this society, or the importance of women's roles in the period. To add to this, Wood employs several different artists which help set the mood for each tale, from the gorgeous work of Fiona Staples to the more visceral styles of Simon Gane and Davide Gianfelice.
If you like tales of vikings or simply like big historical epics, then this series is definitely for you. Each story is engrossing in its own way, entertaining you with simple, but often fascinating tales of heroism or malice.
1. Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger
Directed by David Milius
As a nerdy kid who was occasionally ostracized growing up, I get astounded sometimes when I think about the times we live in pop culture-wise. It's a time where a movie about Captain America is the number one film of the year, and the most popular shows on TV features either zombies or dragons. It wasn't that long ago that a show like Game of Thrones wouldn't even be possible, much less incredibly popular...but here we are.
Needless to say, it was a very different landscape when Conan the Barbarian hit theaters in 1982. While Star Wars and Alien had changed the pop culture conversation somewhat, it was still tough to get a fantasy picture made that adults would take seriously. Science fiction's reputation was a little more established and therefore had a little more sway when it came to getting adults audiences into theaters, but fantasy was still looked down upon, most often getting made as a product for children or parodies.
This is what makes Conan such an incredible and overlooked accomplishment. Director David Milius, hot off writing Apocalypse Now, creates a stunning piece of mythmaking; taking this story completely serious from beginning to end, packing it with amazing sights of violence and eroticism, and in-turn giving us one of the greatest action stars of all time in Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is a simple tale of revenge, yet Milius uses it for all he's got, mining every inch of pathos and style he possibly can.
Like its contemporary The Road Warrior, Conan the Barbarian is pure cinema; letting images, music, and action do all the talking for it, while dialogue is kept to an absolute minimum. And what a world this is; from thundering armies to giant snakes, Milius fills the screen with wonderous, yet authentic-feeling sights for this reality. His impeccable art direction pulls from Asian and Nordic traditions, creating a melting pot of a world that somehow blends together several different fantasy mythos and legends flawlessly.
To his part, Schwarzenegger jumps off the screen with charisma and grace. His part simply calls for him to look and feel awesome in this role, and just like The Terminator, his lack of English is used as a plus; making him the strong and silent type which is in perfect keeping with this movie. Director Milius takes a page from Sergio Leone and picks each part by casting the perfect face for every character, rather than worrying about how well they do with their lines. It helps that supporting roles are cast with the likes of Mako and Max von Sydow, while James Earl Jones is able to do some heavy lifting as the face of ultimate evil.
Make no mistake, Game of Thrones owes a huge debt to Conan the Barbarian's success. Here is a movie that managed to have a heavy tone and take itself very seriously and still showed audiences were ready for something like it. It created a wave of imitators (that I'll probably talk about soon), but was topped very few times in the nearly three and a half decades since its release. It simply showed that if you have the right tools and the right craftsman, you can create worlds as they should be, without compromise, and the people will flock to see it.