Game of Thrones vs Lord of the Rings

Game of Thrones Iron Throne

I like when Drogo called it a chair.

Thank you, Mr. Martin, for finally giving me the concrete evidence to assist in my struggle to elucidate my controversial, but thoroughly correct view on the matter of the endless debate of Game of Thrones vs Lord of the Rings. For years I attempted, yet often failed, to convey my opinions on the matter, during which time Game of Thrones existed merely in book form, a dauntingly inscrutable task of several thousand pages that few citizens dared attempt. Now that Game of Thrones has become one of the most thoroughly enjoyed and widely viewed pieces of mainstream televised entertainment, I now have all the ammunition I need to elucidate my claims.

Game of Thrones makes Lord of the Rings look like a poorly constructed Saturday morning cartoon. I’m glad it finally exists in easily digestible video form, so that I can point immediately to a superior version of whatever people say they like about Lord of the Rings. And now that enough material has been shared with the world to provide a broad range of side-by-side comparisons, I believe the debate is a crushing victory in favor of George R. R. Martin’s sprawling epic.

SPOILER POLICY: For the most part, the discussion will center around literary traits, rather than specific events; I’ll provide fair warning in the cases where I mention particular plot points. Also, this article deals primarily with the video versions of these works, rather than the books, as that’s what most people are familiar with. A book-to-book comparison would be useful as well, but this discussion is intended for a wider audience.

Allow me to begin.

GOT vs LOTR, round 1: Characters

I think this is the clearest case for demonstrating the vast superiority of Game of Thrones as a literary work. The character development in Game of Thrones makes Lord of the Rings look like a hastily constructed commercial spinoff project intended to capitalize on the popularity of action figures or something. I’ve seen better characters in a puppet show. I bet you have too.

Game of Thrones characters

And it’s not just that it’s complicated. It’s that they all DON’T SUCK. (photo from Fanpop)

Two main points:

1) Diversity: Game of Thrones benefits from portraying a broad range of characters at all levels of social and political status, throughout a wide range of ages, with radically divergent personalities. From courtly ladies to tomboyish girls, honor-bound knights to deviously scheming backstabbers, and, more importantly, everything in between, the diversity of characters is second to none.

Now it certainly wouldn’t be enough simply to include all sorts of people, and Lord of the Rings indeed portrays characters from a diverse range of backgrounds as well; but that immediately brings me to the next issue.

2) Depth: There is simply no comparison here. Take any character in the Lord of the Rings films, and you’ll have trouble coming up with more than a few personality traits to describe him. Oh, and I said him, because Lord of the Rings knows nothing of gender neutrality. But we’ll get to that later.

Even more problematic is the fact that none of the characters are radically different from one another. Sure, Merry is the funny one, and Pippin is…no wait, is it the other way around? I can’t remember. I bet you have trouble too. Besides, he’s not that funny anyway. And that’s kind of the point. None of the characters are particularly well developed. Sure, you could describe Frodo as a dedicated but reluctant hero, who cares about his friends, but doubts his ability to achieve what needs to be done. But you could say that about Aragorn. Or Gandalf. Or the king of Rohan. Whatever his name is.

Contrast this with any character in Game of Thrones, and it’s immediately apparent the sort of child’s play that’s at work in Lord of the Rings. Let’s take Tyrion: He’s a clever wordsmith, witty and amusing, to himself and those around him. But his intellect is also a veil to mask his own insecurities with what the world sees as his shortcomings. Without the ability to swing a sword, all he can do is lash out with his tongue. His family relationships are strained, but oddly strong, as he often shows his dedication to his brother and sister and others, perhaps as something of a drive to be accepted, and perhaps as a means for respect, which is something he rarely receives in this world of warriors and kings. I could go on. And that’s the point. There’s more to him than a simple trait or two.

Now it’s true you could say a few similar things about…Aragorn, for example. And Frodo, in fact. But in many cases it’s just a few simple traits they exhibit, whereas in Game of Thrones, it’s a whole lot more. You get a sense of who they are as individuals, not merely a cardboard stand-in of “the funny guy.”

Game of Thrones, one.

GOT vs LOTR, round 2: Female characters specifically

Okay, so I apologize for identifying this subsection as “female characters” while labeling the above section “characters,” thus implying male characters are “normal,” but that wasn’t the point. The above section was intended to deal with the subject of character development in general, whereas this section is intended to illustrate the many miserable failures of J. R. R. Tolkien’s attempts to figure out how to operate a lady. This point is rather obvious, and well-documented elsewhere, but I’d like to bring up a few lesser-known points, if I may.

Emma Watson, Game of Thrones

She’d be a good queen.

It’s not just that Game of Thrones actually has female characters. It’s not just that it has strong female characters. I think the whole concept of “strong female character” is kinda bullshit anyway. And don’t tell me about Eowyn. She’s what people who have never seen a strong female character think a strong female character is supposed to look like. When someone’s sole personality trait is “feminism,” she’s not a character. She’s an ideology. And if her sole manifestation of feminism is simply being a man, well, is that really what it means to be a feminist?

Contrast Eowyn with Cersei, who actually has a personality. An uptight, amoral figurehead driven to achieve what she feels is best for her family, detached from the lives of those she feels are beneath her, resentful at her station as merely a baby-making device for the sake of political alliances, but nearly always presenting a calm, self-assured demeanor whilst in the presence of those beyond her family. She’s kind of a bitch, but she’s a loving mom. In a weird, mostly bad way, but don’t tell her she doesn’t love her kids, or she’ll stick your head on a spike.

You know what makes a strong female character? A personality. “Strong female character” doesn’t mean sword-wielding battle princess. That’s a poor excuse for bad writing and lazy characterization. Cersei’s position as a disenfranchised, sort-of powerless woman in a society that doesn’t tolerate even the mere notion of equality does more to illustrate the predicament of women in a sexist society than any sword slash Eowyn could possibly offer. Cersei is a strong female character; or rather, she’s a well developed female character, which I consider far more valuable, and far more realistic.

I specifically picked Cersei to illustrate how even the most reviled female character from Game of Thrones is still a better character than the most beloved Lord of the Rings lady. Even if she isn’t “strong” in the sense of attempting to be a warrior, she’s actually a person! And that’s really what sexist morons fail to realize about women. And I don’t think any amount of Eowyn would open their eyes to that issue.

PS: There’s a moment in the books (spoiler alert) when Eowyn looks at Aragorn, who’s speaking with Arwen, and is sad. Poor girl. Then she…and I’m totally serious on this issue…literally turns around…sees another man…and falls in love with him. All in the same paragraph. That’s how shitty a character Eowyn is.

Oh, and if you want a stabby swordfighter chick, fucking Arya. Case closed.

Game of Thrones, two.

GOT vs LOTR, round 3: Plot

I’ll start by pointing out that the film version of Lord of the Rings cut out a lot of extraneous bullshit, eliminating the inexcusably useless and tension-eradicating Tom Bombadil, as well as the “I wish I could write the Odyssey and have the hero’s home under threat just as soon as he returned” post-climactic suffix ending that was the Scouring of the Shire. The book isn’t always better, kids.

Game of Thrones crown

I think a few of the promo shots were trying to imitate LOTR, though. This sure looks like a ring.

The Lord of the Rings plays like a childish fantasy of what a story is supposed to look like. Drop the ring in the bucket. The end. All the moments in between feel rather detached. I know plenty of people enjoy battle sequences, but when you have one massive battle after another in which none of the important characters die (and boring nobodies are brought in as a human sacrifice instead), it only ends up being a waste of time that’s hard to care about.

This is especially true with all the “look at me, I’m invincible” moments of heroism that turn Lord of the Rings into a cartoon. Legolas on the shield surfboard and the acrobatic vanquishing of the non-woolly mammoth weren’t “cool,” they were utterly inappropriate in a life or death battle and turned what should have been somber tension into cartoony nonsense. Aragorn throwing Gimli into a pile of orcs and jumping after him to defeat them all single-handedly provided largely the same effect. And this is to say nothing of Gimli the Comic Relief Dwarf.

I can’t even begin to point out how radically different Game of Thrones is. Much has been said of George R. R. Martin’s willingness to kill off major characters, and when he tells you it’s because he wants you to take things seriously, he’s indisputably correct. Spending 9 hours with LOTR characters in which only the semi-traitorous Boromir is subtracted from the survivor count isn’t scary. It’s just tedious.

And beyond that, it’s hard to know what’s going to happen in Game of Thrones at some of the crucial turning points in the story. Who’s going to win the battle of Blackwater? Well, it could go either way. Did anyone feel that way about Helm’s Deep? Or, really, anything in Lord of the Rings?

This is on top of the fact that Game of Thrones offers not only a more serious and intense story, but also a far more complex and varied one. Lord of the Rings is just a quest to drop a ring in the bucket. Game of Thrones is a story of political intrigue, social upheaval, power struggles, deeply challenging ethical questions, particularly those posed to the most honorable of men and women, and whose answers are not always clear. Sure, Lord of the Rings has politics and stuff, but it’s just so damn hard to care, and since you know the good guys are going to win anyway, you’re literally just waiting for the moment Wormtongue is banished from the court so the story can actually continue.

Game of Thrones, three.

GOT vs LOTR, round 4: Overdramatic bullshit

This is another point in which I feel Lord of the Rings treats its audience like children. These moments are particularly clear during the following sequences:
  1. Gandalf constantly talking about how doomy and gloomy everything is.
  2. Frodo and Sam constantly talking about how one day they’ll tell stories about this, as if pointing out to the audience how great this is, instead of just telling a good story goddammit.
  3. The ridiculous buildup to the battle of Helm’s Deep, when it was thoroughly obvious that nothing could possibly go wrong for anyone.
  4. Eowyn shouting “I am no man!”
  5. Frodo getting stabbed and the camera zooming in on his scrunchy painful face approximately twice per film.
Just try taking this seriously:


I could go on. But I would rather follow up this list by pointing out that in every case in which there is dramatic tension, the problem is immediately solved by Eowyn being a lady, Frodo having Mithril, Legolas being super amazing, or, in the books, Tom Bombadil coming in out of nowhere and saving the day. Oh, and invincible ghost army. Plus eagles. Etc, etc. The only way it could have been more obvious would be if Tolkien had simply named a sword Deus ex Machina and had it fire actual silver bullets.

It’s just such a weak attempt at trying to make a story serious (while simultaneously destroying the tension with Gimli comedy) that it just comes off as the director trying to tell you it’s important, instead of just being good. To me it’s just a constant reminder that LOTR can’t carry itself on its own merits, and it needs the characters to shout occasional 4th-wall breaks at the audience along the lines of “Holy fuck Sauron is scary!”

And then Gimli will fall down in a silly manner and the tension is gone.

I can’t compare this to any similar moments in Game of Thrones, as there are approximately zero of them.

Game of Thrones, four.

GOT vs LOTR, round 5: Moral ambiguity

If I were to offer an explanation of the difference between black and white, I would cite the divergent morality in Lord of the Rings as an example. The good guys are good. The bad guys are bad. Nothing in the universe is ethically complicated or challenging, and nothing can make the characters, or the audience, question which decision is the correct one.

Jaime Lannister, Game of Thrones

“Hey, guys. I’m here to point out a number of points that shall make you feel uncomfortable with your decision-making.”

Fucking sigh.

This is not the way the world works. In reality, everyone in the world operates according to competing interests, many of which conflict with each other, and many of which are perfectly understandable claims that have difficulty coexisting with the perfectly understandable claims of the opposing side. “It’s my land” vs “We’ve been here a long time as well” is a pretty common refrain in the realm of reality, but in Lord of the Rings, there is simply a thoroughly unrealistic presentation of conflict.

This is what I think makes Game of Thrones not just entertaining, or even enthralling; it’s what makes Game of Thrones worth watching. Many of the moments in Game of Thrones (not all of them, of course) offer a challenge to our preconceived notions of morality, and push us to think about them. There isn’t necessarily a “correct” answer in many cases, and even if one decision or another is more honorable, it’ll generally end up with more people dead than the other one. So was it really the right decision?

The plan to assassinate Daenerys, for example, is a classic case of a clearly dishonorable act, which will save the lives of millions. It’s wrong, surely, but is it more or less wrong than going to war with her? Is an assassination better or worse than warfare? Is one premeditated murder worse than a million warfare casualties? It’s a difficult predicament.

It’s also interesting to see characters on one side of morality forced to view the opposite. Jon Snow (minor spoiler alert) is one of the best examples of this, as he has spent his life wanting to be in the Night’s Watch, only to find out that the people they’re killing are perfectly normal human beings just like everyone else. This is usually the case with warfare, and important to understand.

Jaime Lannister provides another excellent example, as he (minor spoiler alert) constantly prods Brienne into thinking more thoroughly about her situation. The buddy comedy of Jaime and Brienne is like the Grand Inquisitor scene from Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov (Yes, I just referenced an acclaimed masterpiece of classic literature in a discussion of fantasy novels. Does LOTR offer any avenues for doing so? I think not.). The indomitably honorable Brienne soon finds herself murdering innocent people in order to adhere to her oath of loyalty to Catelyn Tully/Stark, just after Jaime explains that, after taking a massive list of loyalty oaths, you’ll soon end up breaking one vow or another if your vows are to people whose interests are at odds. He’s correct, too. Indisputably so. Breaking one vow or another is exactly what he–and Brienne–end up doing. Was he so wrong to murder the Mad King? Was it wrong to break his oath of loyalty to the King to uphold his oath of loyalty to protect the innocent? He had to make a choice. And, quite often, morality–particularly in times of warfare–forces people to make difficult choices.

In Lord of the Rings, the heroes can do no wrong. It is a pernicious lie to pretend the world is this simple, and horrifically unhealthy to propagate. The world is a worse place when people view morality the way it’s presented in Lord of the Rings, because you’d have to be stupid to view things that way. And that’s just stupid.

Game of Thrones, five.

GOT vs LOTR, round 6: Honesty and realism

This is partly a tangent from the previous point, but it’s an important one in terms of one’s ability to take things seriously. Game of Thrones treats its audience as adults. It doesn’t hold back on the violence, the suffering, and the moral depravity of a society not so dissimilar to our own.

Lord of the Rings orc

Wait, which ones are the bad guys?

Much has been said of the rampant violence in Game of Thrones, but it’s there for a reason. Game of Thrones is violent because life is violent. Treating us like children and whitewashing the conditions of reality is an irresponsible and dishonest way of presenting the world. When in Lord of the Rings every moral decision is wrapped up in a neat little bow, there’s no mention of the Sri Lankan slave laborer who had to sew it for you. It’s bullshit.

So, do you dislike Game of Thrones because it’s disturbing? Well, what’s even more disturbing is that you feel a realistic take on the world is disturbing. Spoiler alert: The world is disturbing. Far more so than Game of Thrones. And if this TV show is enough to make you feel uncomfortable, chances are you’re shielding yourself from the many (and continuing) chapters of tragedy that befall humanity. Spend 5 minutes reading about the worst events occurring at any given moment on this planet, and Game of Thrones will look downright pleasant.

Game of Thrones, six. And that was a big one.

Game of Thrones vs Lord of the Rings, the easiest contest ever

To me, it’s all over. Comparing these two works of art is just plain unfair. The superficial similarities don’t extend beyond the setting, and in every important point whereby a work of literature can be judged, from characters and complex storytelling to worthwhile lessons elucidated, there is simply no contest. Game of Thrones trounces Lord of the Rings like a dragon gobbling up a hobbit. I wouldn’t even have thought it appropriate to compare the two, except for the mere fact that I will jump on any opportunity to discuss how shitty Lord of the Rings is, and now that Game of Thrones is widely known and adorably beloved, it’s immediately available as an example of something better. Without a point of reference, people just didn’t know any better. But nowadays, as far as Game of Thrones vs Lord of the rings goes, the new R. R. wins.

What do you think? Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings?

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