GeekOut

Mainstream finally believes fantasy fans

When you think of a stereotypical fantasy fan, what image comes to mind for you? A white male, overweight, long hair (possibly braided)?

Is he running through a wooded area, battle axe in hand, participating in a live-action role playing game? Or maybe you see him sitting around a table, a can of Mountain Dew in one hand and a 20-sided die in the other, playing Dungeons & Dragons with a group of friends?

Twenty-five years ago you may not have been far off the mark, but fantasy fans no longer fit into exaggerated stereotypes so easily. Over the last decade, fantasy has moved past the outermost fringe of pop-culture. Today's fantasy fan isn't betrayed by their looks.

And after this weekend, you may be hard pressed to find someone who isn't a fan of some form of epic fantasy.

Season two of HBO’s epic fantasy drama "Game of Thrones," the television adaptation of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, debuts this Sunday. Watching along with the die-hard fans that helped make the book series popular will be a hoard of new, not-necessarily-nerdy fans. Poised to become a crossover hit before the first episode even aired, the show was buoyed by passionate fans of the books who evangelized this particular epic to non-believers for years.

That dedication is finally paying off.

“I’ve been trying for years to get a half a dozen friends to read the books. Once the show caught on, I got them watching and it got them to read it. I love it," says Stephen Dabundo, a 26-year-old lifelong fantasy geek from Atlantic City, New Jersey, who has only now been able to share this part of his life with certain friends.

“One of the best things about being a fantasy fan is trying to share this thing you love with other people. That was what the TV show did. That was the best part of it.”

Ian Bogost, a professor of digital media at Georgia Tech, says that the resurgence of epic fantasy in the mainstream began over a decade ago with the "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy.

“Probably Peter Jackson is to blame. This is all really about Peter Jackson,” Bogost said. The hugely successful "Lord of the Rings" movies not only taught untrained viewers how to watch epic fantasy on the big screen, but it also proved to Hollywood that fantasy could be a viable mass market genre, he said.

“The 'Lord of the Rings' films are 10 years old at this point and they were incredibly lucrative. That’s what it takes, an investment that shows that the private sector will go and watch these," Bogost said.

Crossover fantasy adaptations, like "Game of Thrones," "Lord of the Rings," and the "Harry Potter" series, act as gateway drugs to fantasy fan culture. There are many people who are unlikely to check out a fantasy novel from their local library, but may be willing to tune in to HBO on a Sunday night for the new show all of their friends talking about.

"People said 'that seemed silly to me, but I watched "Lord of the Rings" and it was good. Now I’m open to watching something else,’ ” Bogost said.

But New York Times bestselling fantasy author Brandon Sanderson warns that not just any fantasy adaptation will do. Diehard fans can smell a slapped together adaptation a mile away.

They've seen too many bad fantasy films to shell out their cash just because there’s a dragon on the movie poster, he said. “Bad fantasy movies are going to do just as poorly as bad movies of any genre. If it’s a great film it will do well, if it’s not it won’t.”

Sanderson cites 2006’s "Eragon" as an example of a highly-anticipated fantasy adaptation that failed to find an audience. Although "Eragon" made $75 million at the domestic box office, it never went on to start the film franchise producers were hoping for. “I think that they (Hollywood) don’t like to look at the execution, they only look at the genre," Sanderson said. "Execution matters.”

Television audiences prove Sanderson right. According to the Nielsen ratings, "Game of Thrones" debuted to 2.2 million viewers. Critical acclaim and word of mouth helped the show grow its audience to 3.04 million for the season finale. Peter Dinklage won the Emmy for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of fan-favorite character, Tyrion Lannister.

Anticipation for the premiere of season two has been steadily building for the past nine months, as more and more people hear about the series from friends and family.

Much of the mainstream acceptance of fantasy has a lot to do with the way the Internet has allowed fans to connect with each other. Long-time fans of "A Song of Ice and Fire" are excited about the new life the show is bringing into the community. New fans have taken to the internet to connect with each other and bounce theories off of the more experienced fantasy readers.

Steve Drew, a 42-year-old corporate executive, has been a fantasy fan his whole life and up until now has kept relatively quiet about it. Lately, Drew has been making up for lost time by being active with the online fantasy community. “The mainstream acceptance of popular fantasy culture has allowed me to become more openly vocal about the genre – and to help lead the development of the Reddit Fantasy community,” he said.

The Reddit.com sub-Reddit /r/fantasy, which Drew started five years ago and now co-moderates, has grown from 6,500 dedicated fantasy readers to over 12,400 in just the last six months.

A lot of these subscribers are what Drew likes to call “second generation” fans. Fans who respect the work of the genre, but don’t consume fantasy content exclusively. “'Game of Thrones' is an excellent example of a bridge between the casual fantasy fan and the more purist fantasy world. I believe that this cycle will continue to lead more fans into the genre to discover other exceptional authors,” Drew said.

The success of "Game of Thrones" is the validation many long-suffering fans yearn for - that they weren’t wrong in spending their time and mental energy in other worlds, just ahead of the curve.

As cultural opinions about fantasy have changed over time, those who once thought all fantasy fans were a bunch of weirdos are now realizing just how wrong that line of thinking was. Sanderson, in particular, is excited about the direction the genre is going.

“I feel that there is something special going on here that can help prove that fantasy is not a one trick pony.”