The weekly shows produced by HBO became must-watch television for people all over the world and not just fans of fantasy – events like The Red Wedding had viewers comparing their shared horror and disgust for some of the diabolical, scheming characters that the show brought to life so well. It provided fully formed characters who were not typical of Hollywood-style heroes and villains. The kings and queens in Westeros were not noble and righteous: they abused their power and treated their people like pawns to be moved on a whim. The show displayed a nihilistic view of fantasy that had not been presented with such a large budget before, and the world devoured it and asked for more.
Producers took note that there was a market for this grimdark sensibility, and it happened to coincide with a boom in the streaming market. The past decade has seen the rise of the streaming giants. Netflix began producing its own content in 2013, and in the past decade more than 203 million people have subscribed to their TV and film streaming service. Amazon Prime now works with a similar model and has over 140 million subscribers. Disney, Sky, HBO, Apple, and countless others have followed with similar models.
The success of the streaming giants and the current model in which they produce their own content has led to a boom in risk-taking shows and films. In line with this, a plethora of grimdark tales have hit our screens over the past decade, and that only appears to be on the rise. Long gone are the days when producers looked for happy endings for its audience and grinning protagonists to follow on journeys with minimal risk. Big-budget fantasy films and shows such as Twilight, Heroes, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Hobbit, all offered viewers entertainment in comfort. Though filled with problems for heroes to overcome, viewers could always be sure that the heroes survive and save the day and all things will return as they were in the beginning with only minor changes to the status quo. Now we have a rise in popularity of media that is designed to keep us out of that comfort zone, to keep us on the edge of our seats. Game of Thrones, The Boys, The Walking Dead and Star Wars: Rogue One are all recent examples of well-received and popular films and shows that are loved because the audience cannot watch comfortably with the expectation that all the characters will make it through to the end unscathed. Years ago, such stories would have been rejected by producers or ‘softened’ for the audience. Proof of this lies in Seven, a dark thriller known best for its incredible ‘what’s in the box?’ ending that only survived re-writes and cuts in 1995 due to its writer sending the wrong script to the right producer after it was turned down by so many others for being too dark and gruesome.
With so many viewers now streaming, it is easier for companies to keep tabs on viewing habits. Media with a grim tone and dark themes had once been classed as ‘cult’ essentials (Firefly, Dark City, Dredd, Blade Runner) suitable only for a small audience. These examples grew over time with word of mouth and good reviews, and now similar films and shows are being given the time and money to succeed from the start. Before streaming, shows had a short time to amass a following or they would be cancelled and classed as failed experiments. Now those shows are given time to build a viewer base, and on sites such as Netflix, the audience can even see what is becoming popular using their top 10 system. Viewers can follow what is popular in real-time and see what their fellow watchers are consuming.
As expected, the success of Game of Thrones led to cries for the next great, gritty fantasy series. HBO stuck with the world of Westeros and called for spin-offs from the hugely successful series. Netflix decided to plug the gap in the market with The Witcher, based on the hugely successful series of games and books written by Andrzej Sapkowski and fronted by Superman himself, Henry Cavill. Amazon Prime spent over a billion dollars buying the rights to Tolkien’s Middle Earth and reports so far anticipate a grittier version of The Lord of the Rings is on its way in some form this year. When Netflix took the reins of BBC’s The Last Kingdom, the series instantly upped the ante with larger scale battles, blood, betrayals and more despicable characters. Series like The Expanse and Vikings have been able to grow and maintain their audience, which past shows like Firefly were unable to do. Bigger companies are starting to portray darker themes in their storytelling and allow the audience to decide what is successful, and grimdark fans are reaping the rewards.
The popularity of streaming and the wealth now associated with companies such as Netflix and Amazon have changed the style of television. For many, TV was a little brother to film, a stepping stone on the way to Hollywood. Often, viewers would see their favourite stars of TV make the leap to the big screen but only rarely would this work the other way. The success of streaming and the financial growth in the sector meant that huge stars could be attracted to TV projects. Sean Bean in Game of Thrones and Henry Cavill in The Witcher are prime examples. Nicole Kidman, Ellen Page, Matthew McConaughey are further signs that huge stars are willing to take on roles in series that they perhaps would not have taken in the past. But it is not just about money. The longer form of storytelling allows characters to grow and breathe, which is good for grimdark as much as any other genre. It offers time for viewers to understand characters, who in film could sometimes appear cartoonish and two-dimensional. Just think of how Peter Baelish and The Hound would have been treated if they were squashed into ninety minutes. Actors are drawn to these roles now because they allow time to develop characters. And it seems to be working: Netflix alone received a record 160 Emmy nominations this year.
Reading a post by Mark Lawrence on his blog at the tail end of last year, I saw that, for him, grimdark is characterised by “defiance in the absence of hope”. They are stories that people of all backgrounds can relate to because everyone has had at least one point in their life where they feel helpless. Grimdark shows viewers characters who stand up and fight even when there is no light at the end of the tunnel and portrays imperfect characters perfectly brought to life.
So what does the future look like? Expect more from The Witcher, The Expanse, a prequel to Game of Thrones and Amazon to milk The Lord of the Rings for all its worth. HBO is pushing forward with The Last of Us and The Black Company is being developed by Eliza Dushku (Buffy, Angel, Dollhouse) and written by David S. Goyer (Blade, Dark Knight, Man of Steel). Conan (Amazon), The Sandman (Netflix), Judge Dredd, Dune and a grittier-than-ever Batman film are due to be released over the course of the next 12 months. There are options on cracking tales from Mark Lawrence, Nicholas Eames and a host of other popular authors from the genre. Grimdark is unpredictable and often full of shocking twists and turns. One thing I can predict is – the future of film and TV is grimdark.