Movies and Shows like Game of Thrones
Fill the gaps between Game of Thrones seasons with these comparable alternatives.
By Jon Pill
The Winds of Winter is expected Spring 2017
Season six of The Game of Thrones television series is long over. Season seven has been delayed until July 2017. The sixth book, Winds of Winter, has an ever receding release-date. It’s beginning to feel like our watches have now begun and will not end until our deaths. It always feels like an eternity, these dead patches while we wait for Benioff and Weiss to drip feed our next hit of boiled-leather and Valyrian-steel to us. But Thrones isn’t the only show out there.
It can be hard to find something that combines all of those Thronesian features: the tropes of dark fantasy, the format of historical fiction, the politics of Machiavellian philosophy, the sordid sexual proclivities of HBO, and a Shakespearean disregard for character safety. But there are shows and movies out there that hit at least a couple of those beats.
So here’s here are a few watchables that might keep you going until we get to see winter finally come for real.
The Hollow Crown
BBC mini-series of William Shakespeare’s history plays. (2012)
Stars: Anton Lesser, Jimi James and Simon Russell Beale
This 2012 BBC series is made up of movie length adaptations of Bill Wagstaff’s Henriad. The 2016 follow up completed the tale by adapting his earlier (but historically later) War of the Roses cycle.
Shakespeare is a clear influence on GRRM in terms both of plot details – Arya’s recent bake-off contribution owes as much to Titus Andronicus as it does to Hotpie for example – and these play cycles are particularly relevant as they cover the historical period of civil war in England which inspired Robert’s Rebellion and the War of the Five Kings.
Season one deals with the usurpation of Richard II by Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV) and the troubles in the kingdom that result, as well as with the rise from oik to monarch of his legendary son Prince Hal (Henry V).
The second season kicks off into proper Game of Thrones territory charting the civil war between the red-rosed House of Lancaster and the white-rosed House of York (the real life and similar sounding sort-of-equivalents to the Lannisters and the Starks).
If you’re not immediately sold by the idea of watching ten and a half hours of Shakespearean dialogue, then perhaps the cast will do the trick. There is Ben Whishaw, Jeremy Irons, Dame Judie Dench, John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch and a leather-clad Tom Hiddleston all for your delectation.
Empresses in the Palace
Grand story of the inner workings of the harem of classic China, also known as Zhen Huan Zhuan. (2011)
Stars: Li Sun, Jianbin Chen and Qian Sun
Based on a series of novels by Liu Lianzi, Empresses in the Palace is set in the Eighteenth Century court of the Chinese Emperor following the political machination of the Emperor’s concubines. These women jockey for power and position, manipulating and destroying each other in the process.
The main thread follows the rise of an innocent new arrival: a provincial seventeen year old, as she fights her way through friends and enemy for a position of power only just below the Empress. It should give you plenty of the back-stabbing thrills you’re looking for, not to mention a couple of cheeky murders here and there.
Unfortunately it is hard to find the full seventy-six episode original run outside of China. Although Netflix do carry the heavily abridged version that was cut down for western TV.
The Seventh Seal
A man seeks answers about life, death, and the existence of God as he plays chess against the Grim Reaper during the Black Plague. (1957)
Stars: Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot
Injecting a little bit of class to the list, we have this fantastical Bergman flick. Slower and more meditative than most of the other entries, The Seventh Seal follows a knight as he travels through a plague stricken medieval kingdom playing Death at chess with his life as the stakes.
The fantastical elements are contrasted with the kind of realism that makes GoT so compelling – heretic burnings, self-flagellating cults, disease and violent crime all crop up to remind us of the grinding horrors of medieval life and the absence of an ordered and caring God.
Which isn’t to say it’s all a downer, it also manages to be extremely beautiful, and in places very funny. Like GoT its concern with the fear of death and the cold comfort of religion makes it a good accompaniment to the latest season with it’s resurrections, sparrows and sacrifices to R’hllor.
The Seventh Seal is a rather more sedate ride that the series though, so just don’t go in expecting and episode 9 style shocker / battle.
Lord of the Rings
A meek Hobbit from the Shire and eight companions set out on a journey to destroy the powerful One Ring and save Middle Earth from the Dark Lord Sauron. (2011)
Stars: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom
Though I never really got on with anything that came after The Fellowship of the Rings, it would be hard to write any list that deals with modern fantasy and not give a nod to Peter Jackson’s massively influential cinematic foray into Middle Earth.
Tolkien practically created the whole genre of Fantasy as we know it, and GRRM has acknowledged his debt to Tolkien in far more than just his middle initials. These movies gave the genre a second wind, popularising the series far beyond the realm of geekdom and out into popular culture in general.
Watching Sam and Frodo trekking uphill and down dale should be enough to keep your hunger for magical objects, fateful quests and huge set piece battles sated. At their best the Lord of the Rings movies – like Game of Thrones – are about flawed characters struggling with their own small part in the larger, overwhelming events around them. Their world may be far less amoral than Cersei and Dani’s, but it has its temptations for characters like Boromir and Smeagol.
For those of you, like me, who just couldn’t get on with the later parts of the story, there is always the magnificent world building to revel in. The beautifully detailed props and sets, every bit as impressive and thought out as those on Thrones, and the ever present scenery of Middle Zealand are worth the price of admission alone.
Plus, if you watch the extended editions they’re about as long a full season of Game of Thrones.
Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Feature film version of the classic King Arthur story. (2017)
Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Annabelle Wallis, Katie McGrath
For those of you fancy leaving the house between now and July, you could always pop down your local Odeon and watch the – quite frankly ludicrous looking – King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Guy Ritchie did a great job creating a modern action hero in a historical context with Sherlock Holmes and while the jury is out on this the trailer looks like he will absolutely not be able do the same here.
On the other hand, the trailer includes magical swords, giant elephantine monsters, and a healthy dollop of manifest destiny. It probably won’t do for the Thronesian purists. Or in fact any sort of purists. But for those with more catholic tastes, this might be a good opportunity to get your Medieval European fantasy on the kind of scale GoT has made you accustomed to. Because it does at least look pretty big.
The Animals of Farthing Wood
A group of wild animal friends are forced to move to a park after humans drive them away from their old home. (1993)
Stars: Vanessa Alves, Rupert Farley, Stacey Gregg
For those of you with kids and and scruples about sharing your eighteen rated boob-fest of a TV series with them there is The Animals of Farthing Wood: a charming BBC cartoon series about a group of woodland animals who have to migrate across England when Farthing Wood, their home, is cut down by the disinterested malevolence of the humans who want to build a road or something.
‘How will this help me scratch my Westerosi itch?’ I hear you ask. Well as well as being a charming BBC cartoon for children, it is also one of the most brutal series ever written in terms of portraying the uncaring march of death.
If you want to relive the sudden stripping away of security we all felt when Ice hewed Ned’s head from his body, wait until you watch a kindly old badger die confused and senile while his mole friend tries to comfort him.
For those of us of a certain age and geographical distribution: this was how we learned about death. When my first pet died I was lucky enough to have experienced the traumatic passing of [Spoiler Alert] Mr and Mrs Hedgehog, of Adder’s wife, and Fox and Vixen’s innocent cub Bold.
I don’t want to pitch this as a total horrorshow, because it is also a great story about talking animals going on an adventure. But unlike a lot of children’s TV Farthing Wood was not afraid of bringing the feels when the story demanded it. Valar Morghulis goes double in the animal kingdom.
Le Rois Maudits
Based off the the novels by Maurice Druon about the French monarchy in the 14th century. (1972 & 2005)
Stars: Gilles Béhat, Hélène Duc, Jean-Luc Moreau
Le Rois Maudits, or The Accursed Kings in English, was a series of French historical novels that were given a new life with an fresh English translation and an introduction from GRRM himself in which he called the series of books ‘The original Game of Thrones’.
The series follows the French monarchy as they struggle through a war of succession caused by the death of Philip the Fair. High-medieval politicking, knights and horseback charging in lines, conniving aristos and commoners looking to grab power, sex and violence: check, check, check and double check.
Luckily for those who prefer the small screen to the pages of a codex, the series has been adapted for the screen twice; once in 1972 and again in 2005. So you get two for the price of one on this entry.
The 1972 version reviews far better, so if you don’t mind the slightly dated VHS look of old-school television that is the one I’d recommend.
House of Cards
A Congressman works with his equally conniving wife to exact revenge on the people who betrayed him. (2013)
Stars: Kevin Spacey, Michel Gill, Robin Wright
Political maneuvering brought out of the dark ages and into the modern day. House of Cards is the Netflix remake of a classic BBC series. The action has moved from Westminster to Washington, with Kevin Spacey playing Frank Underwood the Democratic Party whip, who is passed over for a promotion when the new President of the United States is voted in. What follows is his Richard III like rise to power and revenge.
Robin Wright as Claire Underwood is utterly brilliant, and the David Fincher style colour palette fits the grim but stylised world the characters inhabit and create. What is particularly impressive is the way in which a show about entirely terrible people can still engage you in their struggles. Much like Game of Thrones this is a world of pragmatists playing a game for keeps.
For bonus TV points, you could always try watching the UK original for contrast.
The saga of a crime family in 15th century Italy. (2011)
Stars: Jeremy Irons, François Arnaud, Holliday Grainger
Jeremy Irons leads one of the most famously debauched families in history as Pope Alexander VI. This series focuses on the dynastic ideas of him, his wife, mistress, daughter, and sons as they all go to work securing the family’s legacy. Each of them struggles throughout with the conflict between what is best for them, and what is best for the family.
The show hits most of Game of Thrones’ key features: the incestuous relationship you almost find yourself rooting for, the Machiavellian politics (literally – Machiavelli features as a prominent side character), sibling rivalry that turns murderous, assassinations, orgies, strange diseases, and a surprising amount of economics in the later seasons.
The Borgias is worth it just for Sean Harris’ character, and is probably your best option for a Game of Thrones hit apart from our last entry.
Game of Thrones, seasons one to six. Again.
While a civil war brews between several noble families in Westeros, the children of the former rulers of the land attempt to rise to power. (2011)
Stars: Emilia Clarke, Peter Dinklage, Kit Harington
With six seasons of the show, so much has happened – even in series two – that even readers of the books can pick up new things on each rewatching. Besides, don’t you just want to relive your favourite moments. Brienne vs. the Hound. The Red Wedding. Joffrey getting slapped. . . twice. Remember how great season one and four were?
Plus you don’t want to have missed any important foreshadowing when the next round in the Iron Throne death match comes round again. Start prepping for the new with a binge of the old. Try binging twice.
Because when it really comes down to it, there are no shows like Game of Thrones – Only Game of Thrones.
What have we missed? What do you think of this list? Let us know in comments.