I love HBO’s Game of Thrones. I love George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the books on which the fantasy series is based. And unlike some screen adaptations of books, the two seem to love each other. The series, within the constraints of time, has been faithful to the novels; Martin has been a producer and screenwriter for the series.
But like many a relationship, this one had the seeds of conflict in it from the beginning. The problem: ASOIAF is intended as a seven-book series. Martin has written five of those books, since 1996. Game of Thrones has covered two and a half volumes of story in three seasons (with season four premiering next month).
You don’t have to be a maester to do the math. Either Martin writes a hell of a lot faster–and he took six years between books four and five, which had once been intended as one book–or HBO surpasses him. This is not a surprise. I asked Martin about it before the show premiered. Everyone asked about it. The producers thought of it. And the answer generally was, Martin will hurry up with the last two books, or HBO will take a while with the series or–look, a raven!
The current Vanity Fair goes in depth on Game of Thrones, and it is becoming clear that the chief GoT producers–David Benioff and D.B. Weiss–are not exactly on the same page, or stack of manuscript pages, as Martin.
Benioff and Weiss said they aim to finish the series in seven or eight seasons, so as not to overstay their welcome (or let the several central child actors grow into middle age). They’re being proactive, and had a lengthy visit with Martin to lay out a broad outline of the end of the series, should they have to break that dragonglass and finish before the author does. Martin, on the other hand, tells Vanity Fair the same thing he was saying in 2011, hoping HBO will take this year to finish his third book, three seasons total for books four and five, and two for book six, allowing him to squeak under the wire with book seven. Making for ten seasons minimum. With maybe a prequel thrown in to buy another year.
Let’s be clear. That is not going to happen. Not unless HBO has a serious change of heart about GoT‘s longevity, and figures out how to clone a second, younger Maisie Williams. A TV series is an implacable dragon: it barrels along on its momentum and blasts away anything in its path (much less a book). And Martin, who produced TV’s Beauty and the Beast and wrote for a Twilight Zone remake, knows this. You no sooner keep a TV executive from his or her business objectives than you do Tywin Lannister. HBO will finish Game of Thrones when it wants to, with or without his books.
And that will be fine. Maybe better.
Again, I love the series and love the books. But though they share a plot, they are essentially different works. The series is necessarily streamlined; its story is more linear and less digressive. The novels are rich in detail, mythology and history; they create not just a cast of characters, but an integrated world, numerous societies and religions, and a history and politics that richly inform the battle for the throne. Sometimes the series’ whittling down of detail is a loss; sometimes it brings alive characters that were flat on the page and accelerates the story where needed.
But they’re both fantastic, in more ways than one, and they should each have the chance to finish at the pace that makes each work its best. In fact, the series finishing first may make Martin’s books better: he can finish plotting and detailing without rushing, develop storylines that the series dropped, reverse decisions in the show that he disagreed with.
Won’t one spoil the other? I can only speak for myself. I read the books before watching. I know every major event that will happen (assuming the series doesn’t go off the reservation). I am thoroughly spoiled. And yet whenever I get new screeners for Game of Thrones, I devour them like Sansa Stark scarfing lemon cakes.
If the situation ends up reversed, if I see the story end on HBO first (which is looking pretty likely by now), the books won’t be worthless. They’ll be an extended directors’ cut of the series conclusion, but better–a cut created by a “director” with no limits on budget, special effects, or running time.
Oh, and about those running time limits? Yeah, there’s one more thing Martin says in that Vanity Fair interview. ASOIAF, fans might recall, was originally meant to be a trilogy. Now, he says, “Hopefully, I will be able to finish it at seven books.” Hopefully.
GRRM, take all the time you need to do it right. And HBO–don’t wait up.