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If the books and TV show seem to be revelling in the worst aspects of human nature, that’s partly because those aspects are what Westeros helps us to recognize in ourselves.

In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, George R.R. Martin discussed the past, present, and future of his mega-popular series, A Song of Ice and Fire, and its television adaptation, Game of Thrones. Some of the most interesting moments in the interview concern the future of HBO series and the potential that it might catch up with Martin’s work on the novels.

“The minute you have a series [of books] and a book comes out,” Martin explained (surprising no one), “people immediately begin asking, ‘Where’s the next book?’ And the more successful the series is, the more people ask that question, and the more pressure you begin to feel.”

Martin’s struggle against that pressure is one of the most publicized and scrutinized stories to hit SFF fandom is the past decade. Here’s a creator working on a seminal work of fantasy, adored by millions of people around the world, who is also crushed under the weight of his fame, criticized for his own fannish activities (such as watching football, or attending conventions) and condemned for not writing fast enough. As if works the calibre of those he’s producing can come over night.

Prominence of this issue hit its peak when Neil Gaiman, another writer who understands the intricacies of dabbling in many mediums, wrote an open letter to Martin’s detractors. “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch,” he famously said. “This is a useful thing to know, perhaps a useful thing to point out when you find yourself thinking that possibly George is, indeed, your bitch, and should be out there typing what you want to read right now.

“People are not machines. Writers and artists aren’t machines.”

However, at this point in time, some are wondering if it isn’t beginning to look like George R.R. Martin is HBO’s bitch — as the show catches up to Martin’s progress on the series of novels (which Martin has been working on for over 18 years, so far), the pressure rises. “The fact that the show is catching up to me has really doubled-down on that and made me feel the pressure a lot more,” Martin admitted to Vanity Fair. “The truth is, some writers thrive on that. I don’t really. I don’t like deadlines. I’ve spent most of my career trying to avoid deadlines.”

Describing Martin’s work, Charlie Jane Anders of io9 said, “If the books and TV show seem to be revelling in the worst aspects of human nature, that’s partly because those aspects are what Westeros helps us to recognize in ourselves.” Too true, Charlie. Too true, indeed.

So, with all this pressure, and deadlines looming for the season-a-year series, where do Martin and HBO go from here?

“Ultimately, it’ll be different. You have to recognize that there are going to be some differences,” Martin told Vanity Fair. “We have Gone With the Wind the movie and we have Gone With the Wind the book. They’re similar but they’re not the same.” Recognizing that the HBO adaptation, which already began to stray dramatically from the structure of the novel in the third season, is its own interpretation of Martin’s story helps to illuminate why the television series catching up to Martin’s progress on the novels isn’t such an earth-shattering problem. The beginning of the story is the same, the broad strokes at the end might be the same, but the different mediums require that a lot of the middle parts be drastically different. Where Martin has the luxury of a limitless canvas, HBO has the luxury of foresight and can plot calmly within the expectations of what they see ahead. Picture a ship navigating through fog towards an idea of a destination, and another on clear seas travelling towards a beacon on the horizon.

Martin’s plan, or hope, anyway, is that HBO isn’t as close to catching up to him as they appear. He explains:

I’m hopeful that I can not let them catch up with me. The season that’s about to debut covers the second half of the third book. The third book [A Storm of Swords] was so long that it had to be split into two. But there are two more books beyond that, and A Dance With Dragons. A Dance With Dragons is itself a book that’s as big as A Storm of Swords. So there’s potentially three more seasons there, between Feast and Dance, if they split into two the way the did [with Swords]. Now, Feast and Dance take place simultaneously. So you can’t do Feast and then Dance the way I did. You can combine them and do it chronologically. And it’s my hope that they’ll do it that way and then, long before they catch up with me, I’ll have published The Winds of Winter, which’ll give me another couple years. It might be tight on the last book, A Dream of Spring, as they juggernaut forward.

However, disappointment at seeing the end to the series on television instead of as ink on a page aside, I’m not entirely convinced that the show catching up with the book is a doomsday scenario for most fans.

Martin admits that “[The producers of Game of Thrones] know certain things. I’ve told them certain things. So they have some knowledge, but the devil is in the details. I can give them the broad strokes of what I intend to write, but the details aren’t there yet.” That devil, of course, being the overbearing weight of the fan expectations and immense depth of the series thus far. If Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire becomes the novel equivalent of Lost — bloated, meandering and entirely off key by its conclusion — then isn’t it to the benefit of viewers for showrunners Benioff and Weiss to approach the future of the television project with an understanding that they should work towards their own satisfying version of Martin’s conclusion?

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Brandon Sanderson recently said that he believes “we haven’t hit what epic fantasy is really capable of doing yet.”

Brandon Sanderson recently said that he believes “we haven’t hit what epic fantasy is really capable of doing yet.” I agree. There’s enormous potential in the human imagination, and we often yearn for escapism, two aspects that form the foundations of epic fantasy. Martin, above almost most other authors, is pushing the scale of how expansive, how epic fantasy can be, and the genre’s still trying to catch up to him. Sixty years after Tolkien published Lord of the Rings, modern epic fantasy is only just now in its toddler phase, with Tolkien’s tropes (themselves stolen from other writers, poets, and myths thousands of years old) still permeate the genre. It’s a playground that even the most celebrated writers are still working to escape from. Now, consider that epic fantasy on television stretches back to, well… about as far down the road as the burger joint I can see from the window of the office where I write this essay. If George R.R. Martin has spent nearly two decades wrangling his story into a medium with thousands of years of precedent, how can Game of Thrones‘ David Benioff and D.B. Weiss hope to keep pace? They can’t. So, instead of biting off more than they can chew, to push the boundaries of what epic fantasy is capable of, they replace breadth with agility and foresight.

“I don’t know what it is, but it seems like we’re back in a place where epic fantasy is something taking off,” Sanderson continued. “And it’s probably a mixture of us as writers evolving and having this history of reading while adding our own spin on it mixed with the genre kind of saying ‘hey we want some more this. We haven’t had it in a while.'”

Game of Thrones delivers fantasy to those genre eager fans who will never pick up a book in their lives. In many ways, HBO’s adaptation is a clean foil to Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy. “The Desolation of Smaug stumbles under the weight of its legacy and cannot recover from the overambitious airs of its director,” I said in my review of the film. “[The Desolation of Smaug's] ultimate success rides too heavily on the viewer’s ability to reconcile their affections for Tolkien’s novel with Jackson’s bombastic adaptation.” Where Tolkien’s tale was being bloated beyond recognition, Benioff and Weiss have Martin’s epic on a treadmill, shedding fat.

“Seven gods, seven kingdoms, seven seasons. It feels right to us,” said Benioff.

“Seven gods, seven kingdoms, seven seasons. It feels right to us,” said Benioff. So, with that in mind, what sort of body weight might the show be shedding as it moves forward with its plan to wrap up the series in just seven seasons? Let’s take a look.

Just to be clear, there are major spoilers for the both the show, the novels, and popular theories ahead.

Ahem. Well, then, here we go.

Without too much thought, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that A Song of Ice and Fire‘s finale will be a climactic engagement between Aunt-and-Uncle-slash-future-awkward-lovers Jon Snow, of the Night’s Watch, and Dany, of Meereen’s Despots & Dragons® fan club, and the White Walkers, et al. Martin’s been taking the slow way around to this conclusion, what with Dany sitting around in her palace for a couple of novels, putting on a clinic about why children shouldn’t have empirical rule over a group of people, and Jon being, well… killed. But HBO’s Game of Thrones is telling a different story. And, for the vast majority of fans, that’s the only story that matters.

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Does Game of Thrones need half a season of Tyrion bathing with turtles? Is the reappearance of Aegon Targaryen necessary? And what about the ill-fated adventures of Quentyn Martell? Are these stories necessary for bringing Dany and Jon together under the banners of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and the Free People of the North, against the White Walkers? Explored at the depth that George R.R. Martin has convinced us all is necessary in the novels, perhaps, but as a Sunday serial? I’m not quite convinced.

Who’s to say that Tyrion can’t spend an episode fleeing King’s Landing and arriving at the doorstep of Dany’s desert kingdom? And another episode or two convincing her to mobilize her army and sail it across the sea to dismantle his treacherous family members (and position her for a convenient meeting with her nephew) in season six, en route to a showdown with the icy northerners in season seven?

The best dramatic television is lean and packed with storytelling in every frame. So far, HBO’s Game of Thrones has managed to accomplish this despite its source material. How long could that last if they continue with a faithful adaptation Martin has written himself into a corner, created so many plotlines that require at least partial tying off, characters that need to resolve into some worthwhile plotline, that he has no choice but to continue on at the pace he’s been working at for years. He’s telling a tale that’s bigger than deadlines, and, well… Hollywood just doesn’t work that way.

Discussion
  • madprofessah March 18, 2014 at 8:23 pm

    Are we sure that Jon Snow is dead? Has GRRM confirmed that??

    To me it is interesting that they are saying they will only do 7 seasons when they have 3 season left and four entire books to do (Feast, Dance, Winds and Dream) although it is clear that Feast and Dance could be combined into one season (or at most two) but then how do you do one more season on the two books we have not seen yet??

  • Jon R. March 19, 2014 at 1:23 am

    He’s dead. That’s how he gets out of his night watch obligations without being a heel. Then the red witch rezzes him as Ashor Ahai etc. etc. Then he meets cousin Dany.

  • Jens March 19, 2014 at 3:47 am

    Martin shouldn’t have sold the rights to film ASoIaF when he did. In a couple of years time, yes, but not back when he did.
    I’m sorry to say this but at this point in time it’s close to illusory to think that the HBO series in NOT going to catch up with the books. That Martin finds it “alarming” that Weiss and Benioff have talked with him about things because the they are getting close to the books is why what *I* find alarming.
    If he doesn’t like the pressure and he wants to have the books out before the series covers the story why on earth did he allow them to film so early? Did he really think he could speed up his writing pace? If so, why didn’t he stay clear from all the side projects (such as his editing work, or months-long book tours)?
    Martin should take all the time that’s necessary to conclude the saga without having to compromise the quality of the books because the producers are breathing down his neck.

  • Stewart March 19, 2014 at 5:31 am

    As a fan of the books I would hate it if the TV series got out ahead of the novels. I take your point about the books and TV series being different entities. But it would devalue the books if the finale/resolution of the series is revealed on TV before I read it in the book. Even if the route there is not as detailed or slightly different.

    I much prefer the books, but I do love the series too. They are different things, but not that different as to be two seperate things. It may hit book sales if they do that.

  • Brian Staveley March 19, 2014 at 5:33 am

    Almost choked on my shredded wheat at the description of Dany’s most recent escapades. Great post!

  • Doug M. March 19, 2014 at 6:07 am

    Same, different, different enough–the real story is that it’s unprecedented. When has an English-language book series ever had its ending “scooped” by an English-language TV show? It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for book fans (who aren’t ready to watch the show) who–after having years invested in the story–are likely to have the ending “spoiled” for them just because they visited the water-cooler at the office in the next few years.

    I believe there’s a pretty-good reason why this sort of thing isn’t exactly common-place in western culture.

  • Paul (@princejvstin) March 19, 2014 at 7:10 am

    Narratives in television are necessarily different than the novels. I wonder if the ending of the series will be a variation if not orthogonal to the book series itself.

    It could happen–consider the movie version of The Scarlet Letter.

  • Doug M. March 19, 2014 at 9:43 am

    It could happen–consider the movie version of The Scarlet Letter.

    Did they film it before Hawthorne wrote his ending? ;)

  • Peter March 19, 2014 at 9:55 am

    Great post. I never see comments about The Walking Dead diverging from its source material, although Kirkman is in no danger of being surpassed, even if the story lines matched.

    The show and the novel tell similar, but different stories. I’m ok if the Westeros saga is altered from Martin’s narrative. The last two books meander too much anyway for tv.

  • Aidan Moher March 19, 2014 at 10:04 am

    An interesting comparison is the two anime adaptations of Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist. The first adaptation began airing in October, 2003, not long after the manga series debuted. It diverged quite significantly from Arakawa’s plot about thirteen episodes in when the adaptation caught up to the manga.

    From Wikiepdia:

    During the development of the first anime, Arakawa allowed the anime staff to work independently from her, and requested a different ending from that of the manga. She said that she would not like to repeat the same ending in both media, and wanted to make the manga longer so she could develop the characters. When watching the ending of the anime, she was amazed about how different the homunculi creatures were from the manga and enjoyed how the staff speculated about the origins of the villains.

    After completion of the manga in 2010, the second series, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, aired, more faithfully adapting Arakawa’s original story.

    Both adaptations are considered successes in their own right, despite one adhering more closely to the author’s original vision than the other, and arguments continue about which series is better. Personally, I have a slight preference for the original 2003 adaptation.

  • henrythefifth March 19, 2014 at 5:38 pm

    Just go read the Malazan Books of the Fallen and related books while you’re waiting. Incredible series (and more) with two prolific authors churning out new, related books, even though the original series (12 novels) is finished.

  • elmobob14 March 19, 2014 at 8:33 pm

    This is the last good season of the HBO series. There’s no way that there are three seasons of material from books four and five. Are we going to have a season of Brienne walking around bewildered? The books took a sharp nosedive after book three, which was magnificent. People love the tv show now because they haven’t got to the dreck yet. This series definitely finishes on TV with the HBO guys doing better than GRRM could himself. I’m convinced that if HBO weren’t in play, we’d be looking at another addition to the series because it has grown beyond GRRM’s ability to tell the tale. The story grew in the telling. And grew, and grew, and grew. HBO can only stray so far from the main characters without alienating the audience. The books on the other hand are filled with new and different perspectives that no one cares about. People won’t want to see Aegon Targaryen and Quentin Martell. They want what we all want, Arya to kick some ass, Tyrion to find his way to Dany, winter to come and the showdown with the Others to begin. GRRM hasn’t written about those things in over 11 years.

  • Bill March 20, 2014 at 2:39 am

    Sanderson will finish the series when George dies

  • Aidan Moher March 20, 2014 at 5:29 am

    I believe Sanderson has the next two decades planned for writing his own vast series of novels, and Martin is still alive, so that’s something of a moot point/conjecture. Also, not very clever or amusing.

  • Erik M Held March 20, 2014 at 12:30 pm

    I can see them take 4/5 and make a season-and-three-quarters of the material. We know part of the books will be tagged onto the end of this season (and maybe Quentyn or Aegon will be intro’d) and will comprise all of season 5. Is it too much to think that part of the stories will push into Season 6?

    Depending on internal chronology, Dany’s dragonflight could be the end of Season 5, while the Snow stabbing is a mid-season 6 stunner. The battle of Mereen can be th show-stopping opener to Season 6, with Dany the moving herself to Westeros during the season (probably). Then you fill in the rest of 6 with part of Winds, while season 7 & 8 tackle Winds and Dream. Because remember, there’s all that unknown story yet to hit.

    This seven seasons thing doesn’t really seem to pan out.

  • Stewart March 21, 2014 at 1:10 am

    Though I’m not convinced GRRM can wrap this thing up in the two remaining books. There’s still a long way to go. Even if he does get Dany over in the next one there are so many threads to tie up I struggle to see him doing it in just two books.

  • madprofessah March 23, 2014 at 7:54 pm

    I think Brent Weeks should finish off the series instead of Brandon Sanderson!

    It is pretty clear that the TV series will catch up with the books, I think HBO should deal with that situation similar to how The Walking Dead tv adaptation has differentiated itself from its graphic novel source material.

    After all there are characters on the show (namely darryl) who don’t appear in the books and there are characters who have died in the show who its my understanding are either still alive, or died differently in the ‘toon.(I haven’t read the books so my knowledge of the differences is not well-sourced, but I’m repeating what I have heard on Talking Dead and read on the web.

  • Sas April 1, 2014 at 9:59 am

    GRRM is rather naive about his prospects to stay ahead of the TV show:

    “The third book [A Storm of Swords] was so long that it had to be split into two. But there are two more books beyond that, and A Dance With Dragons. A Dance With Dragons is itself a book that’s as big as A Storm of Swords. So there’s potentially three more seasons there, between Feast and Dance, if they split into two the way the did [with Swords].”

    Ahem George, there’s no way Benioff and Weiss will need three 30 episodes to adapt A Feast of Crows and A Dance with Dragons, because those two huge books are so light on plot, shocking events and cliffhangers that will hook an audience for three more years. This season we’ll see the death of Joffrey and Tywin, the storming of the Wall plus the resurrection of Catelyn Stark. The only real shocker in AFoC and ADoD is Jon’s stabbing. I can’t even remember anything worthwhile happening in AFoC, ADoD could be adapted in one season and it would need some sprucing up to hold an audience that expects the excitement of the previous seasons.

    If Benioff and Weiss want to keep the show at the current ratings level, books four and five should be compressed into one and a half season at most and even that is pushing it. Hopefully Martin will have finished The Winds of Winter when season five has finished, but the last book in the series has to come out only one or two years later if he wants to keep up.

  • Joe July 25, 2014 at 3:41 am

    All that GRRM has really done is taken moral ambiguity, character development and grittiness and mixed them into the fantasy genre, along with his skill at labyrinthine plotting. These elements have all been in place in other genres for a very long time. Eighteen years ago, that was groundbreaking, but today, writers influenced by Martin’s style have saturated the market, and some of them can write a lot faster than he can as well. The more prosaic answer to why he has written himself into a corner is that he became so fixated on overturning fantasy conventions that he damaged his narrative by killing off too many characters and tried to be shocking and throw in twists instead of following storylines to their logical conclusions. HBO might be the best thing to happen to ASOIAF – a more tv-friendly version of the story might actually get it finished in a way that doesn’t deliberately avoid anything too ‘epic fantasy’ and might deliver payoffs in the span of a few episodes and not two damn seasons. And god help us, stays entertaining to the majority of viewers who don’t care about GRRM’s supposed genius, who the hell fifty of the supporting characters are (dude who came back from the dead, dude who killed Robb Stark, dude who got his junk cut off, dude who cut other dude’s junk off) and just want to get to the damn zombies and dragons already.

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