What next for Game of Thrones’ reign?
The winners of the Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series at this year’s Emmys were David Benioff and D.B. Weiss for Mother’s Mercy, the final episode of season five of Game of Thrones (GoT). Maybe there was an argument for giving the award to Matthew Weiner for Mad Men, but there’s no question that the climax of GoT’s latest series was utterly compelling. In fact, the entire season was a triumph, notwithstanding the mid-season controversy surrounding Sansa Stark’s brutal rape.
For the uninitiated, the show is based on George RR Martin’s book series entitled A Song of Ice and Fire. Game of Thrones is the title of the first book. Five massive tomes have been published so far and there are plans for two more in the series. Anyone who has read Martin’s books will appreciate just what a formidable task it must be to transfer the author’s vision to the small screen. But to do so without having the entire GoT fanbase lambasting your interpretation is a remarkable scriptwriting feat.
One of the biggest challenges in adapting the books is the way Martin has developed his story, using multiple point-of-view narratives that take place in wildly different locations. Readers of the books are familiar with the way much-loved characters can go missing for hundreds of pages (nay, entire books!) while other characters and stories are dealt with. Somehow, Benioff and Weiss brought all the disparate elements together in Mother’s Mercy, creating a cascade of cliffhangers and gut-wrenching climaxes. Critics found a few things to nitpick about, but the nature of their complaints tended to reveal them as hardcore fans of the show, rather than mystified outsiders trying to fathom its appeal.
It’s not just the scale of the enterprise that presents challenges. GoT is also a highly complex exercise in characterisation that Benioff and Weiss have captured beautifully. Heroes are frequently killed because of their hubris or recklessness; villains unexpectedly elicit our sympathy when they show moments of humanity.
At a superficial level, it can seem as though the series is simply seeking to defy audience expectations of a character’s rightful end or reward. But the reality is the reverse. Characters in GoT tend to get exactly what they deserve – not what we think they deserve. Their ends are a product of their actions, played out against the backdrop of a brutal, uncaring world. GoT may eventually reward us with a happy ending, but that is far from a given. For an interesting insight into why Mother’s Mercy played out the way it did, watch this interview with Benioff and Weiss.
Looking more broadly at the franchise, it has to be said that the entire GoT edifice is at an interesting juncture. Until now, all of the TV seasons have been based on published books. But the next book in the series, The Winds of Winter, is yet to be released. Martin has generally kept his cards close to his chest on this subject, but the expectation is that the book will be launched ahead of the TV series. That would suggest a spring/summer launch of the book with a view to HBO launching a new season of the TV show in autumn 2016.
Presumably, though, Martin must have given Benioff and Weiss a look at the draft version of the book so that they can start building scripts for the next series. Otherwise they will have insufficient time to get the next series into production.
Where this all gets really gripping is what happens after the next book and series launches. GoT fans have long feared the moment when the TV series races ahead of Martin’s writing schedule. After The Winds of Winter, Martin is planning one more concluding book, entitled A Dream of Spring. But, based on his current record, that could take four to five years to deliver. So what do Benioff and Weiss do while they are waiting?
Well, if we assume (and it is only an assumption) that HBO gets two series out of The Winds of Winter (2016 and 2017), there are three options. First, they could negotiate permission to push on ahead of the books, under guidance from Martin. A big enough financial offer might make that possible, but it seems unlikely that the author would let his 25-year life’s work conclude in such an unsatisfying way – while the TV series is very good, the books are astonishing.
Second, they could try to originate new GoT content to fill the two- or three-season gap they’ll be left with (2018, 2019 and maybe 2020). This could be a prequel or a spin-off series set within one of Martin’s locales. Perhaps if that doesn’t feel right they could take the franchise to the big screen for a year or two.
And finally, of course, they could do nothing – and just wait for Martin to finish his book. But given the success of the show, that would seem like a commercially damaging decision, both in terms of lost momentum and upsetting addicted fans. Assuming ratings stay strong, my money would be on a series that focuses on the rebellion of Robert Baratheon – which takes place a couple of decades before the main story in GoT. An intensely dramatic backstory (featuring a young Ned Stark), it would also shed some light on the current politics of the GoT world.
Martin used to be worried about the problem of timing, but has resigned himself to being outpaced by the TV series. In a recent interview, he explained: “I said, ‘To hell with that.’ Worrying about it isn’t going to change it one way or another. I still sit down at the typewriter, and I have to write the next scene and the next sentence… I’m just going to tell my story, and they’re telling their story and adapting my books, and we shall see.”
Martin has always been under pressure from his fans – both to finish the book and to do right by their expectations. But it’s unusual to see an author also being pulled into the ongoing debate around the series. With the success of the show, however, he now has to deal with interventions from the mainstream media and lobby groups. Earlier this year, for example, he found himself defending the TV portrayal of Sansa Stark’s rape – despite the fact that the scene did not even appear in his books. And he also has to address issues of diversity in a way that he probably never expected when he started writing the books in the early 1990s. Here’s an interview, for example, where he talks about gay characters in GoT. In this interview, he also promises us a “bittersweet” ending – citing Tolkein’s end to The Lord of the Rings as an inspiration. But ‘bittersweet’ in Martin’s hands is sure to come laced with plenty of blood and betrayal, rather than a return to Bag End.
Other Emmy winners this year include Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci and Tony Roche for Veep (Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series) and Jane Anderson for Olive Kitteridge (Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie Or A Dramatic Special). You can get a few details about Jane Anderson here.