A Google search of the phrase “Winter is coming” pulls up more than 4 million results, a great many of which are related to a swelling geekosphere devoted to A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin’s bestselling sci-fi fantasy series that is fast becoming this generation’s Lord of the Rings.
The phrase is a signifier of sorts in the books—in which seasons last a very, very long time—but it is also code for a development that has nerd hearts all over the globe palpitating: HBO is adapting the books, beginning with the first one, A Game of Thrones.
HBO’s timing for a sprawling fantasy series couldn’t be better. As the pilot for Game of Thrones begins shooting this month in Northern Ireland, the nerds are in a nervous state. With Battlestar Galactica over already, the end of Lost approaching (the series ends in May), and Heroes faltering, fantasy fans are hungering for a new mystical show. (As for big screen offerings, The Hobbit won’t be out until 2011, and Harry Potter is winding down: Only two more films are planned.)
In Game of Thrones—which is also often compared to T.H. White’s Arthurian epic, The Once and Future King and is set in a time-forgotten kingdom populated by warriors, lords, sorcerers, and omens—they’re finding salvation. Although nary a frame of footage has been shot, and the show’s future isn’t even a sure thing—its fate rests on the success of the pilot—fans of the books are already rallying around the project online, forming a frenetically ecstatic Thrones universe in which every bit of information about the upcoming show is dissected, debated, and celebrated. “SCORE ONE FOR THE NERD TEAM,” KamiDaHobo Tweeted in reference to HBO’s option of Game of Thrones. And on Web sites like winter-is-coming.blogspot.com and towerofthehand.com, casting news and other details related to the production—from actors’ arrival time in Belfast, to who’s doing post-production work on the pilot—are lovingly, and dutifully, relayed.
It’s not just fringe fanatics who are excited. Established television critics and reporters are already anointing the project the Next Big Thing in television.
Maureen Ryan of The Chicago Tribune breaks news on the subject as though she’s covering Watergate. TV Guide's Matt Roush recently Tweeted: “I sure wish book 5 of GameofThrones would come out, so I could dig into book 4. This is my most anticipated pilot of 2010.” Time’s book critic and Nerd World blogger Lev Grossman has called Martin “the American Tolkien." And James Hibberd of The Hollywood Reporter recently posted photos of the entire cast.
HBO marketers, one assumes, are clinking glasses with each dispatch. (But they wouldn’t comment for this story, seeing as it’s so early in the show’s production process.)
“I’ve never really advocated for a show to be picked up when the pilot hasn’t been shot,” said Poniewozik, “But when I read A Game of Thrones, and the rest of the series, I really had the feeling that these books were meant to be made into a TV series, and especially an HBO drama.
“I’ve never really advocated for a show to be picked up when the pilot hasn’t been shot,” said Time's TV critic James Poniewozik, “But when I read A Game of Thrones, and the rest of the series, I really had the feeling that these books were meant to be made into a TV series, and especially an HBO drama.
“There’s a sensibility that’s common to most of the great HBO dramas, which is that they take a sort of existing popular genre and do something to it that hasn’t been done before… And what you have in A Game of Thrones is this fantasy saga that is treated with a very kind of adult, very sophisticated psychological realism that you don’t generally have in that genre.”
Another attribute that makes Game of Thrones perfect for HBO is sex. Unlike Tolkien, Martin’s characters don’t mind putting down their swords for a steamier version of one-on-one. (And if that’s your thing, skim right to the incestuous twins.)
“The sexuality in my book would have curled Tolkien’s hair,” said Martin, a former Hollywood TV writer (he worked, of course, on “the new” Twilight Zone) who looks like he stepped out of central casting: a gray, Gandalf-like beard, wiry glasses, and a portly silhouette.
Martin is himself an avid blogger, and he regularly feeds his followers casting news in the form of mysterious clues that Thrones fans attack like starving piranhas, and generally figure out in no time.
One of the latest hints (“The gray man once had groupies. Yes, girls. Who?”) was posted on the winter-is-coming Web site at 7:43 p.m. By 8:04, it had been cracked.
Explaining the methodology, Paul Gude, currently ranked as the site’s No. 1 commenter, told The Daily Beast:
“‘The gray man once had groupies’ was a reference to Luwin, who is described in the book as being a gray-haired man with gray eyes. Legion—another commenter—figured out that Donald Sumpter was in a film called Groupie Girl, and he was also in a couple episodes of Doctor. Who.”
HBO has yet to confirm Sumpter being cast. Nonetheless, Gude said confidently, “We think we’ve solved it.”
Martin said he doesn’t get directly involved in the Web mania surrounding his books, but he seemed charmed by his fans’ rabid obsession, and noted that they’re code-cracking skills are improving. “In the beginning, they took longer,” he said.
Should A Game of Thrones be made into a series, Martin will write one episode per season, but otherwise, writing duties are being left to show-runners David Benioff (Troy) and D.B. Weiss, who rewrote the script of the upcoming Halo movie.
Early on, Martin met with the writers, whom, he said “knew the books and seemed very dedicated to doing a show that was faithful to the spirit of the books. And of course, that was exactly what I was looking for—the same way that Peter Jackson, with Lord of the Rings, I wanted someone who would take my material and bring it to the screen, and not feel they constantly wanted to change everything.”
That’s exactly what Thrones followers want, too. “I’m excited [about the pilot], but at the same time I’m scared, knowing the history of adaptations,” said Piotr Siennicki, who runs the Web site Fantasy-Fan.org. “There are precious few movies or TV series that you can call good adaptations of books.”
Already, there have been uproars over Thrones casting decisions. The worst rage came when the young actress Tamzin Merchant ( The Tudors), whom was dubbed not “attractive” on winter-is-coming. When the Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau was cast as Jamie Lannister (one of the, ahem, twins), there were harrumphs over his nose. (“I never pictured Jamie with a nose bigger than his sword—but what can you do?” vented one blogger.) And a minor Twitter storm of unrest was caused last weekend when Jason Momoa of Stargate: Atlantis received a nod. Fans comforted themselves with the fact that it wasn't for a major role. "Well, Khal Drogo isn't most prominent storyline," Tweeted one.
But for the most part, fans are cheering HBO’s decisions, especially that of Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister. Gude described Lannister as “a dwarf who is not a mythical creature” as well as “the soul of the book.”
When the British actor Joseph Mawle was cast as Benjen Stark, one of the lead characters, Mawle’s Web site was so stormed with traffic that it went down.
Some have put up “dream casting” videos on YouTube. A Russian fan Photoshopped his own promotional posters using the faces of Orlando Bloom and Val Kilmer. And Gude said that he reaches out to agents and publicists when he thinks someone is right for a role.
Of course, ultimately, it comes down to the network, not the nerds.
“When you have a bestselling book that has not been made into a movie or a TV show, a lot of fans out there will play the casting game and come up with their own dream cast for it,” said Martin. “They have characters who have, like, two sentences and then die, and they want Jack Nicholson to play it. Of course, it would be great if Sean Connery played this guy who appears in one scene, but it’s just not going to happen.”
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.