After the horror and shock of last week's Red Wedding episode, Season 3 of Game of Thrones ended rather quietly.
There were no dragons being born from ancient eggs placed upon a funeral pyre, nor white walkers marching en masse for the brothers of the Night's Watch. Instead, Daenerys Stormborn (Emilia Clarke) is raised above the shoulders of the slaves she freed from bondage, and the episode ("Mhysa") more or less set up some new conflicts and story for the fourth season, which should arrive sometime in 2014.
Putting that aside, however, is a more pressing concern about the shape of this massive narrative, particularly as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are dealing with "a ticking clock" in the form of the show catching up with George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels. Martin is hard at work on the series’ sixth book, entitled The Winds of Winter, but there is every indication that the HBO fantasy drama's narrative could either catch up to Martin or surpass him altogether.
This trepidation is something that has been keenly felt by the novel series' readers since HBO's Game of Thrones began in 2011: what happens when the television show gets ahead of the novels that it's adapting? It's a fear that HBO seemed to shrug off, perhaps thinking that they'd deal with that situation when they had to. Unfortunately, that time is soon.
HBO programming president Michael Lombardo has finally acknowledged that it's a valid concern. "I finally understand fans' fear—which I didn't a couple years ago: What if the storytelling catches up to the books?" he told Entertainment Weekly. "Let's all hope and pray that's not going to be a problem."
And yet it seems like it's going to be an issue quite soon. The massive third book in Martin's series, A Storm of Swords, was wisely split between Season 3 and 4, but Book 4 (A Feast for Crows) presents its own unique challenges when it comes to adapting it for the screen. For one, several major characters don't even appear in the novel at all (due to Martin's decision to shift those chapters into the fifth book, which was released in 2011) and Book 4 also introduces a slew of new characters (Dorne and the Iron Islands, anyone?) while focusing on very few members of the core cast. (I won't spoil which ones here.)
"We don’t want to become a show that outstays its welcome and tries to turn each book into three seasons," Benioff told EW. "Part of what we love about these books and the show is this sense of momentum and building toward something. If we tried to turn this into a 10-season show we’d strangle the golden goose.”
Benioff and Weiss will clearly have to rejigger the sprawling narrative for the screen, pulling up material from the fifth book in order to utilize the actors who are under contract, rather than release them and have to try to renegotiate their contracts later. (They've already done this somewhat with Theon's torture storyline this season, which occurs in flashback in Book 5, and some other smaller plots.)
But what happens if the show catches up to Martin, whose novels have a tendency to come out, well, late? Martin, for one isn't concerned, oddly:
The way the author sees it, producers have plenty of material to keep Thrones rolling. “I think the odds against that happening are very long,” Martin says when asked about the show catching up to his novels. “I still have a lead of several gigantic books. If they include everything in the books, I don’t think they’re going to catch up with me. If they do, we’ll have some interesting discussions.”
Martin points to Starz’s Spartacus, which interrupted its main storyline with a prequel season. As it so happens, Martin has discussed with HBO the possibility of developing a series based on his Hedge Knight books, which are prequels to Ice and Fire.
But that presents its own inherent problems as well: by inserting a prequel season—based on characters who don't service the main story and starring actors who don't appear on the show—the producers would run the risk of thwarting the very momentum that they've built up so far. Spartacus, after all, when faced with the illness of its lead actor, opted to air a prequel season that very much connected to the plots at hand and utilized many of the series' cast members.
Doing the same with Dunk and Egg, the leads of the Hedge Knight stories, doesn't fulfill that same purpose, beyond simply telling a good story set in the same world. (As recently as March, HBO wouldn't comment on rumors surrounding a Dunk and Egg prequel series.) Martin's Hedge Knight novellas feature Dunk, a future member of the Kingsguard, and Egg, a.k.a. Aegon Targaryen, the future king of Westeros and the ancestor of the Mother of Dragons, Daenerys. While it fills in the backstory of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, it doesn't connect to the narrative in the same way as Spartacus: Gods of the Arena did.
A distant possibility, one not raised the Entertainment Weekly story, is that the show could adapt the story of Robert's Rebellion, which takes place before the series begins and which features familiar characters in Ned Stark, Robert Baratheon, Jaime Lannister, and Tywin Lannister, to name a few. But according to Martin, HBO doesn't hold the rights to this story and could only adapt the flashback sequences surrounding the rebellion that are already in the A Song of Ice and Fire novels. Which means potentially spending additional money to secure more rights. Still, Martin downplayed any likelihood of Robert's Rebellion reaching the screen: "I think the chances of any sort of film or TV version of Robert's Rebellion are remote," he said in February.
Among the other options raised by Entertainment Weekly's James Hibberd: the show could take an additional hiatus (which seems unlikely, given the costs and what will surely be audience outrage at having to wait even longer than the now-traditional 10 months between seasons), or the narrative could move beyond television and into theatrical film releases, something that HBO doesn't confirm nor deny is a possibility.
“I would never say it wouldn’t make sense to explore it because that would be foolhardy,” Lombardo told EW. “We’re always open to a conversation, we’re always open to a smart way of doing something that’s true to the show and honors the fans. It would have to make sense for everybody—for HBO, for the fans and for the show. At this point, there’s no plans to do that.”
Still, that ticking clock continues to tick the longer that The Winds of Winter doesn't materialize on the shelves, though producers have at least two years before they need to make a tough decision. While Martin has told Benioff and Weiss how the novels will end, it's a complicated and tricky scenario for the showrunners to complete the story before the author does.
“We still have our fingers crossed that George will get there,” said Weiss. “That’s what’s best for us; it’s what’s best for the fans. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”
Those comments are shaded slightly differently than those made by Weiss and Benioff in a Hitfix interview earlier this year: "There's no question that this will be better for us if the books come out before the various seasons come out," Benioff told Hitfix. "That said, we're not going to take a two-year-hiatus (to wait for a book). The little kids are growing older, the show's got momentum now, and the show must go on. We're just hopeful that it will all time out."
Still, one thing is for certain: there's no rushing Martin, even with the added pressure of being able to tell the ending to the story he created. The author has yet to confirm that the seventh novel will in fact be the last in the series (it could spawn an eighth) and there is no timetable in place for the release of the sixth book. Given the soaring ratings for Game of Thrones, however, it is certain that HBO is weighing every option to ensure the long-term viability of the drama series and the strength of its narrative.
I hope that Martin gets the chance to tell the conclusion to the story in the way he desires (something, as the creator, that he inherently deserves), but there is something to be said for the novels and the HBO drama going in separate directions, with potentially different outcomes: it makes the show's later seasons that much more unpredictable for both viewers and readers, and makes the chances of being accidentally spoiled that much less. And if the overwhelming reaction to the Red Wedding taught us anything, it's that Martin's world has the ability to startle and terrorize readers and viewers. Wouldn't it be fascinating if both parties were in the same situation for a change?