This is an ideas piece by Craig Hildebrand-Burke, about Game of Thrones, and when an author's creation gets a life of its own.
Something has changed with Game of Thrones. It's not unexpected, and has caused some anguish for the book readers in the audience. Nevertheless when the sixth season begins its run next week, the series will not be the same again.
For the first time, the story will leave the books almost completely behind.
Aside from a few scattered chapters, one appearing on George R. R. Martin's website, his published efforts have been adapted to the screen, and are done serving their role as the source material for the show. As far as audiences should be concerned, the storytelling responsibility for the series is now resting entirely in the hands of the showrunners.
The unique nature of this situation is hard to miss. Here we have a critically acclaimed but incomplete series of novels adapted into a critically acclaimed TV show, only now the show has outpaced the author. The showrunners themselves - David Benioff and Dan Weiss - anticipated this eventuality. The initial joking concerns that the show would catch up to the books – as Martin pushed back the delivery of the next volume The Winds of Winter again and again – became a reality around the fourth season, Benioff and Weiss were gifted insight into every character's fate by Martin himself, should their fears of overtaking the novels be realised.
The interesting consequence of this is that astute audience members might infer from major changes in the adaptation as evidence of where particular strands of the epic plot might end up. In the most recent season, Sansa Stark's entire storyline was taken wholesale from another character - present in the books but not the in the show - to initially compensate for her having no more chapters to adapt, but also hint at how her character might dovetail into other characters' storylines later on in the series.
It was a wonderful guessing game, an odd dynamic between author, showrunners and audiences, but it's one that relies on a single - albeit translated - vision of the story. All that changes this season. What was glimpsed in various places last year is now almost wholesale the nature of the show: we will be watching an adaptation of a non-existent book.
Take the plot-point that nobody has escaped in between last year's finale and now: Jon Snow's supposed death. For all the speculation about how the character might not be dead, or how he might be resurrected, one glaring aspect has barely rated a mention. Whatever happens with Jon Snow in this coming season will be a decision made by the showrunners. It must be a strange feeling for Martin to have established the cliffhanger for his character (and readers) in 2011's A Dance with Dragons, only to have that resolved by other writers and in another medium before he's had a chance to.
For some, this may not be a bad thing. The books themselves have become increasingly long-winded and haven't shown much sign of pulling together their disparate threads. The show, on the other hand, has often appeared stronger when deviating from the source material, such as the fifth season's 'Hardhome'. And due to the vagaries of television production, various actors have been retained (either due to logistics or audience reception) meaning there has been far more of an attempt to portray connected and unified storylines in the show than Martin has provided in his books.
But this new direction may not necessarily all be positive. In this spoiler-phobic climate, there's no knowing how readers will react to the show finishing the series before the author himself has had a chance to. Martin has recently admitted there's a likelihood his version of the story will differ much more from the show's version than initially anticipated, but there's no guarantee audiences will follow the story back to the books just to mark the differences and measure the stories against each other.
For a long time, there's been a hierarchy in mediums, particularly when it comes to adaptations. Books can come first, but only they are the basis for TV shows and films, not the other way around. It is rare, almost unheard of, for a screen story to be adapted to the page merely to service a different audience. The only parallels are novelisations (which are barely considered the equivalent of traditionally written novels), and spin-off expansions associated with the large cinematic franchises.
Similarly, there's a hierarchy of style as well, and of genre. Some critics seem to be delighted in Martin's struggles, as some sort of comeuppance for a fantasy story elevating itself to prestige television. Martin is then a victim of his own fandom, and should have perhaps kept either to his books or to a pulpier translation of the series, rather than its pretence of 'historical realism' as The Atlantic's Elizabeth Alsop writes. For Emily Nussbaum, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic of The New Yorker, Game of Thrones was fighting against 'audience condescension' to fantasy television, and there is a sense that some see Martin's recent struggles to meet publication dates as evidence of his inability to match the cumulative weight of two audiences, instead of just the one.
The weight of audience expectation is increasingly the current condition for storytellers who find themselves in the popular sphere. And while studios like Marvel, Warner Bros. and Disney can maximise their revenue from these 'interpretive communities', it appears to be a difficult state to exist in if one is a writer, let alone the sole writer of the story. Those franchises feed off the work of teams of writers, Game of Thrones has traditionally only had one author acting as god over the series, until now.
In the case of Star Wars, it would appear the franchise could only grow creatively and profitably once it was freed from its original creator. Potentially Game of Thrones will continue to thrive now that others are leading the narrative saga onwards, but there's every chance it will become less and less George R. R. Martin's, just as Star Wars is less George Lucas's story now.
So where does this leave us? Where does it leave the show? And where does it leave poor George R. R. Martin?
This sixth season will be the test of everything. If the story succeeds, there may be implications for the release of The Winds of Winter, now reportedly due later this year. Will readers still follow the books as intently if they already know the broad strokes of the plot? Or, if the show doesn't spoil the books, as Benioff has claimed, will readers then flock to the books in a game of spot-the-difference to hunt for the 'true' ending of the story?
There is another possibility, though. TV shows rarely last beyond five seasons with a continued quality of storytelling, and perhaps the jettisoning of Benioff and Weiss from the source material may result in a dwindling of returns. The ratings so far don't seem to support that theory, but it does raise the question about what happens if audiences don't like the ending? Will anyone bother with the books at all?
Between the braying of book readers, the all-consuming TV-watchers, and the competing authorial efforts of Benioff and Weiss, it's no wonder Martin is finding difficulty with his writing. The way this sixth season goes will speak a lot to how much everyone cares about the unwritten books that have been left behind.
With everything at risk, does Game of Thrones actually need George R. R. Martin anymore?
This is an ideas piece, part of a series where writers discuss ideas around the craft of writing. To read more like this, click here:
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Craig Hildebrand-Burke is a writer and teacher, and has had his fiction appear in several publications, and his writing on books, film and television regularly turn up in various parts of the internet. He also cohosts the Night Shift podcast, and is currently completing his first novel.