Don’t worry, there are no spoilers ahead.
Let’s make one thing clear; I’m an obsessive ‘Game of Thrones’ fan. I read and (mostly) love the books. I watch and (mostly) love the show. Hell, I almost went to go see that garbage ‘Pompeii: 3D’ movie just because the actor who plays Jon Snow is in it. But on top of being a fan of everything Westeros I’m also a person who uses logic. And can do math. And can throw even my most fanboyish emotions out the window to look at and asses something honestly. When I look at it with my head and not my heart I see one clear-cut, indisputable fact…
The hit HBO series ‘Game of Thrones’, from a longevity standpoint, is completely fucked.
It may not be what you want to hear, but it’s the truth. Every reason why we’ll never see the epic ending author George R.R. Martin plans on writing make its way on the tube fall into one of four categories.
1. Martin’s inability or unwillingness to finish the book in a timely manner.
2. Current flaws with the show that will even become more clear in the coming season.
3. The cast aging.
I’ll start with the first one, which you can piece together with a few minutes of Wikipedia research. Martin started his epic series off with ‘A Game of Thrones’ in 1996. The series continued with ‘A Clash of Kings’ (1998), ‘A Storm of Swords’ (2000), ‘A Feast for Crows’ (2005), and ‘A Dance with Dragons’ (2011). The final two books in the series have both been announced but have no release date and we have been given no indication that Martin has finished the next one yet. Though he has said he expects each of them to be around 1,500 pages, we really don’t know anything else. He’s gives teases on his website, posting a chapter or two, but as far as a date for this all to conclude?
Now time for that math thing. For this series, Martin has averaged a book every three years. That’s not a terrible rate considering the scope and length of these novels. This series is grounded in literature and reality much more than something like ‘Harry Potter’, where the author patched up every plot hole and mystery by inventing some new form of magic. ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ demands that you see things from the various perspectives of a seemingly limitless cast of characters, that way you understand the world they live in from every angle. The upcoming season (debuting April 6th) will cover the second half of the third book. That means that starting in 2015, the series will have four more books to cover and two of them haven’t even been completed yet. Martin, at age 65 and overweight, is reportedly very healthy but the thought of Martin passing away before he gets a chance to finish the series will always rest in fans’ minds. Martin claims to have given major plot points to the producers in case that were to happen, but without Martin’s words on the page, would the show really be able to capture these characters?
To simplify things, here are the two potential issues that the series not being completed yet raises. A) Martin dies before he finishes the series. And B) The show catches up to the books. Issue B is the more likely and alarming of the two. ‘Game of Thrones’ COULD NOT survive a hiatus of even a year in order to give Martin more time. Delaying even a single episode of a show is financial suicide. TV is all about buzz and anticipation. Sure, ‘The Sopranos’ took some time off but the average viewer of that show is very different from the average ‘Game of Thrones’ viewer. ‘The Sopranos’ wasn’t as much about what happens next as it was about why things happened and the impact it had on the protagonist. ‘Game of Thrones’ is a bit more of a typical show in the “I wonder what’s gonna happen next week?” sense. Also, with the amount of child actors and young men and women in the cast the show could not afford any hiatus. (We’ll get into issues that the cast aging presents later).
Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are smart dudes, and they’ve addressed these issues. They’ve stated that they don’t want to do anything to hurt the momentum of the show, since momentum and “buzz” is really what TV is about, and would consider ending the show before the novels. They may be forced to go that route, but the content on our screens would almost surely suffer if they didn’t have a novel to dive into.
So we haven’t actually talked about the content on the show yet, now’s the time. Critics and fans agree, ‘Game of Thrones’ is fucking awesome. Never has television seen a series so epic with such a vast cast of characters. Despite being held back by its medium, it never feels like its being held back. The acclaim keeps pouring in and gets more positive with every season. All that jazz is both a gift an a curse. ‘Game of Thrones’ is NOT a “perfect” piece of television. It doesn’t have the tight narrative, impeccable cast, and thematic ambition of shows like ‘The Wire’ or ‘Breaking Bad’. I’m as big of a fan as anyone but the show has its flaws.
The first is something that the show can’t help given the scope of the novels. There are just too many people and too much going on to keep track of. Even serious fans find themselves having to look up who’s who. It’s difficult to feel attached to a character when he/she is only getting 15 minutes of screen time an episode because there are other stories to deal with. This isn’t the shows fault, the novels are even more ambitious and potentially confusing. And the bigger problem is even more is about to happen this season and in the future. Sure, a lot of people die in ‘Game of Thrones’ but with seemingly every chapter (or episode) it feels like there are two new names for us to keep track of. This isn’t a problem if you’re an obsessive reader who’s read all the books multiple times. But for the average TV viewer who still can’t differentiate the Tyrell’s from the Bolton’s, this is a HUGE problem. A lot more people are introduced in the books that haven’t been adapted to TV yet. And there’s no sign that Martin will stop creating characters with the final two books. After all, it is what he does best.
The show has also completely butchered a few characters and storylines. In the novels, Sansa is one of the most complex and interesting characters. On the show, she’s the one fans pick on. I don’t necessarily think they’ve done a bad job with her and her story, but that is the general consensus. Given that (Minor Spoiler Alert) she isn’t getting killed anytime soon, this could become an even bigger problem. Bran Stark and Theon Greyjoy have also received mixed reception from both critics and fans. Both their stories in the third season seemed forced and whenever they were on screen it felt like everyone was just begging for them to cut to Tyrion or Daenerys.
The producers have done a great job casting the show (aside from a few choices) but it still feels uneven. Unfortunately there really are no “main” characters in this series. That’s just how Martin wrote it. This presents a problem on TV. We like seeing Arya a hell of a lot more than we like seeing Theon, why should they get a similar amount of screen time?
The ‘Harry Potter’ film adaptions worked because the characters aged at least somewhat parallel to the actors that portrayed them. But Martin never gives us an explicit idea about how much time the books stretch over or how much the characters age. Arya is supposed to be a young girl but actress Massie Williams (16) is already outgrowing her and the meat of Arya’s story hasn’t even popped up yet. The same could be said for all the young characters on the show. Even IF this show did one season a year through all the novels and had no hiatus this is still going to be a major issue. Will the fans buy Bran looking like he’s 20? Or will they buy certain major roles being re-cast? The answer is no. It’s that simple. There is absolutely no way these actors are going to be able to pull off these roles three years from now. I get that makeup and camera artistry can do some amazing things but….no.
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The first season of ‘Game of Thrones’ had a then-record $60 million budget. The next two seasons saw a budget increase of (reportedly) 15%. Even as the most expensive show in the history of television, ‘Game of Thrones’ still has to cut a few corners to make up for what it can’t afford. The producers have handled this beautifully and it’s really not noticeable unless you’ve read the books. But this still presents an issue as the story is only going to get bigger and will cost even more money to produce without completely screwing the fans over. Think the battle at the end of season 2 was epic and expensive? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
This would be less of an issue if HBO wasn’t a premium cable channel. If ‘Game of Thrones’ was on “regular” TV it could just drastically increase ad prices and due to the popularity of the show advertisers would still likely pay for the space. But it’s on HBO. It’s also the most commonly illegally downloaded show in history. People also share their HBO GO information so friends can catch it online. It’s simple, ‘Game of Thrones’ is bigger than HBO. Unless the executives at HBO figure out a creative way to generate revenue from this show it will likely start to lose them money, possibly as early as this season.
While HBO itself is a $20 billion entity of the Time Warner company no company can afford to be spending so much dough (an estimated $90 million for season 4) on a set of ten episodes that so many people are watching for free.
Also, we’ve already seen some of the cast penetrate the silver screen and see their celebrity rise. This will surely continue to happen and HBO is going to have to throw a lot more money at the stars to keep them around. Take fan favorite Daenerys (played by Emilia Clarke) for example; Clarke was just cast as Sarah Connor is the re-boot of the Terminator franchise. If she becomes a legitimate Hollywood leading lady, why the hell is she going to stay on ‘Game of Thrones’ if they don’t pay her HUGE sums of money? TV contracts for actors usually change from season to season because the network doesn’t know how long the show will go on. These talented actors on ‘Game of Thrones’ hold all the leverage.
I hope I’m wrong. I hope Martin finishes the books ASAP. I hope Benioff and Weiss address the issues on the show with grace and artistry. I hope HBO finds a way to keep cutting the checks. And maybe all these people will do just that. They are, after all, much smarter than you or me. It’s just that looking at it realistically, I don’t see it happening. I don’t see them concluding this series on TV unless they rapidly rush things or deviate greatly from the source material. I don’t see them finding a way to keep Arya believable when Massie Williams is 20. I don’t see the forces of HBO being able to fight off the internet and keep their copyrighted material protected.
Us fans need to emotionally prepare for the fact that one of these days, in the near future, winter will not be coming.
Enjoy season 4 everyone!