Are There Any Perfect Options for Ending 'Game of Thrones'?
Among television’s burning questions - How will True Detective follow its fantastic first season? Can Mad Men stick the landing? Who misprogrammed the animatronic carnival ride robot that is Colin Jost? - no subject is riper for examination than what will happen with Game of Thrones in the next two years.
Much has been written about the idea that Game of Thrones may eventually run out of narrative blacktop. What’s less discussed, however, is the next logical step: what is HBO, George R.R. Martin, David Benioff, and D.B Weiss going to do about the problem? And depending on what the group decides, what are the ramifications?
Even now, speculation around Thrones’ future naively maintains a goblet-half-full outlook. The show’s principals are all aware that their version of the story is approaching a potential crisis point. Like a man building a chalet on the slope of an active volcano, however, they refuse to acknowledge that the danger is both immediate and inevitable.
This is Martin to EW back in March: “I think the odds against that happening are very long. 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.”
HBO president Michael Lombardo, in the same article: “I finally understand fans’ fear - which I didn’t a couple years ago: What if the storytelling catches up to the books? Let’s all hope and pray that’s not going to be a problem.”
Hoping and praying isn’t a plan. God is too busy ensuring that certain athletes win big playoff games to work this particular problem. Pretending that Martin can release a pair of currently unfinished 1,000-page books by 2016 (when production would need to begin on the seventh season) is a ludicrous, delusional exercise. Fans, HBO, Benioff, and Weiss should acknowledge that the show surpassing Martin’s novels is now a matter of when, and proceed accordingly.
Here’s what we know:
A quick rundown reveals some incongruities. The showrunners want this to wrap by 2017 … but sixth and seventh books don’t have publish dates. None of the decision-makers want major plot points to appear on screen before readers get their thrill…yet HBO has three (maybe four) more years to adapt four 1,000-plus-page books. Thoughts on this, Redman?
HBO doesn’t lack options; the network is merely missing palatable ones. The different elements in play — show fans, book fans, actors, showrunners, and revenue — are in often mutually exclusive. Devising a solution that pleases all parties is akin to playing tilt ball with a dozen marbles and no walls. Angle the board one way and few balls may disappear down the hole. But far more will find their way to the floor. Then your cat comes along, chokes on one, and dies. THANKS OBUMMER!
Further limiting HBO’s options is the show’s incredible popularity. Antiquated Nielsen ratings can read a newspaper and get off my lawn. With Breaking Bad out to pasture and True Detective parked in the garage without insurance, there isn’t another series capable siphoning interest, eyeballs, and pageviews from multiple quadrants. Websites that don’t even cover television dedicate bandwidth to recaps and updates. People watch, people discuss, people argue about rape. HBO can’t afford to alienate fans of their flagship series, yet picking a path that’s best for the story and its creator may do just that.
Laid out below are the five most likely options available to HBO. None are perfect.
Scenario: HBO moves forward before Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring are published; the show ends its run in spring 2017.
The landscape: Undoubtedly the preferred option for everyone on HBO’s side of the ledger. The pay-cable outlet would be the only place both readers and viewers can learn how the story ends (Winds of Winter will probably hit bookstores Amazon before 2016, but the final novel stands no shot), guaranteeing a massive audience and a huge pop-culture footprint. HBO also avoids potentially messy contract disputes and the child-actor aging problem. Spoilers vanish like Robert’s bastards. With a finite timeline and higher ratings, budgets soar to $90-$100 million per season.
On the other hand, the author and creative godfather has to watch his life’s work unfold in a different medium. But Martin is a savvy operator who admits being dialed into fan feedback. He could alter plot points and change several character arcs (perhaps with urging from Random House) so the books progress and conclude in ways that diverge greatly from their televised cousin. Arguments over canon and aggrieved publishers aside, this option seems the least likely to create major upheaval.
Scenario 2: HBO mandates that new seasons of the show won’t contain any unpublished material.
The landscape: Random House, Martin, and book readers take turns consensually jerking each other off. HBO accountants write “KILL THE MASTERS” on the walls of their cubes in blood and openly talk mutiny. This option preserves novel-television story continuity and pleases Martin but transfers a tremendous logistical and public relations burden onto HBO’s shoulders. The network has to find a way to sustain interest in a shelved show while at the same time quelling fan animosity. Key actors may not have the desire to commit to the series indefinitely, setting up snake pits where characters integral to the story’s conclusion can’t or won’t return. Meanwhile, Maisie Williams and Isaac Hempstead Wright continue aging at the standard human rate.
Taking an 18-24 month break with a guarantee that the show will return uninterrupted for the remainder of its run might be enough to stem the angry tide. And the buzz could be bigger than insects in Texas if the show’s return is timed to coincide with the novel’s release. The risks far outweigh the gains from HBO’s perspective, though. It’s extremely difficult to imagine them going this route absent major pressure from Martin and his publisher.
Scenario 3: HBO puts the show on hiatus until the final two books are published; fills the downtime with a flashback miniseries.
The landscape: One of the more interesting differences between the novels and the series is Benioff and Weiss’ decision to eschew flashbacks. Martin frequently travels into the past to bridge storytelling gaps and flesh out Westerosi history. Should HBO decide grant Martin the time to finish his final two books, the tradeoff could include the rights to tales such as Robert’s Rebellion (which the network currently doesn’t own). Who wouldn’t like to see Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon return to the screen alongside Jamie Lannister, Tywin Lannister and some legendary whispered-but-not-seen characters like the Mad King and Rhaegar Targaryen? Absent that, HBO could opt to make five two-hour episodes each focusing on a major event - the Doom of Valyria, the War of Conquest, the Long Night, the Wildling Invasion, and the First Men invading Westeros.
This path alleviates fan grumbling and prevents the series from going dark altogether but does nothing to address actor contracts or the aging problem. Furthermore, HBO would have to dedicate a full season’s budget ($70-$100 million) to bring these stories to life.
Scenario 4: HBO takes the series as far as it can go without revealing major plot points and calls it quits; saves the rest for a movie that premieres the month the books release.
The landscape: This is Littlefinger-esque chaos ladder. The benefits are obvious from HBO’s position - they can maintain the rights and finish the story while pulling in $14 a ticket. Shooting a pair of three-hour films as early as next year frees the actors and showrunners to quickly move onto other projects while saving HBO from potentially protracted contract negotiations. Martin and Random House win too - they maintain their storytelling lead and vacuum up dollars from those who don’t want to wait for the theater.
It’s not all gravy though. Does HBO shoot the films now with the actors under contract and hold them for three to four years? Will the Winds of Winter film debut with its literary companion while A Dream of Spring waits in a vault for years? How does HBO keep a lid on spoilers with 200+ people working on a major motion picture? Condensing a 40-character, 1,000-plus-page book into a three-hour film may not even be possible. And if Benioff and Weiss somehow find a way, what type of quality erosion is HBO willing to trade for increased revenues? Expanding a world from film to television is one thing. The opposite is quite another entirely.
Scenario 5: HBO pumps the narrative breaks and extends the series until Martin finishes his saga.
The landscape: Enjoy 15-page descriptions of food? Then you’ll love 15-minute tracking shots of peasant slaves preparing meals for a royal banquet. Like going on hiatus, this option dumps all the feces-covered issues — actor contracts, actor aging, fan retention, nebulous endpoint - onto HBO’s doorstep with the added bonus of shelling out $150-$200 million to create content while Martin writes. HBO can’t exactly claim poverty — they’ll almost certainly earn a massive profit even with increased FX budgets and actor salaries — but storytelling quality is a real concern. The current season has arguably aired two table-setting episodes in the first five weeks and it’s pulling material from the most plot-rich book in the series. “A Feast For Crows” and “A Dance of Dragons” add a slew of new characters and settings at the expense of things like “excitement.” If HBO has to string these two novels out over three seasons, the showrunners better exercise some creative freedom or risk compromising quality…and fan interest.
Bottom line: HBO is a television network. They’ve purchased the rights to these stories and characters and are under no obligation to adjust timelines to please Martin, Random House, or book readers. The network should act within reason to protect a tale that Martin has painstakingly fashioned over the last 15 years, but if the author cannot complete his saga before HBO needs to make a decision then moving forward into uncharted territory appears to be the least treacherous path. In Game of Thrones, that’s about as good as it gets.
Brian Byrd is a prolific tweeter of subpar tweets. Follow him on Twitter.
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