The Tortoise and the Hare: An Exploration of the Race to the Finish Line Between George R R Martin and HBO

The big question surrounding HBO’s Game of Thrones, bigger than Jon Snow’s parentage even, has always been –

Can George R R Martin keep up?

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Since the rumours were confirmed that HBO would be adapting George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire to the small screen the anticipation of fans has been tinged with a gnawing worry of “what if George can’t keep up?” or more properly, “what will happen when the show outpaces the books?” because as we all know by now – George R R Martin is not our bitch.

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But he is *my* bitch.

When the show was first pitched in 2011 there were four books published, and even as late as 2014 (by which time a fifth book had reached print), fans and even Martin himself1 were hopeful that there was enough content to keep the show behind the source material. As season five draws to a close it has become painfully obvious that this is not the case. The creators of the show have expended a lot of effort into compacting the huge amounts of characters and stories into something more suitable for television. In this way, it doesn’t particularly matter if the show ventures to places unknown because it already has.

Where are we going?

Where are we going?

Douglas Adams was an author with a much beloved series of books that over time changed into many mediums including radio, television and the silver screen of Hollywood.2 Adams had a hand in all the various adaptations of his story and saw fit to change them to better suit each medium.3 Fans of Game of Thrones seem to conveniently forget that Martin has done much the same, sharing “broad strokes” of the story’s unwritten plot,4  acting as one of the producers, and writing one screenplay per season5 – excepting seasons five and six as he is purportedly busy writing that next book we’re so eager to consume.6 Martin, like Adams, is keenly aware of both the challenges and the opportunities that present themselves when moving a story through mediums.7 Martin also spent much of his early career writing screenplays, and in fact wrote A Game of Thrones as something he figured was too broad in scope to ever be adapted successfully.8
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There is a group of bloggers and commenters that calls themselves Unsullied, in that they have not read the books so there is no confirmation of suspicions on where the plotlines are headed. Much like those bloggers, I am choosing to write my opinion here ‘unsullied’ by the thoughts of other writers on this topic. I think that you can look at Martin’s story as a sort of mythos. There is his written version, the collaborative television version, and at least two different interactive video game versions, all of which begin following the story from different angles. You could also play act the story within the board game, albeit in a limited fashion. I’ve always had a fascination with Arthurian legend. I have read this familiar tale in at least four different incarnations, yet each retelling brings a new element to the table and the story never feels old to me. (Side note: if you also enjoy tales of King Arthur, check out WhiteWhyteZimmer-Bradley, and/or Stewart. Retellings where different elements are emphasized cross mediums as well, from the child friendly The Sword in the Stone, dark Excalibur, to the humourous Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Thrones will probably not reach this same level of reimagining, but on a smaller scale this is a relevant comparison.

Beyond accepting that there must be a certain amount of fluidity to create new material from old, there is already bound to be cross over between the novels and television due to the fact that the books simply aren’t done yet. You can’t close Pandora’s Box. Martin has certainly been influenced by being involved with the show’s production. He’s been especially taken with the younger actors,9 so I think it stands to reason that the screen portrayals of his characters may influence how he continues to write their character arcs. It’s conceivable that in hindsight certain changes that were made for the show might have been better representations and he might like to run with that. There is no control group, what is done is done and no one will ever know how much or how little influence the show has had on George R R Martin.

It has been worried over and talked about since the inception of the television series, the creeping dread that the canon will not be closed until after the television series wraps up. Like winter, this has always been coming and the white raven has flown to give us the proof of that. In a recent discussion at the Oxford Union the show creators and some cast members confirmed that they are indeed going to outpace Martin.10 Fans have been aware of this certainty since the outset as this question was posed to Martin in 2011.11  Martin as recently as 201412 remained optimistic that there was enough Westerosi content to keep the show busy while he finished writing Winds of Winter at least:

I’m hopeful that I cannot let them catch up with me. The season that’s about to debut covers the second half of the third book. The third book [A Storm of Swords] was so long that it had to be split into two. But there are two more books beyond that, and A Dance With Dragons. A Dance With Dragons is itself a book that’s as big as A Storm of Swords. So there’s potentially three more seasons there, between Feast and Dance, if they split into two the way they did [with Swords]. Now, Feast and Dance take place simultaneously. So you can’t do Feast and then Dance the way I did. You can combine them and do it chronologically. And it’s my hope that they’ll do it that way and then, long before they catch up with me, I’ll have published The Winds of Winter, which’ll give me another couple years. It might be tight on the last book, A Dream of Spring, as they juggernaut forward.13

This is completely unfounded in reality. At the time of this interview Season 4 was ready to go to air, and by the end of that season one major character’s arc had caught up with the written counterpart of A Dance with Dragons. Beyond that, Martin certainly understands and acknowledges that while the characters age as slowly as he’d like, their physical counterparts do not.

Arya Stark 2011.

Arya Stark 2011

We’re going forward, and the kids are getting older. Maisie [Williams] was the same age as Arya when it started, but now Maisie is a young woman and Arya is still eleven. Time is passing very slowly in the books and very fast in real life.14

Maisie Williams 2015

Maisie Williams 2015

In the blogosphere, most opinions lean towards trepidation. Some are bitter, complaining that Martin has lost control of his own narrative, that he’s lost the perspective of the bigger picture15 – that he can’t see the forest for the trees. Others are afraid that the show will “spoil” the books and would prefer the show take a hiatus, possibly either choosing to film prequel material, or even filming feature length movies a la Firefly/Serenity to be aired when Martin publishes the relevant books.16 The AV Club is horrified by the thought of prequels,17 and HBO appears to be on the same page. HBO has the rights to the word of Westeros, but not currently the rights to the Dunk and Egg stories themselves.18 Fears that a hiatus of any sort would quell the momentum of the show – “strangle the golden goose”19 as it were – and the previous issue of aging child actors, I don’t think the AV Club has anything to worry about. The concern over the show spoiling the books and lessening the enjoyment of them is unfounded as well. Perhaps on a personal level, one might wish to remain unsullied and choose to consume media on one’s own terms. In a broader scope, there is often a resurgence in book interest after a screen version is released. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saw a dramatic increase in book sales after the first movie hit theatres.20 Consumers eagerly wanted to fill in any gaps missed by the movies, and for some like myself, managed to get through ponderous works of Tolkien only after the movies gave assurance there was some point to all of this meandering through Middle Earth. The last major concern is that without the complete and polished source material to draw from the show will lose its lustre and become a pale watered down thing.21 This concern hinges on the oft-quoted “broad strokes” answer Martin gave to Vanity Fair22 when asked how much David Benioff and DB Weiss (the show’s producers, showrunners, and in the case of Weiss, screenwriter) knew about the future plot lines. Is the devil really in the details? I think yes – but what’s important here is whose details. The show already deviates from many of the finer points of the books, preferring to make their own way as previously stated. In the Oxford Union23 discussion Benioff and Weiss reiterate that the destination will be the same even if the journey is different – all roads lead to Rome – or King’s Landing as the case may be.

The night is not all dark and full of terrors.

But this always will be. *shudder*

But this always will be. *shudder*

Hiding in the shadows cast by fear of the unknown are those that are ready to embrace it. Poniewozik24 gives several reasons why the surpassing of show over books can be looked forward to with delight in his article for Time. A major point, and one that consumerist culture tends to overlook in their rush of expectations, is that when the shows pass the books Martin will experience a reprieve. Martin himself has been vocal about how much he hates deadlines, and that the quality of his work is far more important than the timeliness of it.25 Poniewozik also says that Martin could potentially “right the wrongs” done by the show. Potentially he could even do a poorer job and write a wrong. Furthermore, the books written after the show could be considered as an extended Director’s Cut, filling in the gaps that were theoretically left on the cutting room floor.

Cannata-Bowman26 wrote a listicle giving five reasons to consider the show passing the books as a good thing:

No more whining by book purists.

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No more long wait.

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Books now act as a compliment to the show.

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No more wibbling over what to include and what to cut.

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Benioff and Weiss are prepared.

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The fan reactions are just as varied, perhaps more so. If you have several hours to kill there are many fan sites where you can read and contribute your own perspectives. There are those who claim that they will hold out for the books and then watch the show (let’s see how strong their resolve is come next April). There are those who liken Martin’s books to sandbox games and feel as though it’s perfectly fine for the story to meander, and enjoy the streamlined version of the show. There are good points made on how the show can have a slightly more expanded chronology, especially considering the younger characters have already been aged up for the purposes of the show.

Check them out:

Winter Is Coming

Watchers on the Wall

A Forum of Ice and Fire

Like so many beheadings leading to this point, the finale of Season 5 has effectively severed any hope that the show can hold out for the books. Every plot point that has been explored in the show has now reached the end of the source material, and in some cases has gone beyond. By my reckoning, there are three potential missing storylines that could make up next season, but that would slow the show’s momentum to a crawl. The strongpoint in this storytelling is the weaving of multiple lines together. If you have only a few threads, you can’t weave a rich tapestry.

Next April, we will all be members of the Unsullied. As we wade into the waters of the unknown, there is one thing we all must keep at the forefront of our minds –

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Works Cited
1.  George R R Martin Has a Detailed Plan for Keeping the Game of Thrones TV Show From Catching Up To Him, Vanity Fair, March 14, 2014, accessed June 15 2015.

2. Douglas Adams, Wikipedia, accessed June 15, 2015.

3. Douglas Adams

4.  George R R Martin Has a Detailed Plan for Keeping the Game of Thrones TV Show From Catching Up To Him

5. George R R Martin, Internet Movie Database, accessed June 15, 2015.

6. Kawakami, Robin. George R R Martin Won’t Write ‘Game of Thrones’ Episode for Season 6, The Wall Street Journal, March 27, 2014, accessed June 15, 2015.

7.  George R R Martin Has a Detailed Plan for Keeping the Game of Thrones TV Show From Catching Up To Him

8.  George R R Martin Has a Detailed Plan for Keeping the Game of Thrones TV Show From Catching Up To Him

9. Poniewozik, James. George RR Martin Interview, Part 1: Game of Thrones, From Book to TV, Time, April 15, 2011, accessed June 15, 2015.

10. Robinson, Joanna. Game of Thrones Creators Confirm the Show Will Spoil the Books, Vanity Fair, March 22, 2015, accessed June 15, 2015.

11. Poniewozik, James. George RR Martin Interview, Part 1: Game of Thrones, From Book to TV

12.  George R R Martin Has a Detailed Plan for Keeping the Game of Thrones TV Show From Catching Up To Him

13.  George R R Martin Has a Detailed Plan for Keeping the Game of Thrones TV Show From Catching Up To Him

14.  George R R Martin Has a Detailed Plan for Keeping the Game of Thrones TV Show From Catching Up To Him

15.  George R R Martin Has a Detailed Plan for Keeping the Game of Thrones TV Show From Catching Up To Him

16. Tassi, Paul. There is Now No Chance George RR Martin’s Books Will Outrun HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’, Forbes, January 31, 2015, accessed June 15, 2015.

17. Teti, John. GRRM Has a Shifty Plan to Keep HBO’s Game of Thrones From Catching Up To Him, A.V Club, March 18, 2014, accessed June 15, 2015.

18. Martin, George R. R. Dunk and Egg, Livejournal, April 15, 2014, accessed June 15, 2015.

19. Hibbard, James. ‘Game of Thrones’ Team on Series’ Future – ‘There is a Ticking Clock’, Entertainment Weekly, June 9, 2013, accessed June 15, 2015.

20. Pate, Nancy.Lord of the Rings Films Work Magic on Tolkien Book Sales, Orlando Sentinel, August 20, 2003, accessed June 15, 2015.

21. Tassi, Paul. There is Now No Chance George RR Martin’s Books Will Outrun HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’

22.  George R R Martin Has a Detailed Plan for Keeping the Game of Thrones TV Show From Catching Up To Him

23. Robinson, Joanna. Game of Thrones Creators Confirm the Show Will Spoil the Books

24. Poniewozik, James. Game of Thrones Will Probably Catch Up To George RR Martin and That’s Just Fine, Time, March 18, 2014, accessed June 15, 2015.

25.  George R R Martin Has a Detailed Plan for Keeping the Game of Thrones TV Show From Catching Up To Him

26. Aoun, Steven. Why ‘Game of Thrones Matters’, June 10, 2013, accessed June 15 2015.

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