In January 2007, Variety broke the news that HBO had optioned the rights to George R.R. Martin’s award-winning, bestselling epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Since then, the pilot has been filmed, the series greenlit, and the production date was set as July 26th, 2010. The series teaser released in June of that year confirmed that the show’s set to premiere in 2011.
So, it’s been a long journey, marked by an incredible amount of buzz for a show that for a long time hadn’t even received a season order. Fans of the series have rallied around the production, and TV critics and commentators have shared their support for the project. What makes Game of Thrones so special, to inspire such appreciation?
A Song of Ice and Fire is set apart from many of the epic fantasies that followed J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings by the fact that the author, George R.R. Martin (GRRM for short—and before you ask, the R.R. really is from his middle names [Raymond Richard]), worked in Hollywood in the 80’s and early 90’s. As a writer, story editor, and supervising producer on the cult classic Beauty and the Beast series and other productions, he honed his writing skills in television. However, he found working in Hollywood frustrating because of the various constraints involved. Drafts of scripts would constantly be worked over to make sure it fit into the air time, the budget, and the production capabilities, reducing the scope and ambition of what he wanted to put on screen. Martin wanted to get back to the imaginative fiction which had made him an acclaimed author of science fiction, fantasy, and horror in the 70’s, where the only limits were what he could fit into his imagination.
The Hollywood experience did, however, give him a new, cinematic scope to his writing and plotting. These conventions found their way into A Game of Thrones (US, UK), the first novel in the Song of Ice and Fire series. This, combined with his exceptional talent for crafting memorable characters and fantastic settings, has made the series a run-away success. Lev Grossman of TIME Magazine named him, “America’s Tolkien”, and A Feast for Crows was #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list when it debuted.
Though a great fan of The Lord of the Rings, Martin’s approach to his own work is encapsulated is this statement regarding one of Tolkien’s writing decisions: “Gandalf should have stayed dead.”
Inspired by a rich tapestry of history (the Hundred Years War and the Wars of the Roses) and the works of less well-known writers of fantasy and historical fiction such as Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, and Thomas B. Costaine, Martin introduces a gritty realism to the epic fantasy genre. Life in the Seven Kingdoms is not very different from life in the 14th and 15th century Europe, a monarchy supported by a nobility which dominates a population of commoners, where injustice sits side by side with chivalric culture and treasonous plots sprout up like weeds. Characters—even popular, well-liked characters—are not safe from defeat, suffering, and even death in Martin’s setting. Questions of honor, power, justice, and duty are explored.
The setting has its fantastical features—a 700 foot tall wall of ice being the most prominent in the first novel—but it’s a very low-magic setting for much of its run. However, it does evolve and magic will become more prominent, much as one of the major features of the plot starts off low key and becomes increasingly central to the narrative. The politics, the backstabbing, the ugliness of war when swords and axes are being used to hack at you, are a key part of the story, juxtaposed with the dangers sparked by prophecy and magic.
Don’t expect nice guys to always win the day, or bad guys to cackle villainously—this is a setting of grey ambiguities, of the various levels of conflict between personal and family honor, between duty and desire. The heroes are flawed, and even the antagonists have their virtues. In the end, only one thing matters:
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”
It was very gratifying for fans to learn that the executive producers who developed the project intended to be as faithful as possible to the story. If it isn’t broken, why try to fix it? A leaked pilot script apparently revealed that the writers were sticking to this maxim, and the few changes that were made make sense in adapting the narrative to a film. What’s amazing is how little needs changing, however. In Martin’s mind, what he was writing would make one of the most epic films ever, and HBO seems to be doing its best to realize it on the television screen. The first novel should fit very comfortably into the twelve episodes scheduled for the first season, as should the second novel. The third is the longest to date, however, and it will be interesting to see how that’s adapted if the show goes that far.
The cast collected to play the various roles features many notable names—Sean Bean, Lena Headey, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and Peter Dinklage to name some of the most prominent—and up-and-coming young actors. And by young, we do mean young. Several key roles are played by children, and the casting directors searched long and hard to find the very best possible actors to play these roles. It may seem odd to have children involved in such an adult setting, but the dangers in the story take on a special urgency when they’re seen through the eyes of the children.
The executive producers are both new to showrunning, but they’ve some fine industry experiences behind them. David Benioff is the most well-known, not only a scriptwriter with a number of great accomplishments—the blockbuster film Troy, the adaption of the bestselling The Kite Runner, and the upcoming Brothers—but as a novelist beginning with the exceptional The 25th Hour which he adapted to the screen for Spike Lee, and more recently with his WWII novel City of Thieves which has received a good deal of positive press.
D.B. “Dan” Weiss has fewer professional credits, but he’s an old acquaintance of Benioff’s. Most notably, like Benioff, he’s a published novelist with his first novel Lucky Wander Boy. He’s written unproduced scripts for Ender’s Game, a horror film he and Benioff collaborated on, and a prequel to Will Smith’s I Am Legend. Interestingly, he has some familiarity with Ireland and the U.K., having received his Master’s at Trinity College in Dublin. With an interest in gaming culture, Weiss was perhaps most notably called in to rewrite the screenplay for Bungie’s massively popular Halo first-person shooter.
Benioff received the four novels from GRRM’s agents, and reported in a recently published interview that initially he was dubious of the project. However, he was very quickly hooked by the first novel and told Weiss that these were possibly the best fantasy novels since Tolkien. The two quickly entered into discussions to develop the property, and so we come to the present time.
The early buzz has apparently shocked HBO somewhat, but it’s also proved to be very exciting. As reported by James Hibberd, HBO is amazed at the level of early interest for a project that hasn’t even been greenlit. This interest comes not only from the fan base that propelled A Feast for Crows to the top of the New York Times bestseller chart, but by the bevy of critics and commentators who have made their anticipation of the series known. James Hibberd of the Hollywood Reporter, Matt Roush of TV Guide, Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune, and James Poniewozik of TIME Magazine are some of the critics who’ve voiced their support for the proposed series.
The appeal of Game of Thrones is potentially huge, looking at the buzz and the high level of interest the production has sparked. Will the show be a success? It’ll be hard for it not to be, if the outpouring of interest is any example.