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An apology to George R.R. Martin: ending Game of Thrones is really hard

An apology to George R.R. Martin: ending Game of Thrones is really hard


Winter is coming... eventually

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Image: HBO

We all owe George R.R. Martin an apology. HBO’s Game of Thrones, the adaptation of Martin’s unfinished book series A Song of Ice and Fire, has concluded, wrapping up nearly every outstanding plot point in an abbreviated sprint to the end in the final episode, “The Iron Throne.” Overall, it was a tidy ending to what felt like a largely unsatisfying season, one that saw the most-discussed TV show of the past few years go out, not with a bang, but with a rushed, corner-cutting whimper.

Writing the ending to Game of Thrones is, in fact, harder than it looks.

Image: HBO

Warning: spoilers ahead for all of Game of Thrones as well as the published books

“Where’s the next book?”

“Where’s the next book?”

The question has been on the minds of Martin’s fans since the beginning. Whenever he announces a new project, makes a press appearance, or blogs about his favorite sports teams, it’s always the first response. “Where’s the next book?” has become a kind of meme that’s spawned endless cultural spinoffs, from Neil Gaiman’s “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch” column to a Martin plush doll that says “I’m working on it,” among other things. When Martin addresses the question at all, his answer is invariably the same: these things take time.

The hurried ending to the TV adaptation of his books suggests he’s been right all along.

Martin originally published A Game of Thrones, the first book in a proposed fantasy trilogy, in 1996. The tale, now at five books and counting, obviously grew in the telling. In an interview with The Guardian in 2011, he described himself as a “gardener” type of writer who works out the story as he goes, as opposed to an “architect,” who plots out all the details ahead of time.

Image: HBO

Anyone following the novels over the years has seen the effects of Martin’s exploratory writing style. By the time the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, rolled around in 2005, Martin split the narrative in half, temporarily setting aside many of his most popular characters to focus on new areas of his rapidly expanding world. The interval between his books has grown with each volume. Book two in the series, A Clash of Kings, was published just two years after the first book. As of today, it’s been almost eight years since book five, A Dance With Dragons, and there’s still no release date for the sequel, The Winds of Winter, let alone the supposedly final seventh novel, A Dream of Spring.

‘Game of Thrones’ was a gamble for HBO

HBO’s Game of Thrones hit the scene in 2011, just months before A Dance With Dragons arrived on shelves. At the time, few readers expected the show to be a hit. It was a high-concept fantasy series based on a series of popular but still niche doorstop-sized books, airing exclusively on a pricey premium cable network best known for gritty, realism-based shows like The Wire and The Sopranos. It was a gamble, and while HBO was confident even before the show started that it would succeed, for most, the question wasn’t whether Game of Thrones would outpace Martin’s books, it was whether it would even survive long enough to dig deeply into his source material.

Back when Game of Thrones started, the adaptation was also far more straightforward. The first season covered the contents of the first book, and the second season (greenlit just days after the series premiered) took on the second book. By the third season, the intricacies of Martin’s world started to hit the show, and A Storm of Swords — the third book — was split into two seasons.

Image: HBO

So it wasn’t until 2014, ahead of that fourth season (covering the back half of book three), that concerns about Martin’s books being left in the dust began to really take root. “I’m hopeful that I can not let them catch up with me,” Martin said in an interview with Vanity Fair at the time, hoping the show would spend a fifth, sixth, and seventh season adapting books four and five, by which time he would have finished book six, for another season or two of breathing room. The idea was that he might get A Dream of Spring done before the show got its say.

GRRM never wanted to get left behind

Martin’s mindset here is revealing: in his mind, the show was going to run far longer than it actually did, telling a story at the same level of detail as the previous seasons, and as his novels. After all, that’s how the first seasons worked, and he’d always had the time to progress at his own rate.  

Obviously, that wasn’t the case, and following season 4, Game of Thrones started to blitz through Martin’s remaining source material. Season 5 ate up most of the plot of A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, largely by sticking to the action and avoiding some of Martin’s more meandering plots. And while Martin tried to get The Winds of Winter out before the sixth season of the show surpassed the novels, he simply couldn’t hit the deadline.

Image: HBO

That left Benioff and Weiss in their own, uncharted waters. The show had to go on, and while they could work with Martin as much as they could, they were going to be the ones to pen the ending, especially after Martin stepped down from writing episodes of the series after season 4. Ostensibly, that was to focus more on writing The Winds of Winter.

Martin couldn’t help ‘Game of Thrones’ stick the landing

Part of the problem was simply in what George R.R. Martin has given the showrunners. Per Martin’s own admission, Benioff and Weiss “know certain things. I’ve told them certain things. So they have some knowledge, but the devil is in the details. I can give them the broad strokes of what I intend to write, but the details aren’t there yet.” Simply put: Martin couldn’t help Game of Thrones stick the landing, because he himself wasn’t positive how he’d put the pieces together. For example, Martin’s original ending from his series proposal would have had Jon, Arya, and Tyrion in a love triangle, which isn’t in the show, and now seems unlikely to pop up in the remaining books. It’s proof that even Martin’s idea of the series has changed over time.

But the lack of new material and the rapidly shifting timescales left Benioff and Weiss in an impossible situation. They had to pick up one of the largest fantasy TV series of all time, at perhaps its widest possible expansion of story, with characters scattered across the world and plotlines left dangling. And they had to bring it in for a satisfying ending. It’s been done before — famously, author Brandon Sanderson brought Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time to a conclusion after Jordan’s death. But Jordan had left copious notes and plans for his final novel, and even then, it took Sanderson (working closely with Jordan’s wife and editor, Harriet McDougal) three books to close out what Jordan had hoped would be a single novel.

Image: HBO

And Game of Thrones is a very different beast. Instead of detailed notes, the writers only had Martin’s outline — a good start, but it obviously left large blanks to fill in. They had to come up with the mechanics and specifics of the story, a task so difficult that even the story’s creator has been stuck on it for the better part of a decade. And they didn’t just have to finish Martin’s tale, they had to make compelling television, the kind that could sustain the culture of hype and discussion that has exploded around the show.

There’s also the time factor. Martin wanted more seasons. According to an Entertainment Weekly interview, HBO was entirely willing to pay for more Game of Thrones, but Benioff and Weiss drew the line and wanted to wrap things up, presumably so they could move on to other projects, like their upcoming Star Wars trilogy and the controversial modern slavery series Confederate.

In the end, ‘Game of Thrones’ just didn’t have enough time

Looked at through that lens, the inconsistency of the last few seasons — and season 8 in particular — makes a lot of sense. It’s practically a miracle that Benioff, Weiss, and the rest of the writers were able to give viewers anything resembling an ending at all, given their self-imposed time frame. Martin has been telling fans for years that good, rich drama takes time. And the show didn’t have enough of that time, given how it compressed the series’ conclusion.

But it’s important to remember that even in a world where Martin’s series was written before a single second of the show was shot, Game of Thrones still likely wouldn’t have run for a dozen seasons, or told a tale on the same level that the books hopefully will. Martin’s story is too complex and internal to fully fit on a screen. His dream of taking three seasons for books four and five was unrealistic. Compression was always coming for the story on Game of Thrones. The only question was whose story would be crammed into the time the show had left — Martin’s, or someone else’s.

Image: HBO

Even if the show did have the time and funding to adapt Martin’s books shot for shot, plenty of season 8’s problems do rest on the writers, who clearly chose to emphasize bigger battles and big dramas at the expense of character foundations, plot consistency, and in some cases, common sense. The last few seasons gave the writers more control than ever, and they used that to make different decisions than Martin had in his books — decisions that likely were based on Game of Thrones growing to cater to a mass market audience far larger and broader than Martin’s books ever had. It’s easy for fans to play armchair quarterback and describe how they would have saved the show’s final seasons, but it has to be approached with the context that at this point, Benioff and Weiss were playing a very different game.

Benioff and Weiss were playing a very different game

But while HBO’s Game of Thrones may have given everyone more appreciation for Martin’s struggle, there’s no guarantee he’ll get it right either when the time comes, if he finishes the series at all. His increasing side projects, like his lengthy Targaryen history Fire and Blood or his Westeros companions like The World of Ice and Fire, seem like evidence that he’s struggling to weave his plot threads back together for his own ending. A 2013 interview at io9 saw Martin dig into some of those struggles, as he contemplated a five-year time jump to try to move the plot forward, or the infamous “Meereenese knot” of Dany’s story in A Dance with Dragons, which took Martin years to unravel.

Image: HBO

We still don’t (and may never know) how closely Martin’s intended ending resembles the one on the show. Maybe Jon’s parentage was always intended to be a red herring, Daenerys was always going to raze King’s Landing, and Arya was supposed to kill the Night King — or his book equivalent, if one ever shows up. Maybe, like Martin’s originally pitched ending, whatever he planned back when he briefed Benioff and Weiss has already changed in his writing process.

Ultimately, though, Game of Thrones’ finale feels like it’s more about fans’ impossibly high expectations than about the actual merits of the show’s ending. Martin’s novels started the cycle more than 20 years ago. Many of the show’s fans today weren’t even alive when the first book came out. And the pressure of delivering something that would satisfy everyone has only grown in the intervening two-plus decades, compounded by the show’s massive popularity.

A Song of Ice and Fire fans were already heavily invested before the show started, and the show’s popularity has driven expectations progressively higher, as viewers picked apart and theorized over every frame and page to anticipate where things might go next. We’ve seen time and again how that level of investment can shift into a more toxic feeling of ownership, leading to absurd temper-tantrum petitions demanding the ending be remade to meet one person’s personal expectations.

Image: HBO

Regardless of how any given viewer took the show’s ending, that doesn’t invalidate the incredible things Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire have done. There are still seasons of incredible storytelling on display, with career-making performances from talented actors, scenes like Tyrion’s trial, Jaime’s desperate confession about becoming the Kingslayer, or basically any time Dame Diana Rigg was on-screen as Olenna Tyrell. There were sequences that changed the rules for what a TV show could pull off, like the Battle of the Blackwater or the time Game of Thrones broke a record for setting stunt people on fire. The worldwide fandom was its own remarkable phenomenon, a cultural moment where it felt like for once, everyone in the world was banding together to experience something collectively.

Maybe GRRM will get it right, or maybe no one ever will

If the debate over the ending of Game of Thrones is anything to go by, George R.R. Martin is still facing an uphill battle in finishing this series himself. In a blog post published after the finale, he reassured fans that he would have a finished series for them one day and his ending, filled with different characters and a far denser medium that the show offered. (Although he dodged the question of whether his ending would be the same as the show’s.)

Maybe he’ll get it right, in the months or years it takes him. Maybe no one ever will. But looking back at the final moments of the show, with all its focus on new beginnings for all of the characters we’ve gotten to know over the past decade and for Westeros itself, maybe endings aren’t everything. Maybe it’s worth it all for the journey.