HBO's Big 'Game of Thrones' Gamble

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Game of Thrones may be a monstrously successful show now, but a new book reveals that even its creator George R.R. Martin had doubts about whether it could be a TV series.

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HBO

In the introduction for Inside HBO's Game of Thrones—a new book that offers behind-the-scenes look at the hit fantasy show—series creator George R.R. Martin says that Hollywood Boulevard is littered with the "skulls and bleached bones" of those who have tried and failed to adapt popular literature for Hollywood. It's an apt metaphor for the man behind the bold, bloody books that are the backbone of HBO's fantasy series, and a reminder that there were countless ways the series could have gone wrong. In the game of adapting Game of Thrones, you either win or you lose millions of dollars and the loyalty of a particularly devoted fan base. There is no middle ground.

But under the watchful eyes of executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, HBO's first two seasons have managed to beat the odds—even if the seams occasionally show. The accomplishment of the creative time behind Game of Thrones is all the more impressive when you learn that George R.R. Martin was actively trying to write a series that would be impossible to film. Martin spent the 1980s writing for CBS TV shows like The Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast, watching studios take his sprawling, ambitious teleplays and morph them into versions that could be filmed at a fraction of the cost of the original. When he started writing A Game of Thrones, he decided that he'd make up for everything he'd had to compromise in his Hollywood career by indulging himself, which meant dozens of chapters, hundreds of characters, and thousands of pages.

HBO's Game of Thrones probably owes its existence to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy—a series to which Game of Thrones, fairly or unfairly, will always be compared. In Inside HBO's Game of Thrones, Martin reveals that he was contacted by a few (apparently insane) producers seeking the next Lord of the Rings who proposed turning all seven of the series' novels—including the two Martin hasn't written yet—into a single feature-length film. There were so many ill-conceived attempts to adapt A Game of Thrones and its sequels that Martin even tried to dissuade Benioff and Weiss from attempting to make the HBO series: "It's too big. It's too complicated. It's too expensive," he said.

By any conventional measure, Martin should have been right. Even on HBO, Game of Thrones shouldn't have worked, and until recently, it couldn't have worked. Even ignoring the narrative sprawl, money was always going to be a problem for the series. Game of Thrones' first season cost roughly $60 million to produce, and its second season cost even more. And if HBO is committed to Game of Thrones for the long haul—and with the series' third season set to air next spring, and ratings at an all-time high, there's no reason to believe they won't be—it will cost them quite a bit more. TV shows inevitably get more expensive to produce the longer they're on the air.

But for all the financial concerns that plague the series, Martin's first two warnings were even more daunting: Game of Thrones was just too big and too complicated to work. Every one of its numerous noble families has a unique totemic symbol and slogan. It contains at least four functional religions, each of which has been explained in a considerable amount of detail. It features a fictional language, created for the series, which has 14 different words for "horse." And Benioff and Weiss were committed to capturing Martin's singular, uncompromising vision, which meant that Game of Thrones had to film on location in United Kingdom, Iceland, Croatia, Malta, and Morocco—and even those far-reaching locations had to be touched up with CGI.

It's a testament to the creative team behind the show that there was no attempt to simplify the series for television, and a testament to HBO's audience that they were willing to stick around while they acclimated to the world of Westeros. When most people praise Game of Thrones' narrative courage, they refer to the death of its ostensible main character at the end of the first season. But I'd argue that the series' biggest narrative gambit is Daenerys Targaryen, a character whose storyline takes place on a separate continent, and who has had absolutely no meaningful interaction with any of the other main characters to date. Game of Thrones is a series of delayed gratification, but that's a much bigger risk for a TV series than a book series, which you can take on at the pace you choose (until you finish reading A Dance with Dragons, in which case, welcome to the "counting down the days until The Winds of Winter" club).

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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