HBO's Big 'Game of Thrones' Gamble

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.


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).

All these details are a roundabout way of saying that Game of Thrones is more complicated to produce than any other series in television history—which is why it's frustrating that the cast and crew interviewed for Inside HBO's Game of Thrones don't spent much time talking about the most interesting part of the production process: the missteps, mistakes, and failures along the way. David Benioff praises Emilia Clarke, who plays Daenerys, as someone who "didn't just win the part," but "owned the part." What he fails to mention is that Clarke didn't originally win the part; Daenerys was played by Tamzin Merchant in the first version of the pilot, which was almost entirely re-shot. Only once does a member of the show's creative team admit that there was something from Martin's novels that she couldn't replicate for Game of Thrones (the dizzying climb to a mountain fortress called the Eyrie).

Fortunately, an illuminating article about Game of Thrones' second season by The Wall Street Journal's John Jurgensen offers some of the candor that the book doesn't:

Season two required 106 shooting days, three-quarters of which involved two crews working simultaneously. It took military precision to synchronize schedules and maximize camera time between the two teams (dubbed Dragon and Wolf). An actor could find himself working on three episodes with two different directors over two days. [...] Producers knew they couldn't pull off that trick with this year's Battle of Blackwater, a big rebel siege that begins on a river and spills over into the capital city."We came to [HBO] on bended knee to plead for more money," says Mr. Benioff.

There's as much reason to praise Game of Thrones as there is to worry about its future. The series has done an impressive job compressing Martin's sprawling narrative into 20 hours of television, though the second season was lumpier and more uneven than the first. But anyone who's read the remaining books in Martin's series knows that more substantial cuts are all but inevitable--a fact that D.B. Weiss readily acknowledges:

"In the first season, I'd say we managed to keep almost everything we really loved. Going forward, alas, there will have to be some sacrifices or compromises—otherwise we'd need thirty episodes per season, and our casting budget would sink the ship."

It's worth remembering that Game of Thrones' first priority is being a great TV series, not a great adaptation of George R.R. Martin's novels (though ideally it will continue to be both). But I'm crossing my fingers that Game of Thrones can turn the narrative alterations required by financial and time constraints into an asset, not a liability. (After all, it's done it before; the first season's exchange between Robert Baratheon and Cersei Lannister, which is one of the series' best, doesn't appear in the books at all.) As Game of Thrones continues, inevitably, to deviate from its literary source material, it will either feel like an incomplete version of a much larger tale or a distinct, streamlined story of its own. "People seem to think HBO took a risk," says Peter Dinklage, who won an Emmy for playing fan-favorite character Tyrion Lannister in 2011. Fortunately, it's a risk that paid off. As long as HBO continues to double down on the gamble of Game of Thrones, it's hard to imagine how they can lose.