We were overjoyed the other day to read that the producers of HBO's Game of Thrones have no intention of having the show last 10 seasons, because that would "strangle the golden goose." Because they're right. Here's why 10 seasons of Thrones would be a very bad thing.
Minor spoilers ahead...
It's a crazy miracle that Game of Thrones worked at all. Seriously, we take it for granted that this show is largely terrific apart from a few missteps — but adapting George R.R. Martin's epic fantasy book series was always going to be a huge challenge. You've got the massive sprawling cast of characters, the immensely complicated backstory, the ultra-dark and brutal storytelling. Just consider the main arc of the first season is figuring out who poisoned a guy that we never even meet, and the audience has to understand why that matters.
And yet, creating a semi-faithful adaptation of George R.R. Martin's sprawling opus will only get harder from here on out — and the only solution, much of the time, will be ruthlessness. Subplots will have to be dropped, more characters will need to be combined, character arcs will need to be strengthened, and so on.
Most of all, the show will need to keep its sense of building towards huge, everything-changes events in every season.
I'm really glad that D.B. Weiss and David Benioff haven't let their success make them feel invincible, or like they can ride this beast for a whole decade. While some fans of the books would really like to see every last detail of Martin's storytelling reflected on screen, the result would probably get to be unwatchable about halfway through A Feast for Crows, Martin's fourth book. Even A Storm of Swords is a book that could stand to lose some of its baggage.
So before we go on, there are a couple of key factors to consider:
1) Any television show sort of runs out of energy and starts to sag after a while. We talked about this the other day, and people brought up M*A*S*H and a couple other counter-examples. (Doctor Who doesn't really count, because of the complete turnover in cast and crew every few seasons.) But for the most part, eight or nine years is a long time to be doing a TV show, even one with short seasons. Actors leave and get recast, writers burn out, sharks are jumped. Realistically, it's hard to imagine Game of Thrones season nine still being must-watch TV.
2) The first two books of A Song of Ice and Fire are the tightest. People pick on A Feast For Crows as being a bit of a slog — but honestly, long stretches of A Storm of Swords and A Dance With Dragons are also slow going. With each of the books after A Clash of Kings, the number of characters multiplies, but so too do the number of sequences where someone witnesses an atrocity or makes a terrible decision. A grand sweeping arc — along the lines of "Ned Stark investigates" or "Robert's two brothers make a play for the throne, leading to a huge battle" — is less in evidence in the later books, and there's much more emphasis on micro-arcs and ongoing turmoil. I love the later books, even the occasionally maligned Feast For Crows, but they feel much more like "middle volumes" — loose and not very self-contained. They're the work of someone who's already won over an audience.
The first two seasons of Game of Thrones made some canny decisions about changing Martin's work — including bringing characters like Margaery Tyrell to the fore, which will pay off handsomely when the series gets to Feast for Crows. In particular, some shoes that Martin left hovering in mid-air drop way quicker in season two than in the book — Jaime Lannister gets out of his cell early, and we see Robb Stark's romance and wedding instead of hearing about them a year later. This kind of cutting to the chase will be even more essential as the show goes on.
We already know season three will be roughly the first half of A Storm of Swords, and readers of the book will already have guessed what huge tragedy will be this year's climactic event, akin to last year's battle and year one's beheading of Ned Stark. And that means season four will cover the rest of Storm of Swords — plus, if the show remains true to form, at least some of A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons as well.
Because most of A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons take place simultaneously, you can easily imagine the show weaving the two books together for season five, and possibly some of season six.
The thing I really like about Feast for Crows/Dance with Dragons, especially when you take them as one massive oeuvre, is the way they deal with problems of governance — without going into major spoiler territory, these are the volumes where certain people who have seized power are faced with the problems of actually ruling. Which is fascinating on the page — and a nightmare to dramatize on television. There are banking crises and imperfect compromises and constitutional questions, and the clash between church and state, and so on.
It's not just that Game of Thrones has been thriving on the model of "huge sweeping saga with major events every year." I'm sure the show could adapt just fine if it had one season where only smaller, more personal events transpire — and foregrounding non-POV characters like Margaery and Pycelle means there's some scope to build up arcs that are somewhat underdeveloped in Feast and Dance. But there's also the question of momentum and delayed gratification — how many years will people wait for the fricken dragons to get to Westeros, and for the zombies to get past the Wall? We want to see dragons and zombies in Westeros — the thing the show has been teasing since season one, in other words.
Dragons and zombies in the Seven Kingdoms, FTW. If this doesn't happen until, say, season nine — well, people might be kind of grumpy.
I just don't want to see Game of Thrones go downhill — either due to normal television entropy or because the subplot-rich environment of the later books is being translated too literally to television. I'd like to see this show go for seven or eight seasons, and finish on a high note.
This, obviously, would require Martin to get the final volume, A Dream of Spring, done by 2018 at the latest. Or it would mean the television show would have to come up with its own ending, loosely based on whatever Martin has in mind. I'm honestly fine with either thing, especially if Martin is directly involved one way or the other.
But yes, it's very good news that the producers are aware that 10 seasons would be way too much, and are already thinking ahead of ways to avoid that. This gives me hope, and warms my soul against the inevitable coming of winter.