When A Pioneering Adaptation Overtakes the Original

game of thrones

Will “Game of Thrones” literary creator and novelist George R.R. Martin be usurped by adapters and TV execs?

An unprecedented event occurred last Sunday, an event so unnerving for many that the aftershocks will be felt for years to come, no doubt. A battle between the final three of the realm with real constituencies — the woman who has survived all the fires of war and come out stronger, the rich kid who’s been royalty all his life and pretends to understand things but mostly he’s just a child, and the man in threads who claims to speak for the people but is in some ways almost as frightening as the spoiled rich kid.

Sure there are others, but the only ones with massive followers at their disposal who are facing off are the two in King’s Landing while across the Narrow Sea from Westeros the great mother of dragons emerged from flames having vanquished her enemies …

No, this isn’t a “Game of Thrones” fan summary. The plot of HBO’s most recent “Game of Thrones” is inconsequential. Strike that; like any great work, and especially a great work of fantasy world worshiped by obsessive geeks, the plot of the most recent “Game of Thrones” may be one of the most important occurrences in the last week. And to said geeks, the fact that it so egregiously strayed from the rules and histories laid down in the canon is blasphemous. Angry GOT book fans have taken to social media to curse showrunners , screaming how the Targaryens aren’t immune to fire, that Khaleesi actually emerged from her dragon-birthing scene in season 1 due to some blood magic she’d invoked. George R.R. Martin has said the same, as, supposedly, have the books.

And historically that’s always been the way things work in art. The source material is the bible. The adaptations have to either follow the rules to a T or consciously veer either by adding characters or changing the plot to present the TV show or film as a separate entity of its own. GOT has diverged from the book on a few points, most of which have been accepted as simply the nature of adaptation (except perhaps for some subplots). One of the main reasons? It was always known why or how this was done and fans could either accept or reject the changes. Even more, it was known that the original story was the REAL one, since it was made first. The adaptation is secondary. This has occasionally worked in reverse (book versions of “Star Wars,” for example). But all told, never have changes in rules or characters or plotlines made any huge impact.

So why is the Khaleesi-immune-to-fire thing different? So much more infuriating in many respects? Perhaps because for the first time in the history of cinematic and television adaptation of literary works, the adaptation is ahead of the source material. With the opening of this season, Game of Thrones’ showrunners are officially ahead of any published “Song of Ice and Fire” novels. That is to say, the adaptation has overtaken the source.

Even more, while this season at least there’s a Martin novel to work off (still unpublished as the writer finishes up yet another round of revisions but no doubt the showrunners have seen it), the next season will be finished a good bit before Martin’s notoriously-long writing process can tie off the series. And what if he ends up taking it to 8 books (as some have speculated may happen)? Then the TV series may be wrapped for several years before the final novel. What this means is for the first time ever, a long-running serial that was originally a book will have two sets of fans and the possibility of two separate endings, meaning the novel upon which the series was founded will not necessarily dictate how it ends. Even more, the secondary material will have arrived at the conclusion before the primary format. Meaning also that there may be endless debate over which is the REAL ending.

When Adaptation Overtakes Source, the Natural Order Is Disturbed

This is monumental in entertainment because for the first time the hierarchy of source formats will be usurped and the creator will not necessarily be the one to dictate how his creations are finished. In many ways this is the culmination of the evolution of storytelling from verbal supremacy to the domination of the visual medium. At the least this sets up an interesting precedent. Whether you’re a “Game of Thrones” fan or not is inconsequential. This can reach into all genres (except “Literature” since that is a genre that often doesn’t do sequels, though John Updike’s “Rabbit” books, a series sprawling over 40 years, won two Pulitzers)(and Hillary Mantell’s “Wolf Hall” series has garnered two Man-Booker Prizes and has an award-winning show on the air).

More and more novelists make their careers on serials and specifically selling the TV and movie rights to those. Why are books and comic books being snatched up and produced at such a fast clip today? One thing I learned from my talent agency days: Producers are increasingly being hounded to assign metrics to the projects they develop. More and more TV and film execs are therefore turning to best-selling novels and comic books (and, of course, sequels) as their tentpoles because they’re more able to justify backing a work with a built-in audience than picking up original concepts, especially original concept championed by unknowns. As TV and film budgets skyrocket, the days of shooting from the hip are gone. Nothing’s more of a sure thing than a hit book series and going forward we will encounter more situations where there’s a race between the novelist and the showrunner to dictate what happens in the end.

Will New York Writers Be Most Affected?

NYC is a city where, of all media, the word is paramount. You go to L.A. to make shows and movies; you go to New York to write books and magazine articles. So let’s say you write a book, the first in what you imagine to be a grand series. The first book sells huge and you get that 6-figure TV deal. TV shows need a new season about every year. Try writing a book in a year. Especially as it gets further down the line and there’s more mythology and characters to remember and success (and expectations) has slowed your fire. If you’re one book in, by the fourth, the series will be surpassing the novel.

So this changing of the supremacy of original content will happen more often and more directly affect the many hungry aspiring authors who flock to New York every year to join the ranks of literary giants who were forged on that granite island. Whether the changing of source predominance is a good thing or a bad thing has yet to be determined (as a man of the word I can tell you my opinion)(yet I also prefer the GOT TV show over the books so there it is). But as “Game of Thrones” goes literally off the map, it’ll be important for all creatives and art-industry players (and the people who consume such content) to see where it lands.

There is an epic battle going on in Westeros. It is a battle of speed between novelist and showrunner. To the winner goes the very real opportunity to dictate the end of one of the most successful media entities in modern storytelling. The real game to determine who gets the throne is happening right now in lonely rooms by the light of laptops.

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Ryan Ariano

Born and raised in Baltimore, Ryan has been kicking around the west since the first Clinton White House. Having worked all over SoCal in the surf industry, Hollywood, marketing, journalism and finance, he now hangs his hat just outside Jackson Hole where he can fulfill an addiction to ascending and descending mountains.

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