On July 16, pretty much everyone in the world will be tuning in to watch the premiere of Game of Thrones’ seventh season. The long-awaited episodes are not only of interest to fans of the HBO adaptation, but to voracious readers of George R.R. Martin’s novels. With The Winds of Winter still looming half-formed in the mists of publishing, Game of Thrones will now be the point-of-entry for everyone who wants to know where this song of ice and fire will end.
On the one hand, it’s exciting. Martin’s fans have been waiting since the 2011 release of A Dance With Dragons to find out what happens next. On the other hand, it’s a melancholy day because surely this isn’t how GRRM wanted his epic tale to be revealed to the world. On the third hand, (just go with it), it might not matter. Without the source material, it appears showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss are throwing off the shackles of Martin’s glacial pace in favor of an action-adventure mode. Which, if we’re being honest, isn’t sitting quite right with me.
In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, both the cast and crew of Game of Thrones spent a not insignificant amount of time bracing fans for a breakneck pace in the upcoming season. While the show runners and producers make valiant efforts to spin this development as a positive thing (the war is finally here! the battles will be epic!), Jaime Lannister actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau was more candid about the change.
“I feel like I’d been lulled into a different pace,” Coster-Waldau says. “Everything happened quicker than I’m used to … a lot of things that normally take a season now take one episode. I’m like, ‘Already? Now?! What?!’”
Meanwhile, Dan Weiss explained things in Game of Thrones aren’t moving faster because the season has been shaved down to seven episodes from the traditional ten. It’s just the nature of the beast. “Things are moving faster because in the world of these characters the war that they’ve been waiting for is upon them,” which gives everything a sense of urgency. To which I politely call bullshit. Martin has estimated before that The Winds of Winter will clock in at 1500 manuscript pages, bringing on par with A Dance With Dragons. The show isn’t rushing things because they’ve reached some sort of watershed moment, they simply don’t have the structure of Martin’s novels to guide them anymore.
Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Cutting the fat off of Martin’s novels has benefited the show in the past. Merging characters or slicing off tertiary story arcs kept the plot rolling. But for every time Game of Thrones succeeded with this, there’s a horror story of failure, most notably the merger of Jeyne Poole from the novels with Sansa Stark, leading to Sansa’s marriage and subsequent rape and torture by Ramsay Bolton. And for as cool as the final battle of the bastards was visually, having Ramsay miss his mark and hit Wun Wun instead of Jon smacked of “we need them both alive but have written ourselves into a corner.”
Now fans of Game of Thrones are looking down the barrel of two entire seasons of these kind of decisions. Co-executive producer Bryan Cogman told EW, “There are White Walkers and dragons and once they start to come together the story has to go where it goes,” as a way to explain the Benny Hill pacing, but if anything that should be an argument for taking things slow and steady. There are literally five warring factions at the beginning of this season, all fighting for different goals. Daenerys is fighting for her right to the Iron Throne. But even with dragons, she’ll need allies. The Martells and Tyrells are out for Lannister blood, but there’s an army of Dothraki and Unsullied between them and King’s Landing. The Greyjoys are involved into a brutal civil war about who will sit the Seastone Chair, Jon and Sansa are gearing up to unite the North to fight both the Lannisters and the Night King, and Cersei and Jaime are sitting in the middle of it all. Plus whatever Arya is doing with all the Freys she’s murdering and the machinations of the Citadel and the Faceless Men. That’s…a lot. It would be a lot for any season of Game of Thrones, but shoving it into seven episodes? You might as well cue up “Yakety Sax” behind the opening credits.
Whether or not HBO pulls off shoving 1500 pages of manuscript into seven episodes aside, fans of A Song of Ice and Fire can rest assured that whenever the next installment of Martin’s saga hits bookstores, there will be plenty of surprises in store. Martin may have told the show runners how his story will end, but he certainly didn’t tell them how he was going to get there.