[Opinion] - How To Save The Game Of Thrones

Courtesy of HBO
As we prepare for the third season of Game of Thrones, my thoughts return to a worry from last year. A nibbling in the back of my mind with each episode, that the show was getting too big for it's own good. And that, like a star, eventually it will collapse in on itself and explode. I suggested a change of formats might serve it well, or structuring entire seasons differently, with more focused episodes, like last year's Blackwater, and having less of the principle cast in each episode. Yes, it might mean that your favourite characters only appears twice a year, but in the end, it'll serve the show as a whole better.

Except that isn't the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the show. It's too successful, and continues to be. If it had been a mid range hit, it might have survived for a couple years before being cancelled to minor displeasure. But the show is huge. It makes money, but it costs money too. And, as HBO has proven in the past, it is not above simply axing a show without warning if it gets too expensive. And because of the writers thus far near strict adaptation method of the novels, I feel my following equation (and rounding down) can be used to assume the length of the complete series:
One season each for books one and two, already done. Established two seasons for A Storm of Swords. Assuming the plots of Feast For Crows and Dance of Dragons will be reintegrated, those will take at least three seasons to cover (possibly two, if elements are moved forward, and merged with second half of Storm of Swords). Assuming the length of the Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring are comparable in length to those last two books, each of those would require two seasons at a minimum. That adds up to eleven season in the least.
The producers have estimated the story to take 80 hours (eight seasons), but this feels like a low-ball estimate. However, much longer then that simply is not feasible. Not for actors, not for writers or producers, and not for HBO's bottom line. Because the show cannot expect to maintain the same level of success (financial, critical and creative) it has experienced over the past two years for a further nine; that is simply a law of thermodynamics. Which means, the longer it runs, the better the chances of the network putting the money into something new, like Neil Gaiman's announced American Gods series, and abandoning Westeros like a fleeing Targaryen. And that doesn't even take into account that all of the novels haven't been written yet, and that at the current rate, the show will pass George R.R. Martin's ability to publish. And while he would be able to tell the producers where he was intending on going, would any fan of the books watch the TV series finish before the novel was published?

So, what can be done? Can they make moves now, to save Game of Thrones from itself? Well, I foresee four options, which I will detail after the jump (contains spoilers for all five books).

1) Finish the show at the conclusion of season four, concluding Storm of Swords.

Honestly, this is my preference. Storm was, back in the day, intended to be the original conclusion to the Song of Ice and Fire Trilogy, and you can still see many of the intended conclusions to character arcs in the book as it exists. You can also tell (cough...Arya...cough) where Martin was forced to extend the character arc past where he had originally planned. The writers have enough time to start finessing the characters into positions where they could end the series after four years, leaving viewers happy, the quality of the show wouldn't take a hit, and it would be said they ended on a high note, and with a great display of brevity. And really, as much as I love the novels, Storm of Swords was the last that really, really impressed me. In a way that wasn't entirely based on whether I might be able to kill a turtle with the book itself.

2) Deviate heavily from the books.

Failing the above, I feel the series has to move further away from the source material. The books are fantastic, but the major weakness of last season was that by adapting as much of the second book as possible, the episodes were becoming quite bloated, the storylines decompressed and the series was starting to lumber. The show needs to craft its own path, and create an identity for itself. Continue to the use the books as a guiding force, but allow the characters on screen to become their own people divorced from the written word. As this oral history of the second season makes clear, the producers have already had their own thoughts on the direction of certain characters and events, and they need to embrace that, and rely less on what George might have planned. Move away from Martin, and you'll also give yourself the opportunity to surprise the viewers that have read the books and think they know what is coming.

3) Take an extended break after season four.

All of these options are really the choices between art and business. The first option is the artistic option, ending the show where it best serves the characters, and the audience. The rest of the options are what best serves the network: keeping the show going, for as long as possible, to generate revenues, to the possible (and likely) detriment of the series. In this case, a chief concern should be the idea of the series lapping the novels. Martin giving a sense of direction of where things are headed is no replacement for having the published source material, if the series must stick with it. So, can the series take steps to give Martin a bit of time? How about, in the interests of time and money, a short reprieve? A couple years off? There is already a year off between seasons, why not extended that? Martin's (second) original intention was for there to be an in-universe gap between the third and fourth books. A break would give the cast some time to age into their characters, and make it seem like time is still a factor in the goings on on the Seven Kingdoms.

But I know what you're thinking: taking the show off entirely will alienate viewers. Some won't come back after it disappears. OK then. So, if the show must adapt the novels as closely as possible, and if the show must adapt all the novels, and is expected to last nearer to twenty years then not, and if the show must take some time to allow Martin to publish the final novel before the series has to adapt it then why not:

4) Air a prequel series for a couple years after season four.

Ready, because this might be the only time you'll hear Game of Thrones compared to Spartacus. But when Spartacus needed to give the lead actor time to receive cancer treatment, instead of shutting down production, they made the second season a prequel, and it was by all accounts successful. Using the same sets and the same actors (minus Spartacus), they filled in some character motivation gaps, and set up new motivations that would come into play when the series proper began again. So why not adapt the same model to GoT? The supposed end of season four, the conclusion of Storm of Swords, leaves the characters in mostly concluded places. What comes after is in many ways a separate sort of thing. New story lines, new characters and adversaries, and much more focus on the far past, a past the show hasn't shown because of the lack of flashbacks. And it's only a matter of time before the writer's wear out their "tell, don't show" card.

So why not, for two seasons, air a sort-of spin off, called Game of Thrones: Rebellion. Set twenty years in the past, it follows a young Ned and Robert as they rise up against the Mad King. It'll give the series a chance to make explicit certain events that play quite heavily into Feast and Dance, and will presumably play greater roles in the future. And events that the series has described, some in not great detail, will have the opportunity to show what really happened during those days, as opposed to the personal interpretations we've been privy to thus far. And it'll provide further development and background for characters like Jamie and Robert (who I've always interpreted as being more obsessed with Lyanna then having an actual relationship, as did Ned).

They'd be able to use the same sets and costumes, and not have to worry about filming in Iceland for a few years. New actors on limited term contracts would be hired, many of which would be playing younger versions of characters we already know, but many, many more would be playing characters long dead. The regular actors would get a couple years off to go and use their new found fame to film movies and series for the BBC. And the show never really goes off air, so nobody loses.

The Major Players

Robert Baratheon - Joe Dempsie

I have no compunction over suggesting an existing cast member playing a completely different character, for the following reason: Gendry's resemblance to a young Robert is well noted, in both the books and the show. And Robert's first season physical condition is well established as being nothing like he was in his hammer throwing days. Maybe a bit of make up on the face to change his appearance just a touch, but what better way to solidify the connection between the two series then having the son's actor play the young father?

Ned Stark - Richard Armitage

Armitage got a lot of press recently for his role in The Hobbit, but the Shakespearean trained actor is no sudden discovery. On the BBC he appeared in Robin Hood and Spooks, and was the Nazi Cap ran down and eventually drowned in Captain America. He looks like a younger Sean Bean, sounds like him too, and has demonstrated his ability to be emotionally stoic, emotionally compromised, and be able to kill things with long swords. That's good enough for me.

Lyanna Stark - Katie McGrath

I'm one of those fans who believes (as do most, I think) that Lyanna was the Knight of the Laughing Tree, and that her relationship with Rhaegar was on-going, consensual and that her "kidnapping" was really just a Romeo and Juliet "lets run off and be happy" sort of thing. Probably to no surprise, I also believe that she is Jon's mother. But all that aside, McGrath was easily the best thing about Merlin since before she turned to the dark side. She is capable of playing the royal, but just as able to play the bad ass. And considering that every other character in the series was up-aged, I feel McGrath fits in nicely with the rest (her casting in NBC's Dracula series shouldn't be a worry, I don't expect that will last that long. It is NBC after all).

Rhaegar Targaryen - Benedict Cumberbatch Tom Hiddleston

Considering that Cumberbatch is currently signed on to appear in every damned thing between now and the end of the decade, this is probably the least likely of any of my selections. Described in the books as having "iron tones" in his voice, and needing to be a commanding presence on screen, Cumberbatch is one of the few men capable of inhabiting the part of Rhaegar with no effort at all.

I did say one of the few. Hiddleston would bring a ferocious vulnerability to the role, and I think would make Rhaegar a much more romantic character, less the warrior and more the poet (as the books often mention, his singing was enchanting). In fact, the more I think of it, the more I feel Hiddleston is the better choice. And he has a passing resemblance to the actors who have already played the Targaryen siblings, especially Harry Lloyd's Viserys.

Rickard Stark - Kevin McNally

A smaller role, that of Ned father who comes to perhaps the worst end of any character in any of the books. McNally, a character actor of sorts, is a safe and enchanting choice. Rickard should be a man of dignity and honour, somewhat representing the nostalgic nobility of the older generation, and McNally, in his non-Pirate related roles, tends towards those sorts of authority figures. Should be of the sort that could stand beside Jon Arryn as a peer.

Jon Arryn - Hugh Bonneville

His single scene in the pilot had him played by Sir John Standing, but Arryn's role in any prequel series would be substantial, and similar in size and effect to the role of Tywin in the series proper. As guardian of Ned and Robert, and the source of the original loyal force in the rebellion, as well as acting somewhat as the Obi-Wan of Westeros, the role would require a fatherliness, both in warmth and harshness. Bonneville is huge right now thanks to Downton Abbey, but his selection of roles shows someone of great range and talent, comedic and dramatic.

"The Mad King" Aerys Targaryen - John Noble or Bill Nighy

The picture is from Lord of the Rings, where Noble played the weakening Denethor. And while Lord of the Rings isn't a bad thing to have on the resume (ask Sean Bean), I'm thinking more of Walter Bishop, the half-mad scientist Noble played for five years on Fringe. Bishop has been the best thing about that show since he appeared, and Noble was given every opportunity to prove his skill. I specifically think of Secretary Bishop, the cold calculating alternate universe version of the character, whose methods are unseemly and villainous, but justifiable. I've always viewed Aerys as becoming gradually mad over the course of the war, and Noble's ability to slide from control to madness seamlessly makes him well suited for the role.

But, where Ned Stark was the antithesis of Boromir for Sean Bean, Aerys and Denethor might be too close for comfort. Perhaps then Bill Nighy as the Mad King. Save for Davy Jones in the Pirates series, Nighy rarely gets to play villains, which is a shame because it does it so damned well. Since the series began, I`ve easily pictured Nighy fitting into the world, originally as Balon Greyjoy, but possibly as Doran Martell. But I think he might shine brightest as the elder, and former, Targaryen.

Jamie Lannister - Bradley James

He looks younger then he is, which would serve him well in playing the younger, not-yet-the-Kingslayer version of Jamie. Merlin was a great series, one that got better the long it went, as the writers starting crafting more mature stories, and the actors maturing into their characters, none more so then James. Handing him the role of the loyal, and increasingly conflicted, White Cloak would give him the chance to display what he worked his way up to in five years over on the BBC.

Cersei Lannister - Emma Watson

When discussing this list with someone else, they suggested Watson as the younger Cat, a role that presumably would have very limited screen time. And to be fair, so would Cersei, if she were included at all. I'm fairly certain they only suggested Watson (who I never would have thought of) because apparently Michelle Fairly played her mother in one of the Potter films. I think she'd work better as the young and awe-struck-at-Robert Cersei, certainly it would see her play against type (and camera trickery could raise her height to match James above).

And The Rest...

I see no real reason that certain actors, like Charles Dance, Conleth Hill, Julian Glover or Rory McCann, wouldn't be able to play the same roles they've been playing, perhaps with a touch of special effects makeup to make them look a little younger. And certain characters, like Jon Connington, could be cast in this series setting up their later appearance in the series proper.

The Structure of the Show

The Rebellion lasted just under two years, so two seasons would well suit the plot. In terms of structure, I would envision the "kidnapping" of Lyanna to happen around episode three or four, with the focus in the first few episodes being the Tourney at Harrenhal. The tourney is the one place, much like Winterfell in the pilot, where everyone is together. It's the perfect location and setting to introduce the characters, the relationships, the motivations and the themes. The rebellion would kick off properly about mid way through the first year, with the Burning of Rickard Stark. The rest of year one would be about building up the forces, covering events like Ned and Cat's wedding, as well as what would presumably be an ongoing debate between Rhaegar and Lyanna about the cost of their love. The first season would end with The Battle of the Bells (one of only two full on battles they'd have to show), being the first major and decisive win for Robert, which the books make clear was the victory that made the Mad King realise Robert was an actual threat.

In the second year, the Trident (the second battle needed) would occur at about the midway point, which would allow the second half to focus on the culmination of the rebellion, as well as the King's decent into madness, with the Wildfire Plot. The Sack of King's Landing and the Kingslayer would happen in episode seven or eight, which would give enough time for the falling out between Robert and Ned, the relief of Stannis at Storm's End, and conclude the season at the Tower of Joy. It's in these episodes that they'd be able to sow the most storylines that will come to a head when the proper series adapts Feast and Dance, most obviously Varys' involvement in certain schemes (unmentioned for spoilers sake). They'd be able to include the grief and despondency of Robert, and possibly his wedding to Cersei, leaving the series with the promise of peace and resolution, with a sour note to be picked up in twenty years time in Winter Is Coming.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


  1. Anonymous12 June 2015 at 15:37

    Seven hells, Tom Hiddleston would be _perfect_ as Rhaegar Targaryan.

    1. by MR. Clark12 June 2015 at 16:22

      Wouldn't he just?


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