With 5 weeks and counting until Con of Thrones, we look back at how the biggest TV show in the world could have very well been a film series.
As always, beware of spoilers!
There was a point in time when Game of Thrones only existed as a book series or going back even further, a thought in George R.R. Martin’s head. Fast forward to today, it’s the most popular show on television, but television wasn’t always Hollywood’s desired medium for the series.
So often when a novel or a series of books is a hit, many immediately wonder when it will become a film. As our own Emily Kubincanek points out, however, for books, sometimes TV makes much more sense structurally because it allows more room for storytelling and character development.
While films often work with a particular moment or event in a character’s life that helps them come to a revelation about themselves which changes them forever, TV spreads multiple stories over a span of episodes that either work toward one big narrative or season-long narratives. TV also allows you to live with multiple characters day in and day out. With each episode, these characters may learn something significant about themselves or they may not, but for the most part, their real changes come with time. Whether the show is serialized or episodic, each episode could be working as a single unit that throws a few problems the characters’ way and leaves them right where they started, or as part of a larger picture that furthers the story. So, for a series of novels especially, TV can provide some more breathing room and chance to truly expand on multiple characters and their story visually.
When “A Song of Ice and Fire” started hitting the bestseller lists, many approached Martin with the idea of turning it into a feature film, or more realistically, a film series along the lines of The Lord of the Rings movies. With a series as large as Martin’s is though, he very aptly recognized it could never work or reach its full potential as a film or even as multiple films. For years, he himself was convinced it was unfilmable, as he told TIME in 2017, considering he made it into a series of books so that he could make it as complex and as epic as he wished without the constraints of movie or TV demands. At the same time, however, knew that out of the two, TV, and more specifically premium TV, would be the only possible option if it could even be translated to a visual medium at all. In his interview with TIME, he explained:
“I had a number of meetings long before David and Dan, with people who said this is the next Lord of the Rings franchise. But they couldn’t get a handle on the size of the material, the very thing that I set out to do. I had all these meetings saying, “There’s too many characters, it’s too big — Jon Snow is the central character. We’ll eliminate all the other characters and we’ll make it about Jon Snow.” Or “Daenerys is the central character. We’ll eliminate everyone else and make the movie about Daenerys.” And I turned down all those deals.
That got me thinking about it, and I said, “I still don’t know if it can be filmed. It’s too big to be filmed. But if it can be filmed, it can’t be a feature film.” It’s too big, and if you wanted to do it as a feature film, you’d have to do it in ten feature films. It was all, “Oh, we’ll make one film, and if it’s a big hit, we’ll make more.” Well, that doesn’t always work out, as you found out if you know about Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials [a book trilogy adapted into a 2007 film, The Golden Compass, that has never had a sequel]. If the first one doesn’t work out, you never get the rest of the story. Television can do more. But it can’t be done on network television, because there’s too much sex, there’s too much violence, it’s too complex. These characters were not likable enough. You can’t put incest on [a network].
I decided the only way to do this would be for HBO, or a similar network — Showtime, Starz, or premium cable — as a series, each book as an entire season. That’s the way to approach it.”
While the decision to hold out until HBO came along was extremely smart and strategic, let’s pretend for a moment that he hadn’t made a decision to wait. What if he had signed away the rights for a movie deal? How much different would that really have been?
First of all, there’s a really good chance it wouldn’t have been the phenomenon that it is today. Game of Thrones already was a risky move as a dark, fantasy television show. And while it could have very well have been like the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter films, breaking up the movies by book installments and expanding its fandom, there’s a good chance it may not have been. After all, in Martin’s quote written above, he foresaw a problem being that the first film would flop terribly, and then the chance for any more to follow would diminish completely. A recent-ish example of that would be the “Percy Jackson” series, which only made it to its second film.
Plus, so much of the fun and fandom of Game of Thrones has been fostered through TV culture over years that couldn’t come in the same way from a movie. It wasn’t an overnight success, and rather with it being on TV, others over time have been able to hear about it through word of mouth or advertisements and award shows, and the opportunity to catch up and tune in on Sunday night for the next season and be a part of the watercooler discussion the next day was there. Although its longevity did to an extent rely on those first season numbers, and signs of potential growth as the seasons go on, it’s not so dependent upon the immediacy of those initial box office numbers if it were to have been a movie. Overall, the fanbase had time to grow with the show.
But aside from all of that, how would the story even look? There are so many possible different ways, but let’s just break down how the first film may have potentially turned out.
Considering it would practically be impossible to condense everything into one feature, it would have to be a series of films, probably broken up into a film per book as Martin was originally proposed. Going with that format, essentially all that is in the first season would be the first movie. Narratively, it actually would fit quite well from where it begins to where it ends with Daenerys giving birth to her dragons. That said, like many of the offers Martin received claiming that a feature would need to eliminate most of the characters aside from Jon or Dany, Ned would most likely have to play a much smaller role. While TV can pull off the kind of twists and turns that Game of Thrones cultivates, movies have to execute such things in a much different manner and there is way less time to build relationships with characters, much less, characters who will die by the end of the film. Almost all of the focus would have to be placed on a single character who’s leading the story.
Which leads to the main protagonist of the story: Jon or Daenerys?
While typically a film has one leading protagonist, in this case, two could probably work, with a little more emphasis on one. Knowing Hollywood, it would be clear from the very beginning that Jon and Daenerys would have some type of epic romantic pairing eventually. Khal Drogo as a love interest would probably, with a movie having a much shorter span of time, be either likable from the getgo, or never likable at all. Ygritte might also be brought in early in this case so that her and Jon’s story very clearly parallels Dany and Drogo’s. It could also be possible that neither of these love interests would exist in the same way at all.
And while Game of Thrones the movie would no doubt be rated ‘R’, the sex and nudity would probably have to be toned down to an extent. The question is, could they keep the incest? Before Game of Thrones was a TV hit which integrated Lannister and Targaryen relationships into our pop culture stream, incest was definitely not a mainstream choice of romantic partnerships and I’m not quite sure a film could go there without following a popular form of media first. And even with a hit TV show preceding it, I’m still not sure if it could actually go there.
So, assuming it chose to opt out of the incest storylines, Jaime would probably be the handsome but conflicted and cocky knight who we would find out at the end of the film, was having an affair with the evil queen. It would be at the end of the film rather than the beginning as it is in the show because a movie would probably save that sort of reveal for its climax. While the hook in the show is seeing Jaime and Cersei push Bran out of the window, in the film, one possible remedy to that is to see him fall out of the window which could then act as an inciting incident that sets things in motion, but we wouldn’t see who pushed him. Then near the end, we’d place together that Cersei’s actually been awful this whole time, working against everyone including her own husband.
Then again, with Jon and Daenerys being the main protagonists, there probably would be less emphasis on all of that portion of the story anyway. But, Cersei would most definitely have to be almost a complete villain, standing as the main antagonist of the story. Considering Jon and Dany’s stories take many books to build up, they would have to probably progress much sooner if they’re being kept as protagonists and Cersei’s disruptions would have to be more closely aligned with their goals. So, Bran getting pushed out of the window may not even be that big of an event in a feature film as it is in the books and the show.
With the first film being a risk, however, they would have to come to some sort of temporary conclusion by the end. One that could last should another movie never get made, but one that would hold without giving too much of an ending to prepare for a sequel. Thinking about it like this, that means the reveal of Jon Snow’s mother would probably have to come way sooner, probably in the first film, or at least very obviously hinted at near the end of the first film. And aside from Cersei, White Walkers would also have to pose much more of a threat much sooner if they’re to remain a part of the story rather than serving as a looming threat over the span of seven years. They might be saved for the end of the first film too.
So, let’s say the first film was a hit and spawned another movie. This is where things would get even more tricky and probably begin to diverge from the books even more. The second film would no doubt have to pull in some material from “A Storm of Swords” as “A Clash of Kings” is not exactly the most narratively cinematic on its own. And if all other character stories other than Jon and Dany’s are mostly eliminated, there may not be big events like Red Wedding at all. The dragons would also have to probably be completely grown by the second film.
Overall, it’s very clear that even just trying to perceive how Game of Thrones could be a film is a very complicated process that would produce a much different product than the books or the show. While hypothetically it may have been enjoyable and fun in its own right, there’s a very strong chance it wouldn’t have made its mark on pop culture in quite the same way and it definitely wouldn’t be the same story. With Game of Thrones being so character heavy and reliant on so many different connections and storylines evolving overtime, between TV and film, it could only truly be on TV. That said, let’s just be thankful that Martin knew his series so well he steered clear of any sort of movie deals.
Related Topics: Game of Thrones