Winter is Still Coming: Anxiety and Awareness as HBO takes Game of Thrones to Series

Winter is Still Coming: Anxiety and Awareness

March 2nd, 2010

The motto of the Stark family is that “Winter is Coming,” which in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire is inevitable but unknown: seasons can last for years, even generations, but eventually they will turn, and a winter that lasts that long can be absolutely devastating. Accordingly, the Starks live by a motto that places them in a state of constant anxiety, aware that the flowers may bloom right now but there is still the potential for darkness around the corner. It is prudent, perhaps, but also limiting in how it places fear and concern over the ability to enjoy one’s situation.

Was there ever any doubt that HBO would take Game of Thrones, the adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series, to series? Not really. Sure, there was always the chance that the pilot wouldn’t turn out well, but with an established director (Tom McCarthy) at the helm, and with an ever-expanding cast with considerable name recognition, the chances of HBO not ordering a season of the show were pretty slim.

So, one would think, fans of the series can now breathe a sigh of relief: the series’ rich fantasy tapestry will be committed to film, and their favourite characters will come to life, so the anxiety is over. However, for fans of A Song of Ice and Fire, the anxiety has become a way of life not dissimilar from the wariness of the Stark family motto: it’s been almost five years since the last entry in the series, and it’s come to the point where some fans fear that Martin might die before he finishes his epic story. Some readers, like the Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan, have actually put off reading the latest book until the next one has a clear release date, afraid of creating a state of heightened anxiety knowing that the next installment could still be years away. And so the anxiety surrounding the pickup, even when everyone was predicting that the show would make it to series, was normal for the fans who could potentially make the series a smash success.

However, as Jeremy Mongeau pointed out on Twitter, I wonder if that anxiety will make this series even more problematic for fans in life than it would have in death; the show will be full of potential for new viewers who have no idea where this story is headed, but fans may be tripped up by some of their foreknowledge. Just to be clear, I’m not characterizing ASoIaF fans as those who will complain about small changes (although I’m sure there will inevitably be some of that), but rather that they know where this story is going, and they know an important fact about the first book in the series (A Game of Thrones) which will heighten their anxiety surrounding the show’s long-term potential at the network who has given it a chance.

The pickup is a sign that Winter has been delayed for at least a season, but one can’t help but realize that Winter is still coming, and the anxiety surrounding that could well dominate fan behaviour.

I am very glad that Game of Thrones is going to series, and am dying to see how the creative team has imagined Martin’s world. When reading the books, as I wrote about in the fall, I could see a great deal of narrative potential in these stories, so the idea of this being turned into a television series is absolutely ideal in many ways.

But while picking up Game of Thrones makes perfect sense for HBO, the pickup comes with what I’d consider to be a termination clause. You see, fans of the series are really excited about the first season of this show, but they also know that the first season could very easily be its last: yes, there would be cliffhangers, and certainly there is some fantastic material in the three books that follow (especially A Storm of Swords, in my own opinion), but the conclusion of the first season is almost too clear an endpoint. I’m not going to go into distinct spoilers, but one of the key factors which made picking up a season of the show a no-brainer for HBO will at some point transform into one of the key reasons why letting the show go after a single season will be too easy.

I don’t want to sound pessimistic here, as I think the show has a real chance at success: however, when you consider variables ranging from the financial ramifications of the huge expansion of scale that takes place after the first book, and the presence of numerous young actors who will age more rapidly than the stories being told, the barriers to long-term success become yet another point of anxiety for fans. There isn’t going to be a point where fans can rest easy, as all of the hope which may be built up from this order will turn into anxiety about a second season order (which could either be made during filming if they like what they see and want to nail down their actors, or after the show has started airing in Spring 2011). And if HBO decides to cut the show loose, they can say that they did their due diligence, and fans will have to be satisfied that they got to see a single book in the series brought to life with no chance of seeing the moments which came after it.

And so, fitting for the series, the anxiety will only grow worse with time: between now and the Spring, the anxiety will surround what will be done to the series in terms of its adaptation, and then when the show starts airing the anxiety will shift to its ratings. If it’s renewed, the anxiety shifts to casting new characters and ensuring the budget can handle the scale of the story that follows, while if it’s cancelled the anxiety shifts to grief over what could have been. This isn’t like The Lord of the Rings, where fans knew that the three movies had been filmed back-to-back, nor is it like Harry Potter where the sheer cultural juggernaut of it all made its long-term success a guarantee. Rather, this is a cult fantasy series that’s absolutely perfect for television as a medium but which faces distinct challenges for television as a business, and that’s the sort of situation which breeds anxiety of the highest power.

Personally, I’ll be happy to see this world brought to life for even a brief period of time, and will do everything in my power to convince anyone who will listen to give the show a chance at success. But while I breathed a sigh of relief for a moment when the new came down about the show’s pickup, I went back to immediately holding my breath when I saw the uphill battle the show still faces.

Ah well: at least fans are used to it.

Cultural Observations

  • Fans can at least keep busy trying to figure out how the first book will fit into ten episodes – the relatively short order (it could have gone as high as 13) makes sense considering the uncertainty about the show’s future, and will hopefully leave them some room to investigate some of the smaller pleasures of Martin’s universe as opposed to going too plot-heavy.
  • Dustin Hoffman is going to win the Best Actor in a Drama Series Emmy for his new role in HBO’s “Luck” pilot from David Milch, based on the Emmys’ addiction to “stars” alone, but I’m rooting for Peter Dinklage to be the shoe-in for Supporting Actor. Make it happen, Academy.
  • For fans of the series who are growing impatience, I’m going to suggest watching SyFy’s Caprica: no, the shows are not identical, but what Caprica is doing with science fiction is somewhat similar to what Martin does with fantasy, and I think the shows will make quite a pair should Caprica end up with a second season order next year.

1 Comment

Filed under Game of Thrones

One response to “Winter is Still Coming: Anxiety and Awareness as HBO takes Game of Thrones to Series

  1. I’m to the point in my GRRM fandom where I just don’t think about it anymore. When it happens, it happens, and it’s no use stressing out about it. I’m going to go into the series thinking the same thing, just enjoy what we get.

    Another good thing about the TV series, besides the wicked cool potential, is that will not have to re-read those massive books in the eventuality that Dance With Dragons comes out relatively soon.

    (Although, there has been movement on that front lately. Not much, but it’s still movement.)

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