Earlier this year, HBO announced a new lineup of Game of Thrones spinoffs. They’ll be the latest representatives of what has become a massive media franchise—the hit television show has spawned everything from Funko Pop dolls, video games, and graphic novels, to exclusive wines, tours, and apparel. But it was the original A Song of Ice and Fire books that started it all, long before HBO turned a global audience to its world of warring families, dragons, and blindsiding character deaths.
The history of Game of Thrones begins with the New Jersey-born George R.R. Martin. A longtime Marvel fanboy, a 21-year-old Martin first tried his hand at genre fiction in the early 1970s. He juggled these creative projects with other responsibilities, like directing weekend chess tournaments (Martin is a great player) and teaching college writing courses. But after successfully selling short stories to sci-fi magazines—and finding a burst of life-changing motivation later in the decade—he made a career out of writing books and television screenplays.
But before he began work on A Game of Thrones—the first novel in what would become the series we all know and love—Martin was frustrated. In a genre defined by magic and unlimited imagination, he encountered limits everywhere: His television scripts and pilots were rejected because his vision was prohibitively expensive to film. A publishing contract also slapped him with one-year deadlines for his projects—a timeline that Martin found constraining.
So Martin pushed back. He doubled his deadline to two years per book, and then set out to write everything the television executives deemed unfilmable. He drew inspiration from a diverse pool of sources, from the long-ago War of the Roses to his own experience with the cold winters of Dubuque, Iowa (where he lived for a time in the 1970s). He imbued his fantasy setting with a gritty, medieval realism—far different from the high fantasy popularized by J.R.R. Tolkien—which gave the genre a much-needed update and broadened its appeal. The result was A Game of Thrones.
Published in 1996, A Game of Thrones received Nebula and World Fantasy Award nominations, and it won the 1997 Locus Award. True to his two-year schedule, Martin made a splash with the follow-ups A Clash of Kings (1998) and A Storm of Swords (2000). His pace slowed with A Feast for Crows (2005)—the first of a two-part narrative completed in A Dance with Dragons (2011)—but fans didn’t mind the wait (not yet, at least). Though the A Song of Ice and Fire novels hadn’t achieved the grand-scale fame they'd find in the following decade, the series was revered within the fantasy community.
This is not to say that Hollywood wasn’t interested in an adaptation. Computerized special effects had made it possible to bring stories like The Lord of the Rings to the big screen (Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring hit theaters in 2001). But when Hollywood courted Martin in the mid-2000s, the author still thought the scope of his novels made them incompatible with film.
Meanwhile, something incredible was happening elsewhere: Television was changing. Martin himself had abandoned the medium by this point, believing it was also too underfunded and insufficiently ambitious for his work. But HBO stood at the front of an exciting transformation, having ushered in TV’s so-called “Golden Age” with The Sopranos. Television shows—especially those made by premium channels—were suddenly telling bigger, more important stories. And the budgets were growing, too. It seemed Martin’s doubts about a small screen adaptation could be proven wrong.
HBO's David Benioff and D. B. Weiss did exactly that. If Martin partnered with them, he wouldn't face the limitations of feature films and network television channels: An HBO series could not only accommodate tens of hours of content, but it could also portray Martin’s R-rated world accurately. And with HBO’s financial muscle and appetite for spending in the post-Sopranos era, the show could be as ambitious as anything Hollywood could offer—perhaps even as ambitious as the books themselves.
Martin was sold. He signed on, and the show began development in 2007. In typical Thrones-ian fashion, it took a full four years to reach the screen (a writer's strike and re-shoots didn't help)—but when it got there, it was big. HBO had placed a lot of faith in Martin’s fantasy epic, spending millions on the pilot and allocating a budget that the show needed to succeed. Their decisions were rewarded, as critics and word-of-mouth reviews consistently boosted viewership season over season. An average of slightly more than 2.5 million people watched episodes live in season one; by season seven, that number was over ten million. And with the premiere of the final season in 2019, one can only assume Game of Thrones will break its own record.
Since its 2011 premiere, the show (and, by proxy, Martin) has gained a reputation for its cast of compelling characters—who have inspired Harry Potter-like allegiances in viewers—and brutal twists. The Red Wedding is arguably a landmark moment in television history, while speculating about the series' conclusion (and who will still be around) is like discussing the Super Bowl.
As of this writing, five separate screenwriters are working with George R.R. Martin on five shows set in the A Song of Ice and Fire universe. Martin is still at work on The Winds of Winter, the long-awaited sixth book, but no official publication date is in sight (his two-year schedule is now ancient history). The world he has created on the page, and inspired on the screen, is the ultimate example of ambitious, addictive fantasy: Game of Thrones is now bigger than any of its individual parts—including, perhaps, its creator.
Featured photo of George R.R. Martin courtesy of Alchetron