In the five years that HBO programming executives have been carefully considering a worthy successor to “Game of Thrones,” there was one idea that George R.R. Martin kept pushing: his rise-and-fall tale of the dragon-riding Targaryen family, set nearly 200 years before the events of “Game of Thrones.”
There was some reluctance within HBO’s ranks about creating a series that, like the original, was about a battle for the Iron Throne. A pair of writers assigned to work on the Targaryen concept came and went, but Martin would not give it up. Then, after HBO shot — and canceled — a separate “Thrones” prequel pilot, Martin’s persistence prevailed. “House of the Dragon” was ordered straight to series in late 2019. Martin is the creator of the show along with Ryan Condal.
“House of the Dragon,” the first “Thrones” spinoff series, premieres on Sunday night, and the stakes are high for HBO. A hit could prove the viability of the Thrones Cinematic Universe. A middling performance (or worse) will prompt broader questions about whether millions of viewers are craving more “Thrones” series.
In a conversation late last month, Martin, the man who over the past three decades meticulously constructed the “Thrones” universe in his various books, discussed why he felt strongly about this idea; his ambitions for future spinoffs; and how his work-in-progress books will diverge from the controversial ending of “Game of Thrones,” the TV series.
These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Two writers worked on the development of your Targaryen story and it didn’t go anywhere. What made you keep pushing for it?
I did not want to drop it. There was a lot of material already written on it, and it had everything that I thought we needed for a successful successor show. It had all of the intrigue around the Iron Throne. It had the great houses contending. It had dragons — a lot of dragons — and battles and betrayals.
“House of the Dragon” has thematic overlaps with “Game of Thrones” — family rivalry, the battle for the throne. In what ways is it different?
“Game of Thrones” and my book version of it, “A Song of Ice and Fire,” is, in some ways, a classic high fantasy in the mode of Tolkien and many, many writers who followed. Now, yes, it is true that in a sense, I’m deconstructing those tropes, those myths, the things that were hallmarks. But I’m also following them to some extent. “House of the Dragon” is more like historical fiction with some dragons thrown in. It’s like a Shakespearean tragedy.
It’s been just over three years since “Game of Thrones” ended in a way that disappointed many fans. What did you make of the ending?
One of the things in the later seasons of the show was, How many seasons was it going to be? And [the “Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss] for years were saying they wanted to wrap it up in seven seasons. Well, seven became eight because the eighth season is really the second half of the seventh season — it’s kind of one long season.
But I never felt that seven or eight seasons was enough. I campaigned for 10 seasons, and we could have gone to 12. There’s enough material — and there certainly will be enough material once I finish these last two books — to sustain 12 seasons.
But I lost that battle, and we went with eight. I think one of the big complaints about those last seasons is not only what happened — although there are complaints about that — but also that it happened too suddenly, and it was not set up. And if we had 10 seasons or 12 seasons, I think that would have worked better.
Considering the backlash, what’s your level of concern, for the new show, that people are either going to be too fatigued to return to the “Thrones” universe, or will relish in bringing the knives out, no matter what?
I do see comments online from people, and sometimes they email me directly. I’m also concerned about a similar thing with my book. As you know, “The Winds of Winter” is very, very late — the last book was 11 years ago, and people are very angry about that. But how many people?
“House of the Dragon” and any other spinoffs that are coming, and “The Winds of Winter” when it comes, are going to face some immediate backlash, and some resistance from people who don’t even want to give it a chance.
Let’s say “House of the Dragon” is a hit. What would be your ideal ambition here? An entire fleet of “Thrones” TV series?
Well, we are developing a number of other spinoffs. There’s the Jon Snow sequel show, and the rest are all prequels. There’s “Ten Thousand Ships” about Nymeria — that’s like a thousand years before and about how the Rhoynar came to Dorne. That’s an “Odyssey”-like epic. There’s the nine voyages of Corlys Velaryon, the Sea Snake. That would take us to places in the world that we’ve never seen.
We have some animated shows going, one of which was set in Yi Ti, which is basically the fantasy version of Imperial China or the Far East. We got a terrific script on that. Obviously, not all these shows we’re developing are going to make it to air, but I hope that several of them do.
Is there a model you admire? Something like Marvel?
I do like what Marvel is doing because I like the variety of the shows. Another model that I think was interesting was the old “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” That show generated a number of spinoffs: There was “Rhoda,” about her friend. Phyllis got her own show. And the one that really excited me was “Lou Grant.” They took this character from a sitcom and they made him the hero of a serious journalism show. That’s pretty amazing to take a character who is a comic foil and make him the center of a serious show. I’d like to see a range in our shows.
Before “House of the Dragon” was given a green light, HBO shot an entire pilot for a show that takes place 1,000 years before the events of “Game of Thrones.” It was eventually canceled. What went wrong with it?
Well, I have not seen the pilot. For whatever reason they won’t show it to me, so I don’t know. It was, in some ways, more challenging because on that one, they’re really, really going back into the past. The Long Night is mentioned in my books here and there, but it’s an ancient event that people tell stories about — it’s like the Garden of Eden or a biblical flood. I remember when we were first developing it, I said, “You’re going back so far — if you decided to do a ‘Sopranos’ prequel, then you would be talking about the Etruscans, the ancestors of Tony Soprano. You might be talking about cave men.”
Tell me about your level of involvement in “House of the Dragon” versus your level of involvement with “Game of Thrones,” the original series.
I am a lot more involved in “House of the Dragon” than I was in the later seasons of “Game of Thrones.” Now, mind you, I was very involved in the early seasons of “Game of Thrones.” Seasons 1 through 4, I mean, not only did I write a script, but especially like Seasons 1 or 2, I was giving a verdict on all the castings. I was reading the scripts. I was talking to Dan and David. I visited the set. But as the years went by, that involvement became less and less.
Will your upcoming books diverge from “Thrones,” the TV series?
A lot of this story comes to me as I write it. I always knew once the show got beyond my books — which honestly I did not anticipate — they would start going in directions that the books are not going to go in. Now, as I’m writing the books and I’m making more and more progress and it’s getting longer, ideas are coming to me and characters are taking me in directions that are even further from where the show went.
So I think what you’re going to find is, when “Winds of Winter” and then, hopefully, “Dream of Spring” come out, that my ending will be very different. And there will be some similarities, some big moments that I told David and Dan about many years ago, when they visited me in Santa Fe. But we only had like two, three days there, so I didn’t tell them everything. And even some of the things I told them are changing as I do the writing. So they will be different. And then it’ll be up to the readers and the viewers to decide which one they like better, and argue about it.
When will the books be done?
No comment. No comment. No comment. I get in trouble every time I do that. I mean, going back like 10 years, I said, “Oh, I should be done next year.” And then it’s not done next year. And then: “George lied to us.” I’m no good at predicting these things. And some of it depends on how many other interruptions there are and all that. I’m in a pretty good place now, so I’m optimistic. But I’m not going to make any predictions.