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HBO’s Game of Thrones: Marketing, Fan Culture, and Closure to a Beloved Fantasy Series

From Philip K. Dick to Stephen King, the film and TV industry not only adapt the creative narratives of authors but also lean heavily on their devoted fan base to build wider anticipation and media buzz. Studios must strike a delicate balance with their marketing, careful to release trailers and teaser bits of information, framed in a way that reassures fans that the adaptation will live up to their book-based expectations.

But there is also an added dimension to this challenge.  As was the case with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, sometimes film adaptation starts before a book series is even finished.  This leaves fans not only anticipating the movie premiere, but also speculating as to when the author will deliver the next chapter in the storyline.

In his inaugural guest post, Age of Engagement’s culture correspondent Patrick Riley takes us inside the relationship between modern fan culture and entertainment marketing.  His focus is the forthcoming HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones fantasy series, an event that The Guardian has called “the most eagerly anticipated TV show ever.”

Riley, a recent MFA graduate of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, has worked as a journalist, a screenwriter, and a TV editor. This fall he is spending time overseas studying the burgeoning Vietnamese film industry, while keeping his eye on industry developments across the Pacific. He will be sharing his observations and field notes with AoE readers.–Matthew Nisbet

HBO may have a hit on its hands come Spring 2011 with the airing of a new fantasy series that’s being only somewhat jokingly dubbed “The Sopranos in Middle Earth.” Game of Thrones, currently shooting in Belfast, is based on an as-yet-unfinished set of epic novels by George R.R. Martin.

A rabid core of readers thrilled to a 22 second video teaser in June that included a few fleeting images of woodsy violence and actor Sean Bean’s sotto voce delivery of the books’ foreboding catch phrase “Winter is coming.” [See video below.]

Word-of-mouth is spreading and newcomers, myself included, have been reading in advance of watching. But for those who signed on early to the A Song of Ice and Fire series – the first book was released in 1996 and the most recent in 2005 – the underlying issue, the one that prompts them to warn potential fans, is whether the saga will ever come to a conclusion.

Martin has been working on the fifth installment (of a planned seven) for half a decade. He updates his “Not a Blog” with status reports of the some 1300 pages already in the can, but it’s slow-going. Video game aficionados liken it to the on-going wait for Duke Nukem Forever  while rock fans may think of Axl Rose’s 15-year gestation period for Chinese Democracy, an album doomed from the start to never live up to the hype and the stories of artist angst surrounding it.

Fans are worried that the gray-bearded Martin, 61, may not live to finish the suspenseful, richly-painted cycle about a medieval world torn asunder by political rivalry and more sinister forces. There’s precedent in the pulp fantasy community for such concern: Robert Jordan, author of The Wheel of Time series died of a heart ailment before he could finish it, though it’s since been picked up by another author.

Martin did not take kindly to a letter from a “lunatic” fan warning him not to “pull a Jordan,” noting that it implies his friend Jordan died to get out of finishing the series. Yet the Toronto Star article that interviewed Martin on the topic earlier this year was entitled “Do Yourself a Favour, Don’t Read This Book.”

All of which raises some interesting questions: Do authors owe their readership a finished story? Does our innate need for closure trump the author’s right to have a life? Do we need an ending – happy or sad – to a beginning and middle that draw us in so effectively? If, as Christopher Vogler writes in The Hero’s Journey, the “ancient tools of the storyteller’s craft still have tremendous power to heal our people and make the world a better place,” then maybe obsessive fanboi whininess is deep seated – and therefore merited.

Bestselling author Neil Gaiman (Sandman, Coraline) has a succinct response to that notion: “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.” That’s the pull-quote from an extended comment he posted last year defending the slow author to an impatient fan who complained that Martin was apparently doing things other than writing.

Nonetheless as buzz spreads for the HBO adaptation, the books are going from cult classic to mainstream, expanding to “people who don’t gleefully buy 600-page books from the nerd section of Waterstone’s,” as the Guardian put it in a fan-stoking piece last month which asked “Is A Game of Thrones the most eagerly anticipated TV show ever?”

John Hodgman of Daily Show and Mac commercial fame recently blogged that he’s discovered the “BRILLIANTLY ADDICTIVE BOOKS,” thanks to a tweet by Invention of Lying co-director Matt Robinson.

For my part I was loaned a tattered original paperback copy of the first book a few months ago by my friend Roland – and subsequently met two other people who exclaimed a love-exasperation relationship with the intriguing series. They stressed that it’s the second book that really hooks you. And the lack of books 5,6, and 7 that really leaves you hanging.

As a kid, after discovering Pet Semetery in the late ’80s, I typed up a list on my grandmother’s electric of all of Stephen King’s works to date. There were many; he seemed so prolific. Yet I recall lamenting that he may never write any more – or many more – books and that I may have missed out on the King phenomenon while it was going on. Of course, he didn’t stop (except for a brief time after being hit by a car). But what if he had? We all want to be in the zeitgeist, and we never want the ride to stop – at least until it’s finished.

–Patrick Riley


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