With its popularity at an all-time high, it may seem strange that we're talking about the end of HBO's Game of Thrones. However, for those who (somehow) don't know, the show is based on a series of novels by author George R.R. Martin and that series does have a predetermined end. This, of course, means that the Game of Thrones TV show has predetermined end - and now we know that it will be season 7.
But with the books and the show not exactly following the same narrative path, how will Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" saga be split up across seven seasons of TV?
Game of Thrones producer Frank Doelger told Radio Times the following about current plans for the show:
[The number of seasons] is being discussed as we speak. The third season was the first half of book three, season four will be the second part of book three. George R.R. Martin has written books four and five; six and seven are pending... I would hope that, if we all survive, and if the audience stays with us we'll probably get through to seven seasons.
As stated by Doelger, Martin's book series has five of its seven volumes completed, which might make the average person think that the show and books are matched up perfectly - seven seasons of show, one for each volume of the book. Seasons 1 & 2 of Game of Thrones did in fact follow that pacing, but season 3 (currently on air at the time of writing this) will only cover the first half of Martin's third book, A Storm of Swords. That third book is indeed a dense work with many big plot developments (stay tuned to your TVs, folks), and the final half of the novel has such momentum that it will easily sustain season 4 of the HBO series.
However... fans of the books have long been aware of the "Book 4 conundrum," and why the TV series stands to gain a significant advantage over the novels. In short (and without spoilers): books 4 & 5 of "A Song of Ice and Fire" are actually one story split across two volumes; the catch is that book 4 abandons nearly all of the (surviving) characters you know and love, in favor of introducing a wide array of new characters and/or exploring the perspectives of characters whose heads we've never been in before. Book 5 then returns us to the perspectives of our beloved primary characters, to fill in what they've been up to during the events of book 4. It is a big transition, to say the least.
Martin's disconcerting approach to book 4 has courted a lot of criticism (and cost him a fair amount of readers). However, HBO doesn't have the same problems Martin did in terms of arranging the narrative. With the parallels between books 4 & 5 clearly laid out before them, the showrunners could easily streamline both books into one season, thereby course-correcting themselves after stretching book 3 into two seasons. HBO viewers will almost certainly walk away happier than Martin's readers did, considering the six-year wait between the disappointment of book 4 and the (semi-)redemption brought by book 5.
Of course, there are still a lot of variables that could disrupt the plan Doelger laid out. For one thing, streamlining books 4&5 into season 5 of the TV show would almost certainly require HBO to up the current 10-episode-per-season count to something more like the 13 episodes other cable shows get. This would allow them to cover all of books 4 & 5 in one season, without sacrificing depth or development.
HBO could also produce 16 episodes per season with a long break in the middle - something AMC shows like Walking Dead and Breaking Bad have done. This generates more revenue for a show, since the studio can release two DVD/Blu-ray volumes per season - a tactic previously employed by shows like Battlestar Galactica. This would not only allow books 4 & 5 to be streamlined effectively, it would also allow the showrunners to distribute the sure-to-be-dense sixth and seventh volumes of Martin's saga across single seasons of the show, while still doing the story justice.
Finally, if those other options aren't viable, with HBO already considering Game of Thrones prequel and/or spinoff shows, there's an opportunity to detour things in order to stall for time (not recommended).
The "midseason break" approach might be the best, since it also allots Martin more time to write. The author is notoriously slow paced (the first book was released in 1996!), and the worst things that could happen would either be A) Fans of the show having to wait extra YEARS between seasons so Martin could finish his next book(s). B) Martin rushing to finish and the story suffering (even more than it has). C) Martin writes and airs the TV show FIRST, and fans of the books have to know the plot line before getting to fully immersive themselves in the world they've invested in for so long.
So again, while seven seasons sounds like a nice goal, don't be too surprised if the blue print for the show changes somehow, someway, somewhere down the line.
While we're thinking about the road ahead: would you trust the showrunners to end the saga on their own and completely divulge from Martin's books (if they're not written yet)? Or is the show at the mercy of its true creator (Martin)?
Game of Thrones season 3 returns to the airwaves on Sunday June 2, 2013 @ 9pm on HBO.