In January 2006, shortly after the publication of A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin was invited to a meeting with scriptwriters David Benioff and Dan Weiss in Los Angeles.

Game of Thrones logo

The title card from the HBO TV series Game of Thrones.

Benioff was an acclaimed novelist and screen writer. Whilst working as a schoolteacher he had written and published The 25th Hour (2001), a novel which gained immense critical acclaim. The film rights were snapped up by Spike Lee, who released a film version starring Edward Norton the following year. Benioff himself penned the script. Hollywood was duly impressed and he was quickly employed to write the script for Wolfgang Petersen’s epic Troy (2004), which is where Benioff first encountered Sean Bean, Julian Glover and James Cosmo. He would go on to write script drafts for Stay (2005), The Kite Runner (2007) and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), the last of which was a particularly torturous process involving multiple drafts and writers. He also published a short story collection, When the Nines Roll Over (2004) and a second novel, the critically-acclaimed City of Thieves (2008).

HBO Promo Map

The first map of Westeros released by HBO in marketing packs, depicting most of the continent but leaving off Dorne.

Dan “D.B.” Weiss had also published a successful novel, Lucky Wander Boy (2003), and had gotten into scriptwriting for Hollywood. However, his first project was reworking Alex Garland’s script for the Halo movie. Despite several tilts at the project by directors including Neil Blomkamp, plans for the film were eventually shelved due to budgetary concerns. Weiss also worked on scripts for a prequel to I Am Legend, again before it was shelved. He and Benioff had gone to college in Dublin together and had stayed in touch afterwards as their respective careers started to take off. Benioff had been sent the first four Song of Ice and Fire novels by Martin’s American media agent, and he called in Weiss to talk about the possibility of an adaptation.

Game of Thrones Working Map

This is the rough “working map” used by Elastic Studios in designing the title sequence. The western and north-eastern landmasses are non-canonical and only added for flavour and sizing purposes. Intriguingly, the maps of Westeros and Essos appear to have been overlaid over Martin’s original, hand-drawn maps.

By this time Martin had fended off several semi-serious offers to option the series. However, these offers had mostly been for film. Given the immense size of the books, interested producers had suggested just covering Jon Snow’s story or Daenerys’s story, or compressing the rest of the story down to something that could be covered in a film or, at the most, a trilogy. A scriptwriting veteran of Hollywood, Martin was unimpressed by these offers. Many years earlier he had declared that the only way to do A Song of Ice and Fire justice would be a big-budget cable TV show through a company like HBO. However, he considered it fairly unlikely that HBO – a network known for its grounded, gritty, realistic dramas like OzBand of Brothers, The Sopranos and The Wire – would ever be interested.

Game of Thrones Winterfell

Winterfell as depicted in the Game of Thrones title sequence, designed by Elastic Studios.

When Benioff and Weiss met Martin in an LA restaurant, he had one question for them: “Who is Jon Snow’s mother?” Fortunately, the two writers had been discussing this very question the night before and had an answer ready. Martin was satisfied with the answer and a very long meeting followed in which they discussed how to bring the books to the screen. Benioff and Weiss moved quickly, arranging pitch meetings with HBO and Showtime in March 2006.

HBO Westeros Free Cities

The first map of Westeros and near Essos released by HBO on their website, a week or so before Game of Thrones started airing in April 2011.

By this time HBO was interested in branching out its range of shows. It had dabbled a little with supernatural elements in Carnivale (2003-05), but that show had been cancelled for budgetary reasons. It had also invested heavily in period pieces, with Deadwood (2004-06) and Rome (2005-07) both winning critical acclaim but again both falling afoul of budget concerns and disagreements with the writers. Aware that its stable of acclaimed shows was dwindling (The Sopranos ended in 2007, The Wire a year later), HBO needed to find some replacements. Keen to work with producer Alan Ball again after his success with them on Six Feet Under (2001-05), HBO took arguably the biggest risk in their history by agreeing to adapt an urban fantasy series of novels about a young woman who falls in love with a vampire. The resulting series, True Blood (2008-14), became their biggest hit since The Sopranos and made HBO much more willing to consider genres they previously wouldn’t have looked at.

The Free Cities

Detail of the HBO Free Cities map. This was the first-ever map released of the Free Cities. Three months later an expanded version was released in A Dance with Dragons.

When they first heard the pitch for Game of Thrones, True Blood‘s success was still in the future. It was a tough sell: a big-budget fantasy series featuring a main cast of dozens of characters, based on a series of books that were incomplete, where the main character in the first season would die at its end? After months of deliberation, HBO did tentatively buy an option in early 2007. Martin and the producers appeared on the Second Life online game/community to publicise the project (Martin was given an avatar based on Tyrion Lannister) and the producers listened to fan suggestions for casting: Aidan Gillen, Gwendoline Christie and Charles Dance were among those actors fans requested for those roles and where the producers listened. Work was interrupted by the 2007-08 Writer’s Guild of America strike, which ultimately delayed things by two full TV seasons, but things got back on track with HBO agreeing to greenlight a pilot in 2009. Filming took place in October and November 2009 in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Malta.

Westeros and Essos Outline View

The expanded world map of Westeros and Essos, released by Essos in April 2012 just prior to the debut of the second season. Note that eastern Essos was significantly redesigned before its next appearance in The Lands of Ice and Fire.

HBO viewed the pilot and, to put it mildly, did not like it. Some of the casting seemed off, there was too much exposition and character relationships were not clearly defined. However, Benioff and Weiss responded to HBO’s criticisms by writing a far superior script for the first episode which also – frugally – allowed them to reuse several scenes from the already-filmed pilot. Impressed by their willingness to rewrite and adapt, HBO officially greenlit Game of Thrones in early 2010. The show first aired on 17 April 2011 and is expected to conclude after eighty episodes at the end of its eighth season in the summer of 2018. Game of Thrones not only matched True Blood‘s level of success, it smashed through it. It has achieved HBO’s biggest-ever ratings, higher even than The Sopranos, and also an immense amount of critical acclaim. It has won multiple Golden Globes, Emmies and Hugo awards, and set new records in the sales of DVD and Blu-Ray box sets for a TV series. The TV show has generated its own range of spin-offs, including action figures, companion books and, of course, maps.

Game of Thrones Riverrun

Riverrun as it appears in the Game of Thrones title sequence, designed by Elastic Studios.

One of the challenges for portraying a fantasy series on screen has been how to get sometimes complicated-but-essential geography onto the screen. The Lord of the Rings movies managed it by occasionally featuring actual maps on-screen. The original plan for Game of Thrones had been to use a map every time the camera transitioned from one location to another, but this simply took viewers out of the story. HBO eventually came up with another solution: having a title sequence that changes every episode, featuring different locations on a 3D map of Westeros and Essos. They also included a new map of the world on their website and on the various pop-up guides for digital versions of the show and for the DVD and Blu-Ray releases.

GoT King's Landing

King’s Landing as it appears in the Game of Thrones title sequence, as designed by Elastic Studios.

The first, hugely zoomable map depicted Westeros and the Free Cities. This was significant, as this was the first map of the Free Cities to ever be made available (it would be another three months before a slightly more detailed version of this map appeared in A Dance with Dragons).

For Season 2 in April 2012, HBO updated the map and extended it eastwards to show Slaver’s Bay, the Red Waste, the Dothraki Sea and Qarth. Again, this was the first map ever revealed of the far east of Essos, but it was also, unlike the Free Cities map, quickly rendered non-canonical for the books. Martin had not been up with his early draft version of Essos and had completely reconceptualised it after HBO had already made their map. This revamped version of Essos went on to appear in The Lands of Ice and Fire (2012). This, slightly bizarrely, leaves the TV series and the books featuring different maps of the continent. Given that the action in both versions of the story is unlikely to move east past Qarth, it has little narrative impact but is still an odd situation.

We’ll look again at the TV versions of Westeros and Essos in a later entry, in particular a highly unusual quirk: the TV depiction of the two continents appears to be significantly smaller than how they appear in the books.

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