George R.R. Martin started out his career as an author, writing short stories, novellas and novels like Dying of the LIght and Nightflyers. These days he’s an author once again, writing world-famous works like A Song of Ice and Fire, which HBO adapted as the TV show Game of Thrones.
But in between there for a while, Martin worked as a writer on television, writing on shows like The Twilight Zone and Beaty and the Beast. This was in the 1980s, before modern technology gave producers the ability to render extraordinary special effects on TV, and he was frustrated that his scripts were often too elaborate to be turned into an episode of television. “They would say, ‘George, we can’t do this. This is five times our budget. It’s way too big,'” he revealed on an episode of the Bangcast. “‘You have too many characters. Can you combine some of them [from] this giant battle at the end where there’s 10,000 people on each side? Can that be a duel between the hero and the villain?'”
“So I would revise in the second draft and the third draft. I would trim, I would combine, I would cut and that was fine; the things that were made turned out pretty well, but I never really liked doing it. And finally, after 10 years, when I left TV for a while and got back into writing novels, I said, ‘I’m gonna write something that’s as big as my imagination.’ It’ll never be made into a film, I thought, because it’ll be a budget-buster. But I’m gonna have these insane, huge castles and I’m gonna have dragons and dire wolves and I’m gonna have armies with 10,000 men in them. I’m gonna have so many major characters to reflect the complexity of a fairly complex plot. And I did all of that and it was very, very liberating, to be able to just write what I thought would make a good story and not have to worry about, ‘can they, can they possibly do it?'”
Obviously he’s talking about A Song of Ice and Fire, which HBO turned into a phenomenally popular TV show that succeeded in large part because it was so complex and enormous. Modern technology allowed a TV network to realize Martin’s vision in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in the ’80s. “Computers are giving us the ability to do a lot of things that we could not possibly have afforded back then,” Martin said. “If you wanted 10,000 people you had to hire extras. Now, a computer will make a crowd for you.”
These are good things, but they’ve also created new problems, or rather old problems returned in new guises. It would have been prohibitively expensive to make a show like Game of Thrones in the ’80s, but just because it’s possible now doesn’t mean it isn’t very, very expensive. Game of Thrones contributed to budget creep in Hollywood, with shows like The Wheel of Time and The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power costing huge amounts of money to produce. And unless those shows are hits on the massive scale of Game of Thrones, the spending may be unsustainable.
Martin noted that HBO is currently “wrestling” with this issue with House of the Dragon, its Game of Thrones prequel show. “The dragons, which obviously people love and they’re crucial to the plot and there are a number of them, not just three as in Dany’s day…are expensive,” he said. “Every time a dragon appears on screen, that’s a big chunk of money. So budget is is an issue and always will be in television and film.”
“In fact…it’s becoming more of an issue. If you follow the last two years, there have been a number of very, very expensive feature films that have lost not just millions of dollars but hundreds of millions of dollars…They’re called flops, even though they may have made $100 million. But they cost $300 million. So they lost $200 million for the studio….Isn’t it insane that something that makes $100 million can be considered a failure or a flop? Think of all the people that had to go see it for it to gross $100 million.”