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Extender of the Realm: Why Hasn’t the ‘Game of Thrones’ EU Materialized Yet?

HBO is reportedly developing a ‘Dunk and Egg’ series, which would be the second prequel based on George R.R. Martin’s Westeros. It’s a welcome development for fans—but also a reminder of how an extended universe has yet to grow around the massively successful show, à la ‘Star Wars.’

Marvel/Disney/HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In 2019, the three most inescapable stories in on-screen science fiction and fantasy reached climactic conclusions. Avengers: Endgame, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and the final season of Game of Thrones formed a trifecta of phase-ending releases by the few genre juggernauts capable of cutting through the post-monoculture clutter. All three last acts spurred spirited discussion, but the tenor of that talk differed depending on the property: Endgame was warmly received by MCU stans and became the biggest box-office draw ever, while The Rise of Skywalker and Game of Thrones Season 8 left their franchises floundering.

Endgame was the product of a deliberate, decade-long plan, and before it tied off the thread that led to the biggest of blockbusters, Marvel made a roadmap for the future of its cinematic and TV universes. The Rise of Skywalker and Thrones Season 8 were relatively rushed and deeply divisive, and when they were over, the cupboards were bare by comparison. Fans bemoaned the bad endings of the sagas, fantasized about remakes or alternate takes, and debated whether Star Wars or Thrones had had the worse year. When a previously announced Star Wars trilogy by Thrones adapters D.B. Benioff and David Weiss was scuttled in October 2019, it was hard to say which side had soured on the other. Some reports relayed that Benioff and Weiss were wary of the “toxic fandom” surrounding Star Wars, while other rumors suggested that Disney was down on the duo, who had canceled a Comic-Con appearance in July and later fanned the flames of fan outrage on a panel at the Austin Film Festival.

By late 2019, though, the seed of each franchise’s future had already been planted—and where lucrative, flagship franchises are concerned, the seed is strong. But as the seed of Star Wars’ streaming hopes has sprouted and spread, fertilized by Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni, the Thrones small-screen universe has been slow to take root. HBO is trying to turn its huge hit into a dynasty by belatedly ramping up production on a spate of Thrones successors, including a just-announced adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s Westeros-set series Tales of Dunk and Egg. But the network is confronting a challenge that the stewards of other on-screen empires have long since sidestepped or never faced. The lack of a quick follow-up to HBO’s behemoth is partly attributable to a factor that fueled the original’s success: its reliance on a singular creator, whose brilliance birthed the rich world of Westeros but whose central role in the franchise slows the speed and scale of its expansion.

The Mandalorian debuted on Disney+ in November 2019, the month before the Rise of Skywalker premiered. Although the derivative ending of the sequel trilogy squandered some of the goodwill generated by Baby Yoda, the first Star Wars live-action TV show would soon become the centerpiece of a Star Wars resurgence. As the series’ second season soared last year—on the heels of a fulfilling final season of The Clone Wars—Disney revealed that approximately 10 upcoming Star Wars projects would debut on Disney’s streaming service and/or in theaters. Two years after the Rise of Skywalker debacle began, the reputation of Star Wars is somewhat restored, and the franchise is on track to be bigger than ever.

The expansion of Star Wars stands in contrast to the stagnation of Game of Thrones, whose post-2019 portfolio has been as barren as Winterfell after the Boltons burned it down. In theory, a successor series has been in the works for a while. By his own account, Martin first met with HBO about possible follow-ups in August 2016, shortly after Season 6 of Thrones aired. Before Season 7 started, HBO commissioned five pitches for possible series, none of which was a sequel to or spinoff from the original. In September 2017, Martin wrote, “HBO is not about to become the Game of Thrones network... but we could possibly see two or even three make it to the pilot stage, with one series emerging on air in 2019 or 2020.” In June 2018, HBO announced the first of the projects to get a green light: a Jane Goldman–helmed prequel about the Long Night, which was tentatively titled Bloodmoon and set to star Naomi Watts. But in October 2019, HBO announced that Bloodmoon had been canceled in response to a pilot that must have been truly terrible (although HBO and HBO Max chief content officer Casey Bloys insisted that “there wasn’t one glaring thing”).

At the same time, HBO announced Bloodmoon’s replacement, the Targaryen-centric prequel House of the Dragon, which grew out of Martin’s first prequel pitch in 2016. House of the Dragon, which received a straight-to-series order, will be based on the first volume of Martin’s book Fire & Blood, set centuries (but not, like Bloodmoon, millennia) before Game of Thrones, and co-showrun by Ryan Condal and “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards” director Miguel Sapochnik. The series will star Paddy Considine as Viserys I Targaryen, whose death sparks a civil war known as the Dance of Dragons, which is described in detail in Fire & Blood. For more than a year, House of the Dragon was the lone Thrones project known to be in production, and its 10-episode first season won’t be out until 2022. HBO’s Thrones development docket has been almost quiet enough for fans to hear the sporadic clacking of the keys on Martin’s word processor as he struggles to finish The Winds of Winter.

If House of the Dragon premieres in the spring, as was customary for most seasons of Thrones, then by the time it debuts, roughly three years will have elapsed since Season 8’s disastrous denouement. During that time, Star Wars has bounced back from its sequel trilogy setback, Marvel has embarked on a busy 2021 after a year of pandemic-driven delays, and even hit-or-miss heavy hitters—Star Trek, The Walking Dead, DC—have expanded their on-screen ambitions or continued to pump out IP.

Yet at a time of rapidly proliferating franchises and intense competition for content that can attract streaming subscribers, HBO’s signature series of the 2010s has been as dormant as Dany’s dragons in the Great Pyramid of Meereen. The subscriber bases of Disney+ and Netflix dwarf that of the still-evolving HBO Max—which launched last May without a Mandalorian-esque killer app—and free-spending Amazon, which in 2017 declared its intention to make the next Game of Thrones, is slated to roll out The Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time on Prime Video in 2021, ahead of House of the Dragon. Amazon even hired veteran Thrones writer and supervising producer Bryan Cogman—whose Thrones prequel pitch (which would have drawn on the same material as House of the Dragon) was rejected by HBO—to consult on Lord of the Rings. The slow assembly line for Thrones successors, coupled with increased competition, may have made HBO worry that it was missing its moment to make the most of a massive world that remains a one-off phenomenon for the network.

But like Cersei circa Season 8, HBO still holds the Iron Throne and intends to take on the enemies massing against it. In December, Bloys downplayed comparisons between Thrones and Disney’s double whammy of Star Wars and the MCU, but he also hinted at expansion, saying, “Those are fantastic properties that are decades and decades old. I don’t know that it would get that big, but certainly it is a great resource that we have and an amazing world. So I don’t think it’s just going to be the one [show] for the rest of its life.” The network doesn’t want to break the wheel of famous franchises; it wants one of its own.

Last week, Variety reported that the Dunk and Egg adaptation was in “early development.” The series would be based on the travels and adventures of Ser Duncan the Tall and Egg (a.k.a. Aegon V Targaryen), which take place 90 years prior to A Song of Ice and Fire and are detailed in three well-regarded novellas Martin published in 1998, 2003, and 2010. The collected Tales of Dunk and Egg are less than half as long as the first and shortest book of A Song of Ice and Fire, so an adaptation of the extant works might make the most sense as a miniseries or trio of TV movies. Although no talent is yet attached to the project—which, as Bloodmoon demonstrated, is far from a lock to earn a series order—it could become a second Thrones successor.

Even if Tales of Dunk and Egg survives several hurdles and makes it to air, it probably won’t be the last Thrones prequel in the pipeline. Piggybacking on Variety’s report, Entertainment Weekly added that HBO has been meeting with “several top writers” (including Rome creator Bruno Heller) who’ve pitched other projects adapted from Martin’s work, including a series based on Robert’s Rebellion, the conflict between the ruling Targaryens and rival houses that preceded the events of Game of Thrones and culminated in Robert Baratheon usurping the Mad King. EW characterized this latest push for multiple prequels as “arguably more intense” than the process that produced House of the Dragon. Although the report cautioned that no shows have officially entered development, it noted that “the idea is for HBO to go big on Thrones for HBO and HBO Max in a way that’s not entirely unlike what Disney has done with Star Wars and Disney+.”

Despite the renewed urgency to capitalize on Martin’s source material, EW affirmed that no sequels or spinoffs are under consideration, even though their familiar faces and places might make easy sells to Thrones fans. That could be because HBO is trying to distance itself from the much-maligned last season, or because Season 8 brought peace (and oligarchy) to Westeros, with the White Walkers defeated and six kingdoms controlled by Bran Stark, whose sister Sansa rules the independent north. Still, the finale left room for several possible spinoffs that would follow the fates of characters who set off for lands unknown or stayed in King’s Landing to serve and support a sure-to-be-dysfunctional Three-Eyed Raven regime.

So why not pick up the story where it left off? Probably because Martin hasn’t mapped out what the plot would look like, and there’s no precedent for an adaptation set in the world Martin created that isn’t at least loosely based on his work. Thrones faltered not long after the series surpassed its source material, which hammered home how dependent the TV show was on his beat-by-beat storytelling as well as his world-building. That’s not to say that nobody but Martin could craft compelling stories with the raw materials he’s supplied. But it would be a big swing, and one that fans loyal to Martin—to say nothing of Martin himself, who was bummed to see the series leapfrog his books—might not support. The author has previously said that he would never allow other writers to create licensed stories set in the universe he conceived, and he probably wouldn’t want to work on anything set after Season 8 while he’s still (hopefully) plugging away on A Song of Ice and Fire.

One major obstacle to a sprawling, Thrones-related TV lineup, then, is Martin’s very reasonable requirement that HBO’s producers not play unaccompanied in the sandbox he built and continues to explore. Although his reluctance to cede control of his brainchild is entirely understandable, there are—for better or worse—no equivalent constraints on the growth of the most massive cinematic and TV universes. The George who started Star Wars limited its expansion for decades, but Lucas was willing to license Star Wars stories from the start, and he sold the franchise to Disney in 2012. Marvel Comics was always a collective creative effort, and Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment in 2009. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry never owned the rights to the franchise. And while The Walking Dead began as the work of one writer, Robert Kirkman, Kirkman no longer creates Walking Dead comics, and it’s fairly easy for others to tell stories in a universe that’s essentially the same as ours (just with far fewer living people and many more dead ones).

Thus, if Paramount wants to make more Star Trek, it can do so without having to coax a creator to say OK. If Disney desires more movies and TV shows featuring Marvel characters, it can plunder a preexisting, sky-high stack of comic books. And if Disney decides to make an inter-trilogy series about a bounty hunter and his Force-sensitive sidekick, it can freely follow its muse and then create a slew of spinoffs starring characters from that flagship show. HBO is much more beholden to Martin. In that sense, Thrones occupies a similar space as Harry Potter, which has expanded slowly because of its creator J.K. Rowling, who has long maintained strict creative control over the franchise (and has recently tarnished her reputation by repeatedly expressing transphobic views). Someday, Thrones may be more elastic, but the franchise is still at a stage that precludes it from sprouting as fast as Isaac Hempstead Wright.

For fans who don’t wish to see the source material diluted or a future adaptation’s quality compromised like the latter seasons of Thrones, a more measured expansion may be for the best, but it’s probably not ideal for HBO’s bottom line. Because HBO is bound by Martin’s wishes, it can only rewind within the Thrones universe’s established timeline and lore, which subjects the successor series to the prequel curse. The setup for a prequel is rarely as riveting as that of the stories it precedes—if it were, the original’s creator would have started with the prequel scenario instead—and it often has a harder time generating suspense, given that the audience knows at least some of what will happen next.

Martin’s most devoted readers would welcome any opportunity to visit his universe again, and The Ringer’s resident Binge Mode hosts have made compelling cases for prequels based on the Dance of Dragons and Robert’s Rebellion (although the language of Fire & Blood, a historical tome, would have to be tweaked to translate to TV). But even if HBO—which may be managing the expense of producing multiple Thrones series at once—can afford unlimited CGI dragons, stories about civil wars could seem slightly less epic than Game of Thrones’ story about a civil war that coincides with a war on the White Walkers. Dunk and Egg, like The Mandalorian, roughly follows the format of Lone Wolf and Cub. It’s a lot less sweeping and much more lighthearted, which would seem to position it as a more casual complement to the heavier House of the Dragon—albeit one that may not target the same itches that non-Martin-reading Thrones fans expect a series set in Westeros to scratch.

Martin’s involvement in the prequels has been limited to advisory roles, and he’s vowed not to write any scripts until he finishes Winds of Winter, so his personal workload shouldn’t be a bottleneck for HBO. But considering his past preferences, it’s curious that Dunk and Egg and a series about Robert’s Rebellion are even on the table. In March 2013, shortly after Martin signed an overall development deal with HBO, the author divulged that there had already been discussions about adapting Dunk and Egg. But he’s consistently said that he wouldn’t be on board with such a series. In 2017, he blogged, “I’ve only written and published three novellas to date, and there are at least seven or eight or 10 more I want to write. We all know how slow I am, and how fast a television show can move. I don’t want to repeat what happened with Game of Thrones itself, where the show gets ahead of the books.” When he finished writing the stories, Martin continued, then a show could be made, but “that day is still a long ways off.”

As recently as October 2019, Martin wrote that while adapting Dunk and Egg had been Condal’s first choice, “I’m not prepared to bring Dunk and Egg to television until I’ve written quite a few more stories.” Less than three months ago, Condal confirmed his desire to adapt Dunk and Egg and Martin’s opposition, stating, “HBO loves Dunk and Egg, they desperately love it, but George really wants to finish writing those stories before that’s adapted, I think he wants to be a little more involved with that.” Unless Martin has secretly been churning out unpublished Dunk and Egg stories instead of working on Winds of Winter, further progress on the stories hasn’t happened, so it’s not clear what changed.

Martin has previously put the kibosh on a show about Robert’s Rebellion, too. “By the time I finish writing A Song of Ice and Fire,” he wrote in 2017, “you will know every important thing that happened in Robert’s Rebellion. There would be no surprises or revelations left in such a show, just the acting out of conflicts whose resolutions you already know.”

In 2014, Martin explained that when HBO acquired the rights to A Song of Ice and Fire, it also acquired the film and TV rights to “the world of Westeros.” However, Martin specified that he retained the rights to the stories and the characters of Dunk and Egg, which HBO would need to purchase separately in order to adapt the novellas. Assuming Martin didn’t misread his contract, the latest news suggests that he must have given the go-ahead, which makes it more perplexing that he’s stayed silent for some time about both House of the Dragon and the latest prequel reports.

Perhaps the 72-year-old Martin has conceded that he’s not likely to finish the rest of A Song of Ice and Fire in addition to seven, eight, or 10 more Dunk and Egg novellas and the second volume of Fire & Blood (while juggling his usual array of side projects). Maybe he’s limited HBO to the material he’s already written. Or maybe the AT&T-owned, content-hungry HBO badgered him into acquiescing, prompted by the “You win or you die” stakes of the streaming wars. WarnerMedia already angered producers and directors by shunting its lineup of 2021 movies to HBO Max in a quest for streaming supremacy, so perhaps it’s not above putting pressure on a bearded golden goose who’s stopped laying literary eggs.

In The World of Ice & Fire, Martin describes how the ancient Valyrians “expanded in all directions, stretching out east beyond the Ghiscari cities and west to the very shores of Essos.” This “first bursting forth of the new empire” came at a steep cost in resources and labor, and Valyria eventually collapsed, but it thrived for thousands of years. HBO’s suits would sign up for that.

Granted, Game of Thrones became as ubiquitous as it did through a confluence of strong source material, great timing, and—for the first several seasons—commendable execution. Even if HBO proceeds with wisdom and skill, the network will be hard-pressed to perfectly replicate the original’s blockbuster breakout. But the scope of Martin’s imagination, and the money-minting success of other universes and multiverses, make it a matter of time until the offshoots of Thrones enter TV’s fighting pit. As Martin wrote in 2019, “If television has room enough for multiple CSIs and Chicago shows… well, Westeros and Essos are a lot bigger, with thousands of years of history and enough tales and legends and characters for a dozen shows.” HBO may be about to bet big that those words aren’t wind.