From Television Show to Cinema-at-Home: How Game of Thrones Evolved In Its Final Stretch

WARNING: The following contains spoilers from the television series Game of Thrones and the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

I recall reading a review of Game of Thrones’ Season 6 Finale The Winds of Winter that said the episode would have played, in many respects, as a fitting finale for the show. Looking back now, after the final 13 episodes have played out, this observation may have been perfectly on mark.

To be sure, given the divisive nature of the show’s final seasons, I’m sure there are many who wish this was so. But that’s not what I’m talking about. From my perspective, Game of Thrones was a structurally different beast for its final act. While the first six seasons largely stuck to an established pace that had, more or less, something in common with the television format (albeit with more narrative jumping around), the final seasons played more like a piece of cinema. Characters would go through large, sweeping journeys within the course of a single hour (or 90 minutes). Journeys that would have previously been dragged out over multiple episodes were edited in a more “cut to the chase” fashion. This was often, I think, misinterpreted by the audience as characters “jet-packing” around Westeros, whereas in virtually all cases, it was simply a case of editing out travel time.

GoT The Broken Man4

In truth, we began to get a taste of this transformation in Season 6, as Jon, Sansa and Davos began their trek around the North to rally allies. A journey that would have taken weeks or months was edited together with sequences in other storylines that transpired over days (or even one day). In The Winds of Winter, Varys appears in Dorne and then returns to Meereen with the Dornish and Tyrell forces in tow, ready for his appearance on board Dany’s ship as the journey to Westeros begins. There have been a myriad of reactions to this change in editing and pace, but I think this was intentionally done to reflect structure more in keeping with cinema than television.

It now makes absolute sense reading comments from Benioff & Weiss about how they originally thought, earlier in the series, to do the final season as 3 back-to-back movies. You can see that in the final episodes. That’s how they play – especially the final 6 episodes. Now, as to whether that’s preferable to finishing the show in the more (comparatively) relaxed pacing of the earlier seasons, is for the individual to decide. But I think it shows what they were trying to accomplish with this series in terms of adaptation.

GoT No One2

For all that is said about what was left out of the show from the books, I was often impressed by how the showrunners continued to pull from George R.R. Martin’s published material even late into the sixth season. For example, pulling Jaime into the Dorne subplot in Season 5 meant that they could save his Riverrun story from A Feast for Crows until the ladder half of Season 6. They likewise held off on returning to the Ironborn until that season. Decisions like this enabled them to continue adapting George’s material as the series moved toward its endgame. Now, I can’t presume to speak for Benioff & Weiss or the writing team, but it’s a guess on my part that they wanted to pull as much from Martin as possible for as long as possible. I think they wanted to keep it an adaptation of his work as much as they could, and not something purely of their own invention.

Obviously, this was never going to be feasible going into the final stretch. All they would have to work with was Martin’s outline, and I think that accounts for the change in pace and storytelling structure. But what those episodes lack in the more leisurely pace and detail of earlier seasons, they make up for in epic scope and grandeur. I can easily imagine watching the final season as two gigantic epic films in the theater (or even one 7+ hour film with an intermission – though I admit most people probably wouldn’t go for that).

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In comparing the final episodes of the show to pieces of cinema, my mind recalls the sense of epic grandeur that I felt watching each of the Lord of the Rings films in movie theaters each year for three years (2001-2003). After viewing each film, it felt as though the very foundation of the earth had shifted, and we were at a completely different place in the story than when we began three hours before. Who could have foreseen going into The Two Towers, a story that begins with the Fellowship dispersed and lacking direction, that we’d end up finishing with the massive battle of Helm’s Deep (with a completely new group of characters), Saruman being defeated by Nature itself and Frodo not only trusting Gollum(!), but being on the verge of succumbing to the lure of the Ring? It felt like we had gone on such an epic journey – and that’s what each of the final episodes of Game of Thrones feels like to me.

Take Eastwatch, for example. Here’s an episode that begins with Jaime being dragged above water by Bronn after the Battle of the Goldroad and then ends in an entirely different place with Jon, Tormund, Jorah, Gendry, Sandor, Beric and Thoros going beyond the wall! That’s an episode epic in scope. Another example is The Last of the Starks, which opens with the aftermath of the Long Night and ends with Missandei’s execution and Daenerys on the verge of her dark turn. That’s taking these characters on a vast, emotional journey within the span of a single 90 minute episode. It’s storytelling grandeur worthy of cinema.

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So I return to my beginning notion that The Winds of Winter could have represented a Series Finale of the show that Game of Thrones was from its inception, giving way to a more cinematic finale. In many ways, I really love this notion. What more fitting title could the episode have had than “The Winds of Winter” –  that of the forthcoming novel that we all dream about reading at some undetermined point in the future. The novel that will open up the story into so many more avenues than we perhaps ever glimpsed in the new material from Season 6 and beyond.

“Alright John,” you say. “But why are you talking about this largely academic idea of what Game of Thrones’ changing style meant, or why it was done?” Certainly, there were many who simply didn’t like the change. I will even admit to being taken aback by it for the first couple episodes of Season 7. But I believe it was done with intent. I believe that the showrunners were telling the story they felt was dictated by the rising stakes and the scale in which it was unfolding.

So what did I think of it? I’ve held off talking too much about my personal reaction to the episodes thus far in the piece. I did this to try and talk about how I saw the changing structure of the final episodes without bogging you down too much with my opinion on the episodes.

Game of Thrones Series Finale2

But I loved it. I really did. I didn’t find S7 itself to be flawless. I will freely admit that they cheated time-wise with the otherwise spectacular Beyond the Wall. Ravens, and even dragons, don’t travel that fast. But I was gripped. I laughed. I cried. I held my breath. And so many moments in the final six episodes left me feeling more shaken that I ever have watching television. As I indicated before, I wish I could have seen it in the cinema.

But agree or disagree (and I suspect many of you disagree), I guess the whole point of this was that I wanted to share my take on how I felt the final chapter was constructed. I’ve read much disparaging the pace, and that’s fine. It’s not my place to tell anybody what reaction they should have had. But I just wanted to share my own take with you all, in a space larger than 240 characters. To quote Shakespeare, I do believe there was a “method in their madness”.

I’m only now realizing what a hot topic I selected for my first post – but it is what it is, I suppose. Feel free to comment below, but please be courteous and civil… and gentle on this fool of a Took. 😉


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