Saturday, 10 February 2018

On the GAME OF THRONES showrunners making STAR WARS

As we heard last week, the Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been tapped by Disney to write and possibly direct a new Star Wars movie series. Benioff and Weiss will start work on the films the second they finish up on the final season of Game of Thrones (which is shooting until the late summer, probably to air in February or April 2019).

This is a logical decision on several levels: Benioff and Weiss have delivered the biggest and most successful television show in HBO's history and the biggest drama show on the planet right now. They have made HBO an insane amount of money and (albeit helped by the simultaneous rise of Amazon TV and Netflix Originals) raised the bar for the scale and scope of television in a way that has completely redefined the medium, possibly forever. The impact of Game of Thrones on television may eventually be seen as being analogous to the impact the original Star Wars had on cinema back in 1977 in terms of scale, visual effects and cultural impact.

There are, however, two reasons to be cautious about this news.

The Star Wars universe, by Paul Shipper.

How Much Star Wars Is Too Much Star Wars?

Between 1977 and 2005, Lucasfilm released exactly six Star Wars movies, three cartoon series (none of which lasted more than a single season's worth of material) and three TV movies. They authorised a lot of other content - novels, video games, comics, board games and RPGs - but for the core Star Wars canon that was it. They released a six-season CG series after 2005 (which had an ill-advised movie spin-off), but generally speaking, the amount of core Star Wars content produced in the first 30 years of its existence was relatively modest for what was arguably the worlds biggest SFF franchise.

Since October 2014 - less than three and a half years ago! - we've had another three movies (The Force Awakens, Rogue One and The Last Jedi) and a four-season animated series (Rebels). Another movie (Solo) is due out in just three months. After that we've got one movie in pre-production (Episode IX) and at least six more in the formal planning stage beyond that (Rian Johnson's trilogy and the Benioff/Weiss project), plus one more "Star Wars Story" that's very likely to happen (the Obi-Wan movie) and two movies at the proposal stage (a Boba Fett movie and allegedly a Yoda one). Lucasfilm have also apparently put a further core Skywalker trilogy (Episode X-XII) into the earliest planning stages. In addition, Disney are planning "several" live-action Star Wars television series for their new streaming service. This new Star Wars canon has also been expanded by dozens of new novels and comic series, as well as several video games.

That's an awful lot of content to take on board. Disney are clearly putting Star Wars into the same bracket as their Marvel Cinematic Universe, a setting that can sustain multiple, high-grossing movies per year.

However, it's questionable if that is true. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is based on almost sixty years' worth of comic books, encompassing thousands of characters, hundreds of titles and thousands of storylines that can be mined for the cinema. The eighteen movies in the MCU to date really only consist of one major comics storyline (the Thanos/Infinity Stones arc) and a dozen or so smaller stories (such as Civil War, Planet Hulk and Age of Ultron). That's barely scraping the surface of the potential on offer in the Marvel universe, especially now that Marvel can tap the Fantastic Four/X-Men/Deadpool arm of the comics universe as well. In addition, Disney has been careful to vary both the tone and content of the MCU, slowly allowing writers and directors greater freedom to innovate and improvise as long as they remain within the confines of the greater roadmap of the universe.

Or to put it another way, the secret of the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been that it allows for much greater individual freedom per film (which is how we ended up with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The AvengersGuardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, all with radically different sensibilities) whilst retaining to a tightly-orchestrated, over-arcing masterplan which will culminate in Infinity War II in 2019.

Star Wars hasn't really had that as yet. Each film has been tightly controlled and the merest sign of the director deviating from the perceived brand message has been met with swift firings (Colin Trevorrow, Phil Lord and Chris Miller) or the film being reshot and recut at the last minute (Rogue One). This is at the same time that it was confirmed that there was no over-arcing storyline in place for the new trilogy, meaning that nothing J.J. Abrams set up in The Force Awakens actually had any kind of solution in mind, allowing Rian Johnson to engage with that material or just ignore it in The Last Jedi.

Or, to put it another way, the Star Wars universe is allowing for much less greater individual freedom per film whilst not having any kind of tightly-orchestrated, over-arcing masterplan at all.

In addition, the Star Wars movie writers show little inclination to tap the wider Star Wars universe of novels, comics and games for ideas. Rebels cleverly used Ralph McQuarrie concept art and elements from the novels and video games (like Grand Admiral Thrawn and Imperial Interdictor Cruisers) to strengthen its storytelling, but the makers of the films seem to hold this other material in much greater disdain. There's a reason why Mike Stackpole and Aaron Allston's X-Wing novels are so highly regarded, why Matt Stover was picked by George Lucas to write about the corruption of Anakin Skywalker and why Knights of the Old Republic is not just the most beloved Star Wars video games of all time, but one of the best-rated Star Wars stories full stop of all time. Yet, unlike Marvel, there seems to be a lack of willingness to engage with this excellent material of proven, massive popularity.

I would argue that, until Lucasfilm can find a way of telling a much greater variety of stories in the Star Wars universe (and yes, that includes romances, comedies, hard boiled war stories, small and intimate stories as well as big ones), they're going to run into problems of repetition and getting stale much faster than the MCU has.

Are D&D a Good Fit for Star Wars?

On one level, this sounds like a dumb question. Benioff and Weiss took a (relatively) obscure fantasy book series and turned it into the biggest TV show on the world, bar none. They revived HBO's fortunes at a moment when it appeared to be flagging. They have brought more "watercooler moments" to the screen in the last seven years than any other TV show or film series. Disney tapping that ability for their films seems a no-brainer.

There are, however, some pretty big caveats to that. Game of Thrones is based on George R.R. Martin's novel series, A Song of Ice and Fire, and - at least up until the TV show overtook the books in Season 5 - was an unusually close and faithful adaptation. Most of the big, most memorable moments from the TV show, such as the Red Wedding, the Blackwater, Ned Stark's execution, Tyrion's trial, the battle at the Wall and so forth, are straight out of the novels. Even the battle at Hardhome is alluded to in the books, and director Miguel Sapochnik was primarily responsible for the staging. It's arguably not until the sept explosion in the Season 6 finale that Benioff and Weiss started creating their own major set-piece events for the series. Some of their set pieces have also been pretty risible (the Battle of the Bastards, although visually impressive, makes zero sense and is pretty badly-written).

So in that sense Benioff and Weiss's strongest moments came from adapting George R.R Martin's work and since they haven't had the books to draw on, the show has become much more uneven (Season 5 being pretty heavily panned up until Hardhome, for example) and has certainly suffered from more issues with dialogue, pacing, structure and characterisation.

There's also the fact that Benioff and Weiss have also shown a remarkable tone-deafness to the nuances of Martin's work - bizarrely claiming that Arya only sees Needle as a symbol of revenge rather than a remembrance of family and loyalty as her Stark identity is stripped away from her by the Faceless Men; or whitewashing Tyrion and stopping him from doing any of the more heinous things he does in the books because they don't want to damage the popularity of the character - and also to external factors. Their handling of sexual abuse and torture has been pretty heavily criticised (so has Martin's, to be fair) and they were criticised in Season 2 when it was revealed that they had been urging directors to put more nudity into scenes than even the script called for, to cater for the "pervs in the audience".

Their proposal for a TV series named Confederate also seemed extremely under-cooked and ill-thought-through (and if they wanted to do an alternative-history story in this vein, Harry Turtledove has a whole raft of much more interesting takes on the idea), and resulted in significant blowback on HBO which the network was not impressed by. Confederate has been quietly dropped as a proposed series and HBO's attitude to working with Benioff and Weiss again seems slightly cooler than it was previously. On the other hand, they have gone to some lengths to retain both George R.R. Martin's services and those of Bryan Cogman (the best-regarded other GoT scriptwriter) for the proposed Game of Thrones spin-off shows.

Or, to put it another way, as writers Benioff and Weiss have so far proven themselves to be better as adapters of other people's work than originating material on their own. When they have worked on their own, the results have been far more variable. This is proven by their track records: Benioff's solo work of note amounts to two middling novels (The 25th Hour and City of Thieves). His other film work has been adaptation of other people's work, such as Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, or Homer's mythological take on the Trojan War. Weiss's work is even less notable; before GoT he'd spent many years in development hell on Peter Jackson's Halo movie.

As producers however, Benioff and Weiss are on another level. Their work ethic and commitment to the job is undoubted. They delivered 10 hours of material every year for seven years straight, juggling multiple filming units in up to three countries for six months at once and navigating HBO's complex corporate politics. They knew when to roll over (rewriting and re-shooting the pilot) and when to stand their ground (getting the money they needed for the Battle of the Blackwater). They have also shown a frankly near-supernatural instinct when it comes to picking people to work with them. Their choices for directors have almost been wholly outstanding, their set and costume designers are the best in the business and the world owes them a huge vote of thanks alone for giving Ramin Djawadi the job as the show's composer. Their employment of David Petersen massively increased the profile of the global conlang (constructed languages) scene, and their decision to tap Nina Gold as casting director was an incredible stroke of good fortune, from which the show's unbeatable casting has flowed. And of course, it was their reading of the books in early 2006 and early commitment to working with both George R.R. Martin and HBO that got the show on the air in the first place.

It remains to be seen if Benioff and Weiss will do a good job on Star Wars, but on previous form I would be more intrigued by them acting as producers and facilitators on a Star Wars movie, or acting as writers if they were adapting someone else's work. Their form does not preclude them making a terrific Star Wars movie or three, but if I was Disney I'd perhaps be a bit cautious about giving them a free hand with a mega-budgeted movie without some more oversight and consideration of their ideas.

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Stienberg said...

Give them the producers slot that's for certain. God alone knows how badly they could botch a Star Wars trilogy if given a free hand.

Anonymous said...

Yep. Pretty much agree with all of that.

The new Star Wars films aren't terrible - I thought Rogue One was actually great (possibly, and I know this sounds like heresy, the best Star Wars film yet, once you strip out nostalgia) - but they are all basically the same. And turning out the same thing again and again is only sustainable for so long even when what you're turning out is quick CSI episodes for people to watch while they're ironing; with massive, expensive blockbusters, the diminishing returns are even greater. And so are the risks: one big Star Wars flop and Disney are in trouble. It's not only artistically more satisfying and strategically more sustainable, but also economically safer, to produce a broader slate of slightly cheaper, more varied, yet still linked, films.

And Star Wars should be able to sustain an immense franchise. It's an entire galaxy filled with both extreme-future SF and outright magic... that should be fertile ground even if you DO ignore all the secondary media that's gone before.

But... they're not going to do that, are they? They're just going to make the same film again and again.

Likewise: you're so right about the importance of planning and I cannot understand why studios don't understand this. All these attempts at Franchises, all seemingly hurled together on the fly with no planning or plotting or anything. It's not as though writing a plot overview before they started would cost much money! Sure, they need to be flexible, to accomodate a breakout success here or cut losses on a flop there, but they need to be working to some sort of framework!

Of course, Star Wars at the moment doesn't seem willing to hire writers even for the actual films. I mean, looking at the plot of The Force Awakens, I can only assume everything was ad libbed, because it certainly doesn't make any sort of coherent rational sense...

[To be honest, I think Marvel is too repetitive too. Watching Ant Man was so painful, seeing the innovative Ed Wright film yearning to break free from its corporate-approved husk... But hopefully the next phase will allow more variety. Strangely, it's currently the X-Men universe (with Logan, Legion, Deadpool, and soon The New Mutants) that seems most willing to explore stylistic and thematic diversity.]

As for D&D: I'm unfortunately not impressed. I struggle to find places where their decisions actually added to the show - I guess a few bits in the first season where we saw scenes from POVs that weren't i the books. Otherwise, pretty much everything good about the show comes from the books, or from a couple of the actors, and most of what's bad about the show comes from D&D. And, as you note, they've lost control now that they don't have the books. It's worrying, though in keeping with the above 'lack of any coherent sense' style of modern star wars, that Disney could look at the last season of GOT and say "yes! THAT'S who we want in charge of a sprawling, galaxy-wide franchise without the help of any underlying plot!".

Don't get me wrong - I'm thankful for the show, and don't begrudge them the money and fame that comes from getting it to the screen. And I'd certainly, if I were a Studio Boss, be willing to consider pitches from them in future. But... I really don't think I'd be leaping to make them the people in ultimate charge of my flagship franchise.

I'm also frankly disappointed by their behaviour recently. It really feels as though they've mentally checked out of GOT and have just been pushing things around carelessly in order to be able to wrap everything up as quickly as possible, just to escape from a show they've grown bored with. It feels unprofessional.

Joe said...

The Tartakovsky Clone Wars got two seasons, while the Filoni movie got a cinematic release. I know it's minor and doesn't change the bulk of your article, but please do a bit more research next time.

Adam Whitehead said...

The Tartakovsky Clone Wars were actually three seasons (but added up to considerably less than a single season's worth of material) and I mentioned the Filoni movie in the article. Please try reading the article a bit more closely next time.

Korakys said...

D&D writing in the New Star Wars universe. It sounds like a match made in Hell; nothing good will come of this.