This dilemma of an adaptation outpacing its source material is rather unique to Game of Thrones among American TV shows. AMC’s The Walking Dead is still a few seasons away from catching up to the ongoing Robert Kirkman comic, but it has already diverged significantly from the original story in many places, so, at any rate, its direction does not seem terribly dependent upon that of the source material. The CW began adapting The 100 before the first book in Kass Morgan’s trilogy was even released, yet the show is so far from the original young adult novels in tone and content that it is arguably not an “adaptation” at all, but merely “based on” some of Morgan’s ideas. In these rather more typical cases, the shows have established their own lives (and audiences) apart from their source material.
Game of Thrones is different. Even if most of the show’s viewers never read any of Martin’s books, still there has thus far been this understanding that showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have been striving to produce a faithful adaptation of one of the more respected and literary works of modern pop culture. They have made some not insignificant alterations to certain plot points, yes, but none of them pivotal (at least until George R. R. Martin reveals otherwise….). This is not a bold new interpretation that takes liberties for the sake of being different, but one that, for the most part, accurately and respectfully represents the original story to a new audience of non-book-reading geeks. You could enjoy the show purely on its own merits, but, beyond that, fans introduced to Martin’s fantasy universe through the TV series could also have a degree of confidence that they were still getting the real Game of Thrones experience, and could, up to a point, hold conversation with book readers about plot points and characters, in the same way that one could consider themselves reasonably conversant in Harry Potter while only having seen the movies. One way or another, that understanding will soon be tossed out the window. What’s going to happen when the show catches up to the books?
Well, unusual as this case may be, it’s not entirely unprecedented. If you venture into the realm of Japanese anime, you’ll find that this sort of thing happens all the time.
In highly consumerist Japan, it’s crucial to milk an intellectual property as much as possible while it’s still at the peak of its popularity, which means that TV anime adaptations of manga (comics) very often come out while the manga is still ongoing with no end in sight. And, as an anime tends to run on a faster schedule than a manga, almost invariably the anime runs into this problem of catching up to the source material. Different shows have dealt with this in a few different ways, which may give insight into the options available to the Game of Thrones TV writers.
1. Filler Arcs
Any time an anime includes a story not taken from the manga from which it is adapted, that is what is known among fans as a “filler” episode. Longer series, such as Dragon Ball, One Piece, Naruto, and Bleach have entire filler arcs, sometimes lasting as long as twenty straight episodes or more—roughly the length of a full season on US network television, and about twice as many episodes as any season of Game of Thrones.
Whenever an anime threatens to close in on its source material, these filler arcs serve, as you might guess, to fill in time. While waiting for the manga author to get back ahead and provide the next part of the story for them to adapt, the anime writers make up their own tangential episodes. They do plan far enough ahead, so that it doesn’t usually come down to them literally waiting on the author to write the next arc. But, point is, filler arcs serve to slow things down, so that they never catch up.
I should mention, these filler arcs are almost universally despised, usually justifiably so. Anime adaptations tend to hew very close to the original manga, so any time the television writers deviate and insert their own original stories, the results really stick out, and not in a good way. I can’t think of any filler arc that is well-regarded. I’ve even come across cases where a viewer never knew that an anime was adapted from a manga, yet still they could identify a filler arc as noticeably weaker, to the extent of seeming of dubious authorship. “Stall for time” is not exactly the highest of artistic ambitions, after all. Filler episodes have to be written so as to leave nothing out of place for when the real story—the manga story—resumes, which means, in other words, that nothing of any consequence or permanence can occur during these filler arcs; the events will likely never even be referenced again, except perhaps in another filler arc down the road. Someone even created a website designed just to list which episodes of various series are filler, so that viewers can know to skip them. In the worst case, a filler arc can drag on for so long and be so poorly received that the show actually gets canceled before it can get back to adapting the manga. That’s what happened to Rurouni Kenshin, whose back 33 episodes (out of 95 total) were all filler.
The nearest equivalent in American television that I can think of is the hospital arc on The Walking Dead, which had no basis in the comics and arguably could have been excised without any significant effect on the show’s overall trajectory. Another possible example is the Spartacus: Gods of the Arena prequel miniseries, which did end up very much essential to the Spartacus storyline, but originally came about because the producers needed to stall for time while waiting for their lead actor to recover from cancer treatment (which, unfortunately, he never did). Neither of these comparisons is quite apt, because The Walking Dead was only ever a loose adaptation, and Spartacus was never an adaptation at all (well, maybe a loose adaptation of history….). Furthermore, whereas anime adaptations tend to be fairly workmanlike in faithfully translating the manga author’s vision to screen (hence why the writers seem completely lost whenever they stop following that vision), successful showrunners in the US tend to be rock star storytellers in their own right, so perhaps we could trust Benioff and Weiss not to sink the Game of Thrones show even in the absence of George R. R. Martin to hold their hands.
If Game of Thrones were to go this route—filling time with story arcs not directly adapted from the books—the difficulty is that there is no telling how long the filler arcs might have to drag out. Manga chapters are usually released on a weekly schedule, so new material would be continuously pumped out for the anime to adapt. New Game of Thrones books come out on a far less regular schedule, so the show’s writers might potentially have to hold down the fort for years before Martin gives them more material to adapt. Indeed, if the seventh book were, as projected, not to come out until the 2020s, the TV series would by then have to be into or approaching its own teen years, which would be too ridiculous even to consider. It is far more likely that, if the TV show were to truly run out of book material to adapt, then a “filler arc” would carry it the rest of the way to its conclusion (which would come before the end of the book series). That’s something that happens in anime also—TV writers having to come up with their own alternate ending, because the anime wraps before the manga finishes.
2. The Alternate Ending
The behemoth epics of the manga world—Dragon Ball, One Piece, Naruto—get anime adaptations spanning multiple hundreds of episodes (a good quarter or more of which are filler), but that is not exactly the norm. Titles with less massive readerships are only commissioned for specific finite episode orders (usually a couple dozen, or even a mere dozen), with no possibility of an extension, regardless of how long the manga is expected to run. In these cases, stalling for time is not an option. Catching up to the source material might not even be the issue, but, all the same, they run into the problem of “what to do when you know your initially faithful adaptation isn’t going to be able to follow the source material to its end.” It would seem the anime writers have no choice but to come up with their own ending… or not (more on that later).
In the best case, the TV writers can craft their own ending that still leaves viewers satisfied that they got a complete and self-contained story. Take the 2003-2004 Fullmetal Alchemist anime, the entire back half of which was technically “filler” (in the sense that it was not based on the manga), including the ending. The writers for that show were prudent enough and ambitious enough to plan ahead for taking the story in their own direction, so that that back half felt 1) consistent, both in content and in quality, with the earlier parts that were adapted from the manga, and 2) finished and final, even though the source material at the time was far from it.
3. The Non-Ending
It doesn’t always come together that neatly. More commonly we end up with shows closing on that “or not” note. Given, say, twenty or so episodes to adapt a manga that is still running strong with no end in sight, often they will just faithfully adapt twenty episodes’ worth of story, then abruptly end, leaving threads hanging wherever they were when the episodes ran out. Berserk, Claymore, and Fruits Basket are examples of anime that ended their runs in the middle of telling their stories. Sometimes they’ll tack on a half-assed final scene that amounts to a “and life goes on” note to semi-formally sign off on, just to let the viewers know that, yes, the show is over, even if the story isn’t. But nothing can really soften how blatantly and frustratingly unfinished these shows feel (except maybe picking up the manga to get the rest of the story).
When an anime ends like this, the feeling is certainly comparable to when an American TV show gets canceled, with the difference being that usually the anime staff knew all along that they were only ever getting so many episodes to work with, that the story they were telling was always going to be incomplete. So why would they ever script a show to end by design on a cliffhanger? Well, remember that, if a manga is getting an anime adaptation at all, it means that the manga is hot right now. So these intentionally incomplete anime are sometimes meant, to some extent, to promote the manga, not to be complete works unto themselves.
I can’t see any reason why the Game of Thrones TV series would ever go this route—production closing down mid-story just because they decided they’d hit a good round number. There’s a greater likelihood that the show would be actually canceled, although I don’t seriously see that happening either.
4. Going On Hiatus
It’s rare, but sometimes anime that end in the middle of adapting a manga can resume later—years later even—to cover the rest of the story. Inuyasha and Attack on Titan are two examples.
This isn’t something that is generally planned out in advance. In the case of Inuyasha—another one of those epics, whose original run lasted 167 episodes—they went with filler arcs for a long time to extend the life of the show, while the manga author took her time with the source material. After catching up to the manga, the anime eventually became so plodding and repetitive that they decided it was best just to halt production, even though the manga was still running and selling. It ended up taking a full five years—longer than the entire span of the original anime’s run—for the sequel series to arrive. There’s no way they could have planned (and had all cast and crew contractually obligated) that far ahead. Rather, after the manga finally concluded, they gauged that interest was still high enough to justify producing a second anime (much shorter this time, thanks to its being filler-free) to adapt the rest of the story.
As for Attack on Titan, the manga was already very popular when the anime began, yet still a long way from peaking, so the producers could plan things out a little differently. The first season of the anime adapted 25 episodes’ worth of manga, then, instead of degrading it with filler stories, they simply decided to take a three-year hiatus mid-story, confident that the audience would still be there when the anime resumed. In fact, the second season still hasn’t arrived at the time of this writing (it’s due to begin next year), so even now we have no guarantees that everything will go as planned.
Take the case of Nana. The producers of the Nana anime were explicit in their intention not to have any filler episodes, such was their respect for manga author Ai Yazawa and for the integrity of the source material. The anime stopped at 47 episodes, right as it caught up to the manga, but, unusually, both the manga publisher and anime producer not only left the door open for a second series, but openly affirmed that they were just waiting for Yazawa to finish the manga and provide the rest of the story to adapt. But then the manga itself went on hiatus, and remains so six years on. It is now eight years since the Nana anime ended unresolved, and all but the most optimistic fans have now accepted that, rather than a hiatus, this has become simply another example of “the non-ending.”
Extended breaks on American television are uncommon but not unprecedented. Series that have taken more than a year off between seasons for creative reasons include The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Louie. During the recent writers’ strike of 2007-08, many shows also went off-air longer than usual, with some, such as 24, effectively forced to miss an entire season. And then there are the shows that have seemingly ended, only to be resurrected years later, such as Arrested Development, and now apparently The X-Files and maybe even Twin Peaks. That last one, if it comes to pass, would be picking up the story 25 years after the original series was left unfinished.
None of these are exactly comparable to Game of Thrones, since none of them are adaptations. Furthermore, while I imagine many more hardcore fans could bear to go more than a year between seasons, if it meant preserving the integrity of the adaptation, there is no way that the show could go off-air for the multiple years that would be required to allow George R. R. Martin to get back ahead of it.
5. The Do-Over
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is the only example I can think of of “the do-over.” Five years after the first Fullmetal Alchemist anime, and with the end of the manga then in sight, a second anime series was commissioned. This was vaguely similar to a hiatus situation, with the intention being to finally adapt the rest of the story. Except that the Brotherhood series was not picking up where the first series left off (which was basically impossible, given how it ended, as discussed earlier), but instead was newly adapting the manga all over again from the beginning and with a different staff.
The early episodes of Brotherhood felt painfully redundant for returning viewers, since the first Fullmetal Alchemist anime had already fairly faithfully adapted those same chapters of the manga. But that would not be an issue for new fans experiencing the story for the first time through Brotherhood. I think the do-over worked out ideally for those viewers, who will get to experience Fullmetal Alchemist the preferred way in its preferred form, Brotherhood, and for whom the first anime should be merely a curious footnote that they need never look into. Although I said earlier that that first series left viewers satisfied at the time with its alternate ending, the fact is, I have already met people who only watched Brotherhood, and when I start to describe to them the differences in the first anime (“So, there was no Pride, but Wrath was Pride and not Wrath. And their Wrath was this evil androgynous boy—kind of like a shorter Envy—who was running around with Ed’s missing arm and leg.”), it all just seems so stupid in hindsight and totally typical of filler.
This is something that I could actually see happening with Game of Thrones—a second adaptation, with a different cast and crew, after the book series has concluded. I’m not saying it’s likely, but it’s conceivable. Of course, if it ever were to happen, it would probably be decades from now, and irrelevant to the discussion of what to do about this current series.
So it doesn’t look like most of these outcomes would be desirable for Game of Thrones. It’s debatable to what extent they’ve ever worked for anime. The takeaway, going by these anime precedents, seems to be that there is no good, practical way to handle this sort of situation, and fans will almost always end up disappointed. My prediction is that the Game of Thrones TV series will go the alternate ending route, which is the only avenue that could satisfy at least some segment of the fans—viewers who don't care about and will never read the books. Maybe there could also be some filler arcs thrown in here and there, to buy some time to give them the opportunity to at least adapt the sixth book, though the seventh is clearly out of the question. I really don't see there being any other way this can go.
The one thing that Benioff and Weiss do have, with Game of Thrones, which almost no anime has ever had, is back-and-forth access to an author who claims to have some idea how his story will end. So it’s possible that the source material will be there for them to adapt; it just won’t be available to the public in book form until after they’ve already adapted it for the TV series. This is where some book-first fans are getting into a panic, since they’re afraid that the show will spoil the books for them. But that’s supposing that 1) Benioff and Weiss really are working that closely with Martin, 2) Martin really has plot points planned out that far ahead, and 3) Martin won’t later change his mind about any of these plot points for his books—none of which, in my opinion, are safe assumptions.
The nearest comparison in anime may be Trigun. If you put the anime and manga side by side, this would, at first glance and many years removed from the show’s production, appear to be just a case of an anime alternate ending. But the history of Trigun is more complicated than that. It was actually the manga that was canceled mid-story, before the anime even began airing. The manga did get picked back up later, but, for a while there, author Yasuhiro Nightow didn't know if his manga would ever have an ending. Meanwhile, production on the anime was underway, and, without a complete story to adapt, the show had to find its own way down the final stretch. The anime ending was climactic and moderately conclusive, and included the death of a major character who was, at that time, still alive and well in the manga. Indeed, that character lived on in the manga for several more years... and then died there too.
Although the precise details of the two death scenes differed, the broad circumstances and emotional beats were remarkably similar, and, when all was said and done, this was the only major character death in either version of the story. So, was this character's death something that Nightow planned all along and communicated to the anime writers early on, and did the adaptation thus end up spoiling the manga? Or was Nightow perhaps influenced by the anime, after it got ahead of him—a case of the adaptation taking the lead and guiding the source material (which could happen with Game of Thrones)? Or was it all just a coincidence, which fans should try not to worry about, as they simply enjoy the story in whichever form they prefer (or each story on its own terms)?