Credit: HBO

The third season is complete. The fourth is coming. Yet HBO’s Game of Thrones faces a potentially complicated future. Below Thrones showrunners, author George R.R. Martin and HBO’s programming president talk to EW about how the hit series might navigate the franchise’s uniquely twisting road ahead. “There is a ticking clock here,” says writer-executive producer David Benioff.

Sunday’s finale cut off the action roughly two-thirds of the way through George R.R. Martin’s third Ice and Fire novel, A Storm of Swords. There are two more books left unexplored (A Feast for Crows, A Dance With Dragons), which will present a few manageable adaptation challenges. Martin is working on his sixth book (The Winds of Winter) and plans a seventh (A Dream of Spring), but there’s no guarantee either will be ready in time for Thrones’ annual production schedule, or even that the seventh novel will be Martin’s last entry in the series.

Season four, at least, should be relatively straight-forward. Martin’s story provides a strong map for the near-term.

Adapting Feast is more tricky. While Book 3 is the runaway fan favorite of the Ice and Fire saga, Book 4 is considered the weakest. Feast included new characters and tangents while omitting some beloved names like Tyrion, Jon and Daenerys. Since the events in Book 5 largely overlap with Book 4, Thrones will start drawing heavily from both novels at the same time to maintain chronological consistency. Some elements of Book 4 could (and probably should) remain on the page for Thrones to continue effectively serving its sprawling universe of current storylines and characters.

“I don’t think we want to answer specifically what we’re keeping and dropping, but we do take your point,” Benioff said when asked about Book 4’s content. “The series has already reached a point where there are so many characters, particularly in season three we’re introducing so many new ones, we run the risk of bursting at the seams as we try to cram every single subplot and all the various characters and it becomes impossible on a budgetary level and it becomes impossible on an episode-basis to jump around every few minutes to 30 different characters and locations. We don’t want to do that, and recognize that as a real risk and we will take steps not to fall into that trap.”

Quipped Benioff’s fellow showrunner Dan Weiss: “Time for negative population growth.”

Of greater concern is the pace of books vs. seasons. It’s an issue that fans pointed out from the moment the show was greenlit and now even HBO is beginning to realize there could be an issue. Book 5 took Martin six years to write and it was released in 2011. “I finally understand fans’ fear — which I didn’t a couple years ago: What if the storytelling catches up to the books?,” says HBO programming president Michael Lombardo. “Let’s all hope and pray that’s not going to be a problem”

Martin, for one, isn’t worried. The way the author sees it, producers have plenty of material to keep Thrones rolling. “I think the odds against that happening are very long,” Martin says when asked about the show catching up to his novels. “I still have a lead of several gigantic books. If they include everything in the books, I don’t think they’re going to catch up with me. If they do, we’ll have some interesting discussions.”

Martin points to Starz’ Spartacus, which interrupted its main storyline with a prequel season. As it so happens, Martin has discussed with HBO the possibility of developing a series based on his Hedge Knight books, which are prequels to Ice and Fire.

Yet HBO and Thrones producers are wary of stretching the series, for both monetary and creative reasons.

NEXT: ‘I don’t think I’d be happy with that’

“We can’t wait too long because of the kids,” Benioff says. “Issac’s [Hempsted Wright] voice is changing. Everyone is getting bigger. We have this wonderful cast, but we don’t have an infinite amount of time … We don’t want to become a show that outstays its welcome and tries to turn each book into three seasons. Part of what we love about these books and the show is this sense of momentum and building toward something. If we tried to turn this into a 10-season show we’d strangle the golden goose.”

Or behead it. Another potential hurdle is salary negotiations with the cast. This is normally not a huge deal, but Thrones has an extremely large cast (roughly 25 series regulars) and is very successful. If the cast held out for large raises once their contracts expire, their demands could shorten the show’s eventual lifespan. Lombardo is confident the production will clear this one.

“We’ve managed this before with successful shows like The Sopranos,” Lombardo says. “That’s a journey we’re ready for. When there’s great storytelling, actors will continue to want to perform their roles. The challenges here are more in the storytelling.”

If the production does reach a crux point — if the fifth or sixth season wraps, say, and there’s no new book on the shelf, well … you might then see some maneuvering that would impress even Tywin Lannister. Martin has told the showrunners his top-secret end-game plan for Ice and Fire, but wouldn’t be thrilled with the TV series progressing into that territory before he published his books. “I don’t think I’d be happy with that,” the author says. And neither would the producers. “We still have our fingers crossed that George will get there,” Weiss says. “That’s what’s best for us, it’s what’s best for the fans. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.” Adds Benioff: “Ideally the books come out first.”

There are alternative possible tactics to keep the show on track, too.

Thrones could take a hiatus to let Martin catch up. That would be very expensive, or very risky — TV shows are like sharks, they have to keep moving forward to survive. You either have to pay actors or release them from their contracts (showrunners too, for that matter). Once released, there’s no assurance HBO could book the show’s talent again (Josh Holloway as Jaime Lannister, anyone?).

A better option: Thrones could segue to periodic movies released into theaters. HBO would strongly prefer to keep Thrones on the small screen, however. “I would never say it wouldn’t make sense to explore it because that would be foolhardy,” Lombardo says. “We’re always open to a conversation, we’re always open to a smart way of doing something that’s true to the show and honors the fans. It would have to make sense for everybody — for HBO, for the fans and for the show. At this point, there’s no plans to do that.”

There’s been one report quoting a producer that Thrones aims for seven seasons, ultimately. That’s a nice number, but it’s by no means decided at this point.

And so everything comes back around to the person who started this saga — Martin. You feel reluctant to ask the author how far along he is on his new book. It’s such pestering question, one he’s asked constantly. Martin was besieged by fan impatience for years leading up to the publication of Dragons. Now that Thrones is a worldwide smash, that pressure has only magnified. Every online story posted on anything the man says is accompanied by fan comments demanding he get back to writing Ice and Fire. It’s like having an impatient editor who is pressing you to meet a deadline — only there’s millions of them.

Still, fair or not, you must ask too: So …. how’s that next book coming?

“I’ve given up answering that question,” says Martin, with only a hint of terseness. “I’m working on it and it will be done when it’s done. Hopefully it won’t be as long of a wait as the last book.”

Martin sounds pretty confident the saga will finish with the seventh book, though he still leaves open the possibility of an eighth. “I have a story to tell; the number of books is almost irrelevant,” he says. “I’ll do that in as many books as required. I’m still projecting it as seven.”

Keep in mind, as all point out, this books vs. seasons hand-wringing is still not an issue, and may never be one. Thrones has a good two or three years before any discussions along these lines would even need to hypothetically take place.

As of today, only one thing is certain. Ready or not, winter is coming.

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Game of Thrones

HBO's epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.

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