Tower of the Hand

The Franchise of Ice and Fire

Tags: Essay
11/21/2014 1:22:00 PM ET

To say that A Song of Ice and Fire is bigger than it ever has been before is a quite the understatement.

Right this moment, an enthusiastic audience member can sample the series's overarching narrative in book, television, or comic book form. He can further access the world thanks to an array of historical novellas, poster books and calendars, and, most recently - and grandiosely - The World of Ice & Fire. He can make the literary landscape interactive thanks to card games and (terrible) videogames, edible via cookbooks and official beers, aural via soundtracks (or inspired-by music), and tangible via figurines and action figures. There's even a bevy of secondary texts - such as our own - to further refine and deepen his views and understanding of the story.

ironmanthrone.jpgHow might the MCU set the future of the ASOIAF franchise? (Artist: killgannon via ShirtRater)

ASOIAF, in short, is one of the biggest franchises currently in the mainstream, working its way up to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars at the pop-culture counter (whether it fully gets there or not, of course, is an entirely different story, one that will have to wait at least another few years before being able to be fully told). And with a seventh season of Game of Thrones, a new (and hopefully good!) videogame from Telltale, and, even, future television and filmic properties - which may or may not tie into Ice and Fire to one degree or another - all on the horizon, George R.R. Martin's intellectual property isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Which begs the question: just what form should its permanency (and, therefore, its cultural relevancy) take, anyway? Practiced media consumers of the 21st century - and the conglomerate studios that feed them - have helped refine the shape and form of franchises into an art form all their own; for the first time in human history, they connect several disparate formats into one unified whole and orchestrate decades-long release schedules that rival military sophistication and precision. It's not enough anymore to have a thoroughly ad hoc formula in place, as has so clearly been the case with ASOIAF up until the recent, HBO era; there needs to be a game plan in place, particularly if George R.R. Martin or his cable and publisher overlords intend for it to be a continual and living presence within the popular consciousness (or especially, it should [perhaps] be said, in case the core literary narrative ends up being incomplete).

As it stands now, A Song of Ice and Fire is what can best be called a traditional franchise, but what is likely to soon be described as a fractured franchise - several different properties co-exist without ever officially acknowledging one another. There are innumerable examples from which to pick over the course of the past several decades, ranging from the big (Star Trek, whose novels, comics, and videogames don't once connect with the five television shows, and whose feature film series is even broken up into three separate sub-series) to the small (The Crow brandishes both a movie and TV version of its first comic book miniseries, which is not to be confused with the plethora of additional comics and novels that have since been released). It's easy to see how such a model has been the de facto standard for so long, particularly for those properties, like ASOIAF, that are adaptations to begin with - and it's even easier to see how such an arrangement is intrinsically disappointing, leaving both plot and character development comparatively limited and the audience's enjoyment just as divided as the number of mutually-exclusive properties.

The most recent development on the IP front, however, has popularly been dubbed the shared universe, which the nascent Marvel Studios has spearheaded and popularized in the form of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In this paradigm, all motion picture releases co-exist and interact with one another, resulting in plot points, locations, and, even, characters popping up from one installment to the next, regardless of which sub-franchise it may be part of - but the true value rests in the universe's ability to tell one single overarching story across all participating properties, creating something of a meta-franchise (exactly how the various Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America films all pay off in the Avengers team-up extraordinaire). And as Marvel's success has exponentially increased, so, too, has its Cinematic Universe's reach; both short films (distributed as bonuses on the main entries' Blu-ray releases) and, even, television shows have been added to the roster, getting to the point where, now, one can indulge in her Marvel fix literally year-round. Just as the MCU's story progresses in real-time, audience members can check in on that narrative in real-time, as well. (Imagine Westeros being set up that way!)

But, pulling out to an even larger macro scale, the MCU doesn't span the gulf between its visual and literary counterparts; all several hundred monthly (and limited) titles that comprise the Marvel (Comics) Universe are left out in the cold, relegated to their own parallel reality (which, in turn, is broken down into even more parallel realities, such as the Ultimate Marvel Universe). For as much progress as the shared universe has made under Marvel Studios's watch, it's still, at this point in time, fundamentally operating under the old-guard methodology.

This is worth mentioning due to two main reasons. First and foremost, it provides the most realistic model of how Martin and his producing partners could make the transition to a living, continuous universe with Ice and Fire. This is, after all, exactly the response that the brand-new, Disney-owned Lucasfilm has opted to take with its Star Wars franchise, jettisoning its 23-year-old Expanded Universe of novels, comic books, videogames, and various television properties in exchange for a clean, shared-universe slate - a process which has already begun with the Star Wars: Rebels animated series and will use the upcoming filmic trilogy (that's Episodes VII through IX, for all those who can't count non-linearly) as its anchor. All the just-releasing novels and the slew of upcoming comics - which will now be handled by Disney-owned Marvel, of course - will tie everything up with a Force-sensitive bow.

(The truly telling element of this reboot, however, is not the fact that it's simply happening, but the exact method of how it's being handled: rather than having an arbitrary group of editors at one book publisher or another scurry about, trying to keep all the various authors on the same page, a new Story Group has been formed at Lucasfilm headquarters to preside over the mythology as a whole, including, even, the movies. It's easy seeing Martin do this, particularly since (a) that's essentially what his expanded contract with HBO calls for, and (b) he's already done this with Elio and Linda on The World of Ice & Fire.)

Secondly, the Marvel Cinematic/Comic Universe divide could very well serve as an evolutionary stepping stone, allowing all subsequent life forms to piggyback off of its hard work to break through to the next paradigm (although this may end up being wishful thinking; success may work this way in nature, but it's not typically how it operates in Hollywood, whose reproductive processes tend to revolve around cloning instead of birthing iterative offspring). As such, instead of having the various media be devoted to telling different versions of the exact same narrative scenarios, imagine them branching off in different (and cohesive) directions, with, say, the books being the domain of history, containing flashbacks to past events and prophecies of future developments, while the television screen focuses on the more action-intensive facets of Westeros's various wars or the always amusing antics of the Others.

If George and company really wanted to push the (meta) franchise envelope, however, they could eliminate repetitive narrative elements altogether; in this way, the story of Harrenhal, for example, could be divided amongst the various properties, with the comics being devoted to the story of the Bloody Mummers while the HBO series focuses on the relationship of Arya Stark and Lord Tywin Lannister. (Yes, TWOIAF could still regale us with convoluted tales of the castle's storied history.)

Should Martin be forced into any such retooling of his sweeping saga at all? That answer is almost definitely no, but the bigger question at hand may have to do more with the vagaries - and self-perpetuating nature - of success and the siren call of that fickle creature, legacy, than with any other consideration or motivation.

All of which, of course, isn't to mention the insatiable desire of that enthusiastic audience member in the first place.

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