August 1996: A Game of Thrones Debuts

George R. R. Martin at Worldcon 75, Helsinki, before the Hugo Awards.
George R. R. Martin at Worldcon 75, Helsinki, before the Hugo Awards.
Henry Söderlund, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

George R.R. Martin spent a decade in television before realizing he wanted nothing more to do with it. The fantasy author, who had won multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards for his fiction in the 1970s and early 1980s, had grown tired of having budgetary restrictions limit the scope of his work. And if there was money, there was little time: As a staff writer and producer for the CBS series Beauty and the Beast, Martin knew he had 46 minutes to tell a cogent story. It wasn’t nearly enough.

Calling it a “reaction” to his 10 years in TV, in 1991 Martin began to sketch out a series of fantasy novels that would feature hundreds of characters, sprawling scope, and no network ceiling. When the 704-page A Game of Thrones hit shelves on August 1, 1996, it received positive notices and respectable sales, but there was little hint of the hysteria that would follow.

 

Born in 1948, Martin attended Northwestern University and pursued degrees in journalism. At 21, he sold his first piece of fiction to the anthology magazine Galaxy; a novel, Dying of the Light, followed in 1977. His fantasy was wide in scope, but had elements of the mundane to ground his stories. Other writers, Martin once observed, embraced the bigger tropes but didn’t "have the dogs in the halls of the castles scrapping under the table.” Martin preferred a lived-in approach.

In 1985, Martin was engaged as a staff writer for the CBS revival of The Twilight Zone and got his first taste of the compromises of television. Adapting a Roger Zelazny story titled “The Last Defender of Camelot,” Martin had scripted a faithful recreation of the climax where a swordsman is fighting against an enchanted, empty suit of armor near Stonehenge.

“Then the line producer calls me in and says, you can have Stonehenge or you can have horses, but you cannot have horses and Stonehenge,” Martin told TIME in 2011, “because there is no Stonehenge around here and we’re going to have to build that out of papier-mâché on the sound stage. And if we bring horses there, when they start galloping around, the rocks will shake and fall down.”

The practical demands of TV eventually wore on Martin’s nerves—even worse was the fact that he could toil on a project and then not even see it produced. On the development deals following his work on Beauty and the Beast, Martin told January magazine that “nothing ever got made … It was one of the things that ultimately frustrated me and drove me back to books.”

 

In 1991, Martin was beginning work on an unrelated science-fiction title, Avalon, when an idea popped into his head: dire wolf puppies in a summer snow. An entire chapter followed, and Martin was soon working on the book every spare moment he could. In 1993, he wrote a letter to his agent updating him on what he was now calling A Game of Thrones:

“The enmity between the great houses of Lannister and Stark [will play] out in a cycle of plot, counterplot, ambition, murder, and revenge, with the iron throne of the Seven Kingdoms as the ultimate prize … a second and greater threat … where the Dothraki horselords mass their barbarian hordes for a great invasion of the Seven Kingdoms, led by the fierce and beautiful Daenerys Stormborn … where half-forgotten demons out of legend, the inhuman others, raise cold legions of the undead and the neverborn.”

At the time, Martin thought a trilogy would be sufficient to tell his story, which is how the project was shopped. Of the four publishers interested, Bantam Books made the best offer, assigning editor Anne Groell to the series. Groell, who had seen some of Martin’s work while it was in circulation, found that even non-fantasy fans working at the publishing house were talking about it. A Game of Thrones seemed like a sure thing. And if it wasn't, Martin figured it wouldn't take much time to complete. "I ought to finish ... by 1998," he told an Omni Visions chat room in 1996.

Getty Images

While sales were respectable for Bantam’s first printing—known by collectors for its silver-foil cover—A Game of Thrones was not a commercial hit. When Martin showed up for book signings, some stores would be virtually empty. At one Dallas location, Martin perked up when he saw hundreds of people lining up. But he soon realized they were after a new title in the Clifford, the Big Red Dog series.

Readers and independent booksellers continued to pass around copies to friends, and those friends handed them over to others in a kind of literary proselytizing. As Martin added to the saga—three books became five, then a plan for seven—the audience grew. By 2011, more than 15 million copies of A Song of Ice and Fire, the blanket name for the series, had been sold. 

In 2000, Martin was asked if the reason he returned to books—the spotty predictability of film and television—might one day lead him back by offering to adapt Thrones. “I have had some interest in the book, yes,” he answered. “I don't know if anything is going to come of it.”

Save Up to 93 Percent on 8 Gaming Accessories and Enter to Win a Free Nintendo Switch Bundle

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The 12 Best Stephen King Movies and TV Shows You Can Stream Right Now

Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone (1983).
Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone (1983).
Paramount Home Entertainment

In 2017 Andy Muschietti's It—an adaptation of horror legend Stephen King’s 1986 novel—became the highest-grossing horror film of all time. It was a fitting badge of honor for King, the prolific horror novelist who has seen many of his books and stories transferred to film, often with only mixed success.

Fortunately, there's still plenty of King-inspired material that lives up to his name. Take a look at 12 movies and television shows currently streaming that capture the essence of King’s work.

1. Carrie (1976)

The first Hollywood adaptation of King’s work—from his very first novel published in 1974—is drenched in dread. As high school wallflower Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) struggles with an overbearing mother and vindictive mean-girl classmates, her latent telekinetic powers begin bubbling to the surface. When she's pushed too far, Carrie delivers a prom night no one will soon forget.

Where to stream it: $3.99 on Amazon Prime

2. Creepshow 2 (1987)

A macabre King vibe inspired this anthology, a sequel to 1982's Creepshow that the writer collaborated on with horror master George A. Romero. The standout: "The Raft," about a group of college kids who find a sentient sludge at a lake that makes their weekend getaway anything but relaxing.

Where to stream it: Amazon Prime

3. 11.22.63 (2016)

King’s revisionist take on the Kennedy assassination comes to life in this Hulu original series. James Franco stars as a professor who discovers he can travel back in time to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting at the motorcade in Dallas. Unfortunately, those heroics have consequences in the future.

Where to stream it: Hulu

4. Gerald’s Game (2017)

Carla Gugino’s weekend getaway with her husband turns into an endurance test when she finds herself alone and handcuffed to a bed. Slowly, creeping horrors both real and imagined begin to materialize. To keep her sanity—and her life—she’ll need to escape by any means necessary.

Where to stream it: Netflix

5. In the Tall Grass (2019)

King's 2012 novella—co-written with his son, Joe Hill—is a classic King conceit of taking the mundane and making it terrifying. After chasing a boy into a thick patch of farm land grass, two siblings realize that it harbors dangerous and mystifying entities. Patrick Wilson co-stars.

Where to stream it: Netflix

6. Christine (1983)

In what may be some kind of record, this 1983 adaptation of the King novel was released the same year as its source material. Teenage outcast Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) buys a 1958 Plymouth Fury, a car that appears to have its own plans for Arnie and the high school bullies taunting him.

Where to stream it: $3.99 on Amazon Prime

7. The Shining (1980)

Widely regarded as the best King adaptation of all time, this Stanley Kubrick film is actually not all that well-liked by King himself: He felt it failed to capture key elements of his 1977 novel (in 1997, King remade it as a miniseries starring Steven Weber). But it’s an undeniably rich and evocative horror show, with writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) slowly becoming unwound as he and his family settle in for an isolated winter at the Overlook Hotel.

Where to stream it: $3.99 on Amazon Prime

8. The Mist (2007)

King's 1980 novella casts a group of strangers who are trapped in a grocery store, a malevolent mist outside seemingly obscuring monstrous predators. As their peril increases, the danger inside becomes just as threatening. The ending, changed from King's own, remains one of the biggest gut-punch twists in film.

Where to watch it: $3.99 on Amazon Prime

9. The Dark Half (1993)

King's 1989 novel about a writer who has to fend off a physical manifestation of his pseudonym is brought to eerie life by Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

10. The Dead Zone (1983)

Christopher Walken has the weight of the world on his shoulders as Johnny Smith, a teacher who emerges from a coma with psychic powers. When he encounters a power-mad politician (Martin Sheen) with destructive tendencies, Johnny must decide whether to take drastic action. King's 1979 novel also inspired a USA Network television series starring Anthony Michael Hall, which is available on Amazon Prime.

Where to stream it: Amazon Prime

11. Children of the Corn (1984)

King's short story from 1978's Night Shift collection imagines a small town in which children are free to explore their most violent impulses without any parental supervision. Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton are a couple who stumble upon their community and quickly come to regret it.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

12. Stephen King's A Good Marriage (2014)

When Joan Allen finds some incriminating evidence pointing to her perfect husband (played by Anthony LaPaglia) being a serial killer, she must decide between the love of her life and a monster who takes lives. The film is based on the novella of the same name in King's 2010 collection Full Dark, No Stars.

Where to stream it: Amazon Prime

This story has been updated for 2020.