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Game of Thrones' producers are ready to spoil the books

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In a recent panel discussion at the Oxford Union, a debating society at Oxford University, Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss confronted the question of whether their series will eventually overtake the Song of Ice and Fire books by George R. R. Martin upon which it is based.

The problem for Game of Thrones is simple — five books out of seven in the book series have been published so far, and each TV season has adapted roughly one of those books. We're coming up on season five, which will debut April 12, 2015, on HBO.

Martin has yet to publish books six and seven. The books in this series are already huge, and Martin is a slow writer. The gap between books four and five, for instance, was almost six years.

That's why planning for the TV show getting ahead of the books is so important. Benioff and Weiss have known for a while how Martin plans to end his series. Now, they might be showing off those plot points to TV viewers before book readers get to experience them.

George R. R. Martin will still have surprises in his books, don't you worry

Said Benioff at the Oxford Union panel, as first reported by Game of Thrones fansite Watchers on the Wall:

Luckily, we’ve been talking about this with George for a long time, ever since we saw this could happen, and we know where things are heading. We’ll eventually, basically, meet up at pretty much the same place where George is going. There might be a few deviations along the route, but we’re heading towards the same destination. I kind of wish that there were some things we didn’t have to spoil (for the books), but we’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place.

He later continued:

I think the thing that’s kind of fun for George is the idea that he can still have surprises for people even once they’ve watched the show through to the conclusion. There are certain things that are going to happen in the books that are different in the show, and I think people who love the show and want to know more about the characters, want to know more about the different characters who might not have made the cut for the show — will be able to turn to the books.

You can watch the entire panel discussion in the video at the top. The quotes above begin at about 34 minutes in.

There's a good chance the sixth book will be released before season six airs

Now, as fans of both the books and TV show will note, the third and fourth seasons of the series took lots of material from the book series' third installment, A Storm of Swords. But by the end of the fourth season, the TV show was already well into material from the fourth and fifth books (which run concurrently in the book series' timeline, simply focusing on different sets of characters).

Indeed, some characters, chiefly the young boy Bran, who will not be in the upcoming fifth season, are already caught up with where they are in the book series.

Martin seems as if he might be trying to get his sixth book, The Winds of Winter, in to his publisher soon. So if the show's fifth season catches all of the characters up to the books, then Winter could have at least a few months of lead time before season six starts in spring of 2016 (most likely), even if Martin doesn't turn in a manuscript until much later this year.

Can Martin finish the seventh — and final — book before the TV show ends?

The problem is and always has been the seventh and final book in the series. Given Martin's writing pace, it seems ridiculous to think he could have it out by 2017, even if he gets Winter out later this year. The shortest gap between publication dates in the series has been the one between books two and three, which was around 20 months. Every other publication gap has been at least two and a half years, with recent gaps becoming longer and longer.

Martin's best possible bet, then, is that HBO decides it wants to extend Game of Thrones past the seven seasons Benioff and Weiss believe they need to tell the story. (Indeed, HBO has said it would like 10 seasons of the show, which would give Martin more than enough time.)

This seems unlikely, however. HBO may extend series for business reasons from time to time, but the gap between what the producers want and what the network wants rarely extends as far as three seasons.

Thus, the best bet for all involved might be this: HBO convinces Benioff and Weiss to do the final season over two separate chunks of episodes, similarly to how The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men have played out in their final seasons. That would put one chunk of episodes airing in 2017 and the other in 2018. Could Martin have the final book out before that 2018 batch of episodes airs? Given his past schedules, it would be tight, but probably doable.

But the best bet is to just start steeling yourself for the scenario outlined above — for one of the only times in cinematic history, an adaptation of some books is going to spoil those books for their readers.