How HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel breaks new ground while honoring canon

House of the Dragon. Photograph by Ollie Upton / HBO
House of the Dragon. Photograph by Ollie Upton / HBO /

House of the Dragon is set some 200 years before Game of Thrones, and Westeros is a very different place…the Targaryens are in power, dragons rule the skies, and there’s been peace for generations.

And yet, much is the same. We still hang out in the Red Keep of King’s Landing, there are still a lot of white-blonde wigs, and the Iron Throne is still there…although it’s different than it is in the original show. This older Iron Throne is festooned with swords all around, bringing it closer to the Marc Simonetti illustration preferred by A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin. And yet, the Iron Throne we know is still there in the center. It’s one of many examples of showrunner Ryan Condal forging his own path while still keeping faith with the original series.

“I think [original Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss] created this very iconic thing,” Condal told Vanity Fair. “Just the silhouette of that shape, everybody now knows what it is. It’s as iconic as a lightsaber in Star Wars. What we wanted to do is honor that, but also tell the story of a more decadent time, and also communicate that 200 years has passed. If you look very closely, you’ll see that the original throne is there. It’s just added to and augmented, which suggests that history changes things at some point in the intervening time.”

"[W]e did want to do this really grand thing that the Simonetti painting is very famous for. The problem was, from a production perspective, if you put one actor up that high and everybody else is down below, it’s very hard to be with the king. You’ll always be shooting up his nose or over his shoulder, down at the people. You would have to shout. You wouldn’t get great interaction. We wanted to service grandness, decadence, but in a way that was production-friendly and didn’t have our [cinematographers] tearing their hair out."

Another big change involves the dragons. By the time of Game of Thrones, they’ve died out until Daenerys births three new ones. In House of the Dragon, they’re everywhere, to the point where most people in King’s Landing don’t even look up when one flies overhead. “King’s Landing is like living near a military base,” Condal explained. “If you go down by San Diego, you see all this bizarre aircraft flying overhead, and all the people that aren’t from there are like, ‘Oh, that’s an Osprey! That’s amazing!’ Other people are just like, ‘Yeah, that happens every day.’ I think that’s the thing we were going for.”

The battle of the birthing bed

House of the Dragon will also continue the Game of Thrones tradition of having disturbingly graphic scenes, although again, not in the way we’re used to. In the premiere of House of the Dragon, there’s a scene where Aemma Arryn, the wife of King Viserys I Targaryen, gives birth to a son, Baelon. Unfortunately, both mother and child die in the process. That’s not something we ever saw up close in Game of Thrones.

“Really, this particular story is Viserys’s story,” Condal said. “It’s kicked off by him believing that he’s going to have a new male son after trying for years and years, and stillbirths and miscarriages, and all the hell that [his wife Queen Aemma] has been through as a mother. Finally the answer is going to come. He’s very confident and sure of it. Just like that, mother and son die in childbirth. Suddenly, everything changes and flips the chess table.”

George R.R. Martin, who was with Condal in this interview, also weighed in. “That scene is…you don’t want to use the word ‘enjoyable’ for a scene like that, but it’s incredibly powerful. It’s visceral and it’ll rip your heart out and throw it on the floor. It has the kind of impact that the Red Wedding had. It’s a beautifully done scene of something horrible.”

Beware SPOILERS: House of the Dragon sheds new light on a Game of Thrones prophecy

Martin is very much involved in House of the Dragon, and contributed some key aspects. That includes one element that certain critics have called “high ASOIAF heresy.” We won’t spoil it, but Martin and Condal give you a pretty good idea of what it involves. “I think the Game of Thrones nerds were very interested and intrigued and compelled by the secret that Viserys tells [his daughter and heir Rhaenyra], connecting Aegon [the first king of the family and the original Westeros conqueror] with the prophecies that we know about the Long Night and the Others [a.k.a. the White Walkers] and the Night King coming out of the North—and how maybe the Targaryen dynasty was aware of it long before we think they were,” Condal said.

"I think they were very intrigued by that. A lot of them said I committed A Song of Ice and Fire heresy, but I did tell them: “That came from George.” I reassured everybody."

Again, I’m trying to be vague — we’ll all learn this soon enough — but the prophecy in question is something that Martin has alluded to in his Song of Ice and Fire books, albeit obliquely. “It’s mentioned here and there—in connection with Prince Rhaegar, for example [the brother of Daenerys, played on Game of Thrones by Wilf Scolding],” Martin said. “I mean, it’s such a sprawling thing now. In the Dunk and Egg stories [about a future king, ‘Egg,’ a.k.a. Aegon V], there’s one of Egg’s brothers who has these prophetic dreams, which of course he can’t handle. He had become a drunkard because they freaked him out. If you go all the way back to Daenys the Dreamer, why did she leave? She saw the Doom of Valyria coming. All of this is part of it, but I’m still two books away from the ending, so I haven’t fully explained it all yet.”

So all of this is based on Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire, just expanded and blown out. “[What] Ryan and his team of writers have been doing great so far is to do an expansion that does not contradict the book,” Martin said. “I mean, you can add a lot of things. You can add scenes. You can even add some characters. But you can’t do anything that affects the structure—or otherwise, three or four books later, you’re going to be in trouble.”

George R.R. Martin has “given up” predicting the release date of The Winds of Winter

And Martin knows about writing books; he’s been working on The Winds of Winter, the sixth book in his series, for over a decade now. He’s been giving off some hopeful signs lately, but don’t expect him to reveal a release date anytime soon.

“I’m making progress, but I’ve given up on any hope of predicting the end,” Martin said. “Every time I do, I don’t make it and everybody gets mad at me, and there’s no sense. It’ll be done when it’s done. Hopefully, COVID won’t kill me, so we won’t have that issue. I do find it a little grisly, people speculating online about what’s going to happen to the rest of the books when I die. I don’t like to speculate about that. I don’t feel close to dying.”

Glad to hear it.

House of the Dragon premieres on HBO and HBO Max this Sunday, August 21. As for The Winds of Winter…well, you heard the man.

Next. George R.R. Martin close to wrapping major storylines in The Winds of Winter. dark

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