The epic fantasy novel series “A Song of Ice and Fire” and its mega-popular HBO adaptation “Game of Thrones” may have made author George R.R. Martin a pop culture superstar, but it was “Nightflyers,” a 1980 novella mashing up horror and sci-fi and the 1987 film adaption that followed, that Martin believes saved his life and career during a low point. Now, that story has been adapted for the small screen for Syfy, as well — though Martin’s contractual commitments to HBO preclude him from having any formal involvement in it.
“HBO owns me, body and soul,” he tells Variety with a laugh. Instead, Martin considers himself an “interested observer” in the Syfy series, especially because it restored one of his earliest visions — that the character of Melantha Jhirl be an African-American woman.
Martin originally envisioned Melantha that way in his 23,000-word novella written in 1980, but when it was published, she was whitewashed on the cover. Taking its cue from that cover, the 1987 film adaptation followed suit.
“I got a white, blonde woman on the cover when she’s clearly described as a black woman,” says Martin. “I said, ‘This is wrong, you should change it.’ And to my discredit, and something I was a little ashamed about for many years, I don’t think I protested hard enough when the editors back in the early ’80s said, ‘Well, do you want your book to sell? No one will buy a book with a black woman on the cover.’ I gave in. I stopped protesting. I could’ve done more, I suppose, but I did want my book to sell.”
Martin is glad the Syfy series is finally getting it “right,” though. Jodie Turner-Smith plays Melantha, the only member of the crew who stands a chance of surviving the onslaught of a murderous unseen force, though showrunner Jeff Buhler points out she was not cast for the color of her skin but instead because she is “the improved model.”
“She is smart and strong and incredibly powerful, and that’s what we wanted as Mel,” Buhler says. “The luxury of adapting characters that George created is they’re so well-defined, and so it’s easy to get actors excited. People read these characters and they want to play them because they’re not cookie-cutters. There’s nuances: no one’s all good, no one’s all bad.”
Set in the far future, the story was an early example of Martin’s world-building skills, part of the “Thousand Worlds” universe he’d established in earlier works, including “Dying of the Light” and “Sandkings.” In it, an expedition of academics embark on a mission to study a mysterious alien race on a high-tech ship where the captain inexplicably sequesters himself from human contact and communicates only through a ghostly hologram. It’s a prototype for the “haunted spaceship” sub-genre that would emerge in its wake as the crew is eventually picked off, one by one, by the unseen force.
Buhler says the approach was to “keep the bones of the novella intact” but still allow for “some shifts” in the storytelling in order to be serialized, introduce some new characters and go even deeper with ones that did exist in the source material.
“The big shift from the novella for me that was the leap to get to TV was an idea of pulling the timeline back so it’s still futuristic, but it’s just around the horizon of where we are,” he says.
Additionally, Buhler says he wanted to keep the blend of science fiction and horror elements for the show.
“George has often referred to this story as ‘”Psycho” in space,'” he says. “There’s a huge ‘Psycho’ element to it.”
The original “Nightflyers” novella’s origins were both an experiment in genre-melding and a bit of creative nose-thumbing. “Someone writing a history of the genre or some criticism around 1978 put forward the theory that science fiction and horror were opposites,” Martin remembers. “That [science fiction] was all about intellect and the universe was solvable — any problems we could fix by applying technology and our human intellect. Horror was the opposite — horror was Lovecraft-ian and the universe was inevitably hostile or neutral and it was all about emotion. The two were fundamentally incompatible: [if] it was a good horror story, it couldn’t be a good science fiction; if it was good science fiction, it couldn’t be good horror. And I said, ‘Bulls—! Let me show you that I can make it both, because I love both.’”
“Nightflyers” could also be as franchise-able as “Game of Thrones” may prove to be, given the depths of Martin’s mythology.
“In my stories I may have referred to a thousand worlds, but I think I wrote stories on, like, 16 of them,” Martin says. “There’s a lot left!”
“Nightflyers” premieres Dec. 2 on Syfy.