How 'Nightflyers' Adapted One of George R. R. Martin's Most Challenging Books for TV
George R.R. Martin has become synonymous with his work dealing in fierce dragons and violent family drama, but long before he penned the first novel in the Game of Thrones book series, Martin made the science fiction genre his playground. As speculation continues running rampant about the final season of his hit HBO series -- as well as the upcoming and shrouded prequels -- SYFY has detoured into the world of the author's 1981 novella, Nightflyers.
As the people of Earth are left ravaged by an unruly plague, Nightflyers follows the crew of a technologically savvy ship, aptly titled The Nightflyer, as they venture into the far reaches of space in hopes of finding a new home, and a cure to what ails humanity. Though this bleak space saga had been made into a movie in 1987, adapting the 30,000-word story to the small screen is something Martin never thought would happen. According to show creator, Jeff Buhler, who adapted Clive Barker's Midnight Meat Train and penned the script for the upcoming Pet Sematary remake, the author asked him one simple question: "How do you do a TV show if everybody dies at the end?"
It's a heady and grandiose environment to throw an audience into, for sure, and especially for viewers who aren't familiar with the original novella, tackling such subject matter in that way could come off a bit overwhelming (the Game of Thrones' series premiere may have been exactly that for those unfamiliar with the books). "I wanted to dial the story back to the moment where we first kick the door open and glimpse through to see for the first time that we're not alone and that we don't necessarily have the tools as a species to understand what's out there," Buhler explains.
It was all about "finding the story in the story," and expanding it with an authenticity that still resonated with fans of Martin's original work. "[For Game of Thrones], they have a roadmap and you've got devoted fans who want to know everything happens exactly the way it does in the books, but you want to make changes as a filmmaker or as a storyteller," Buhler says.
What that meant for Nightflyers was "stepping the timeline back a little bit so we could focus on the human race at a very particular point in its evolution, that would open the door to the Thousand Worlds Universe, as opposed to the Thousand Worlds Universe being out there and known." George R.R. Martin's Thousand Worlds Universe concept has been the large-scale setting for many of his novels and short stories, and as Buhler explains, contains "many alien species and planets that have been inhabited by humans for centuries that you jump into a world where a lot of mysterious things exist in our galaxy and are known by human beings."
The theme of the unknown pops up time and again throughout the series. But as serious as the problems get for the crew aboard The Nightflyer, ie. death, the show also features its fair share of genre Easter eggs, giving nods to some classic cinematic works (The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and IT are just a few examples) that all helped shape Buhler's tastes.
"There are little moments where we were in the process of creating the show, where a lightbulb goes off and you'll be like, 'This is like The Exorcist,'" Buhler says. "There's a moment where Rowan's carrying a box that contains something and he's approaching this habitat that has a diagonal light coming out of it and I said, 'That looks like Max von Sydow approaching the house in The Exorcist!' Those are, for me, little extra pieces of candy for horror fans. For them to sit back and chuckle and go, 'Oh, that's The Shining!'"
Those moments help add some genre fun, balancing out the heaviness of the plot. As fantastical as a story about humans looking for a key to their survival in the outer reaches of space may sound, the reality of the situation is that we're not that far off from this being a possible reality. From threats of war and famine, along with climate change being a very real concern for the planet, there's already been talk of exploring options of creating colonies on other planets in hopes of saving humanity from the threat of extinction. That conversation is something that was at the forefront of Buhler's mind when he was writing these 10 episodes. "We didn't want to tell the tale of a post-apocalyptic Earth where it was imperative for humans to get on a spacecraft like a life raft and try to make it to the next rock to survive," Buhler says. Nightflyers is no Michael Bay blockbuster, after all.
The flip side of that, which also plays directly into Nightflyers' plot of intrigue, falls into the risk of attempting to contact other life forms, should they exist, for assistance. "What in our history tells us that making contact with aliens would be a good or a smart thing?" Buhler asks. "You've got great minds who say maybe we shouldn't be sending signals into outer space. Maybe making contact with aliens isn't the wisest thing for us to do," he says, pointing to our own bloody history of colonialism on this planet as an argument against such exploration. Of course, he's quick to point out the opposite side, too, acknowledging the "very aspirational scientists who say this might be our only chance to save the world, and that we have to try."
There's a lot there to unpack. But Buhler's hoping these debates will also add some intriguing subtext to Nightflyers. "In the context of television, you need debate, you need conflict that can go on and on and on, so what I tried to do was put forth a question, without being too preachy about it, at the center of this journey." That said, this is still a GRRM story, and Buhler's the first to acknowledge that that means there won't be any solid resolution to this debate once the season wraps up.
"The story itself is the journey, not necessarily the answer that they get to when they get there," Buhler says. "Because of course, in classic George R.R. Martin form, you don't get an answer when you get to where you're going; you get to another question that makes you wonder, 'Where should I go next?' I tried to lean into that, the core theme, which is: Are we sure we know what we're doing? Are we really sure that we should be doing space exploration in this way? Do we have the moral imperative to do that?"