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George R.R. Martin on how SYFY's Nightflyers series rights a 30-year wrong

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Jul 13, 2018, 4:55 PM EDT (Updated)

In an interview conducted at Thrillerfest XIII, renowned author George R.R. Martin did not discuss when The Winds of Winter, his long-awaited next book in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, would come out. But he did discuss why he feels SYFY's upcoming adaptation of his novella Nightflyers is righting a wrong that’s been bothering him for 30 years. 

At the convention for thriller novelists held at the Grand Hyatt in New York, attended by SYFY WIRE, Martin told attendees on Friday a story about how a major character in his sci-fi/horror novella wound up being whitewashed. In Martin’s original story, the character of Melantha Jhirl comes from the planet Prometheus, where she was given “gene therapy.” 

“She’s like a superwoman,” Martin explained. “Stronger and faster. An improved model.”

Martin added: “And she’s also black.”

Now, apparently this was fine in prose, but when the story was reprinted in anthology form, Melantha appeared on the cover — as a blonde white woman. And Martin did not appreciate this. 

Nightflyers cover

Bluejay Books

“I protested to my editor,” he said, explaining that “The name Melantha Jhirl means ‘Black Flower.’” 

However, his editor at the time asked him: “Well you want your book to sell, don’t you?”

Ultimately, Martin confessed to bucking, something he says he’s regretted ever since. Because after all, he did want the book to sell (and at the time he wasn’t the best-selling author he is now). 

“I should have fought harder. I could have protested more. But, I didn’t. I did want my book to sell,” he said. 

Later, a low-budget movie was based on Nightflyers in 1987, and since the filmmakers were going by the cover Martin said “they didn’t even consider” casting a black actress for the role of Melantha. And as good a job as he felt actress Catherine Mary Stewart (Day of the Comet, The Last Starfighter) did in the role (renamed Miranda Dorlac for the film), Martin said it perpetuated the problem, which has bothered him ever since.

“I look back on it now and I could have fought harder,” said Martin. “And I’ve been a little ashamed of that ever since.”

So, when he heard that a new series was being developed based on his story, Martin saw a chance to fix this mistake. He contacted the producers and told them: “’Look. This is your project. I’m not going to look over your shoulder, give you story notes or script notes or anything like that, but dammit, I want Mel to be cast as a black actress.’ And they said, ‘Yes, of course.’” 

And with the role of Melantha being played by Jodie Turner-Smith, Martin admitted he is “pleased that that injustice has finally been resolved after 30 years.”

This is not the first time Martin has brought this problem up. So, clearly, it’s been weighing on his mind. But at least now, Martin can rest easy on this issue. (And by "rest," we mean, "get back to work on finishing Winds of Winter.")

Nightflyers debuts this fall on SYFY.

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