George R.R. Martin has been living with the characters you’ll see in Sunday night’s premiere of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” for 20 years now. The former TV writer (“Beauty and the Beast,” “The Twilight Zone”) started work on the first book in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series of fantasy novels back in 1991, published the first in 1996, and ever since has been dealing with questions and suggestions about how the books might be adapted to the screen.
He doesn’t have to wonder any more. “Game of Thrones” debuts Sunday at 9 p.m., and I thought it was terrific – and that’s coming from the perspective of someone who, as I explained to Martin at the start of a long phone interview, hasn’t read any of the books(*).
(*) And for that reason let me remind you the rules I laid out in that initial review, which is that plot spoilers from the first book or any of the future ones are not cool, and will be deleted. I want other Westeros newbies to have the same sense of discovery I did.
Martin and I talked about the challenge of adapting the books – about the fight for the throne of a kingdom in an alternate history version of England in the Middle Ages, known as Westeros – about casting so many of the pivotal roles, about ways in which the TV show might influence the later books, and a lot more. I even got a cathartic moment where I got to object to one particular quirk of Martin’s writing style that’s going to be an ongoing problem in my coverage of the show.
I have not actually read the books. Friends kept telling me to, but then the series was announced and I decided I wanted to be able to judge the show on its own, to see if it worked without the books as a guide.
That’s true for many thousands of people, I’m sure.
And I think it did. I was able to follow it. What is your expectation of how people like me are going to come to the series? And are there any parts of it that you’re especially nervous about whether they’ll be able to understand it?
The thing that I was most nervous about was the first episode. Just plunging into the world. It’s quite a complicated situation. As a novelist, I have certain tools at my disposal that aren’t available to Dan (Weiss) and David (Benioff), like glossaries, and maps, not to mention devices within the narrative itself like internal monologue, none of which you can really do in television and film. So we kind of begin with a very complex series of histories and genealogies, and what happened during Robert’s rebellion, 16 years before the present day. And then I knew people would be asking who are all these different families, and what are their relations? What is the place of Jon Snow? What is the place of Theon Greyjoy? Who are all these other hangers-on? Maester Lewin and Sir Roderick and so forth. You have to pick up the kind of stuff you would for historial fiction, but also a unique set of established relationships and backstory. Dave and Dan had a hell of a challenge ahead of them, and I feel they’ve succeeded admirably, without having to resort to clunky devices like voiceover or an opening monologue.
But of course, people like you will be the judge of that, not the people like me. I’m too close to it.
Well, for the benefit of people like me, how exactly would you describe the plot of the show for someone who’s wondering what it’s about and whether they should watch it?
David Benioff had the tagline “‘The Sopranos’ in Middle Earth,” which I think touches on the tone in a high concept Hollywood way. It’s an epic fantasy story. It’s grittier than most that people think of when they think of epic fantasy. It’s about a contest for power in the imaginary seven kingdoms of Westeros, and the focus is on the characters, and on the people, and on the politics. It’s much more about politics and people than it is about magic.
I was going to say, it seems as we enter this world like there may have once been magic here, but it hasn’t been seen in a long long time, and there’s very little magic in the six episodes I’ve seen. That’s rare for most of the fantasy I’ve been exposed to.
There is more magic as the series goes along. It increases book by book, but it increases by a fairly slow rate. Even at the place where I end is the place where others begin. It has to be handled very carefully in fantasy. If you have too much of it, it tends to take over and drown out everything else. I’ve always taken my mantra from Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech, where he said the only thing worth writing about is the human heart and the conflict within itself. And I think that’s true whether you’re writing fantasy or contemporary fiction or a Western or science fiction or what have you. The basis of any story has to be the human heart and the conflict within itself.
You’ve seen two episodes so far. What did you think of them?
Very positive. I loved them. Dave and Dan have done a great job. There are some changes here and there, but it’s still recognizably my story. I think my fans, 99% of them will love what they see. There will always be the 1% who will be upset because there’s been a small change and they won’t allow for that. You get things like Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies, where some of the Tolkien fans were upset that he left out Tom Bombadil, but most of the fans came to really love those movies.
Prose and filmed entertainment have different strengths and weaknesses. Are there any parts of the series so far – either in what you’ve seen on screen or what you know about from having worked on it? – that you feel have improved on the books?
I think some of the sets are maybe better than I imagined them. The Eyrie, the high hall of the Arryns, I saw that set in Belfast, and it’s actually quite different from what I describe in the book, but it’s better than what I describe… For the throne, they came up with this wonderful driftwood thing, with the actual branches flowing off of it. The moon door, in my book, is a door set in the wall. It’s just a door, but it leads to nothing. They came up with the big moon door in the center of the floor. I think that’s also more interesting than my ordinary door. That’s something where, I don’t know if it was Dave and Dan, or the set designer, the art director, or who came up with it. Working in television and film, you do get input.
Given that it’s a collaborative medium, I’m sure there have been instances where someone’s questioned you about your motives for something you wrote in a vacuum, and you had to ask yourself, “Yeah, why did I write that?”
Yeah, we’ve had a few conversations like that.
Can you give me an example?
(long pause) Most of the ones that are coming to mind would be spoilers from late in the season, so I’d better not.
Fair enough. As someone who’s worked in TV before, I’m sure you had some sense of which parts of the books might be easy to adapt and which might be hard. Were there any parts of the books that surprised you in how easy or difficult they were to adapt?
Well, I’ve only seen two episodes so far.
Sure, but you were a collaborator, you visited the sets, I’m sure you heard things about how production was going.
The big battles are coming up. I’m going to be very interested to see in how they render those. There are three big battles in the first book, that I handled three very different ways. Well, you haven’t read the books, so you don’t know about those. There’s the Battle on the Green Fork, that one I fully relate to from Tyrion’s point of view; you’re in that battle, you’re experiencing it, I completely describe it. Then there’s the Battle of the Whispering Wood a little bit later, and in that one I was in Cat’s point of view, she’s not in the battle, she’s overlooking the battle, it’s night and she can’t see much, she almost hears it, I described it almost entirely by sound. Then there’s the Battle of the Camps, which in the books I didn’t show at all. I just had a messenger rush in and describe the results of the battle. Partly it’s because these three battles occur very closely to each other in time in the narrative of the book, so I didn’t want to repeat myself with a triple-beat there. I have no idea how David and Dan approached those three battles, or even if they’re all in, or if some of them have been changed. That is one of the most challenging things to do on a television budget, is to do a big battle. You look at a show like HBO’s “Rome,” the great Battle of Pharsalus between Pompey and Ceasar, “Rome” showed that by showing the two leaving their tents, and then cut to Pompey’s standard lying in the mud. There was no battle. But then when they got to the Battle of Philippi, they gave us fairly detailed battles. So there’s various ways of handling that, and it is one of the most expensive and challenging ways of doing things.
And then of course, not to give away a spoiler here, but there there’s the final scene in episode 10 – which of course you have no idea about because you haven’t read the books yet. The final scene, suffice it to say, that’s going to require a certain amount of special effects. How will they handle those special effects? I’m looking forward to seeing how they do it.
Have you been pleased with what you’ve seen so far of the special effects?
Oh, very much so. A year ago I had seen the original pilot. (Directed by Tom McCarthy before recasting and reshoots led to most of it being scrapped.) And that had a couple of shots of the Wall that were very very rough, just placeholders. I said, “Oh, boy, I hope it looks better than this.” And it does. I thought they did a great job with the wall and the castles. A lot of it is CGI. I was going to say matte paintings, but I’m dating myself doing that. That’s from back in my day. I guess we’re beyond matte paintings now.
Some authors say that when they’re inventing a character they may write with a particular actor in mind, not for a future adaptation but just to have a picture in their head, like how Ian Fleming always thought of Hoagy Carmichael when he wrote early James Bond. Did you have any actors in mind for any of these characters as they were being created?
I can’t say I ever wrote characters with actors in mind. I started the first book in 1991, it was published in 1996, so that’s a long time ago. When the first book came out, some of my readers started playing the casting game, which fans tend to do. They would dream about feature films and they would send me a cast list, some of which I read, some of which were interesting. The problem is when fans play the casting game, it’s like they cast every part with a major motion picture star, so the casts are completely impractical. When we realistically started developing this five years ago, David and Dan and I had a meeting that went for five hours, and when we finally got to talking about casting, the two that really leapt to mind, even before a word of the script had been written, was Sean Bean for Ned and Peter Dinklage for Tyrion. They were the first choices for those parts, and really the only choices.
It’s a very strong cast all around. Are there any actors in particular whom you look at on screen and say, “That is absolutely the character as I wrote it”?
With a great many of them. I think we have a fantastic cast. I think the children are among the ones who stand out to me, just because they were very difficult to find. We did not have anyone in mind. You’re getting kids, who generally do not have a resume. We looked at hundreds of young actors for each of the three major children, Sansa, Arya and Bran. It was very difficult. Most child actors are good at being cute and memorizing some lines. Mostly they’re employed in sitcoms. We needed children who could really act, who could carry a substantial part of what at times is a very dark storyline and go through scenes of grief and fear and terror, and I think we found three marvelous actors in Sophie Turner, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, and maybe most of all, Maisie Williams as Arya. She’s just incredible.
I’m glad you mentioned the kids, because they’re often the part – not just of fantasy stories, but most fiction – where I tune out of the story for a while, but that wasn’t the case here. What do you feel you did to transcend that usual trap?
I think in television and film, it’s not usually the child’s point of view. It’s the story of an adult. If there’s a child in a drama or an action-adventure movie, they’re someone who needs to be saved, someone who needs to be protected, or if they’re killed, someone who needs to be avenged. Their character doesn’t matter much. They’re just “generic child, insert here” – as a spur to help motivate the adult actors who actually help carry the story. But in “A Song of Ice and Fire,” the children are a large part of the story, and very quickly get put into situations where they have to try to sort out the world and its dangers for themselves. And thankfully, we found some great people to do that.
From what friends have told me, some of the kids have been aged up from how they’re described in the books. Robb (Ned’s eldest son) is definitely older, Daenerys seems quite a bit older. Are you okay with that? Was it just logistically necessary? Like you can’t actually have someone Daenerys’ age doing some of the things she has to do in the books?
Yes. It was logistically necessary. It was legally necessary, especially for something that’s an international production. We filmed largely in Ireland, but also in Morocco and Malta. Each of those locations has its own laws and regulations that affect actors and age, and it’s a largely American show, so that comes into play, too.
But also in some ways, I think it’s realistic. I was basing a lot of the book into my research into the real world middle ages. Where they did not have the whole concept of adolescence that we have: this in-between period when you’re not quite an adult but not a child. In most medieval cultures, there was childhood and adulthood, and you went from one to the other. There would be some rite of passage ceremony like the Jewish Bar Mitzvah or Catholic confirmation, which they took seriously in 1300, but not as seriously today. In 2011, we have the ceremonies, but we don’t believe the person is an adult. But if you go back to Middle Age history, you find people doing things that they just wouldn’t do today. You find kings who are 14 or 15 winning battles, squires who are 8 or 9 rushing into battle with the knights and holding their own. And girls, of course, were getting married at similar ages. So I reflected that in the books, but that becomes more difficult when you have to film it. What age are you going to use your actors? There were all these reasons for it then. Generally, I think it works just as well with the actors we chose. Also, we also have much longer lifespans than in the Middle Ages. Ned is in his mid-30s in the book, Sean Bean is, I believe, 51. (Note: Bean turns 52 the day of the series premiere.) But a medieval man in his mid-30s would be in some senses older than Sean Bean is today. He would’ve had a much harder life. It would have aged him more quickly. I think aging him up makes sense for who the character is supposed to be, and the experiences he’s had.
You’re still working on the next book, and you have a few more after that. Now that there are actors playing these characters you created, have you found that filtering into your writing of them in the new books?
I think it might happen at some point. In most cases it’s not going to happen consciously. A lot of writing takes place in the subconscious, and it’s bound to have an effect. The only real effect it’s had so far is I feel guilty about some of the things I’m putting some of these characters through. Having met the actors, I think, “Oh, he’s such a nice guy, and I’m doing this horrible thing to him.” I kill his character, or maim him, or he’s going to be tortured for a whole book. And then of course there are the children. It’s easy to do things to a fictional character who exists only in your head, but now I know what I write down, one day somebody like Maisie or Sophie or Isaac is going to have to act out. It’s bound to have some effect, but I try to distance between the two, and when I’m actually writing at the typewriter, I try to put all those external considerations aside and just live in the world of Westeros.
Our other TV critic, who has read some of the books, and I have had a disagreement about Ned. I say he seems like he might be the character best suited to be ruler of the seven kingdoms, and my friend thinks he would make a bad ruler; that his destiny in life is to be a follower, not a leader. What do you think?
He’s been a good lord to the north, which in some ways is like being a king. The seven kingdoms of Westeros are very like England – though it’s vastly larger than England, the size of South America. Each of the seven kingdoms was at one time its own kingdom, and the Starks ruled the north long before the kingdoms all came together. It’s not a strongly centralized realm, so they pay taxes to the south, provide them with armies. In some senses, he is a king of the north, of his particular seventh of the realm. Would he do well in the Iron Throne, in Robert’s seat? I don’t know. He’s very well qualified in some ways, but in others, he’s not very comfortable with the plotting and the scheming and the betrayals.
One of the things I wanted to get at in this whole series – not just talking about Ned now, but all the characters – is what’s a cliche of modern fantasy, which is where the underlying assumption seems to be that if a good man becomes king, then the realm will prosper, and a bad king will make the realm suffer. My study of history, and looking around at contemporary politics, has shown me that’s not necessarily true. You can have a good man and not be a very good king. It’s a question of what decisions you have to make in the challenge of rule. I wanted to bring in almost the meta-fictional commentary about what other fantasy novels do.
That conveniently brings me to my next question. You bring up contemporary politics; are there any parallels to contemporary life in the stories that you’re telling?
There’s no direct allegory. Tolkien always hated allegory, and people would suggest “Lord of the Rings” was about World War I or World War II, and he always reacted violently to that. He felt contemporary politics had no place in epic fantasy. This is not like a thinly-disguised satire of contemporary politics. That being said, there are certain basic truths, and certain fundamentals that the books do reflect. I am talking about things like power and decision-making, what makes a good ruler, what makes a bad ruler. Those lessons are as applicable to us as they were to the late Roman republic, ancient China, the Mesopotamians. There are some things you can look at and say, “Yes, this is analogous,” But it’s on a more fundamental level than that.
Finally, I just have to say, as a TV critic who’s going to write about the show every week, and who has not once in all his notes on the first six episodes successfully spelled Daenerys’ name correctly, I have to ask, George: why? Why would you do this to me? To all of us writing about these books and this show? Why all these odd spellings?
I feel slightly guilty about that. But what I feel much more guilty about is I get all these letters from people who have named their dogs, their cats, and often their children after my characters. There must be at least 100 little girls who have been named Daenerys. By now, many of them must be in kindergarten, first grade, second grade or older. And I really feel sorry for those little girls who have to go to school and constantly tell their teachers and their classmates how to spell their name.
Yes. You should definitely feel worse for them than you do for me.
There were also a few people who named their daughters Cersei, and I wonder what that conversation’s going to be like when the girls get older. “Mommy, where did I get my name?” “Well, we named you after a character in a book we loved.” “What’s that character like?” “Well…”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org