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.