I interviewed George R. R. Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire novels on which HBO’s Game of Thrones is based, in Santa Fe last month. Parts 1 and 2 posted here earlier. In this excerpt, GRRM talks about the learning experience of working for a decade in TV, and, yes, about his opinion of the ending of a certain other mythology-heavy drama:
Did you have much input on the visual details and the fleshing out of the world (of the HBO series)?
Not a whole lot. I mean, they would occasionally show me something and I would comment, but the main thing that I was involved with was the casting… People ask me, is it what you imagined, and my answer is, no, not really. I have very strong visual pictures in my head about what they look like. And unless you’ve read my mind, that would be very hard for someone to get that.
But what they’ve done is good. If you are getting very creative people on [a show], you have to give them room to be creative. You can’t bring in a costume designer and then essentially design the costumes for them by saying, wrong, you have to follow slavishly everything that’s down here. You’re not going to get good people then.
Did working in TV give you insight into those compromises?
The very first script of mine that was ever made was an episode of Twilight Zone called, “Last Defender of Camelot,” which was based on a classic short-story by Roger Zelazny. Roger, who lived here in Sante Fe, was a very dear and close friend of mine until his death in 1995. I remember going into it, I said, “Hollywood, they always ruin everything when they adapt it, they always change things. They shouldn’t change anything… I’m just going to do an absolutely faithful adaptation of Roger’s story.”
And then we’re getting into the process, of course, and what I’m discovering is that it is impossible to do that. The climax of Rogers’s story was a fight between Lancelot, who’s the hero of the story, and an enchanted suit of armor called the Hollow Knight. There is no one inside it, but it’s been evilly enchanted to fight. And the fight takes place in like an otherworldly version of Stonehenge. So that’s how I wrote it, exactly what Roger wrote it in when I first tried for the screenplay.
Then the Line Producer calls me in and says, you can have Stonehenge or you can have horses, but you cannot have horses and Stonehenge, because there is no Stonehenge around here and we’re going to have to build that out of papier-mâché on the sound stage. And if we bring horses there, when they start galloping around, the rocks will shake and fall down. So we can take your horses and we can go out into the woods, we have these nice woods there would be trees and stuff around here. We can’t put fake Stonehenge rocks there, because they’ll blow down in the wind.
So I called up Roger and he was remarkably good-humored about that. I said, Well, do you want horses or Stonehenge? And he said, “Well, I want Stonehenge.” So we got rid of the horses and we filmed it on the sound stage with two knights fighting on foot. And it worked fine.
And you know, and then I had my first taste of the kind of changes that you don’t want to make… In network television, and certainly in the ‘80’s, network television likes to put everybody in a little bag; they like to know, This is what the show is about.
Twilight Zone was always a nightmare for them because it was an anthology. We did serious dramatic shows, we did science fiction, we did fantasy, we did the psychological stories, we did comedies. What the network had decided what the Twilight Zone was about was, an ordinary person who blunders into extraordinary circumstances. You know, entering the twilight zone. Ordinary Joe comes up and encounters something weird; now, he’s in the twilight zone. And he has to deal with Martians or whatever it is.
We’re actually casting my show. We’re about to go into production and suddenly a network executive says, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. There’s no ordinary person in this.” The characters are Merlin, Morgan LeFay and Lancelot. This isn’t The Twilight Zone, you can’t do this!
So they forced us to add an ordinary person. I had to add a character named Tom, who Lancelot picks up and sort of carries along, who fulfills no particular function than being in the story. But he’s just there. Explaining that to Roger was the worst part.
Nonetheless, I have to say, when they started building Stonehenge on the sound stage behind my office, it was an incredible rush. So right from that first episode, I got both sides of what it’s like to work at television. And suddenly I realized that when that episode aired, more people had just seen my work than had ever read all the books I had ever written up to that point in my life and the stories combined.
When you have big a mythological story like [Game of Thrones], it’s probably sometimes easier for the audience when they can come into it on one immediately apprehendable level. One TV thing that that first season has is, it’s a mystery. Was Jon Arryn killed, and why?
And who [spoiler redacted!] … Yeah, certainly. You like to have a couple of different subplots going.
Did you watch Lost?
I did watch Lost. I watched Lost in it’s entire run and I was, I was fascinated, but you know, even as early as the second season and certainly the third season, I started saying, how the hell are they going to pull all of this together? If they pull all of this together, it’s going to be the greatest show in the history of television, man. They better know how to pull all of this together. And then when I reached the end and they hadn’t pulled it altogether, in fact, they left a big turd on my doorstep? I was pretty upset, you know.
Having been a veteran of not only writing for but watching Twilight Zone, you know, it was about the second episode of Lost, I said, “Oh, they’re all dead.” They’re all dead. That’s what it would be in a half-hour Rod Sterling Twilight Zone, in 1958. And they took what? How many seasons to get to the point where they were all dead?
120 some episodes?
Yeah. Rod would have gotten that in about minute 20. Where everybody would have realized that they were all fucking dead. In fact, he did that in about six Twilight Zones.
Well, one thing that always came up with Lost was this idea of, they better have the ending figured out. I want them to know right from the beginning what the plan is. As a storyteller, do you believe that that is what you should be doing? Is it even possible?
I think it’s possible to an extent. Well first of all, there are different kinds of writers. I’ve given this lecture in many of my talks. I like to say that there are two kinds of writers, there are the architects and the gardeners. And the architects plan everything ahead of time before they write the first word of a novel. They do all the world building, they know how many rooms the house is going to have and they know how they will flow to each other and how high each floor is going to be and where the electricity and the plumbing is going to go and everything. Before they even nail up the first board.
And then there are the gardeners who just sort of dig a hole and they put a seed in it and they water it with their blood and then something starts to grow. Now, they usually know that they plant a peach tree or did they plant a cactus. But the precise shape its going to take they don’t know. I think all most writers are somewhere in the middle, you know. I’m much more of a gardener than an architect and so was Tolkien .
But I like to compare my books to a journey. Like that map there [gestures to a U.S. map on the wall]. If you were going from Los Angeles to New York, you would look at a map like that and you would say, well, okay, I’m going to leave and I’m going to follow the route through Albuquerque and I’m gonna go north to Denver… So you know your eventual destination and the main roads and some of the big landmarks you’re going to go through, but you don’t know where you’re gonna stop for dinner the first night, or where there’s gonna be road construction that will force you to take a detour, where a hitchhiker is going to show up on the side of the road and tell you a fascinating story. These are the things you discover during the journey.
I know the ultimate destination, I know the principal landmarks and things that happen along the way, like [big event redacted] which had been planned from the beginning and all of that. But some of them I discover in the writing. Essentially I know the big stuff, but a lot of little stuff occurs in the course of the writing. And of course some of the little stuff is very, very important. The devil is in the details. The devil is what makes the journey more than just an outline or a Cliff’s Notes kind of experience. So I may know the ultimate fates of Jon Snow and Daenerys and Arya and some of the other principal characters. But I don’t necessarily know the ultimate fates of Dolorous Edd or Hot Pie, you know. Well, I have a few ideas about those, but still.
[Dramatic but spoilery future plot point redacted] will be fun. If we get to that. God willing, yeah. Later seasons, that’s always a high-class problem to have.