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George R. R. Martin Interview, Part 1: Game of Thrones, from Book to TV

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If you ever eat a meal with George R. R. Martin, have what he’s having. Martin’s fantasy novels, the source material for HBO’s new Game of Thrones (see a scene from the pilot above), are known for moral ambiguity, complexity and cruelly brilliant plot twists. But they also have fantastic descriptions of food—all that honeyed fowl, lemon cakes and roast aurochs—and when we sat down to breakfast at Tecolote Cafe near his home in Santa Fe, he ordered what looked like the best thing on the menu: a breakfast burrito, Christmas-style (red and green sauce).

We had a very long talk about his novels, TV and turning one into the other. So long a talk that I’ve broken it into four parts, which I’ll continue posting here next week, while I’m on vacation. Here, in part one, we talk about adapting the books for the screen, casting the story and the danger that the HBO series, if successful, might catch up to him before he finishes the seven books.

I’ve tightened and cleaned up the transcript somewhat, and taken out a few spoilery discussions of later plot points; what remains of plot talk is spoilery only in the most vague and general sense, but take that as a warning if you’re super-sensitive:

[I began by mentioning that I’d seen two episodes of the show at this point—at the time, he hadn’t seen any—and I mentioned particularly liking the casting of the difficult children’s roles. He started from there.]

Martin: The child actors were the hardest to fill because we looked at literally hundreds for the three major children’s roles. I mean, most child actors. Well you know, you see these kids and they’re kids, they’re not actors. Their triumph is that they’ve memorized the lines. And mommy and daddy are very proud that they’ve memorized the lines, but that’s all.

And then you’ve got the other extreme. You’ve got some kid whose obviously been told by mommy and daddy or by their school drama coach that part of acting is you have to emote. So those kids go to the other extreme and they emote all over the place, they’re rolling their eyes and they’re grimacing and they’re really going way over the top for everything and it’s completely unnatural.

So you watch all this stuff and you reach a point where you’re just ready to despair and say, this can’t be done here because most child actors—a lot of child actors out there are in sitcoms. And their role in sitcoms is to mug and look cute, you know. Our kids have actual dramatic roles where they have to deal with grief and loneliness and anger and a lot of very adult stuff. [I thought] my God, how the hell, are we going to do this, you know? But then you find that one in a hundred, or one in a thousand that suddenly… oh my God, thank God, this is great. And Maisie Williams, who plays Arya, was one of those. I mean, just from the moment we saw her audition, I knew she was, she was our Arya and you know, the same was true for Sansa and Bran; two good actors who played those roles too. They were extraordinary.

They aged the kids up a couple of years for the script, right?

They aged everybody up. Not just the kids. I mean, Sean Bean is, what in his 50’s, I think [He turns 52 the day GoT premieres. –JP], and Ned Stark is in his… Ned Stark is like 33? So, yeah. Robb and Jon are both 16 and 17 on the TV show and they’re 14 when the book opens. So, everyone is aged up I think. It was probably most crucial with Dany, who begins as a 13-year-old in the books. But, you have the whole issue of sexual activity on behalf of a 13-year-old, which was accepted in the Middle Ages, which I was using as my model. Many high born women, particularly noble women, were married at 13 or even younger. But it’s not so accepted in today’s society and we didn’t want to get into that whole bag of worms.

What it was that persuaded you that these books would work well as a serial TV drama as opposed to being adapted for movies, which I understand was also considered in the past, right?

That was the first thing that came up. But I knew the minute my agent started giving me those inquiries and I started getting inquiries from studios and producers and screenwriters, that it couldn’t be done as a movie. It was simply too big. I mean, Lord of the Rings was done as three movies and it took them you know, 40 years or so to find a studio that was willing to do three movies. I mean, most of them wanted to do, ‘Well, we’ll do one and we’ll see how it does.’ Which is a chancy proposition at best. And then you wind up with a story that’s not finished.

And I said, well, the entire book, Lord of the Rings–which Tolkien actually wrote as one novel, of course, not as a trilogy–is about the same size as A Storm of Swords. So, just with the three books I had out at that time, it would take like nine movies and I thought what studio is going to guarantee nine movies. Well, they’re not. They’re going to do one movie and we’ll see how it goes. And in the one movie you’re going to lose 90% of the characters and subplots. I mean, I’ve been a screenwriter myself. You have to go into a big book like this and you have to say, well, what’s the arc? Who’s the major character? Well focus on him and/or her and we’ll follow that major character through and we’ll pare away all these secondary characters and secondary stories and then we’ll get a movie out of it. Not only didn’t I want that done, but I didn’t think it could be done because in the early books, I’m deliberately disguising who the major characters are.

I thought, well, it might work better as a TV series, but we’d run up to huge problems with the network censors with all the sex and the violence and that is much more graphic than anything is on television.

There was no such thing as an HBO drama when you first started writing them.

Well, there was [by the time the second book made the bestseller lists]. That was my final conclusion where I said if we’re gonna do this, it has to be done as like either a giant epic miniseries, like “Shogun” or “Roots,” you know, one of those 27-part miniseries, which they don’t make anymore, or it has to be done as a series.

And then the huge factor was when David and Dan came onboard. So my agents got the books for them and we got a meeting and we hit it off right away and you know, they wanted to do the same thing I wanted to do, so… the rest is history or infamy or something like that.

One thing I was struck by when I started reading the books was how the chapters would break the way that an HBO drama might. Would you say that having written for series television influenced at all the way you develop and structure the story?

I think so. I think it did. You know, one of the things you learn when you are working for network television, the importance of the act to break because unlike HBO, network TV requires people to come back after the commercial. So you know, you always want to have an act break that it’s a moment of revelation, a twist, a moment of tension, a cliff hanger what it is, but each act has to go out on something, you know. The da, da, da, da moment as my wife, Parris, calls them when we watch “Law and Order,” you know. … I want to keep I want to keep people turning the pages here, keep them engrossed. And so I tried to end every chapter with an act break.

A cliff hanger is a good act break certainly, but it’s not the only kind of act break. It can just be a moment… a character moment, a moment of revelation, it has to end with something that makes you want to read more about this character.

I mean, in my 10 years that I spent out in TV and film I had my shares of frustrations and annoyances and disappointments, but also I think it was, in the long run, it was very good for me in a whole bunch of ways.

You wrote the eighth episode this season. So what’s it like going back to this material as a writer that, what, you wrote 15, 20 years ago?

Simply enjoyed the hell out of it. It was great.

I was a little anxious when we got into it on a number of levels. One, I was anxious, could I meet the deadline? Because I haven’t been doing very well in the last few years about meeting deadlines. And I was anxious about what it would feel like going back to this material I wrote in the ‘90’s. And I was anxious that I would even remember how to write a teleplay. I mean, it’s been more than a decade since I’ve done one. But it turned out to be fine. I wasn’t changing much, I was just moving it from one medium to another medium and making cuts and trims, which I did plenty of in my Hollywood days. I did meet the deadline, so that was good. And I remembered how to write a screenplay pretty well too.

Actually, the hardest adjustment was me getting used to the new computer software.

I said I wasn’t going to badger you about the new book—and I swear that I’m not. But since you talk about your having your job at writing and the job of making the TV show, has the subject come up of the series, God willing it does well, outstripping the source material? Is there a plan B?

Well, it comes up from fans. It hasn’t really come up officially from HBO. Some of this depends on decisions that HBO makes, which I don’t know what they would make, but I mean, we did the first season in 10 hours and I haven’t seen them and so you know, but everybody seems to think it’s working pretty well. So I’m very encouraged by that. I was sort of hoping for 12 hours. Some of their other shows are 12 hours, I know The Sopranos usually got 12 or 13 even. So did the first [book] in 10 hours. If they pick up Clash of Kings, is it going to be 10 hours or are they going to do 12 hours? Clash of Kings is a slightly longer book than Game of Thrones, but 10 or 12 hours, it can still be done in one season.

The real crucial point comes with the third season with Storm of Swords. Storm of Swords is a monster of a book, a gigantic book. It’s 500 pages longer in manuscript than Clash of Kings was. And Clash of Kings was 100 pages longer than Game of Thrones. You cannot do Storm of Swords in 10 hours. I think they need to make two seasons out of that. You know, break it somewhere in the middle, maybe at [spoilery plot point redacted]. And then you get to the Feast for Crows and Dance with Dragons books I’m now finishing, which are really two halves of a book that dwarfs even Storm of Swords because they take place simultaneously. Those books have to be recombined and broken up into a least two seasons, or maybe even three seasons because there is a tremendous amount of material in that.

So at some point further down the line, HBO is going to have to either give us multiple seasons for some of these longer books or, or they’re going to have to say, no, we’re just going to stick to 10 hours, and in that case, we’re going to lose a lot of material.

If they take the second choice, if they do 10 hours of Storm of Swords, then yeah, they may catch up with me at some point down the road. But if they go the way that I hope they, then I think I’ll be finished. I don’t think they’ll catch up with me then. You know, barring me getting hit by a truck.

Monday: GRRM on fantasy and historical fiction, and combining the two.