While HBO’s GAME OF THRONES – which ends its first season tonight at 9 PM – closely follows the plotlines, characterizations and dialogue of George R.R. Martin’s novel of the same name, the series is run by its executive producers David Benioff and D.B. (Dan) Weiss.
Did Martin have qualms about giving up control?
“Yeah, to some extent,” the novelist acknowledges in Part 2 of this interview. “I use the analogy it’s a little like sending your kids off to school. They’re your kids and you’ve had them since they were born and you’ve been in total charge of them and been with them twenty-four hours a day and now they’re going off for a large part of the day to this school and who the hell knows who they’re going to meet there or what influences are going to happen or whatever. So there’s a bit of the empty nest syndrome there, but you have to do it. And the only thing you can do is make sure you put them in the hands of great people. I have a great relationship with David and Dan. This whole process really got going when I met them and I liked everything they said, and I think they liked what I had to say, so I put them in the hands of the best people I could find. Ditto the actors and the directors – they’re all taking good care of my kids, as far as I can tell.”
GAME OF THRONES actually isn’t Martin’s first experience with HBO – in fact, the premium cable network was where he debuted as a teleplay writer.
“The first thing I ever adapted was by HBO,” Martin relates, “my short horror story ‘Remembering Melody,’ that I wrote back in the early Eighties or late Seventies, and that’s an episode of THE HITCHHIKER, which was the first original series that HBO ever did, back in the days when they mostly just ran movies. They did a nice job with it. So my previous experience with HBO was good.”
Martin also adapted his post-Civil War-era vampire novel FEVRE DREAM as a screenplay, but says HBO is one of the perhaps few places that it hasn’t been optioned at some point.
“I did a screenplay for FEVRE DREAM when [the novel] was under option by Disney,” says Martin. “They elected not to pursue it. It was with Touchstone, so it didn’t go anywhere, but there were three or four people who optioned it before that, and I think some people maybe since. That’s the way it is often in Hollywood – you get these properties optioned and then they decide for one reason or another, ‘Nah, we’re not going to do it,’ so you option it to someone else and you hope that some day, something will come out of it. I’d love to see FEVRE DREAM made. It’s one of my favorites of my older novels.”
Martin is still in the midst of writing A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, his novels about the land of Westeros, where GAME OF THRONES takes place. The author admits he does have an idea of how long the book series will be and where it likely will end.
“Seven books is what I’m aiming for,” he reveals. “Of course, I have been wrong before – I originally started this as a trilogy, back in 1994 or so, when I sold it, so as [J.R.R.] Tolkien once said about LORD OF THE RINGS, this story grew in the telling. And my story has already grown four books longer in the telling, but seven is the goal. Book Five [DANCING WITH DRAGONS, is due out July 12], and I have two more after that to wrap up the story. So seven. Seven has a nice ring. Seven gods, seven kingdoms, seven books. It has an elegant resonance to it.”
Given the popularity of the GAME OF THRONES HBO series, it looks as though it’s in for the long haul and Martin doesn’t think the producers will run out of novels to dramatize any time soon.
“Well, my hope is that we never get to that point,” Martin says. “I’m writing the series and I have a considerable head start over them. They have many new pieces to pick up with me. If we get a third season, well, that book is STORM OF SWORDS, and if you’re familiar with the series, STORM OF SWORDS is a monster. STORM OF SWORDS was five hundred pages longer in manuscript than [the second book] CLASH OF KINGS, which itself was a hundred pages longer than GAME OF THRONES. So they’re going to have to divide STORM OF SWORDS into two seasons, I would think. So that’s three more seasons right there. And then there’s FEAST FOR CROWS and DANCE WITH DRAGONS, which are two books that take place simultaneously, separated geographically rather than chronologically. So they’ll have to be recombined, and once you recombine them, you’re going to have a monster that’s even longer than STORM OF SWORDS.”
There are fantasy elements in GAME OF THRONES, but for the most part, they are somewhat muted – although we do see the disturbing work of the dreaded White Walkers. While there are similarities to the Westeros and the Age of Men Tolkein described at the end of the THE LORD OF THE RINGS, Martin admits it isn’t all that much.
“Well, he says that explicitly,” Martin replies. “The Elder Races are fading and going away. There are Elder Races in my books, too, but they’re much less visible than the elves and the dwarves of Tolkien’s books. You see a little of them. The magical elements, the fantastical elements of my book come up a little more when you read the book. In GAME OF THRONES, it’s very low fantasy. Each book has successively more fantasy, as magic is coming back into the world. But even at my height, when I finish all seven books and the fantasy has reached its high tide position, it will never be equal to where many other fantasies start, with very heavy magic stuff. I’ve always felt that magic in a fantasy – you need it to make it a fantasy, but you need to use it sparingly. It’s like salt in a stew or something like that. Too much salt ruins the dish. A little bit makes it taste better.”
Children have crucial roles in GAME OF THRONES as well – Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, has been made somewhat older for the TV edition than she is in the books, but main characters Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) are pre-teens with big story arcs, and newly-crowned – and vicious – King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) is extremely young as well and Martin says “children were always at the heart of this.”
“The Stark children were always very central,” Martin explains. “Bran is the first main character that we meet. Then we meet Jon [Kit Harington] and Arya and the rest of them. The whole series is harsh. My inspiration was not only Tolkien, but also from a lot of history and historical fiction. I’ve tried to blend some of the tropes and traditions of fantasy with those of historical fiction in doing this, and if you read about the real Middle Ages, as I do all the time – I’m always reading histories and historical novels – it was a brutal time for everybody, for men, women and for children. Children weren’t sentimentalized the way they are today – they were frequently made to work at a very early age, they were taken into battle. Boys became pages and then squires – you’re riding into battle with your knight, you’re a twelve-year-old squire, but you’re there. People are hacking at you with swords and shooting at you with arrows and stuff like that. You’re not at home being protected. It was a different age with different mindsets and I did want to reflect some of that.”
Executive producers Benioff and Weiss have said that GAME OF THRONES is largely about power, both those who wield it and those who are battered by it, but Martin says he doesn’t think in those terms.
“I think that’s a fairly good description of it,” says Martin. “Power is certainly central to not only the first season, but the entire series, but also uses of power and responsibility. To quote the immortal Stan Lee, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ What do you do with your power? How do you use it? And there are questions of honor, difficult decisions. I believe in giving my characters difficult decisions. In some sense, every writer is in a dialogue with all other writers, and fantasists are in a dialogue with other fantasists. Much as I admire Tolkien, and I do admire Tolkien – he’s been a huge influence on me and his LORD OF THE RINGS is the mountain that leans over every other fantasy written since and shaped all of modern fantasy – there are things about it, the whole concept of the Dark Lord, and good guys battling bad guys, good versus evil, while brilliantly handled in Tolkien, in the hands of many Tolkien successors, it has become kind of a cartoon. We don’t need any more Dark Lords, we don’t need any more, ‘Here are the good guys, they’re in white, there are the bad guys, they’re in black. And also, they’re really ugly, the bad guys.’”
Martin adds that the battle of Good and Evil is fundamental to much of fiction, though his take is slightly different.
“It is certainly a genuine, legitimate topic as the core of fantasy, but I think the battle between Good and Evil is waged within the individual human hearts,” says Martin. “We all have good in us and we all have evil in us, and we may do a wonderful good act on Tuesday and a horrible, selfish, bad act on Wednesday, and to me, that’s the great human drama of fiction. I believe in gray characters, as I’ve said before. We all have good and evil in us and there are very few pure paragons and there are very few orcs. A villain is a hero of the other side, as someone said once, and I think there’s a great deal of truth to that, and that’s the interesting thing. In the case of war, that kind of situation, so I think some of that is definitely what I’m aiming at.”
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