GEORGE R.R. MARTIN TALKS TO FANS ABOUT THE MAKING OF GAME OF THRONES AND WHAT INSPIRED HIS BEST-SELLING BOOK SERIES
When Game of Thrones hit the HBO airwaves, based on author George R.R. Martin’s book series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” a fan frenzy exploded amongst fantasy and science-fiction fans but more surprisingly, struck a chord amongst those who didn’t claim to be fans of the genre.
While in Toronto, just a few weeks shy of the show’s much-anticipated Second Season premiere on April 1, author George R.R. Martin sat down before a sold-out house at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, hosted by The Movie Network‘s Teri Hart and HBO Canada, for an intimate conversation to talk about what it was like adapting his books to the screen, turning the genre of fantasy on its head, who his favourite character is, and most importantly, why he keeps killing off the characters we’ve come to love. Here are some highlights of what he said.
On the inspiration for the story and where it came from.
Martin: It was the first chapter in the novel Game of Thrones. It was with Bran when they ride out to see the deserter beheaded and then they find the direwolf pups. It was the summer of 1991 and it was in the middle of my Hollywood decade. I was doing a lot of development and pilot scripts and feature scripts but I had no particular assignments that summer so I returned to my home in New Mexico. I thought I might as well start work on this novel I’ve been thinking about for like 10 years a science fiction novel set in futuristic history, and I was writing that and suddenly this scene hit me I knew it wasn’t part of the novel I was writing and it was obviously a medieval fantasy, not a futuristic science fiction thing. But it came to me so vividly and so strongly that I felt compelled to write it. So I put aside what I was doing and I wrote that chapter and then that lead to another chapter, and then another chapter. That all happened in the summer of ‘91 and I knew I was doomed when I drew the map! (Laughs) So I drew the map!
On deciding how many books it would be.
Martin: It wasn’t just a novel for very long. We sold the first series as a trilogy I had about 200 pags that I gave to my agent and I sent a two-page projection of what the story would be. It was going to be three books, A Game of Thrones, A Dance with Dragons and The Winds of Winter, those were the three original titles and somehow A Dance with Dragons kept receding in the distance as I began working on A Game of Thrones and it got longer and longer. So with the first book I hit 800 pages and no end was in sight! I hit 900 pages and no end was in sight I hit 1000…by the time I hit 1,400 pages and no end was in sight, I thought, “Well, maybe it’s four books?”
So suddenly A Clash of Kings was born. I juggled with the structure a little I moved some of the chapters I’d written and I delivered an 1,100 pages manuscript that became A Game of Thrones and I had a 300 page start on A Clash of Kings. At a certain point though, I thought, it isn’t going to be four books, it’ll be six. But Parris, my wife, would attend functions with me and would ask me how long the series would be and I would say six books but behind me she would hold up seven fingers. So now I’m saying seven books and that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
Martin: I have genealogies and I have many maps. I’ve been working a lot on the maps lately because we’ve decided to do a map book. Most of the material is in my head and is not written down anywhere. But how do I keep it straight? Well, it’s with increasing difficulty. With earlier books I wrote I never had any trouble of keeping things in my head but with this cast of thousands it gets longer and longer and harder to keep it all in my head but fortunately I have some techniques and tools at my disposal that I did not have when I was writing earlier books we use computers now, so I have the wonderful search function where I can look up a character I may have mentioned before and see what colour his eyes are. I also have the wonderful resources of Elio Garcea (creator of Westeros.org). If I’m really stuck I can drop Elio an email and say, ‘Hey the lord of such and such, did I ever mention what colour his eyes are? And Elio will instantly reply, “Yes, in Storm of Swords on page 412…”
On killing off main characters we love.
Martin: It’s surprisingly painful to kill of these characters. Those of you, who’ve read the books, know there’s a sequence in the third book in Storm of Swords…it was the hardest thing I ever wrote. I finished that entire book and that scene occurs about two thirds of the book and when I reached that scene I couldn’t write it I skipped over it and wrote the rest of the book and when the entire book was done, I said well, I can’t postpone it anymore I have to go back and write this scene and it was very painful but it had to be done. It’s the story, and the story has it’s own demands.
On his relationship with the characters.
Martin: They’re all part of me in some sense. They were born out of my imagination or my intellect and they all have some of my experiences and some of them are like me, and some of them are less like me and some have combinations of me and other people from characters in history and people I’ve known. But particularly with the viewpoint characters, the ones where I’m actually inside their heads, I have to draw on my own emotions, my own life experiences, and my own sense of empathy – for even a character unlike myself. But that’s what the art of writing is all about or your characters aren’t going to seem real. You have to put something of yourself into your characters.
On how he’s changed the fantasy genre.
Fantasy is changing and maybe I had some small part in that. If you look at some of the young fantasy writers I think their work reflects more realism. Modern fantasy essentially grew out of the work of J. R.R. Tolkien and his great landmark The Lord of the Rings that looms over all fantasy like a mountain and everybody else is operating in the shadow of Tolkien and what he did. My admiration for Tolkien and his work is second to none. I think The Lord of the Rings is one of the great novels of the 20th century. Following Lord of the Rings fantasy was largely taken over by Tolkien imitators who were delivering Tolkien-like books but who didn’t seem to capture any of the power of Tolkien. Some of the lesser writers who borrowed some of his tropes turned into bad clichés. You know, the whole thing where the dark lord is stirring and his ugly minions are coming out and they’re horrible minions because they’re ugly and they wear black and the good guys go forth because…they’re really pretty and they wear white. You know, the world is not that simple.
The good guys and bad guys was fun when you were seven but you should look around and see what the world is like and I wanted to weld fantasy with the historical fiction, which is more gritty and realistic. You can’t tell the bad people because they’re ugly or the good people because they’re pretty and I deliberately turned some of these conventions on their head. Yeah, the Night’s Watch, they’re a bunch of scum but they’re heroic scum and yet they wear black. And I took ravens, which of course in Tolkien are birds of ill omen and I made them a good thing a means of delivering messages from castle to castle. The guys in the King’s Guard wear white but was once an institution that was heroic but now is hopelessly corrupt full of political appointees are greedy so I was playing with all of the tropes and turning things on their head.
On getting approached to have Game of Thrones adapted for the screen.
Martin: I began to be approached when Clash of Kings came out and when Storm of Swords came out because those were the first two books to hit the best-seller lists. I thought, well, these guys don’t know what they’re talking about here…they don’t know that it’s impossible to do. The Lord of the Rings movies were making an obscene amount of money and were gigantic hits so Hollywood is basically imitative at the time the LOR movies were setting these box office records and a lot of the studios and producers were looking around to see what other fantasies were out there that they could buy.
I took a few meetings and they would present the idea to me of how they would adapt these into movies. They wanted to know how it ended so they could figure out how to wrap it up and they would say things like, well, it’s really a story of Daenerys so we’ll eliminate all the other characters or focus on Jon Snow or on Ned. So I listened but I didn’t go for any of it. But it got me thinking that the only way to do this was not for film. I thought it was better to tell the entire story with all of the characters and all the complexities and the only way to do that is television. But because there is too much graphic sex and violence and too much complexity for network TV. So it had to be HBO. Shows like Deadwood and Rome showed me that they were the people who could really do this. I met David Benioff and Dan Wise and they had the same idea and that was a match made in heaven.
On casting the characters and seeing them on the screen.
Martin: It’s pretty amazing. When Dave Benioff and Dan Weiss sat down we knew that Sean Bean would be Ned Stark and for Tyrion it was Peter Dinklage. That was the one role where we didn’t audition anybody, no tapes of other people will ever be seen because we just knew it was him. We made Peter Dinklage an offer and persuaded him to take the role and that worked out well. The other roles were trickier, it was more ambitious. We had to read a lot of different people search all over the world. Our show is shot primarily in Northern Ireland so hired a lot of Irish and British actors. We have a truly global cast.
On his favourite character.
Martin: Well, Tyrion is my favourite. There’s no doubt about that. He’s the easiest to write, at least for the first three books. He got harder to write particularly in book five (A Dance With Dragons) because he’s in a dark place there. But he’s witty and he’s intelligent. Tyrion is almost what I wished I was because I’m not as witty as Tyrion…well I guess I am as witty as Tyrion because I invented him. [Laughs] But the thing with Tyrion is that he tosses off all these lines with ease in a moment of conversation but in real life I think of the witty thing to say a week after the conversation. There is a lot of me in Sam Tarly too.
All of the viewpoint characters I have to put something into them to make them alive even the ones that are very unlike me on the surface like 11-year old girls. I’ve obviously never been an 11-year-old girl, I’ve known the occasional 11-year-old girl when I was 11, but too scared to talk to them. I am like Sam in that regard.
Martin: Just because Tyrion is my favourite doesn’t help him at all. And really, in A Dance with Dragons he goes through the most hellish stuff yet. You try not to play favourites I suppose. But I put all the characters through horrible things. I get letters from fans saying, “Why do you hate the Starks so much?” “Why do you put them through so many horrible things?” But the Lannisters have been through some horrible things too lately and the Baratheons have gone through some horrible stuff and the Targaryens are all practically wiped out except for Dany. It’s the Middle Ages and life is hard, nasty and short and brutal and that’s the way it is. But it’s fun to read about, I hope!
On his experience visiting “The Wall” on set in Ireland.
Martin: It was a surprise visiting the set where they built the Wall. The Castle Black set is in North Ireland in an old quarry and they built this castle in a cliff that goes up and the elevator that is there is actually real so the area around the elevator they painted white to make it look like real ice. As I’m standing by the elevator and looking down the hill I see a lake and I asked, “how far down is it?” and they said, well 400 feet, and I thought, “Oh I may have made the wall too big!” My wall is bigger! Well that’s the process of making fantasy, you take something that’s real, but fantasy is always bigger and brighter and more colourful than real life.
The wall was inspired by my visit in 1981 to Hadrian’s Wall in England with a friend. Built to defend against the Romans and the wild people. We climbed it and had it all to ourselves as the sun went down and I had one of these magical moments where I thought “imagine I was a Roman Legionary” and now I’ve been sent to this cold and scary place on this wall watching what could come out of those trees in the hills at the end of the unknown wall. I had to write about that and invoke it. It’s only like 10-ft high but in fantasy everything is bigger. You take the nugget and you twist it.
On the challenges of adapting his book into a TV script.
Martin: One of the things that’s different, is the implied passage of time. In the book it’s very specific. Ravens are good for bringing messages but they aren’t as fast as telegrams or twitter and they’re not instantaneous and this is told extensively in the books. You get the introduction to all the families all told from Bran’s viewpoint [in book one]. I changed this for TV and did it like a Montage showing all the Bannermen, for example, when they were getting together in the north preparing for war in the book that takes weeks. Montages were always my weakness in Hollywood. But it was too expensive to do, so I said, OK just let the ravens fly out (to signify that everyone was getting the message). That’s the practicality of it. You have to eliminate sequences or characters or imply things rather than actually show things.
On the universal appeal of the story.
Martin: Hopefully it’s the characters. I think that’s why we go to fiction and that’s why we go to drama we form these relationships with the characters and one of the things HBO has proven is that the characters don’t necessarily have to be likeable, they just have to be interesting. People who are scumbags can engage our sympathy. I think with Tony Soprano, for example, he is an immensely likeable guy but is a scumbag psychopath. In the first episode you see him feeding the ducks and talking to his psychiatrist then he sees this guy who owes him money and he jumps out of the car and starts kicking him and runs him over. Is this likeable? Regular networks would have said no, the focus group didn’t like him. HBO has proven that we will follow for years and years some pretty reprehensible characters as long as their fascinating and we will like them in some sense. Human beings have a great capacity for empathy. It was hard not to feel for Tony.
On his relationship with the fans.
Martin: I come from the world of science fiction and fantasy. Writers in that world have always had a relationship with their fans because of the convention circuit. You meet your readers face to face. You can sit around and argue about other works and drink late into the night with them. It became a very important part of my life. It’s a real community. You don’t see that in any other genre. I tell people, if you want to get your book signed, come to a book signing and you’ll get your 15 seconds with me, but if you want to meet me, talk to me or hang out with me, come to a Science Fiction convention particularly World-Con and come to the Brotherhood Without Banners Panel or a party. Don’t talk to me about my books. Talk to me about football or other topics. That’s where you form a real relationship with the writers. The convention circuit is what set me on that path.
On the ending of the series.
Martin: I have it planned out to an extent. I like to compare it to a journey. If I set out to drive from New York to Los Angeles, I would look at a road map and say, “OK well this is the road I’m gonna take so I’ll drive to Chicago the first night, then I’ll head south. But I wouldn’t necessarily know where I was going to have lunch. There’s adventure in the details along the way but you know the broad strokes. You know the main landmarks. I know the ending and I know the fate of the principle characters but there have been a lot of characters that have popped up and butted their way into the story and I’m still making up their fates on the fly.
Game of Thrones premieres April 1 at 9 pm – HBO Canada on The Movie Network.
—posted By Toni-Marie Ippolito