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Interview with 'Game of Thrones' Author/Producer George R.R. Martin: Part 1

by Maureen Ryan, posted Aug 11th 2011 1:00PM
I'm on vacation this week and next, but thanks to the magic of technology, I've pre-posted a two-part interview with George R.R. Martin, the man behind the books that are being adapted into HBO's 'Game of Thrones' series. Martin and I conversed at Comic-Con, and I've edited and slightly condensed that chat into two main parts.

Martin not only created the 'Song of Ice and Fire' book series on which the HBO drama is based ('A Game of Thrones' is the first book of that series, and the fifth tome, 'A Dance with Dragons,' is the most recent), he was also a co-executive producer on the first season of the show, all of which gives him a special perspective on all things 'GoT,' which just won Best New Drama at the Television Critics Awards.

In Part 1 of the interview, Martin talks about the various subsections of his fandom, responses to the TV adaptation by HBO and "sexposition," a word that was invented by critic Myles McNutt during the first season of 'GoT.'

You may notice that part of this first section was previously excerpted in this story about the budget for the HBO show. As noted above, this interview has been edited and slightly condensed. Watch this space for Part 2 of the interview, posting tomorrow. As always, keep hitting "refresh" on Westeros and Winter is Coming for the latest news on Martin and the HBO show.

This interview refers to plot points from Season 1 of 'GoT.' It's best to have seen all of that season of the HBO show before reading on.

What fan reaction surprised you the most in terms of how people responded to the show?
Well, the reaction to the death of Ned was so huge, or at least it seemed huge from where I was sitting, and that was very strange for me because it's something I did 15 years ago. To me, it's the oldest of old news. I've moved so far beyond that in the books, I really had to think back to 1996 and the original reaction when the book came out, which was similar but obviously smaller. We're talking about a book that had 50,000 copies, I think, in its first printing. That's a long way from 8 million. So the number of people reacting [was smaller].

And the other thing that's strange is, people may have been shocked when they read that, or surprised when they read it, or dismayed when they read that, or whatever it was, but 1996 was still the relative infancy of the Internet, so they had a limited way of expressing it. They would throw the book across the room or say to their friends, "Oh, look what he's done here," or write in their review that there was a shocking moment. But we didn't have guys like Okaku Assemble reacting the way he did on YouTube or people popping up on bulletin boards all over to either express outrage or dismay or shock, you know, the full range of emotions.

Given all those different ways we have to communicate, it's interesting that so many people were surprised. I was actually kind of pleased, if that doesn't sound weird, that for so many people, Ned's death was exactly as it should be. It should come as a surprise.
Yes, that's exactly what I wanted. So it was nice to know that it worked and it wasn't spoiled.

It's been interesting because with the show and the books, we have three or four different audiences that overlap somewhat but are not the same. There are the people who have been reading the books all along and now the show's on and they're watching the show. And then there are the people who watched the show first and never heard of the books. They watched the show and now they're reading the books. My sales have gone up enormously as a result of the show.

And then, of course, there are the people who watch the show and won't read the book if their lives depended on it. There are still billions [of people who are] television viewers and not book readers. There's also still a small percentage of people who are book readers who never watched the show. "Oh, I don't watch television," that kind of thing.

I come across that, too.
What's more frustrating to me, even from some of my friends, [is the response], "I'd watch it, but I don't get HBO." Well, you know, they would give it to you if you just paid them $16 a month. It's not like you have to wait for a present from the sky. Go get it.

It's not out of the realm of possibility.
Yeah. But people tend to say that to me as if it was carved in iron. So, anyway, we have these four groups and, you know, the interaction between the four is sometimes interesting and they sometimes react to the same thing in very different ways, of course.

How so?
Well, the original book readers are the ones who are most particular about any divergences, and anything that's changed will upset some of them, even if it's that Targaryens don't have purple eyes. Some of them are very sophisticated and understand that certain changes have to be made, and we have a budget and a shooting schedule to adhere to and we only have 10 hours.

If I feel like the changes are dramatically compelling on the screen, then I'm fine with them. For me, as the season progressed there was more of a sense for me that they were adapting it as a piece of filmed entertainment in a way that was increasingly satisfying -- do you know what I mean? To me, in the first few episodes, I felt they were trying very hard to make the book transfer very literally to the screen, but I guess my feeling is, it should be a TV show that follows the contours of the book, but each hour should be able to stand on its own. Does that make any sense?
Well, I don't necessarily agree with you, but I certainly understand what you're saying. I have always felt that adaptations should be as faithful as possible. I understand, having worked in the business myself, why changes have to be made. But looking at Hollywood as a whole, and this is not meant to reflect my own show particularly, but many of the shows that are done and many of the movies that are made -- I think with the vast majority of films and adaptations, 95 percent of them change too much. They go too far and they make changes beyond the changes that are actually necessary to adapt the work to the screen.

I agree. And by the last half of the season of 'Game of Thrones,' the last third especially, the show had really found its rhythm and it became extremely compelling. But they had so much work to do in setting up the world and the characters. Even for people who've read the books, they have to introduce this world visually and get us used to the characters as they are in the show.
It's an extremely difficult adaptation. [Executive producers] David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] did great work. I never wrote this to be a television series. I wrote this in reaction to my years in television -- [I wanted] to produce something huge and sprawling where I didn't have to worry about the budget or shooting schedules. [Note: Martin talked extensively about that in this interview.] And now, David and Dan have to worry about the budget and the shooting schedules and what we can actually produce.

Were there any divergences from the books that you personally would have loved to have seen and just had to accept that they were just not going to happen? Changes you weren't keen on or things you were sorry to lose or what have you?
Yeah, there were. You know, when they adapted the stuff that's in the books, I loved it and most of the new scenes that they added that were not in the books, I loved.

[In episode 9] David and Dan added a beautiful moment, when Ned says "Baelor" to Yoren as he passes. That's not in the books. In the books, it's purely coincidence that Yoren is there and happens to see Arya, but making that actually something that Ned does -- I wish I had thought of that. It was very nice.

My only quibble, and it is a quibble, I think, rather than any serious criticism, is there were scenes I missed. [There were] scenes that didn't make it in at all that were never filmed, that were simply cut in script or never even put in script because we simply did not have the time to include them all. There are a number of little favorite scenes and moments that I would have wanted in the show and was looking forward to. The television viewers, of course, don't even notice that those scenes are missing because none of them were essential scenes.

But the book readers, of course, did notice that those scenes were missing, and that's one of the issues that was discussed on the boards and things like that. For example, there was one scene that comes to mind, the scene that sets up the confrontation by the river where Joffrey confronts the butcher's boy and Arya beats him up and all that. There's a scene before where Sansa says, "Well, the Queen's invited us to eat lemon cakes." And Arya says, "I don't like the Queen, I'm going out with Mycah," and also says, you know, "Oh, I've been hanging around with that butcher's boy," and they have this little moment there.

And, you know, it obviously is not an essential scene. But it sets up what follows nicely and it's a great character piece for two girls. And the reason I particularly miss that one is that was the audition scene. I've seen both Maisie and Sophie perform that scene and nail that scene in their audition tape. So I was really looking forward to seeing them do it in costume and all that. And then, of course, it got cut for [various] reasons.

I think that's what I felt was missing at times in the earlier episodes, those character moments. You come to know those people so richly and so deeply in the books that you want those little moments of conversation that maybe don't seem essential but give you insight into their relationships and their dilemmas and their personalities. And that's the thing where I just want more than 10 hours per season from HBO.
Well, you know, I've said that before, so that's no secret. I would have liked more than 10 hours, too. I would have liked 12 hours, even more so for the second season. But I guess there's a question of expense. You know, the other HBO shows do have 12 hours. It would have been nice if we also had 12 hours.

Is it just purely a matter of budget?
I think so, yeah. I mean, our budget is pretty big as is, but you'd really have to ask David and Dan about that. I don't know quite what goes on behind the scenes there and they're in the discussions with HBO. And maybe it is a matter of scheduling, too. Maybe they only had 10 hours free on Sunday night between the end of 'Big Love' and the beginning of 'True Blood,' I don't know. I don't know, but for whatever reason, that's what they went with.

I read most of the reviews but I get confused about who said what, I don't remember who it was -- I don't know whether it was something you said or some other critic said. The critical reaction to the show was overwhelmingly positive, but there were some critics in the early episodes particularly who felt they were slow and that word was used. Now, I don't agree. I didn't feel that, but some people said that.

If we insert more character moments, the people who thought that it was slow may think it's even slower. So I don't know, I don't think it was slow. I mean, 'The Sopranos' didn't have a whacking every week, you know? I guess there was always the danger of a whacking, I guess it had a certain tension. But there were many character-based shows [on HBO] and so forth.

Well, I think for me it wasn't slow as much as I felt the show was very much trying to fit in a lot of explanations and plot points and get the structure set up.
Well, they had a lot to set up. I gave them a whole world here. They've done some things so eloquently and beautifully. The main title credits with the map was such a brilliant [idea]. I knew they were going to do a map, but the precise nature of it I didn't know. But a map is, I think, crucial there.

I mean, a lot of fantasy movies and stuff you watch, you've got no idea of the geography. And it's fine if you're doing historical fiction and the guy in England says, "I'm going to the Holy Land." You kind of know where the Holy Land is. But when a fantasy character says I'm going to Dorne, is Dorne five miles down the road, is it a town, is it a country, is it another continent? We don't know. So the map is good for that, and it's a great, colorful and exciting way that they worked it in.

I'm sure you've heard this word before, but I wanted to bring up the whole "sexposition" issue. I should just say in setting up this question, I love the fact that there's sexuality in the novels, because I think one of the things that I love about the world is that it's full of adults dealing with real issues and nobody's perfect and everyone has desires and appetites. They're not more pure than us, they're human. But when it comes to these scenes with women being naked during expositional conversations, I think James Poniewozik made a good point -- if there had been six or seven scenes of a guy gutting a stag, that would start to get old as well.
Too much stag gutting.

Too much stag gutting. It just becomes kind of tiresome and predictable and it begins to feel like something I've seen before.
How did you feel about naked Hodor? That came straight from the book, actually.

Well actually, that's the point, you know. There were occasionally naked men too, and sometimes the women's nudity was absolutely intrinsic to the character's journey, which was definitely the case with Daenerys, but it just felt to me like there was something of an imbalance in how characters' sexuality was portrayed.
I've got a few letters from gay fans who, while they were pleased by the naked male sexuality, were upset that the penises were not actually erect.

Well, that gives you something to work on in Season 2, I guess. I think what's interesting about this issue, and the reason a lot of people wrote about it, is that there's a lot going on those scenes. Were there scenes in which people of both genders were sexual? Sure. Were those scenes giving viewers useful information and character information at times? Sure. But there's also an element for me, as a female viewer, where I began to feel like they were using naked women as furniture, and the novels didn't feel that way to me.
Well, did you feel this way about 'The Sopranos'? I mean, there were many instances of Tony discussing something with Paulie Walnuts in the Bada Bing while naked strippers are dancing in the background.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, the world of sexuality I got from the books didn't seem to single out one gender.
In my books, yeah.

And I never expected to get to know the women from the Bada Bing. It wasn't an expectation in my mind. I had a different expectation from your books. I guess I can't put it any more eloquently than just to say, I really liked the show overall, and some of the treatment of sexuality was fine, but at times, it just began to feel like, "Really? This again?" And you know, I'm pro naked people, generally speaking.
Well, you loved 'Spartacus,' where people were naked all the time.

I loved 'Spartacus.' Men and women were definitely naked a lot in that. But to me, it's very much a story about how their bodies are viewed and treated as pieces of meat and that whole idea is incredibly intrinsic to the story. In 'Game of Thrones,' it is intrinsic at times as well, but not all of it was handled in a way that felt organic and earned, I guess. I don't know if that's something that ever struck you or if that's a response that you've gotten at all.
Well, I mean, I've heard this criticism, not from you but from other people. And maybe you have a point about the "not gutting a stag six times" thing -- that perhaps that well was run to too often. But I don't know, it's difficult to tell.

I mean, I'm getting great reviews on the new book, for example, but a few people seem to be annoyed by certain phrases that I use frequently in the new book. "Words are wind," which occurs like 10 times in the book. After about the fifth time, some people began to hate that phrase. And my view is when things are common sayings, people say them a lot. "You can't fight city hall," etc. We have these clichés that we repeat in situations where they're appropriate and they don't just occur once or twice; you hear them frequently.

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Thanks for taking him to task on the whole "sexposition" thing, Maureen. He tried to dodge like a champ but he finally did have to give you an answer and "And maybe you have a point about the "not gutting a stag six times" thing -- that perhaps that well was run to too often. But I don't know, it's difficult to tell" was pretty weak. Oh well, let's hope things change because I also like the series but don't want to feel like I'm having to see naked women treated "like furniture." It's tacky and sexist.

April 05 2012 at 10:09 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

those are long questions

August 19 2011 at 5:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Hehe, I'm really admiring George's question dodging skills here. In the end he sorta admitted the sexposition thing was used too much but he was very good at being diplomatic for David and Dan.

Great interview Mo, you seem like you get such a great connection with these people. Or maybe I've just seen too many interviews by uninterested tv presenters...

August 12 2011 at 2:48 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I still want to know if Dany was pregnant with a petrified dragon or a human child...how much did the "witch" have to do with that??


August 11 2011 at 7:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Genevieve's comment

Well, in the books Dany could feel the child kicking when she was carried into the tent, and there was no reason for him to be misshapen like that without magic. Also, she had a very vivid dream earlier in the book about Rhaego as a young man with Drogo's skin and her hair, leading a huge khalasar to war. It was written very much like a prophetic dream, so I assume it was meant as one. It didn't happen but it's a point in favour of Mirri Maaz Duur killing the him.

August 12 2011 at 2:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ser Pounce

Great job with the sexopositional question! They've kind of dodged it so far with "there's sex in the books" but obviously the criticism is more precise then that. Hopefully they'll use it less in season 2.

August 11 2011 at 6:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Loved the books, loved the show, and I'm right there with you on the sexposition stuff. It's not about "Oh, no, naked people!". It's nothing to do with prudism, or feminism. It's knowing a cheesy, crass, pandering-to-the-masses move when you see it: and wanting better.

August 11 2011 at 2:57 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to KarenC's comment
Craig Ranapia

Quite. And honestly, I'm really a little too old (and way too gay :) ) to find a gratuitously topless female day-player particularly titilating. And, George, with all due respect full-frontal erect male nudity isn't going to do it for me either. Just treat your audience like grown-ups -- for whom sexuality is about a lot more than bare skin and exposed genitals -- and we will get along fine.

August 12 2011 at 5:54 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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