In his multipart saga A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin has thousands of pages, as well as countless appendices and maps to help readers sort out the mammoth world of medieval fantasy he created. The writers of Game of Thrones, the new HBO series (airing Sundays beginning April 17) based on Martin’s works, have just a few hours and can’t rely on viewers’ ability to flip pages back and forth to remember who’s who, what kingdom is where and when some conqueror might have ascended to the throne.
Still, it’s a challenge that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss said they couldn’t resist. The longtime friends said they were so taken with the story that they felt it was worth the five years it took to bring it to the screen.
The screenwriters shared with us what drew them to the books, how they went about adapting them, and the anxiety that comes with working with child actors:
There are tons of epic fantasy book series out there. What stood out about Game of Thrones that made you want to adapt it?
David Benioff: The answer seems kind of vague, [but] it’s better written than most of them. I’d been a fantasy addict for years when I was younger, and then I kind of moved off them at a certain point because I think a lot of the new ones really just felt like half-baked Tolkien rip-offs. [It] was so compelling, the characters were so rich, and the storyline held together, and momentum built and built. The reading experience of it … the only thing I can compare it to was when I was much younger, 10 or 12, and I could read a book in one night. It wasn’t because I was such a fast reader; it was because I could just sit down for nine hours and just read and no one would interrupt it. When you get older and you get much more easily distracted … it’s just hard to have that same kind of reading experience. Game of Thrones was the first time I’d had that in years and years. George is able to create this fictional world and suck you into it and make you believe it. That’s why you’ve got so many fans who are so obsessed with the books, and that’s why we wanted to adapt it for them.
D.B. Weiss: As a writer and a storyteller, he’s got that “one more chapter” gift. As a reader, you just keep going, “All right, one more chapter. One more chapter.”
Benioff: George’s characters feel really human. They feel things in a way that I can respond to, I can relate to. They get horny. They get scared. They do stupid things. George has heroes who do incredibly dumb things and aren’t always following the proper, heroic course of action. On top of all that, he’s a ruthless overlord who’s willing to kill off even his most beloved characters at any moment.
Weiss: He’s a cruel and vengeful god.
Fans of the books have been greatly anticipating this show. Knowing their devotion, did that add any pressure to the production?
Benioff: Working on a show like this is so all-consuming that you barely have time for your family. [Benioff is married to actress Amanda Peet.] We are massive fans of these books — there’s no way we would have spent the last five years trying to get the series made if we were not — and so we’re trying to make the best possible adaptation of George’s books, and we hope, if we succeed in that, if we make ourselves happy with it, if we make George happy with it, that the great majority of the fans will feel the same way. It’s impossible to go online and poll the various fans and see how would they go with it. You can’t make it too democratic. … You’re never going to make everybody happy, so you have to kind of accept that you’re not going to and just do the best you can by your own judgment.
More novels and book series are becoming TV projects, like True Blood or The Walking Dead. But those tend to deviate, sometimes greatly, from the source material. Are you planning to stay pretty faithful to the books?
Benioff: We are. I think “pretty faithful” is a key phrase. There are going to be moments where the fans will be surprised by things. We actually like the idea that these people sitting there smugly expecting that they know everything that’s going to happen next are going to have a few surprises in store for them. We feel like it’s important that we have the willingness to make changes when we feel that they’re necessary. That said, Game of Thrones is a brilliant book, and it works incredibly well, on a character level and on a plot level, and we didn’t feel the need to tamper with it much for the sake of tampering with it.
With the scale of this project, how much of a concern was it that a lot of the drama depends on the abilities of child actors?
Benioff: One of the things that would keep you up at night was thinking of these scenes to come with 12-year-old actors, how the hell was it going to work out. It’s always a crapshoot, even when you have the best possible audition, and you think, “All right, that kid’s got something,” you never know how they’re going to react when they’re standing in front of three different cameras pointing at them from different angles and all the lights are there and the crew of a hundred people, and the extras are in costume. … It’s @#$%ing terrifying. You know, there’s a big scary guy with a beard saying, “We’ve got five minutes left of light. We’ve got to get this take or we’re screwed.” That’s scary for adults, and for kids, you just multiply that. For the most part, we had kids coming in who hadn’t worked before, at least not on this level, and they were incredible. It’s one of the most gratifying things about the whole season, how good our star kids turned out to be.
Weiss: The show leans very heavily on a younger cast. You look at actors under 25, that’s like half the principals of the show. They all bring such an enthusiasm and such an unjaded excitement to the process where it’s contagious. You’re happy to wake up at 6 in the morning and go out to a freezing sheep meadow to stand out there for 14 hours because you can feel from afar the excitement that these guys are bringing to the process. They’re as excited about it as you are.
“Game Of Thrones”: The Players
Eddard Stark (Sean Bean)
As Lord of Winterfell, Eddard Stark, known as Ned, watches over Westeros’ northern lands. A direct, honorable man, he has little use for the intrigues of monarchy, but he is thrust into them when his old friend, King Robert Baratheon, insists he leave Winterfell to serve as the Hand of the King, his most trusted adviser and executor.
Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley)
Ned’s wife, who comes from royalty herself, is fiercely protective of her family, and is willing to travel far and wide to protect them.
Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage)
The small-in-stature scion of the Lannister clan — often referred to as The Imp — towers over most people in his intelligence and resourcefulness. Brother to Queen Cersei and Jaime Lannister.
Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey)
Married to King Robert, the ruthlessly ambitious queen harbors a shocking secret that could plunge her kingdom into war.
Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau)
Known as the Kingslayer, the eldest son of the Lannister clan is a natural adversary of Ned Stark who will stop at nothing to see his family grow in power.
Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke)
Along with her brother Viserys, she is the last descendant of the family that King Robert deposed in a bloody coup. Viserys has sold her into a marriage to Khal Drogo, ruler of the primitive but powerful Dothraki tribe, as part of a plan to raise an army and recapture the throne.