The culture has a crush on George R R Martin’s writing these days, specifically his best-selling A Song of Ice and Fire series, the inspiration behind the hit HBO show Game of Thrones, whose fourth season ended last Sunday.
Even with all of this success, though, there is some tension between HBO’s interpretation of the Thrones dream and Martin’s. Thrones averages more than 18 million viewers per episode and this season surpassed The Sopranos as HBO’s most-watched series. With numbers like that, the Starks and Lannisters, the Baratheons and Targaryens don’t belong solely to Martin anymore.
With the show climbing those ratings peaks this season, Martin agreed to talk about what the show had gotten right so far, what was missing. In an interview, he said he hadn’t found the translation to television too difficult “because they’ve done such a wonderful job of it”, referring to the Thrones team led by David Benioff and D B Weiss — think of them as Stepfathers of Dragons. But there is one thing that would make Martin very happy.
As a man with an epic imagination, it would please him no end if his creation had more elbow room on HBO, where each season runs just 10 chapters. “With 13 episodes, we could include smaller scenes, making the story richer.”
With its far-flung location shoots — Iceland, Northern Ireland, Malta, Croatia, Morocco — and all of those vast yet essential battles, one season of Thrones is reported to cost $60 million to $70 million. “Battles are expensive,” said Martin, who worked in TV in the 1980s, with a seasoned veteran’s resignation in his voice.
He worked in television, as a story editor for The Twilight Zone in 1986, and a writer/producer with Beauty and the Beast (1987). “But,” he said, “I got tired of fighting that secondary fight, the Hollywood power equation.” So he started his Ice and Fire saga in 1991.
Martin, who’s 65, grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, the son of a longshoreman. Early on, he became smitten with fantasy, science fiction and comic books.
But Martin was quick to point out in this latest interview that his role with the HBO series was secondary. He’s a co-executive producer and has written one episode each season. “But,” he said, “small changes can lead to big changes.”
Take the musician Marillion, from Season 1. On HBO, Marillion is maimed — his tongue plucked out — at the whim of King Joffrey and then vanishes from the show. That isn’t the case in the books, where he served as the fall guy in Lord Petyr Baelish’s murder of Lysa Arryn in Season 4. “The butterfly effects are accumulating,” he says.
But there is one crucial element that frustrates him: the portrayal of the cruel and monumental Iron Throne. “The HBO throne has become iconic,” he has written on his blog. “It’s a terrific design, and it has served the show very well.”
But, he continued: “The way the throne is described in the books… HUGE, hulking, black and twisted, with the high seat from which the king looks DOWN on everyone… The HBO throne is none of those things.”
Whichever throne fans prefer, millions will again be held hostage as the show has been renewed for fifth and sixth seasons. There are more than 31 million copies of the books in print, according to Bantam, and whenever the next novel, The Winds of Winter, arrives, it will probably be an instant best seller.
The success of Thrones has turned Martin into a star. A man of hobbit-like mirth and girth, he isn’t quite the classic people-driven figure of pop-culture stardom.
Famous or not, Martin is still obliged to sit down each day and write because millions of agitated fans are waiting, hoping that Winter is coming — soon.