HBO’s series “Game of Thrones” arrives Sunday (April 17) with some pretty heavy expectations. It’s the first fantasy series the network has ever done, and it’s based on a series of books with a large and very engaged fanbase.
The two guys in charge of bringing author George R.R. Martin‘s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series to the screen get all that. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are themselves huge fans of Martin’s work, and they chose not to stray too far from Martin’s text in adapting the books for television.
“We just love the books, and we love these characters,” says Benioff, whose screenwriting credits include “Troy” and “Brothers.” “One of the things we said to George from the beginning is we think there’s a way to do a quite faithful interpretation of this, but the way to do it would be on HBO and not go the feature[-film] way. So at least for the first season, which is all we’ve written so far, it’s quite faithful.”
Benioff and Weiss spoke to a small group of reporters, including Zap2it, earlier this year, about the challenges of adapting the books, selling the show to an audience that hasn’t read Martin’s work and getting their dream cast. Some highlights of the conversation are below.
Did you just love the books as a reader, or did you immediately start thinking about how to adapt them?
D.B. Weiss: George was a TV writer for many years — he worked on ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘The Twilight Zone.’ So that form of propulsive, forward-leaning, cliffhanger storytelling is in his story DNA. It was just rare to read something, especially in the [fantasy] genre, that had that narrative propulsion to it but also had that psychological depth. It almost announced itself. It felt like an HBO fantasy show — that was just an instinctive feeling after maybe 100 pages.
Why do a series instead of feature films?
David Benioff: The books were sent to us by George’s agent, and at that time I think the understanding was more to look at them for possible feature adaptations. The first thing I thought was — well, the first thing I thought was I’m in love with this, and the second thing I thought was these aren’t going to work as movies. They’re too long, there are too many characters, they’re too complex. And if you do movies for a big studio, they’re going to have to be PG-13 and be 2 1/2 hours, which would mean cutting out 95 percent of the story.
Weiss: As George puts it “The Lord of the Rings” [all three books] is approximately the same length as [“A Game of Thrones”], and “The Lord of the Rings” works very well as a 10-hour film experience. We felt this would work very well as a 10-hour [series].
Did you have a big wishlist of actors you wanted, and did you get them?
Weiss: I think there were only two people on the wishlist, and we got them both.
Benioff: When I started reading the book, quite early on I pictured Ned [Stark, “Game of Thrones'” protagonist] as Sean Bean — partly because I worked with Sean before but also just because I think he’s so good. It’s a character that demands a lot of an actor, because there’s an enormous amount of gravitas. You don’t want to seem too grim or seem humorless, yet it’s got to be someone who’s haunted by all the terrible things he’s seen in the past. From the beginning I thought Sean Bean was the right guy for it, and luckily [Weiss] felt the same way and George felt the same way, which was great.
And Peter Dinklage to play Tyrion [Lannister, the fiercely smart brother of the queen] always seemed like a no-brainer for us. For the rest of it, it was just finding people. The kids [in the series] have incredibly important roles, and it’s not the traditional kind of Hollywood cute-kid role. It’s very dark. We have a brilliant casting director named Nina Gold, and she found these kids god knows where, because a lot of them had never worked before.
This is a fantasy series, so how much of a supernatural element is there?
Benioff: It’s been an important part of the conversations from the moment we first went in to pitch this. … One of the things I liked so much about the books is the way [Martin] doles out the fantasy or doles out the magic. … People in this world have as much skepticism about it as people in our world might. At the same time, you know it’s out there — you know from the first scene that there’s stuff out there that’s not from our world. There’s a princess carting around three dragon eggs. This is a fantasy series, and we never want to run away from that fact, or hide it. … But the idea that most people in this world are fairly cynical about the presence of the supernatural makes it fun. It just seems more relatable.
Weiss: In “The Lord of the Rings,” Gandalf shows up at the beginning and waves his staff and makes a dragon fly out of it, and everyone claps and cheers. If someone in this world were to do that, everyone would probably freak out and run, because no one has seen anybody perform anything like that for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Benioff: Poeple alive in the present-day world of our show kind of missed the great fantasy epoch. Dragon skulls exist, but no one has seen a dragon in centuries. People talk about the “others” existing, but no one, aside from a few doomed rangers at the beginning, has seen them in thousands of years. But there is this great, 800-foot-high wall of ice that guards the northern boundary of the kingdoms. Some people think it’s there for a good reason, and some people think it was erected by primitives because they were just besotted with superstition.
How would you sell “Game of Thrones” to people who aren’t familiar with the books or are skeptical of the genre?
Benioff: I think it’s about power. If I had to pick one word to describe a very complex story, it’s about power and how it affects the people who are pursuing it, how those who already have it try to retain it and how those caught in the crossfire between those two are mutilated in the process. One thing that’s been really interesting is, I’m surrounded by people in my family who couldn’t care less about fantasy … and they’ve all become obsessed with the series.
Weiss: At the heart of it there’s a sort of reluctant gunslinger story: Someone who had though he got out of this world and is now being drawn back in, but in a way he’s not necessarily suited for. [Ned] is a very straightforward person. He likes to get out on the battlefield and know who he’s fighting and beat them. But this is a world where battles are fought in a much different, much less straightforward, more politically scheming way. He’s got to navigate those waters.
“Game of Thrones” premieres at 9 p.m. ET Sunday (April 17) on HBO. Below are two clips from the premiere: The first featuring Ned and his family welcoming the king (Mark Addy) and queen (Lena Headey) to their home at Winterfell, and the second is a brief confrontation between Ned and Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the queen’s twin