HBO: ‘Game of Thrones' Writer's imagination limited by TV


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 Sunday night.

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 as well as attracting pointed critiques this season, Martin agreed to talk about what the show had gotten right so far, what was missing and where his passions lay. And he was able to make those observations from the rare point of view of a writer who has done extensive television work and publishes chart-topping novels.

In a recent telephone 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 Step fathers of Dragons -- who created the series for HBO. But there is one thing that would make Martin very happy.

As a man with an epic imagination populated by hundreds, if not thousands, of vivid characters, it would please him no end if his creation had more elbow room on HBO, where each season runs just 10 chapters.

The calculus of budgets

"I wish we had more episodes," he said, speaking from his home in Santa Fe, N.M. "I'd love to have 13 episodes. With 13 episodes, we could include smaller scenes that we had to cut, scenes that make the story deeper and richer."

He understands the calculus of budgets, though. 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.

Martin, who first published his short stories in science-fiction magazines in the 1970s, has always seen himself as a fiction writer first, and the world of books has wreathed him in honors, including the Hugo, Nebula, Stoker and World Fantasy Awards. "I am more of a solitary than a collaborator," he said.

Though he certainly collaborated when he worked in television, as a story editor for "The Twilight Zone" on CBS in 1986, and a writer and producer with "Beauty and the Beast," which debuted on CBS in 1987. But "there was some frustration," he said. As a writer, he's more concerned with: "How do I make it better, stronger? What's the right word here? I want final say. I got tired of fighting that secondary fight, the Hollywood power equation."

He added: "If I don't like one of Anne's suggestions" - that would be his editor at Bantam Books, Anne Groell - "I just don't take it. In TV, you have the network, the studio over your head like Zeus on high."

So he turned his back on TV and re-embraced the novel, starting his "Ice and Fire" saga in 1991, determined to let the story lead him where it would, to journey back to his first creative passions.

More Tolstoy than Tolkein

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. His youthful favorites included Robert Heinlein, Jack Vance, J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" and Marvel Comics.

In the "Ice and Fire" series, Martin has been all about lots of action and lots and lots of pages -- some 5,000 and counting so far -- starting in 1996, when "A Game of Thrones" was published. Even though it has plenty of fantasy elements, in many ways it's more like an epic 19th-century novel with fantasy filigree, often more Tolstoy than Tolkien. Martin said he never imagined it could be tailored for TV.

And there are those who would have been pleased if it hadn't come to HBO. With its increased popularity, some critics have complained about the show's depictions of sexual violence. But Martin said it was an inescapable aspect of this world. "Rape and sexual violence have been a part of every war ever fought, from the ancient Sumerians to our present day," he told The New York Times in an email last month. "To omit them from a narrative centered on war and power would have been fundamentally false and dishonest."

Something of a star

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.

The success of "Thrones" on TV has turned Martin into something of a star. A man of hobbitlike mirth and girth, he isn't quite the classic People-driven figure of pop-culture stardom. "It's been surreal," he said during the interview. "You always hope for success. But this takes it to a whole other level, to being a celebrity, which has gotten old fast."


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