It's hard to believe that HBO's "Game of Thrones" has only been on the air for two seasons; it feels as though we've been living with the show for much longer.
Of course, the creator of the "Game of Thrones" book series, George R.R. Martin, has been conjuring the world of Westeros for more than two decades. The first book in the series came out 16 years ago, so the long-standing attachment many people have to that world isn't too odd. But there's no denying that the HBO show, which debuted in 2011, brought Martin's saga to a much wider audience.
Why is that saga so resonant, on screen or on the page? What is it about the novels and the TV show that make those Medieval-esque fantasy worlds so compelling to people who live in societies that appear to be very different? What techniques and strategies does Martin use to bring us very deeply into the worlds of his characters, who have inspired fierce loyalty and a million message board debates?
On September 1, Martin was asked dozens of questions like these at a 70-minute panel discussion at Chicon7, the World Science Fiction Convention, which was held in Chicago this year. At the panel consisting of myself, Martin and Peter Sagal (host of NPR's "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me"), Martin discussed the themes of his "A Song of Ice and Fire" book saga, the challenges of making the TV show and the nitty-gritty of his approach to fiction writing.
I recorded the entire session as a Talking TV podcast, which you can find here and on iTunes, and there's a bullet-point list of highlights below for those who don't want to listen to the entire session. The discussion is not spoilery per se, but it assumes you've seen the first two seasons of the TV show. (By the way, thanks to fans who submitted questions prior to the panel; it wasn't possible to get to all of them, but the queries were very helpful during the preparation process.)
What's exciting to me about this session is that in this conversation, Martin talks at length about craft. He's been in the business of telling stories for many decades -- as a television writer and as a writer of fiction -- and he has a great deal to say about what works and what doesn't in different mediums. How is information conveyed to the audience (or the reader)? How do you keep sophisticated audiences on their toes? How do you create worlds in which most characters have to choose between the best of many bad options? How do you examine power from the perspective of outsiders, rejects and those who are constrained by conventional wisdom? Martin shared the insights of someone who has been contemplating these questions -- practically and philosophically -- for a very long time.
About midway through the podcast, there's a interesting discussion of his use of "close third person" narration and why that's effective in the creation of memorable characters. It's also interesting to note that he doesn't write the chapters in the order in which they appear in the books, and that he may write four or five Tyrion chapters before stopping and switching to another character. (Another fun fact that emerged -- and I'm sure hardcore "ASoIaF" fans already knew this -- Martin originally signed a contract for a book trilogy. I'm betting his publishers aren't sad he's now working on the sixth book in that "trilogy.")
Eventually, Martin zeroes in on his least favorite thing in any story: Predictability. But he admits that it's "very hard" to shake up the audience, which has grown more sophisticated with every passing decade. When he was writing for the revived "Twilight Zone" in the '80s, for example, network executives wanted the producers to end episodes with a twist of some kind, as the original Rod Serling series had often done. But the audience "could see all these twist endings coming a mile away," Martin said.
He also spoke about his fascination with power and with hierarchies that appear stable but are actually anything but. He mentioned reading a history of Jerusalem in which a mad ruler began killing dozens of courtiers and ordering the hands chopped off the women of the court.
"Why doesn't the captain of the guard say to the sergeant, 'This guy is [expletive] nuts?'" Martin said. "'We have swords! Why don't we kill him instead?'"
But loyalties -- clan loyalties, family loyalties, strategic alliances -- are powerful influences in the lives of Martin's characters, and their personal desires and their traditional duties or roles are often in conflict. And those kinds of unresolvable dilemmas are at the heart of what makes his stories resonate with those of us who didn't begin fighting with swords as children.
Paraphrasing Faulkner, Martin said "the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself." And that's a scenario that is very familiar to anyone who's ever visited Westeros, either as a reader or a viewer of the HBO drama.
Here's a bullet list of some of the topics we covered during the panel, and I've thrown in time stamps that approximate where you can find these topics in the podcast:
- We began by talking about Mance Rayder's age, which has been the subject of fan speculation. Martin said he sees the character, who will be introduced to TV viewers in Season 3, as a contemporary of Quorin Halfhand and "not a young man." And as a fan of "Rome," in which Ciaran Hinds appeared as Julius Caesar, Martin said he's very happy about the casting of Hinds as the King Beyond the Wall. He also talked about the casting of Diana Rigg as the Queen of Thorns in Season 3.
- 8 minutes (all times are approximate): Martin said that he's already turned in his script for Episode 7 of Season 3, which is titled "Autumn Storms." There's also discussion of the Season 2 episode "The Battle of the Blackwater," which Martin wrote, and a more general discussion of the "GoT" script-writing process.
- 13 minutes: Martin discussed why we haven't seen much prophecy in the TV show (as was the case in the House of the Undying scenes in the Season 2 finale). There's a wariness to showing a lot of prophecy in case some characters or story threads have to be trimmed later, Martin said. "It would be sort of stupid to have a whole prophecy of something that never pays off down the road because we have to cut that thread for budgetary reasons." Having said that, he said he thinks the show will, at some point, have to deal with events concerning Rhaegar, Lyanna and Aerys Targaryen, the Mad King. (Trivia for you: Scenes of the Mad King were filmed for Season 1, but never used.).
- 18 minutes: Martin didn't know all the facts about Robert Baratheon's Rebellion when he began writing the books; generally speaking, he's filling in the details "forwards and backwards" as he goes. And in his mind, Robert's Rebellion is comparable to Vietnam -- different characters have very different ideas about what that war was for, what it meant and what its legacy is. That's one reason he started his books 16 years after the rebellion: It gave him a chance to explore all those different perspectives and aftereffects.
- 22 minutes: Does he enjoy messing with people? "The general impulse is there," Martin said with a laugh. But it's part of that desire to keep people from thinking they know what's coming next. At around this point, Martin discusses his use of third person in his novels and the different ways that on-screen stories and on-the-page stories convey information.
- 30 minutes: Martin talked about his fascination with power, and how "our societies are built on these structures of sand."
- 38 minutes: Peter pitches a tie-in book that HBO should look into -- "Robb Not Joffrey: Parenting the Game of Thrones Way." After the laughter died down, Martin talked about how issues with his own father may have influenced "ASoIaF" and how many disputes throughout history started out as, at least on one level, family squabbles.
- 42 minutes: "The question of people making choices appeals to me," Martin said, going on to cite the choice that Jaime made regarding Bran in "A Game of Thrones." Martin noted that what Bran saw would put Jaime's own children in mortal danger, and he talked about how "abstract morality" isn't always so easy to follow in reality.
- 46 minutes: We switch over to audience questions, and the first one is about Martin's frequent use of the number seven. It was just part of Martin's attempt to create a memorable set or grouping, a la Christianity's Trinity. Still, "There are some times… when I wonder, 'Did it have to be seven kingdoms?" Martin admitted.
- 47 minutes: Martin talks about using magic sparingly in his tales. "A little magic goes a long way," he said, noting that there's not a ton of "on-stage magic" in "The Lord of the Rings." And he said he much prefers alluding to magic that is "strange and unknowable" rather than constructing a "system" of magic, which he called "fake science." "Magic is cooler to my mind when it's dangerous," Martin said.
- 56 minutes: He talked about the difference between the book versions of Osha and Shae versus the TV versions, and noted that he "initially didn't like" the television version of Shae, though he came to like the TV version of the character later in Season 2.
- 57 minutes: He talked about how he suggested that the name of the character Robb married in Season 2 be changed to Talisa, given that this was an entirely new character that book readers would not be familiar with (in the novels, Robb's love interest has a different name and history).
- 62 minutes: He talks about the ages of the characters in the books versus on the TV show, and in particular discusses the casting of Margaery Tyrell.
- 65 minutes: Just how long are those winters in Westeros? "It's fantasy!" Martin replied. Translation: They're as long as Martin says they are.
- And at the end of the podcast, he discussed which characters are easiest to write. "Tyrion," he said immediately, and he mentioned Arya too.
- The entire panel is below.