Valar Dohaeris: An Interview With George R.R. Martin
The epic fantasy television series Game of Thrones, which returns for its third season at the end of March, has been a magnificent hit, winning award after award and attracting larger and increasingly mainstream audiences with each season. It's been such a boon for HBO that the network announced last month a new two-year development deal with the man behind the books that launched the series, George R.R. Martin. "Valar Dohaeris," as they say. (Translated from the fictional GOT language High Valyrian, this means "All Men Must Serve," and it's also the title of the season's first episode.) In this case, Martin must serve the many facets of his inner muse and take advantage of an opportunity to reach a massive audience with more of his ideas.
Still, this (like many of his beyond-the-books projects) comes as bittersweet news to some of Martin's die-hard fans who, with rabid anticipation, await his next novel. Though it's been only two years since A Dance With Dragons (Book 5 in the Song of Ice and Fire series) was released, A Feast For Crows (Book 4) came out in 2005 and A Storm of Swords (Book 3, the first half of which is the source for this season on TV) came out in 2000. New projects, some worry, could mean even more time between releases for the final two books: The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. And the books, after all, are what it's really all about, right?
Well, we can all relax and even rejoice. Amazon recently confirmed that Martin is not too distracted by these other endeavors and is, in fact, actively working on the new novel.
At the risk of exasperating fans further, we do admit that we waylaid Mr. Martin for a brief telephone conversation -- during which he discussed his history with television, how the show affects the pace of his writing, which actor’s portrayal he prefers to the character he wrote, and what’s really important when it comes to finding the right actor to portray his characters.
Warning: Mr. Martin does hint at a potential spoiler in the first two answers.
Robin A. Rothman: What about this season are you most excited to see translated from your written description to come to life on screen?
George R.R. Martin: [Potential Spoiler Alert] Well, excited and apprehensive is the Red Wedding. I don't know if you want to write about that without spoiling things. I think it will have more impact if it takes people unexpectedly, but certainly that's the scene that both myself and I think most of my hardcore fans are looking forward to with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension.
RAR: It's so graphic in the novel. You've probably seen it already. Do you feel it captures what you wrote? Were there any major changes to that?
GRRM: [Potential Spoiler Alert] I have not seen it. I've been very busy writing the new books and doing other projects this year, so I did not have a chance to visit the set. At one point I was looking at going over there when they were filming it and maybe even being one of the casualties, but I just couldn't find the time to get over to Belfast, so I haven't seen any of it. I've seen no footage this season.
RAR: So, do you watch the show in real time like fans do? Are you watching it having special screenings and parties with friends when it comes on air?
GRRM: It's a combination of both. I will be going out to L.A. in a couple weeks for the premiere; they'll be screening the show for an invited crowd at the Grauman's Chinese Theatre. That'll be only four or five days before the debut, though. In some cases they'll send me a screener or a disc of a rough cut to look at ahead of time, but in the majority of cases I'm seeing it just as the fans are when it comes on the air.
RAR: Your process when you're working with the television people... are you hands-on with it?
GRRM: Fortunately I was either very lucky or very smart to team up with David Benioff and Dan Weiss -- the showrunners and executive producers of the show who write most of the episodes -- and, you know, I have a great pair of partners there. They're doing a terrific job with the show and the show is their baby and the books are my baby. So, I'm gonna keep writing the books and keep ahead of these guys before they catch up with me.
RAR: You're known for working at a comfortable pace. You're working on a lot of projects, you take your time and you offer really dense, detailed volumes. Has the pace of the TV series actually put any pressure on you or changed your pace of writing?
GRRM: It had not initially, but it's starting to do so, yeah, because they're making faster progress than I'm making. So, I had a huge lead to begin with and I still have a pretty substantial lead over them, but it's not as substantial as it was beforehand. [Chuckles.]
RAR: I would guess that you've had conversations with the actors about what you feel the background of each of the characters is, but have they in turn inspired any changes that you've incorporated into your writing of the characters now in the later books?
GRRM: Not really, not so far. I mean there's one particular actor who I've talked about -- Natalia Tena who plays Osha -- and as I've commented in other interviews, when I first saw she was being considered for the role, I thought "Well, she's all wrong for this role. I don't know why you're bringing her in. She's too young and she's too pretty and you know she's not at all the character." But then I saw her performance, and she was just great. She was mesmerizing, and her Osha is much better than my Osha. So, I think when I come to write about Osha again, which may be in this book that I'm writing now, Natalia Tena may be in the back of my mind and I may take it a little more in that direction. But that's really the only case. In most cases, you know I've been living with these characters... I started writing this book in 1991, so that's a long time, and my view of the characters is very firmly fixed in my head.
RAR: How difficult has it been for you to reconcile the visual constraints of the television medium and the descriptive book elements? For instance how hideous Tyrion is supposed to be doesn't really come across in the show and (not to spoil, but) what we're expecting from other characters and what happens to them...?
GRRM: You know, I worked in Hollywood for 10 years; I was there from basically the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s working on a variety of television shows. So, I saw the process from the other side, which has given me enough perspective. I mean, you can describe a character in the book, but you're never gonna get an actor who exactly meets the physical dimensions of the character. I know some of the fans go crazy about this. "Ooooh that character had red hair in the book and they cast someone with blond hair." But, for the most part, that stuff is trivial.
In the case of Tyrion, yeah Tyrion in the books is shorter than Peter Dinklage is and he's considerably less attractive. Peter is actually quite a good looking guy. But Peter Dinklage is a sensational actor and brought Tyrion to life vividly. That's what you want. You're not trying to match an author's imaginary description of a person who never existed; you're trying to bring a character to life by casting the best possible actor you can in the role.
RAR: Speaking of your history with television, you left television writing to write books full time. What prompted that?
GRRM: Well, books were always my first love. I sold my first story in 1971 and I didn't start getting involved in writing for television until 1985-86. So, I had 15 years ahead of time where I was strictly a writer of prose and I'd always loved that best. Television and film was exciting, and I'm glad I'm back in it and all that. But there are good things about it; there are also frustrating things about it. I never liked the politics of it.
I worked 10 years out there. My first five years I was on Twilight Zone and then I was on Beauty and the Beast, and that was a very exciting time. Writing scripts for a show that was on the air -- you write the script and it goes on and millions of people see it. But then I got into what's called development the second five years where I was writing feature films, where I was developing pilots for my own show, and none of those ever got on the air. And I could only take so much of that; after about five years...
I mean, I was making more money than ever before because that's just very, very well-paid out there. But emotionally I couldn't take this repeated thing of working on a project for a year and then, for whatever reason, the studio decides not to do it or the network decides to pick up some other show instead. And these characters have become real to you. You want to tell their stories, you want to see what people do, and you never get to do that, and I found that very frustrating. So, going back to prose where I could tell my stories and I knew my stories would reach an audience... whether it was a big audience or a small audience -- big is better, but small is certainly better than people in a room.
RAR: Now that you're back in television on your terms, how does that feel to be out from under the burden of other people's decision-making to actually be the decision-maker?
GRRM: I'm really not though. We have to put this in perspective. Yes I'm involved with the show. It's based on my books and they're doing quite a faithful job. However, David Benioff and Dan Weiss are the showrunners. They're working on the show 7 days a week 24 hours a day, you know? They're dealing with all the problems. They're approving the set designs and they're doing the location scouts and they're watching dailies everyday and they're in the room with the editors making necessary cuts and they're in all the casting sessions deciding what actors to hire.
This was the stuff that I was involved with when I was doing development and when I was even on Beauty and the Beast as a supervising producer, but I'm not in that position on this show. I'm back in Santa Fe, New Mexico and I'm writing books. Once a year I write one script [this season it's episode 7, May 12], and when I can I visit the set and hang around for a week or so and meet some of the actors and watch them film, but I'm not involved in the day-to-day production.
So, in some ways I have the best of both worlds, and it's very good. Sometimes I get the urge, like an old warhorse, "Boy I would love to be more involved in the show." Maybe when I finish the books -- if I can finish the books and they're still filming -- maybe I'll do more in the last season of the show and I'll go out and do some of those things and be on the set for six months at a time, but I can't do that right now. My main responsibility is to finish the books.
RAR: Those things that you made that didn't see the light of day, those still exist. Has there been any talk -- with the success that you've had in the last few years -- of bringing those things to light finally?
GRRM: Yeah there has been. We've had a number of conversations, me and my agents are bringing them out. It's not a simple situation, though, because I was paid for those scripts. I was under contract to various studios and producers. So, the rights situation is not clear. I don't actually own those scripts; the people who paid own those scripts. It's not necessarily like a book where you can just turn around after the rights expire and resell it. The rules in Hollywood are a little different. But, it is a case of, you know, these are my unborn children and I would love to get them out in some sense and let people see them. But whether it will ever happen, I don't know.
RAR: When you're not writing the story, have you ever been asked to or have you thought about adding show-exclusive main characters? I know there have been peripheral ones like the Spice King, but has that ever been a conversation? Is it a consideration at all?
GRRM: Well, you know they have added a few characters, Ros, the famous red-headed whore, is a stand-in perhaps for three or four minor prostitute characters in the books; she herself doesn't exist. But no, I think that David and Dan want to do as faithful an adaptation as possible. So adding a really major character would I think perhaps change things too much.
RAR: There do seem to be an increasing number of deviations from the books -- not so many in Season 1 but more in Season 2...
GRRM: I think that's a process that's likely to continue, and some of that is just the nature of the process. I mean, when you make... Everything is related to everything else. So, if you make a small change in Season 1, it could lead to a really big change in Season 4 because the thing that was supposed to happen didn't happen and the guy who was supposed to come in never appeared and it was just a line in that book but now you're in this later season and you don't have him set up. So, everything gets magnified and you have to deal with it.
RAR: Those of us who read the books tend to be pretty evangelical about them toward people who have only watched the show...
GRRM: I love that!
RAR: But from you, what do you say to convince a show-watcher that reading the books is crucial?
GRRM: Well, the show is great but the books are more so. I mean, there's more detail, there's more characters. Everything you like about the show, the books have more. They're richer in that sense. And if you want a rich, immersive experience, the books are like that. But I don't just say that about myself. I mean, maybe it's because I grew up as such a voracious reader. I love television. I love film. But books are my first love and they're my great passion. I think the book is always better. I don't care what movie you're talking about, the book is almost always better than the movie or the television show.
Tune in to Season 3 of Game of Thrones March 31 at 9 p.m. EST on HBO.
No spoilers for those who might not have read all the books, please (or at least warn others if you can't help yourself)! But what are you most looking forward to seeing this season? Share in the comments below.
And if you’re a George R.R. Martin fan looking to get to know the author beyond Game of Thrones and the Song of Ice and Fire series, you can find his other work here. Check out these three to get started: