Movie critic Leonard Maltin recently interviewed A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin at length on his podcast Maltin on Movies, speaking to him at Martin’s theater in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Jean Cocteau Cinema. Between recounting his long career and waxing poetic about the joys of movie theaters, Martin makes some very interesting comments about Game of Thrones, A Song of Ice and Fire, and more. Listen below, and then we’ll hit some highlights!
Martin tells a lot of stories we’ve heard before, but they’re still fascinating — his childhood in Bayonne, New Jersey; his transition into writing full time; the failure of his novel The Armageddon Rag, which inspired a move into screenwriting in Hollywood; leaving Hollywood to return to novels after too many producers told him to pare down his ideas; and finally starting to write A Song of Ice and Fire.
Once Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies became big hits, everyone in Hollywood wanted to make an epic fantasy, and producers came sniffing around for the rights to ASOAIF. But Martin turned them down, either because they wanted to center the movie version around this character or that character, or worse: they wanted to make one movie and then make a second one based on the success of the first. What if the first one didn’t do well? Martin calls that scenario “ultimate creative coitus interruptus.” I encourage everyone to try and use that in everyday conversation.
And then along came David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, and HBO. Although there was always going to be trepidation about letting someone else “adopt [his] baby,” Martin calls their partnership a “a marriage made in heaven.” There was a time when he thought that between the size and scope and adult content, ASOAIF was unadaptable, but Benioff and Weiss were willing to go there. “As irony would have it, neither one of them had any experience in television when I signed up to do this with them,” Martin remembered. “Maybe it was because they had no experience in television, they didn’t know what was possible, so they reached for the impossible and achieved it. They put together a sensational team.”
As we all know, the show became a monster hit. “It has been a little surreal,” Martin said. “The scale of Game of Thrones’ success has — reaching all over the world and invading the culture to [such an extent] — it’s not something anyone could ever anticipate, not something I expect to ever experience again…it’s been quite a ride.”
“Kindergarten teachers are going to hate me, with the ‘a’ and the ‘y,’ when all these little Daeneryses start hitting school,” Martin laughed, forecasting some interesting problems.
Martin gained huge notoriety off the back of the show, but he wasn’t as deeply involved as he could have been. “I was pretty heavily involved in the beginning, in the early seasons,” he remembered — he wrote one script per season for the first four years of the show. “[Myself, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss] talked constantly…As the show got up…I pulled back to concentrate more on the books, and there was less consultation because there didn’t need to be quite as much.”
I couldn’t justify taking off a year or two years or three years to actually be a part of this show, which would have involved moving to Belfast and writing, instead of just one script per season, maybe three or four scripts per season. It would have meant that the books didn’t get written. There’s only so many hours in a day. That was a tough decision.
Martin’s advancing years also had something to do with it. “In my 40s, I could have taken on being a showrunner,” he mused. “I don’t think, by the time I hit my 60s, it was something I really wanted to tackle…Handing it off was the thing that made sense, and it worked out wonderfully, I think, for everyone concerned.”
People have made a lot over the years over the way Game of Thrones deviated from ASOIAF, but even if Martin had been at the steering wheel the whole time, he acknowledges that he would have been difficult to impossible to fit in everything from his novels. “As lavish as that production was, as big-budget as it was, they still couldn’t include all the characters,” he said. “My books are bigger. Instead of eight seasons…it would have had to go 20 seasons of 13-15 episodes…and even then, I would have had to eliminate things.”
For Martin, the show is the show and the books and the books, for Game of Thrones or any other adaptation. “There’s no right answer or wrong answer there as long as you get the essence of the story,” he said.
I’ve been very lucky with David and Dan and HBO, but there are a lot of properties that are optioned or made in Hollywood where I think the adaptations go too far…If I’m gonna adapt something, I wanna love it. Yes, there are always going to be challenges and…things you have to change…but if you love the initial material, you’ll fight and you’ll everything you can to preserve it.
Circling back to the reason Martin decided not to be more heavily involved in the production of Game of Thrones, there’s some irony in that he pulled back to concentrate on writing books that still aren’t done lo these eight years later. In fact, we’re still waiting on Book Six, The Winds of Winter, which Martin admits is “way late, because I’m slow.” But as he’s said before, Martin prefers to discover big parts of his stories as he writes them. He originally conceived ASOIAF as three books, which obviously didn’t happen. I can only imagine what narrative byways he’s decided to explore on his way to completing Winds and A Dream of Spring.
He does know the ending, though, if only vaguely. “I know the broad strokes, I know where I wanna end up at the end, I know the major road marks along the way, like on a trip,” he said. “But what you don’t know is all the details. You don’t know where the road is gonna be closed and you have to take a detour…you discover that along the way, and that’s what makes it an adventure.”
Finally, Martin had some eyebrow-raising things to say about online fandom, which he finds lacking in some key ways as compared to the fanzine culture he was involved with in his youth. “The Internet is toxic in a way that the old fanzine culture and the fandoms — comics fans, science fiction fans — in those days, was not,” he said. “Yeah, there were disagreements, there were feuds, but nothing like the madness that you see on the internet…It did not empower anonymity, the coward’s means of discourse.”
He doesn’t specify, but you have to wonder if he’s talking about some of the backlash the final season of Game of Thrones has gotten online. Then again, he’s been in this game a long time and could probably be referring to anything.
All in all, a great interview! You can hear more of Maltin’s work here.