‘Game of Thrones’ is epic with a different ring: ‘Frodo never gets to go to a brothel’

March 15, 2011 | 4:11 p.m.

Sean Bean in "Game of Thrones" (Nick Briggs/HBO)

Gargantuan dire wolves, frozen tundras, corrupt royals, brutal deflowerings, gullets slit wide open — oh, and don’t forget the debauched dwarf. The chilling slogan “Winter Is Coming” only hints at the epic scope and brooding cinematic feel of the much-anticipated series “Game of Thrones,” which premieres April 17.

Based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire” novels, the 10-episode saga is a high-stakes move for HBO — an expensive leap into spectacular fantasy for a network whose reputation was built on nuanced, character-driven dramas geared toward adults. The show’s stars merge actorly skill with genre-movie magnetism: Sean Bean is best known as Boromir in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Lena Headey starred as Queen Gorgo in “300,” and indie movie veteran Peter Dinklage played Trumpkin in “Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.”

Emilia Clarke in "Game of Thrones" (Helen Sloan/HBO)

“Thrones” has been in development since 2006. That’s when friends David Benioff and Dan Weiss decided they wanted to bring to life Martin’s magnum opus about bloody power struggles, dark mystical forces, and children grappling with the sins of their forefathers, all set in a gritty yet vaguely medieval fictional kingdom.

Benioff and Weiss have known each other for decades, and their meet-cute story is pretty unusual for hot Hollywood show runners: The Americans befriended each other while getting master’s degrees in Irish literature at Dublin’s Trinity College.

“Dan was studying Joyce, and I was studying Beckett,” Benioff says with a slight grin. The pair are sitting in a Pasadena hotel, both looking rakishly groomed, with 5 o’clock shadows in force midday.

Having studied two of 20th century modernism’s towering geniuses and later published literary fiction themselves (Benioff wrote several novels, including “The 25th Hour” and “City of Thieves,” while Weiss penned “Lucky Wander Boy”), it might seem strange that they were drawn to Tolkien-esque fantasy.

But for all their education and high-end novels, Weiss and Benioff quickly point out that they’re not just literary geeks: They are also Dungeons & Dragons geeks. “We were both dungeon masters,” says Weiss, whose novel “Lucky Wander Boy” is steeped in video game culture. In fact, the huge popularity of Martin-style fiction seems to go hand in hand with the immersive, drawn-out and escapist entertainment of video gaming.

The duo’s earliest attempt at collaboration — a horror script called “The Headmaster” — went nowhere. But Benioff got a boost in 2000, when Tobey Maguire took a liking to “The 25th Hour” and enabled Benioff to write a screenplay for the Spike Lee movie of his novel. This launched his career as an in-demand writer on movies like “Troy,” “The Kite Runner” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” In the meantime, Benioff married actress Amanda Peet, completing the aura of Hollywood fairy tale.

And then “Game of Thrones” landed on Benioff’s doorstep. Literally. Martin’s agent sent him a hefty package of the books, several of which run more than 1,000 pages. Initially the cheesy fantasy covers repelled Benioff, but after he started reading, he was hooked. “At some point I e-mailed Dan and said, maybe I’ve lost my mind, but this is more fun than anything I’ve read in years and years.”

Isaac Hempstead-Wright and Kit Harington in "Game of Thrones" (Helen Sloan/HBO)

Dan felt similarly exhilarated. “You almost literally disappear into those worlds, and I hadn’t done that since I was 12 or 13 years old. It’s the kind of experience that’s very hard to have as an adult reader. … A crack-like propulsion to get to the next chapter.”

The duo decided that cramming Martin’s complex saga into a two-hour, PG-13 film would be “an act of mutilation” and wondered if Martin might turn down the payday of a “LOTR”-style movie franchise in favor of a cable TV series.

Martin recalls meeting them at a West Hollywood restaurant for lunch: “They were very enthused, they said all the right things. They didn’t even ask, ‘Does it have to medieval, can it be contemporary?’ ”

The 62-year-old Martin — who, with his hulking frame and his long white locks and beard, could be a character in his own saga — had spent a decade working in TV (“Twilight Zone,” Ron Koslow’s live-action “Beauty and the Beast”) and was fed up with scaling down his vision for the screen. “With my first drafts, they’d always say, ‘It’s great, but it’s too long, it’s got too many characters…. Ultimately I’d come up with a shootable script, but I always liked my first drafts with the huge, juicy stuff in it.”

These books were his attempt to escape Hollywood’s constraints and, as Weiss puts it, “write something that you could never, ever make into a television show or movie. And sure enough, we are now making this unmake-able world into a television show.”

Kit Harington and John Bradley in "Game of Thrones" (Helen Sloan/HBO)

Benioff tries to keep his vision for the series — and Martin fans’ expectations — in perspective.

“There are certain things we are never going to be able to do the way Peter Jackson could with ‘Lord of the Rings,’” he says. “On the other hand, we have a lot more time to spend with our characters. And at this point in my life as a 40-year-old man, I am much more excited by George’s stories than I am by ‘Lord of the Rings.’”

“Because Frodo never gets to go to a brothel,” Weiss pipes up impishly, as Peter Dinklage’s fabulously saucy character, Tyrion, so often does.

“Game of Thrones” is much more raw and graphic than most fantasy of “The Lord of the Rings”-”Harry Potter” kind. It offers beheadings and bare breasts, as befits the show’s home on HBO.

“The [movie] studio conception of fantasy — and the more you edge toward high fantasy the more this becomes true — is that who would be interested in what is limited to 13- to 15-year-old boys?” Weiss says. “But frankly, a 13-year-old probably should not be reading Martin’s books.”

Having a pre-existing narrative to work from is naturally a huge advantage to the show runners. Unlike the creators of a TV show like “Lost,” they don’t have to make up plots as they go along. “Somebody very, very smart has been thinking about [‘Thrones’] 24 hours a day for the past 20 years,” Weiss says. “It gives you such a head start in terms of structure.”

Peter Dinklage in "Game of Thrones" (Helen Sloan\HBO)

“Thrones” arrives amid a boom in historical and pseudo-historical cable dramas, including Starz’s “Camelot” and “Spartacus” and Showtime’s forthcoming “The Borgias” and recently concluded “Tudors.” Although Martin has done much historical research, “Thrones” is not shackled to any specific reality. According to Benioff, “It’s built on a vaguely Western medieval skeleton, but he’s pulling from the Mongols, native Americans, India, all these elements get woven together into this new tapestry that feels very organic and real but also feels fresh.”

Because it is a work of pure imagination, they can throw in a dragon here, a sword-wielding heroine there; they can even invent a new language. And so they did — hiring linguist David J. Peterson to create a Dothraki dialect spoken by the barbarian tribe that beautiful would-be heir-to-throne Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) marries into.

It’s a full-on geek move that should stand them in excellent stead at Comic-Con International, though neither has learned Dothraki yet. Weiss quips, “It’s on my to-do list. I’ve been told Klingon was hard to learn, so we asked that it be easier to learn than Klingon.”

This lapse could be forgiven, considering that the duo spent most of last year on location. (Weiss’ wife gave birth while he was shooting in Northern Ireland, while the Benioffs had their second child during postproduction.) Over the last half decade, they have juggled other projects, like the “Halo” movie that Weiss was attached to for a while and the Kurt Cobain film that Benioff is scripting. Of the latter, Benioff says he’s handed in what he hopes is the final draft of the movie, to be directed by Oren Moverman (“The Messenger”).

Sean Bean and Julian Glover in "Game of Thrones" (Helen Sloan/HBO)

But Benioff and Weiss are committed to riding “Thrones” as far as they can, and neither foresee having time to return to writing fiction soon. Did their years as Irish literature scholars go to waste?

Benioff pauses, his mop of curls shaking slightly. “One of the experiences we were studying in Ireland was really close reading,” he says. “Paying so much attention to the text and trying to extract meanings from it. Obviously George’s books are very different from Beckett’s. But he is creating these worlds that are entirely unlike anything I had read before … and we want to do it justice.”

– Joy Press

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Comments


21 Responses to ‘Game of Thrones’ is epic with a different ring: ‘Frodo never gets to go to a brothel’

  1. Westeros says:

    Terrific article! I recall I read about their meeting at Trinity College somewhere, but not that they were studying Joyce and Beckett respectively.

  2. Tmiller says:

    This show sounds better and better. And, I'm not the fantasy type.

  3. digitaldraco says:

    Brilliant. As a D&D player, I enjoyed learning that they were both dungeon masters. I wonder if they still play?

  4. Harriet Bee says:

    Clever title for the article, but why would Frodo need to go to a brothel when he camps out every night with Sam?

  5. steve says:

    They lost me at 'And at this point in my life as a 40-year-old man, I am much more excited by George’s stories than I am by ‘Lord of the Rings.’”'

  6. Kevin says:

    I've been excited about this show since I first opened A Game of Thrones in 2007. Everything I've seen so far has looked amazing. This should be a great year, Game of Thrones premiers on HBO on April 17, and A Dance with Dragons appears of book shelves on July 12. Winter is Coming!

  7. Harold says:

    The problem is that while the first two books are certainly worth reading, the third drags and the fourth really isn’t that good.

    Perhaps the fifth will be decent after this long wait, but the real issue is that the source material for any followup on this series is, at very best, in bad need of a rewrite for production. That’s extremely unlikely while Martin is still around.

  8. Kurgen99 says:

    WINTER IS COMING!!

  9. Kurgen99 says:

    I am 44, and I recently finished reading the entire series. "A crack-like propulsion to get to the next chapter" carried me from when I picked up the first book, to the final page of the last, without ever stopping.
    They may be the greatest books I've ever read.

  10. John says:

    The third drags?! The third is clearly the best one. Everyone agrees that the fourth one drags, but I’ve never heard anyone suggest that the third isn’t excellent. Odds are good that the fourth will be edited down and mixed in with the fifth, if the show makes it that far.

    Thanks for the coverage Joy, it’s thorough and well put.

  11. socioplastic says:

    "But he is creating these worlds that are entirely unlike anything I had read before … " – Really? GRRM said he was blatantly copying intrigue from the War of the Roses, and then creating a parody of other Epic sagas in the Sci-Fi-Fantasy genre… does everyone not know how to do research ? Is all reporting these days merely mindless banter for advertisers ?

  12. Rickibobbi says:

    Game of thrones had a decent plot and characters but it, read more like a detailed script, I kept reading it but jesus, the writing was simply awful. Wooden, telling, repetitive. Also, some of the books just meandered, but not in a good way, its like the author got lost and couldn't figure out how to get home. I do like how the author stayed with the characters for long periods of time, and there are some very cool things that may happen in the future, but its just implied at this point. Maybe the movie will clean things up.

  13. jackson says:

    this is going to be epic. sean bean does a lot of period pieces, btw.

  14. Sheryl says:

    …"Somebody very, very smart has been thinking about [‘Thrones’] 24 hours a day for the past 20 years…"

    THEN WHY ISN'T IT FINISHED?

    I'm not watching, and I'm not reading Fire And Ice until it's done.

    And how stupid is HBO, to option a series THIS expensive, without the ending?????

  15. mysterycycle says:

    So, what you've told me is that Weiss thinks "A Game of Thrones" will be superior to "The Lord of the Rings" because "Thrones" will feature boobies, brothels and beheadings.

    Tell me again about what appeals to 13- to 15-year old boys?

    I've been interested in seeing "Thrones" (and I've been meaning to read the novel; I've read short stories by Martin that I enjoyed despite disagreeing with their worldview and conclusions), but this article and others like it are killing my interest.

    • thronesfan says:

      This article greatly misrepresents the inclusion of sex, brothels, be-headings, that are in the story. None of it is gratuitous, and while a 13 year old might be titillated by the sections containing nudity, I'd expect most would be bored by all of the talking in between. Fans like the stories because they are interesting, unpredictable, and full of 3 dimensional characters that you may not agree with, but want desperately to see what happens to them.

  16. TCC says:

    I think that is a drastic misinterpretation to say it will be better "because of boobies, brothels and beheadings". The point was that it is a more adult themed story and sex and higher levels of violence play into it. But it's main strength in my opinion is the characters and the fact that there is no "good guys and bad guys". There are good and bad people, and many who are capable of acts on both sides of the moral spectrum. Fans may find one character or side more sympathetic than another, but it isn't the typical good fantasy heroes against the evil dark lord and his army of evil minions.

  17. Amanda Pruitt says:

    I can't get past the blantant misogyny repeated over and over so far…quit reading book 1 because of it, thought I was being too sensitive, now seeing females bent over every five minutes, I see I was right on and I'm sorry, I don't get it and it's NOT for 13 yr old boys. They have no clue what it's like to treat a female with respect now-a-days as it is, do they need a primer??

    • Kingslayer Groupie says:

      Any 13 year old boy who misguidedly decides to model his behaviour to the opposite sex or indeed his own sex on characters such as Viserys Targaryen must already be seriously screwed up. He will get no encouragement from the author of the books, who has made the character so contemptible that he currently tops the HBO poll on "character you most love to hate" – no mean feat when Cersei Lannister, fresh from ordering the death of a cute little innocent who accidentally witnessed her treasonous and incestuous adultery, and a host of other "baddies" are in contention for the title.( BTW, you don't seem to be worried that this series will lead to an outbreak of sibling incest among the impressionable young. Isn't this just as probable/improbable?)

  18. Kingslayer Groupie says:

    And this illusory screwed up youth will discover in due course that GRRM, while, godlike, sparing not the most virtuous, honourable or innocent from undeserved suffering and/or death, reserves some specially nasty fates for the gratuitously cruel and the boorishly misogynistic -many of them at the hands of those females they have failed to treat with respect. The same is true of those who disrespect or mistreat others based on their victims' real or perceived sexual orientation, youth, girth, height, race, class, illegitimacy or deformity. The author's sympathies are firmly with the underdogs and underbitches. Not for nothing is Tyrion Lannister his favourite character..

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