In 2006, when David Benioff and Dan Weiss, co-creators of the hit HBO series Game of Thrones, sat down with author George R.R. Martin to talk about adapting his epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin's Hollywood bullshit detector was on high alert. "He gave us a pop quiz," Weiss told one interviewer, but they passed the test because their passion for Martin's books "was real and natural and completely unforced."
Their geek-boy résumés probably didn't hurt: Benioff, a D&D dungeon master in his youth, did the screenplay for X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and Weiss had a video-game-themed novel under his belt. Nor did their willingness to shelve all other creative pursuits—no small sacrifice for Benioff, who had adapted his own first novel, The 25th Hour, into the Spike Lee film starring Edward Norton, and followed that up with the fabulous 2008 book City of Thieves.
For the uninitiated, Game of Thrones is an engrossing tale of clans struggling for dominion in the fictional realm of Westeros. (Benioff's two-second elevator pitch: "The Sopranos in Middle Earth.") With a stellar crew and ensemble cast anchored by Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf scion of a power-hungry family, the show has raked in 17 Emmy nominations and eight wins, including Dinklage as outstanding supporting actor. Benioff and Weiss told me via email about their favorite characters, learning to "fail better," and the challenges of shooting Season 3, which premieres March 31 on HBO.
MJ: How much obligation do you feel toward the source material?
B&W: We're under no contractual restrictions with regards to the storytelling. It's just that we pursued these books—and pushed for the show's green-light—for almost four years before we got to shoot the pilot. We gave up other opportunities because we love these books and want to do them justice. So for us, it's about adapting the books according to our notions of justice—which won't mesh with the fundamentalist book fans' notions. Which is fine with us because if the fundamentalists were running the show, there wouldn't be a show.
MJ: The books have way more characters than you could ever include in a series. Were there any that you found particularly painful to cut?
B&W: No. As you say, we knew going in that there was no way to include everyone. Often amalgamations of several characters can be more fun to write than each one separately.
MJ: Which character does each of you most relate to?
Benioff: Theon Greyjoy, especially as interpreted by Alfie Allen. In some ways he's the most complicated character in a story crammed with complicated characters. He's scared and lonely and insecure and masks those vulnerabilities with bravado and contempt and arrogance. He reminds me of real 25-year-olds I've known. Okay, he reminds me of the real 25-year-old I was. Aside from the child-murdering bit.
Weiss: Everyone starts the season as a Tyrion, but by the end of production, we're all Hodors.
MJ: Okay, I'd like to get your take on this whole notion of "sexposition." Do people really pay closer attention to intricate plot points delivered during a sex scene?
Benioff: Personally, I pay less attention to intricate plot points delivered during sex scenes.
Weiss: Yes, that's a tricky line to walk. Sex grabs people's attention. But once it has their attention, it tends not to let go of it.
MJ: I gather that Game of Thrones could last eight or nine seasons. Does that mean putting novel writing on hold for a decade?
B&W: Yes, if we live that long and HBO keeps wanting to make the show. We have the opportunity here to tell a coherent story that lasts for 80 hours. And while a canvas of that size presents all sorts of storytelling problems, it also allows us to spend more time with these characters we love than we'll ever get again. Every once in a while we get five minutes to think about thinking about novels. But mostly we're just happy when we get to read one now and again.