Game of Thrones: 10 Secrets About HBO's Adaptation
Fans of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, adapted by HBO as Game of Thrones, already know the novels inside and out. Jace Lacob goes behind the scenes to offer 10 secrets from the HBO drama, launching April 17. For an interview with Martin; the show's creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss; and Sue Naegle, the entertainment president of HBO, read this feature. Also, read George R.R. Martin's Curator features of his favorite science fiction films and his favorite fantasy films.
Fans of George R.R. Martin's bestselling novel series A Song of Ice and Fire have been waiting years for the fifth volume in the cycle ( A Dance With Dragons), which is scheduled to be released in July, a few months after the highly anticipated April 17 debut of HBO's Game of Thrones, the adaptation of the first novel in the series.
While avid readers of the books are only more than aware of the plot twists that lie ahead for the characters of Game of Thrones, executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss aren't too concerned about spoilers running rampant or ruining the enjoyment of the show. "I knew what Frodo was going to do with that ring," said Weiss, laughing.
Still, adapting any book has its challenges, which can be multiplied exponentially when it comes to the ardent fans of Martin's work. "I'd like to say we did a pretty good job," said Benioff. "Things have to go and characters need to be combined, and some characters don't make it in, but in terms of the core characters, of whom there are quite a few, I feel like we've gotten them all in there."
The Daily Beast went behind the scenes to talk to Martin, Benioff, and Weiss, HBO Entertainment President Sue Naegle, the actors, and Game of Thrones' technicians and craftsmen to discuss such issues as the direwolves, the weaponry, the original pilot, the sets, the Iron Throne, what lies ahead for Season 2, and much more.
Wolves in the Woods
It's an omen when Ned Stark ( Sean Bean) discovers the remains of a direwolf, the symbol of House Stark, and her surviving six pups, one for each of the five trueborn Stark children and bastard, Jon Snow. Over the course of the first novel, the children and these animals forge a special rapport and the wolves themselves are crucial to the plot.
While the producers initially wanted to use actual wolves, wild animals are hard to control on sets, and the animals had to work closely with child actors. Instead, head animal trainer Jim Warren turned to the Northern Inuit, a dog breed native to Great Britain that closely resembles wolves. But the animals cast here were not professional actors, said Warren, who had about 12 weeks to train them.
"All of the dogs we received were from rescues and some from private parties that felt that they couldn't deal with the dogs anymore, because they were rambunctious big dogs," said Warren. "They'd never been on set before [and] we had a huge amount of work to do to get them from 'See Spot run to the backyard' to make them look like they did for the show."
The dogs were such a hit among the cast that 15-year-old Sophie Turner, who plays Sansa, adopted the dog who plays her direwolf, Lady, after production had wrapped.
A Storm of Swords
Forging the assorted weaponry needed for a production of this size fell to weapons master Tommy Dunne and his team, who had to design and produce thousands of weapons, in metal, rubber, and aluminum versions. Dunne researched medieval weaponry, as well as Mongolian, Native American, and Egyptian weaponry as inspiration for the curved arakhs the Dothraki warriors wield.
Dunne said his favorite weapon from the show is the opaque crystal blade used by the ghostly white walkers on the far side of the Wall, which he made out of a high-durable acrylic resin and was inspired by a crystal Dunne owned. "It was like layers and layers of little icicles that lay over each other like a snake's skin… to create one blade," he said.
Dunne, meanwhile, can be seen in a scene in the pilot episode, in which the young men of Winterfell have their beards shaved for the banquet. Dunne plays the boys' rugged barber, shaving them with a blade in the armory.
That Original Pilot
The original Game of Thrones pilot, shot on location last year in Northern Ireland and in Morocco, was directed by Tom McCarthy, the indie film director known for The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win. Due to several roles being recast— Michelle Fairley replaced Jennifer Ehle as Catelyn Stark; Emilia Clarke replaced Tamzin Merchant as Daenerys; Roger Allam replaced Ian McNiece as Illyrio; and Malta replaced Morocco—and creative changes, the pilot was rewritten and reshot, with Tim Van Patten ( Boardwalk Empire) directing the new pilot episode. ( McCarthy received a supervising producer credit on the pilot.)
"The pilot experience was incredibly long and grueling," said Benioff. "We ended up replacing much of it, but it was amazingly beneficial to have that opportunity to learn from our mistakes."
But what you won't see, due to the reshoots, is a cameo appearance by author George R.R. Martin, which was shot in Morocco.
"It was, sad to say, left on the cutting-room floor," said Martin. "It was during Daenerys' wedding and I was a Pentoshi nobleman in the background, wearing a gigantic hat." (HBO President of Entertainment Sue Naegle said the door is open for another cameo. "We love George," she said. "We'd like him working on the book, but he's welcome any time.")
Set designer Gemma Jackson was tasked with creating the world from the ground to the sky, designing elaborate standing sets featuring "shadows, dirt, flowers, and light," in a way that full CGI couldn't approximate. Jackson turned to memories of her travels to India, Africa, and Italy for inspiration. Each area—whether it be Winterfell, King's Landing, or Pentos—would have to stand out and have a "strong visual personality" so that the viewers instantly knew where they were in Westeros (or across the Narrow Sea).
"When I was thinking about King's Landing, the whole red aspect of it, that immediately made me think of Rajasthan," said Jackson. "The floor [at King's Landing] was from the Pantheon in Rome… Winterfell was based on a Scottish castle… A lot of the mosaics in the Eyrie were based on a beautiful chapel I visited in Rome."
But Jackson's favorite set is Castle Black, at the foot of the 700-foot Wall, which divides the North from the wild forest beyond. "Castle Black will blow your mind," she said. "That is all in a huge quarry underneath a wall." Working construction lifts were discovered at a nearby work site and rise 18 feet; CGI fills in the rest to make the wall appear 700 feet high. "I think it is an incredible marriage between the art department and visual effects… It just worked like an absolute dream."
The Iron Throne
One of the most visually striking set pieces in the show is that of the Iron Throne, the seat of the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, comprising 1,000 swords bent in fealty and fused together by the heat of dragon's breath hundreds of years ago.
Gavin Jones, supervising prop maker on Game of Thrones, was tasked with the construction of this massive piece, which measures nearly eight feet tall and requires at least four men to lift it. It took nearly two months to construct and dress.
"It was important that it should be a thing of beauty and highly intricate, as if constructed by an artist rather than a metal worker," said Jones. "We looked at images of metal forging and smelting, as well as wicker chairs to help with the inspiration for the tightly woven appearance, which was key to the throne."
The piece itself was built from a wooden frame and then Jones and his team cast hundreds of swords out for fast cast resin. "We then heated the swords so we could manipulate them into the desired shape to create a woven structure," Jones said. "Afterward, we sculpted an added intricate hilts, pommels, and jewels before creating our forged iron texture."
Meanwhile, the massiveness of the throne warranted some model-making ahead of time, with an interesting twist. "As with all projects of this scale, it's imperative to build a miniature maquette beforehand, thus we needed a model to sit in the throne," said Jones. "The only thing that fit perfectly was an action figure of WWF wresting star, The Undertaker. He looked awesome!"
While Martin's novels contain instances of Dothraki, the language used by Khal Drogo ( Jason Momoa) and his horde, producers needed to create a fluid, spoken language for the show. They turned to David Peterson, a linguist who serves as the president of the Language Creation Society, who had to manufacture an entire language into which the Dothraki dialogue in the scripts could be translated. (He would create enough dialogue to fill 156 pages of text.)
"I can remember days in Malta where you'd be sitting there… and you'd look over at the actors' tents and Emilia [Clarke], Iain Glen, and Elyes [Gabel] would be practicing their Dothraki," said Benioff. "A language that didn't exist nine months before and they sounded fluent."
Peterson said that Martin's initial use of Dothraki was influenced by "Mongols in the Silk Road Period" and Native American tribes. "I had influences from other languages for little bits of things," said Peterson. "I wanted it to have a sound very much like Arabic, so the phonology of Arabic influenced the way it sounds and the rhythm." But in terms of creating words, Peterson would surprisingly ask himself, "How would the Hawaiians describe this?"
Peterson offered an exclusive translation of one of the Dothraki phrases used in Martin's first novel ("Silver for the silver of your hair"), which would be translated as, " Vizhadi vizhadaan norethi shafki."
Off the Menu
For readers who have experienced Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels, they know that Martin doesn't skimp on the culinary descriptions, offering intricate details into what the characters are eating and drinking. Lemon cakes, a popular Westerosi dessert, have become something akin to Proust's famous madeleine for fans. (HBO, taking a page from Martin, recently teamed up with chef Tom Colicchio to offer Game of Thrones-inspired cuisine from food trucks in New York and Los Angeles.)
"It's really part of my philosophy of immersing the reader," said Martin. "I want them to lose track of the fact that they're looking at words on a page… and when they look back on it a year from now, it will be almost indistinguishable from… a wedding banquet that they actually attended."
That level of detail carried over to the food in the show, said Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. "In the pilot, there's a feast at Winterfell when the king arrives," he said. "They found these medieval recipes and they cooked all this food so we could eat it. They didn't have to, but it shows the dedication to detail that went into this production."
"[For] Winterfell, we made the food interesting but northern, not really too much fruit, more basic and hearty," said Richard Roberts, the show's set decorator, referring to the rich stews eaten by those in the icy northern regions. "King's Landing was rich, exotic, Mediterranean, lots of color, fruits, and spices." Those scenes contain a sense of opulence and excess, exotic fruits and lush spreads, compared to the grimness of, say, Castle Black, where the Night's Watch recruits feast on some less appetizing odds and ends. ("Most [of it was] edible," said Roberts.)
While Season 1 of Game of Thrones hasn't even launched yet, that hasn't stopped Benioff and Weiss from dreaming about a potential second season.
"Usually, if you're lucky enough to get a second season, you've already got your cast in place," said Benioff. "With this season, it's almost like recasting—"
"We have to start killing more characters to make room for the new ones," interrupted Weiss.
And who would those new characters be? "I'd love to tackle Melisandre," said Benioff of Book 2's malevolent red priestess. Weiss mentioned Ygritte, who becomes a figure of importance to Jon Snow, and the mysterious Jaqen H'ghar, a suspected member of a sect of assassins. ("He's fun too," said Benioff. "He doesn't really show up this season, but he'll be a big player next season.") Then there's the so-called Onion Knight, Davos Seaworth, who, Weiss said was their producing partner's favorite character.
"There's just something about a guy who was a smuggler who's now serving authority," said Benioff. "There are laws he has to break, but he's forced to carry around his own finger bones."
While Game of Thrones' plot unfolds within 10 episodes this first season, adapting the book's subsequent volumes—particularly the weighty third volume ( A Storm of Swords)—might prove tricky in just a handful of episodes.
"We've never said that they need to use each book as a year because we know that there's a lot of story in there," said Naegle. "We can move around in time a little bit and borrow from some books and move them back."
Martin agreed. "If I was in charge, I would split Storm of Swords into two seasons," he said. "I'd even make the second season a little longer. Have them give us 12 hours instead of 10… When you hit Storm of Swords, it's 500 pages longer than [the second book] in manuscript. If you don't divide that one into two seasons, then you are going to have to do some severe cutting of plots and subplots."
Dance With Dragons
While the launch of Game of Thrones is near, Martin has other deadlines on his mind, now that his publishers have announced a July publication date for the fifth book in the series, A Dance With Dragons.
"In some ways, it was a relief to have it announced, but I still haven't finished the book," he said. "I'm still trying to madly type the last chapters even as the great production machinery is starting. The pressure is enormous. It's the greatest it's ever been. But the good part is that I'm very close and when I do finish it, then I will be able to breathe slightly… Already, just the announcement of the date, I have some jokers writing me and saying, 'How's [Book 6] Winds of Winter coming?'"
Jace Lacob is The Daily Beast's TV Columnist. As a freelance writer, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, TV Week, and others. Jace is the founder of television criticism and analysis website Televisionary and can be found on Twitter. He is a member of the Television Critics Association.