King Of Fantasy: George R.R. Martin

As HBO’s Game of Thrones heads for a third season, its creator recalls the Bayonne boyhood that fired his vivid imagination.

Game of Thrones
From top to bottom: Cast members Kit Harington, Emilia Clarke and Peter Dinklage, and Bayonne-bred author George R.R. Martin.
Illustration by Peter Horvath.

Sex, gore, dragons, sex, political intrigue and…did we mention sex? This is the juicy stuff that has made Game of Thrones a hit for HBO.

The medieval fantasy series, which enters its third season on March 31, is based on a best-selling series of novels by Bayonne-bred author George R.R. Martin. The TV series unfolds in a world where large, noble families—called Houses—manipulate and murder their rivals to seize the Iron Throne, the seat of absolute power in Martin’s mythical realm. The war scenes are graphic. The depictions of incest, prostitution and rampant drunkenness are equally shocking. It is no big deal to see undead roam an arctic landscape or flying dragons hatch from fossilized eggs.

As in Martin’s novels, the fantasy elements take place in the historical context of the middle ages. “I wanted to combine the best of both worlds,” says Martin. “To almost write a historical novel about history that never happened.”

The son of a longshoreman and a factory worker, Martin, 64, grew up in the confines of a federal housing project on First Street in Bayonne. “I went to school on Fifth Street, and that was pretty much my world, from First Street to Fifth Street, except in my imagination,” he says. “I was a voracious reader of science fiction and fantasy books. We didn’t even own a car, so we never went anywhere.”

Martin’s vivid imagination expanded his limited childhood world. It allowed him to travel beyond Bayonne, even if he was just gazing across Kill van Kull at neighboring Staten Island. “There were always big ships on the way to Port Newark, freighters and oil tankers with flags from all over the world,” he says. “I had an encyclopedia with a list of flags in the back, so I would look at all these flags from China and Liberia and England and Denmark. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be voyaging on some of these ships…. Staten Island was Shangri-la to me. It was just lights shining on the water, lights of people that I would never see, people that I would never touch, but it really kindled my imagination.”

After graduating from Marist High School and Northwestern University (class of 1970), Martin began writing professionally. He worked on science fiction and fantasy TV programs like The Twilight Zone relaunch and 1987’s Beauty and the Beast for CBS, where he started as a staff writer and worked his way up to supervising producer.

Among his many accolades, he has been called the American Tolkien, an homage to the British author J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In 2011, Time named Martin one of the world’s most influential people, a title he earned by dominating book publishing and television. He has completed five books of his planned seven-part series, titled A Song of Ice and Fire. Many have credited the fifth installment of the series, A Dance with Dragons, released in July 2011, with reviving the troubled book industry. Despite its 1,000-page bulk and brick-like weight, it had the largest first-day sales of 2011 for its publisher, Random House; first-week print sales outstripped e-reader sales—a rare feat in the digital era. Martin is currently working on the sixth book in the series, The Winds of Winter.

Game of Thrones is drawn faithfully from the pages of A Song of Ice and Fire. As the second season of the TV series came to a close, House Lannister and the scathing child-king Joffrey were embroiled in a two-front war on the continent of Westeros against the stoic Stark family of the North and pious Stannis Baratheon. Across the Narrow Sea, banished princess Daenerys Targaryen and her trio of baby dragons mustered support on the exotic continent of Essos to reclaim Westeros’s Iron Throne. Swords flashed, heroes fell, and fan favorite Tyrion Lannister—played by Mendham actor Peter Dinklage—waded through an ocean of blood and palace intrigue in hopes of securing his family’s place as rulers of Westeros. (Dinklage has won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his role in the series, which itself has earned numerous honors, including being named Outstanding New Program of 2011 by the Television Critics Association.)

In the upcoming third season, Martin’s penchant for defying fairy tale conventions will be manifest in the death of some of his most popular characters. Television critic David Bianculli, who teaches the history of film and television at Rowan University and is the founder of the website TV Worth Watching, was among those who were shocked when the first season’s lead protagonist, Ned Stark, played by Sean Bean, was beheaded.

“I love when that happens, when a character you think is too central to the plot to be eliminated is suddenly gone,” says Bianculli.

Martin is tight-lipped about the new season, but he does acknowledge his delight with the addition of Diana Rigg to the cast. The British actress, famous for portraying the seductive spy Emma Peel on the 1960s TV series The Avengers, will portray Olenna Tyrell the Queen of Thorns, a wizened, conniving noblewoman. “I grew up, back in those Bayonne days, watching The Avengers on TV,” Martin recalls. “Like every red-blooded American and British boy, I was madly in love with Emma Peel. So it’s very cool to have her in one of my projects.”

To loyal followers, Game of Thrones is unlike anything else on the small screen. There are post-apocalyptic shows (Walking Dead, Revolution), vampire shows (Vampire Diaries, True Blood) and fairy tale shows (Grimm, Once Upon a Time). But for Bianculli, there is nothing like Game of Thrones’ “medieval chess board,” with its treasonous, life-or-death political landscape. “As far as an entire universe being created whole cloth, the closest precursor would be the [Lord of the] Rings films, though that’s not on television,” he says.

Martin, who now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has the stout build and bushy gray beard that might befit one of his characters. He would look right at home with a flagon of mead in one hand and a poleaxe in the other.

For a writer of fantasy, Martin is a realist. “You know, if you would ask me back [when I was writing it], I would say, this is never going to be made,” he concedes. “It has a cast of thousands, it has an extremely complex plot, it has dragons and direwolves and castles, and it’s a period piece, so we need all these period settings and costumes. It’s everything that makes a television show unproducible.”

But that didn’t stop show creators David Benioff and Dan B. Weiss. Thrones’ early success convinced HBO to up the budget, allowing the series to widen in scope and spectacle. There is no skimping on travel; most of the scenes are shot in far-flung places like Iceland, Croatia, Ireland, Malta and Morocco—locations that evoke the novels’ austere and exotic settings.

HBO’s tolerance for graphic content allows the series to stay true to the original storyline. The sex and rape scenes, crude language and cringe-worthy shots of medieval torture come right out of the books. “It can be more of the show it wants to be, more graphic, more sexy, more violent, and it doesn’t have to worry about losing viewers during commercial breaks,” Bianculli says.

Other than writing the occasional episode, Martin has little involvement in the production of Game of Thrones. “My present lot is still the books,” he says. “I do one episode per season, but it’s not a full-time job.” Martin wrote last season’s penultimate episode, “Blackwater,” which won raves from fans and critics. The episode revolved around a military campaign, complete with bloody naval battle, a castle siege and a emerald-green explosion of magical wildfire.

The third season will roughly correspond to half of the third book, A Storm of Swords. Martin has written the seventh episode, titled “Chains.” But the production of the series could possibly outpace publication of the last two books. Martin is a notoriously slow writer; the last installment took him more than five years to complete. But Bianculli thinks a hiatus in the show won’t diminish its popularity. “Devoted genre fans waited an entire generation for the next Star Wars,” says Bianculli.

Those who worry that Martin’s work on the show might distract him from completing The Winds of Winter need not fear. “I love television, I love film, but prose was my first love,” Martin says. “Prose was what I started writing, back in the projects in Bayonne, and back in the 1960s when I first started making up stories for the other kids in the projects. That’s why I want to continue to write.”

Click here to read a full transcript of the interview with George R.R. Martin.

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