How HBO adapted Game of Thrones to television — and how season 2 might diverge from A Clash of Kings

The thing that's really striking when you watch HBO's Game of Thrones television series is how closely it sticks to George R.R. Martin's original book. We talked to producers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff about how they made it work.

We were lucky enough to be on a conference call with Weiss and Benioff, along with some other reporters. (We've watched a few episodes of Game of Thrones already, and we'll have our spoiler-free reaction next week.) The producers told us about how they were able to bring such a faithful reconstruction of the book to the screen, and whether there might be more changes in book two.

Minor spoilers ahead...

The one thing they stressed, over and over again, is that they wanted the TV series to be as close to the books as possible — they really loved the books, ever since they read them years ago, and were full of excitement about the prospects of bringing their favorite scenes to the screen. "By and large, fans of the books are going to find a faithful incarnation here, where the first scenes of the show are pretty close to the first scenes of the book, and so are the last scenes," says Benioff.

That said, they were willing to add some scenes here and there and make a few changes to make the story work better on the screen.

Changes in the first few episodes

There are definitely some scenes that were added in the first few episodes, that are just there to spell out some stuff that would be clear to you if you were reading the books, but doesn't necessarily come across on screen.

And then there are also some added scenes, just because the producers saw how their actors were portraying some key roles and were eager to see those actors do more — and in some cases, they wanted to see certain characters interacting more than they do in the books. Like, what would happen if Jon Snow and Jaime Lannister had a conversation? They also wanted to see what the two schemers, Varys and Littlefinger, would talk about if they were alone together.

How HBO adapted Game of Thrones to television — and how season 2 might diverge from A Clash of Kings

Also, one striking change in the first couple of episodes is to Catelyn Stark, Ned Stark's wife, who strongly opposes her husband becoming the Hand of the King in the television version. The producers just felt it worked better that way. They also cut the line where Catelyn tells Jon Snow "it should have been you" — actor Michelle Fairley makes Catelyn's feelings about Jon clear enough without needing to say that line of dialogue.

Season two might make more changes

Given that Game of Thrones' fellow HBO show, True Blood, has taken a fair amount of liberties with the Charlaine Harris books, we were curious to know if Benioff and Weiss might eventually diverge from the source material. For example, True Blood kept the character of Lafayette alive long after he was dead in the books.

Benioff said they "wouldn't make any guarantees about anything," but reiterated that they're passionate about being true to the books. At the same time, Weiss pointed out that they couldn't possibly have the casting budget to include all of the characters who turn up in A Clash of Kings, the second book. Already, they've had to cut or combine some minor characters in the first book, but in the second season they might actually have to cut some comparatively major characters just to avoid having a cast of thousands.

Also, Weiss singled out Robb Stark as one character who doesn't have quite as big a role in the second book as in the first book — but when you see Richard Madden's performance as Robb, "you realize you love this character that Richard has brought to life." So the idea of putting Robb "on the back burner" in season two becomes really difficult to contemplate, and they may end up expanding his role somewhat.

Added Weiss: "Nothing is set in stone, and maybe somebody who doesn't make it all the way through the books will get to stick around a bit longer" on television. (He wasn't speaking about Robb in particular when he said that, though.)

Benioff also said that if they're lucky enough to get renewed, the first few seasons would "roughly map onto the books." But given that the third book is so much longer than the first two, they might have to break it up somehow. "This would be a great problem to have," joked Benioff. And since the fourth and fifth books take place concurrently, they could be restructured somehow. Eventually, they'd like to end up with seven or eight seasons for the seven books.

Casting Game of Thrones

How HBO adapted Game of Thrones to television — and how season 2 might diverge from A Clash of Kings

Weiss and Benioff explained that the only two actors they were set on in advance were Sean Bean as Ned Stark and Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister. Sean Bean provides a "center of gravity" to the first season as Ned Stark's investigation of his foster father's death provides "the spine of the story," said Benioff. "Luckily, we had Sean at the center of it, who can convey more with a look than many people can with a monologue."

Dinklage, meanwhile, was long the favorite for Tyrion — and he agreed, as long as he didn't have to wear a beard. Stereotypically, dwarves always have beards, and Dinklage was eager to buck the trend — and avoid having to wear an uncomfortable appendage all the time.

Other than that, they looked at 100 to 200 people for each role. Martin was a huge help in looking at audition tapes from his home in Santa Fe, NM.

And the hardest part was finding children who could carry so much of the heavy dramatic material from the book — normally, child actors are kept at the periphery of stories, being cute on the sidelines. But the children in Game of Thrones have to deal with some intense, adult stuff, and some heavy-duty brutality. In Maisie Williams (Arya), Isaac Hempstead-Wright (Bran) and the other kids, they were lucky enough to find new actors who could bring a realness. "You see so many Hollywood kids and they're kind of poised and they've got their mannerisms worked out. There's nothing real about them, they feel preternaturally cute," said Benioff. But the child actors in Thrones "delivered beyond our imagination."

How HBO adapted Game of Thrones to television — and how season 2 might diverge from A Clash of Kings

Weiss and Benioff also praised Emilia Clarke (Daenerys) and Jason Momoa (Khal Drogo) for dealing with intense sexuality in scenes that were really traumatic for the actors to play. There's one scene in particular, when Drogo is "savaging" Daenerys, and she's staring at her dragon's eggs, and the camera zooms in on her face and you can see all the things that are going through her head.

The unaired pilot

Originally, the producers shot a pilot that was vastly different than what's ending up on television. We were curious to ask them about what changed.

Among other things: Two roles were recast (Catelyn and Daenerys). The Dothraki scenes were originally shot in Morocco, using leftover sets from Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, but it made more sense to reshoot them in Malta, which looked more like the coastal city of Pentos.

But also, they needed to do some rewrites to make some of the relationships from the book clear on the screen. They watched their pilot with some of their friends, who weren't familiar with the book, and at the end of the hour their friends had no clue that Jaime and Cersei were brother and sister. So they had to do a lot of work to clarify the relationships in the show. "One of the main things we addressed in our rewrite of the pilot was clarity, making sure everyone who was watching could understand the basic relationships enough" to get swept up in the story, said Weiss.

Other random tidbits

Other stuff we also learned:

  • The direwolves in the first season are "played" by Northern Inuit dogs, but in the second season they'll have to find a way to bring the full-sized direwolf experience.
  • The credit sequence, panning across an interactive-looking map of Westeros, will change as different courts rise and fall and gain importance, over the course of the season.
  • The books were originally pitched to Weiss and Benioff as a movie, which would have had to focus on only one character and tone down the sex and violence for a PG-13 rating.
  • Some of the battles later in the season may not be quite as huge or sweeping on screen as they are in the books, because of budgetary constraints.