Q&A: 'Game of Thrones' Insider Bryan Cogman on the Biggest Season Yet

It 'really tears into the characters' inner lives,' says the fantasy series' executive story editor

Peter Dinklage, Jerome Flynn, and Daniel Portman on 'Game of Thrones'.
Keith Bernstein
March 20, 2013 11:45 AM ET

Game of Thrones fans, meet your man on the inside. Bryan Cogman's as diehard a devotee of A Song of Ice and Fire, the sprawling series of epic fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin upon which HBO's cultural phenomenon is based, as anyone out there watching. A screenwriter for the show – he penned this season's fifth episode, and was responsible for last season's early standout "What Is Dead May Never Die" – Cogman also serves as Executive Story Editor, taking point with showrunners and primary writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss on translating the massive books into manageable ten-episode seasons. He's known to the fandom as the production's liaison between the source material and what goes onscreen, able to call to mind minutiae at a moment's notice. And as Benioff and Weiss took on the additional responsibility of directing this season's third episode, Cogman often found himself the sole writer on set.

All of this makes him the ideal man to talk to about Game of Thrones' absolutely pivotal third season. At this stage of the Game, the books get too long to fit into a single season – season three will adapt about half of A Storm of Swords, the third novel. Meanwhile, the cast, the locations, and the stunning plot twists accumulate at an even more daunting rate. It's one of the most challenging acts of adaptation a TV show has ever faced – but to hear Cogman tell it, the attitude on set is basically "Bring it on."

The 10 Biggest Changes Between 'Game of Thrones' and the Books

A Storm of Swords, the third book in the series and the basis for this third season, is frequently cited as the fan favorite. Your bosses have referred to this season as the reason they wanted to make the show in the first place. What's your main concern in helping to adapt material that's generated such an intense reaction?
Well, you always want to honor those key sequences and moments from the books, but at the same time they have to mesh with the world of the show and [Benioff and Weiss's] interpretation of Westeros. Yeah, SoS is definitely the book we've all been working towards, so Season Three, and the upcoming Season Four, are going to be very special. More than once I found myself on set watching a scene play out and realize I'd been envisioning this scene in my head for years. I got lucky in that I was assigned an episode with several such fan-favorite scenes. Hopefully, book fans will like it, but you can't please everyone.

One thing I love about this season, and the third book, is it pays off and builds on plotlines and character arcs that go all the way back to the very first episodes of the series. Another reason I think the third book connects with readers, and with us, is that it contains lot of game-changing moments – no reference to the show's title intended. George really tears into the characters' inner lives in an arguably deeper way than the previous volumes did.

Oh, totally. I literally lost sleep one night after reading something in this volume. Which reminds me: Book fans are one thing, but the show obviously has a huge fanbase that hasn't read the books at all. Seems like there's a shitstorm in the future from them, no?
A shitstorm of fun!

[Laughs] So far, the basic battle plan for the show has been "one season = one book." This year, for the first time, you'll be stopping well short of the conclusion of the volume in question. Why?

Well, A Storm of Swords is a massive volume, and it seemed like it would be shortchanging it to try to cram it into ten episodes. There are some huge scenes in that book, and I'm not just talking about action or VFX heavy stuff, though there's plenty of that. There are tons of emotionally charged, game-changing character moments, all of which have huge ramifications going forward. I think it was felt that if we piled too many of those moments on top of each other, they would lose some of their impact.

And it should be noted: We're taking the approach, from now on, that this TV series is one big adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire, so elements from any of the books could show up in any given season, if that's what is required. That said, essentially, Season Three is about half of A Storm of Swords.

It seems like any cut-off point you pick before the end of the novel would provide natural climaxes for some characters, but the storylines for some other ones would be left hanging a bit . . .
The key when approaching each season is figuring out the arcs for each major character. So, as you say, just cutting Book Three in half wouldn't do it. We had to figure out a journey for each character that made sense for the season. It's a challenge as some characters have significantly less chapters than others. Tyrion, for example, has something like 12 chapters in SoS, whereas Bran Stark has, I think, four? Someone will have to doublecheck those numbers for me.

Close! Tyrion had 11. Dead-on for Bran, though.
D'oh! Anyway, if you take Dany as an example  – if Season One was about her ascension from frightened girl to mother of dragons and Season Two was basically about her screwing up a lot and learning from her mistakes, what is her arc in Season Three? Once we answered that question we figured out which chapters or sections of SoS (or other books) would best service that. And we did this with all our core characters.

That's the second time you've mentioned drafting material from other books into this season, and now I'm pretty intrigued. Are you talking about doing stuff out of order, or is it more a matter of taking individual characters farther along their storylines than others, in order to even things out or round out a story arc?
Well, I'll let you see for yourself. But this isn't all that different from what we've done previously. There was material from Book Two and Book Three in Season One, Book Three in Season Two, and there are whole characters we've saved for Season Three – the Reeds, the Tullys – that appear in the first two books. The big difference now is we're not treating it as one book = one season.

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