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George R.R. Martin on the Stark Sisters and Ending ‘Game of Thrones’

The author of the ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series weighs in on casting Arya and Sansa, and why the show’s ending leaves him a little wistful

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 17:  (Editor?s note: Image has been converted to black and white.)  Writer George R. R. Martin, winner of Outstanding Drama Series for 'Game of Thrones', attends IMDb LIVE After The Emmys 2018 on September 17, 2018 in Los Angeles, California..  (Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb)

George R. R. Martin, author of 'A Song of Ice and Fire.'

Rich Polk/Getty Images

When Game of Thrones airs its final episode on May 19th, George R.R. Martin will be watching.  He’ll take in the televised conclusion of the story he began, and then get right back to writing his own version, with two books left to go. For our recent cover story on Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner, Martin talked about creating the Stark sisters, the dual endings of his story and much more.

A lot of people don’t know that another one of your old projects, the group-written superhero novel series Wild Cards, has its own show in the works for Hulu.
Yeah, yeah, they [have] got a good writers’ room — Melinda Snodgrass and Michael Cassutt, those are two of the writers for the books, [they] are in there. A guy named Andrew Miller is the showrunner, and they’ve got a bunch of other people. Everything I hear indicates it’s going well. So we’re excited about that.

Why Game of Thrones Is a Once-in-a-Lifetime Show

It’s a big universe in its own right.
It’s the equivalent of Marvel or DC, you know, they could make a dozen shows out of that. So many different characters and so forth.

But the subject at hand … so the Stark sisters are on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Yeah, I heard that. That is really amazing. I’m tickled by that. Great choice. They’re both great… I guess I have to say young women now … I was gonna say kids, but they’re not kids any longer, are they? They’ve grown up very quickly.

I wanted to read you one of the earliest passages that you wrote about the two of them, if that’s okay.
Sure.

It wasn’t fair. Sansa had everything. Sansa was two years older; maybe by the time Arya had been born, there had been nothing left. Often it felt that way. Sansa could sew and dance and sing. She wrote poetry. She knew how to dress. She played the high harp and the bells. Worse, she was beautiful. Sansa had gotten their mother’s fine high cheekbones and the thick auburn hair of the Tullys. Arya took after their lord father. Her hair was a lusterless brown, and her face was long and solemn.”

So what was the glimmer of an idea for these two sisters?
Well you’re taking me back a long, long way. That’s a pretty early chapter …  I first began in 1991. I wrote about a hundred pages of it before I got distracted by Hollywood stuff, and then I put it aside for like two years before I got back to it. Those words you read were actually part of the first hundred pages that I was doing there. When I was writing these, and I was creating a family for Lord Eddard Stark … I knew I wanted it to be a fairly large family, with a number of children. I suppose I cheated a little by not having three children who died in infancy in there, which was true of the actual Middle Ages. They had a terrible time with kids who died very young.

So I created Bran and in the very first chapter, I wrote where they find the direwolf pups in the snow. Bran is the viewpoint chapter there, and Robb and Jon and Theon are all with him, they’re the boys who rode out with their father to see the man beheaded. The fact that the boys went out was a reflection of what a patriarchal society it was, as medieval societies often were. I was following history in that regard … But I wanted some girls, too.

And when I actually got to Winterfell in the later chapter, I knew I wanted to deal with the role that women and young girls had in this kind of society. So to show the contrast, [we] have two sisters who were very, very different from each other. The Middle Ages was very patriarchal. I’m a little weary of over-generalizing, since that makes me seem like an idiot — but generally, women didn’t have a lot of rights. They were used to make marriage-alliances; I’m talking high-born women now, of course. Peasant women had even less rights. But I was focusing on a noble family here as the center of the book.

At the same time, this is also the era where courtly romance was born: the gallant Knight, the fair lady, the princess, all of that stuff. That became very big, initially in the courts of France and Burgundy, but it spread all over Europe, including England and Germany.  And it still has its roots in a lot of stuff that we follow today. I mean, in some sense the Disney Princess archetype — the whole princess mythos — that we’re all familiar with is a legacy of the troubadours of the romance era of medieval France.

Sansa completely bought into that, loved everything about that. She dreamed of jousts, bards singing of her beauty, fair knights, being the mistress of a castle and perhaps a princess and queen. The whole romantic thing.

And then to have Arya, a girl who did not fit that — and who, from the very beginning, was uncomfortable and chafes at the roles that she was being pushed into. You know, who didn’t wanna sew but wanted to fight with a sword, who liked riding and hunting and wrestling in the mud. A “tomboy” we would call it, I guess. But that phrase, of course, didn’t exist in the Middle Ages, so I don’t think I ever use it in the books, but you know what I mean.

So that was the roots to create these two characters who were very different from each other, and who then necessarily chafed against each other in the context of the books.

Was there anyone in your life who might’ve served as an inspiration for Arya?
I can’t say there’s any one specific model, but a lot of the women I’ve known over the years have had aspects of Arya with them. Especially some of the women I knew when I was a young man back in the ’60s and ’70s, you know — the decade of the sexual revolution and the feminist movement. I knew a lot of young women who weren’t buying into the, “Oh, I have to find a husband and be a housewife.”

That’s certainly part of Arya’s thing. There’s that scene where Ned is telling her, “Well, one day you’ll grow up and you’ll marry a great lord and you’ll be the lady of the castle.” And she says, “No, I won’t. I don’t want that. That’s Sansa, that’s not me.” I knew women who were saying things like that: “I don’t wanna be Mrs. Smith, I wanna be my own person.”

What did you make of how these two actresses embodied those characters?
I have to give an immense amount of credit to our casting director, Nina Gold. The casting of Arya was particularly difficult, as I somewhat feared it would be; I think we looked at more potential Aryas than any other role in this show. I wasn’t physically present at the casting — I was back here in New Mexico working on the next book — but I was linked into it on the internet. So they would videotape these girls … I think we probably saw like a hundred girls. And at a certain point in the process I was really beginning to say, “This is a disaster, we can’t find anyone here.” These are not parts that require the girls to be cute, and deliver clever little one-liners to put down their idiot father, like you do in a sitcom. These are girls that are gonna go through really huge personal traumas. They’re gonna see death and war. They’re gonna see people close to them beheaded.

So after looking at all these tapes, particularly for Arya, I was saying, “We are so screwed.” Then I saw Maisie’s tape, and it was like, “There she is. There she is. Arya.” She’s saying the lines, she’s alive, she’s got Arya’s spirit, you know? ] It was incredible. David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] and I said, “Yeah, we found her, hooray. Send up the skyrockets.”

Sophie was great also – we found her more quickly. And then when we cut the two of them together … I mean, they took to each other almost from the first shoot. Maisie came back from having met Sophie, and she actually told her mother, “I don’t know if I’m gonna get it or not, but I hope this other girl I met there gets it because she’s great.”

And I think on YouTube … I don’t know how they got film of the auditions, but the actual auditions are out there, and someone has cut them together. The two of them just make that scene come alive in their auditions. It’s wonderful.

Sansa’s story, in particular, has really deviated from the books. Ramsay Bolton — that marriage obviously was with a different character. When they start deviating like that, did you initially have any emotional reaction, even though you worked in Hollywood for many years yourself?
Well, yeah — of course you have an emotional reaction. I mean, would I prefer they do it exactly the way I did it? Sure. But I’ve been on the other side of it, too. I’ve adapted work by other people, and I didn’t do it exactly the way they did it, so ….

Some of the deviation, of course, is because I’ve been so slow with these books. I really should’ve finished this thing four years ago — and if I had, maybe it would be telling a different story here. It’s two variations of the same story, or a similar story, and you get that whenever anything is adapted. The analogy I’ve often used is, to ask how many children did Scarlett O’Hara have? Do you know the answer to that?

I know it’s different in the book and the movie …
Three children in the book, one by each husband. She had one child in the movie. And in real life, of course, Scarlett O’Hara had no children, because she never existed. Margaret Mitchell made her up. The book is there. You can pick it up and read Mitchell’s version of it, or you can see the movie and see David Selznick’s version of it. I think they’re both true to the spirit of the work, and hopefully that’s also true of Game of Thrones on one hand, and A Song of Ice and Fire on the other hand.

How do you feel about the show ending?
You know, it’s complex. I’m a little sad, actually. I wish we had a few more seasons. But I understand. Dave and Dan are gonna go on to do other things, and I’m sure some of the actors were signed up for like seven or eight years, and they would like to go on and take other roles. All of that is fair. I’m not angry or anything like that, but there’s a little wistfulness in me.

It’s weird, in Hollywood, this way … I mean I’ve worked on other shows, you know? Twilight Zone in the mid-’80s, and then Beauty and the Beast for three years… And whenever a show ends, and the longer the show lasts the harder it is. You’re really with a family. You’re with them for a large part of the year, and not only working with them, but you’re often living with them in some distant location where you’re all in one hotel together. You’re seeing them every day, like five days a week, sometimes seven days a week. They’re very intensely involved in your life.

And it’s just a good cast, you know, relationships and friendships develop that are very, very deep. Then it ends, and everybody scatters to the ends of the earth. And a show that’s lasted as long as Game of Thrones, it’s the eighth season but it’s like, what, 10 years they’ve all been together? These young women have grown up together. They’ve become sisters, I think, in more than just the script. And the friendship that they’ve forged, that will endure.

The ending of the show – to what extent is it your ending?
I can say that when my next two books come out they’ll have to read them and then they can find out.

Fair enough. Have you stopped watching the show now that it’s gone beyond your territory?
No, of course not.

And have you seen this final season?
No, I haven’t. I haven’t … I mean I know some of what’s going on there, but I haven’t actually seen any footage. So I’ll be seeing that for the first time with everybody else.

But have you read the final scripts for the season, or have you detached yourself?
No, I haven’t read the scripts, although I’ve had meetings with David and Dan where we’ve discussed stuff.

So you’re gonna be somewhat surprised by their ending then, perhaps …
Well, to a degree. I mean, I think … the major points of the ending will be things that I told them, you know, five or six years ago. But there may also be changes, and there’ll be a lot added.

 

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