'Thrones' must measure up to rich genre on budget

George R. R. Martin had television in mind when he began writing the epic fantasy book series that would become the basis for HBO’s “Game of Thrones”: The former TV scribe wanted to do something so big and intricate that it was hard to imagine producing it for the smallscreen.

David Benioff, the TV series’ co-creator, discovered Martin’s paradox at their first lunch meeting. “He said, ‘Yeah, I wrote these books with an eye toward unproduceability,” Benioff sighs.

Martin’s sprawling novels take place in a fictional kingdom called Westeros, which is tearing itself apart following the death of its reigning monarch. Part Stephen King, part Charles Dickens, the projected seven-book series (four have been published) takes cues from British history and features only brief glimpses of magic in its early volumes. It is, in Martin’s words, “very adult fare,” with enough sex and violence to give a network censor pause — and keep HBO auds titillated.

The storytelling is complex — its shifting perspectives and moral complications recall HBO’s “The Wire” — but it’s also fast-paced enough that Benioff, a novelist himself with experience at adapting mythic stories (he was writer on “Troy”) was taken in right away. Or at least after he got over the sheer size of the manuscript.

“My immediate thought was, ‘What the hell is this?’ ” says Benioff, who received a stack of the four thick books from Martin’s agent. “It was 4,000 pages long … a doorstop. I felt like I needed to read enough to politely pass.”

But the writer/producer found himself captivated by the novels.

HBO, however, initially saw the project as too big. “HBO has held out itself as a network that doesn’t skimp on production value, and this is a genre in which the bar has been set very high,” says programming prexy Michael Lombardo.

With precedents like “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the Harry Potter movies, Benioff and co-creator D.B. Weiss would have to prove that they were capable of delivering the kind of audience needed to justify production costs.

What changed his mind, Lombardo says, was the pilot script written by Benioff and Weiss, along with the pair’s conviction. “David and Dan were incredibly passionate about this,” says Lombardo. “They laid out the entire first season and wrote backup scripts to convince us that there was an undeniably great world here.”

Soon, Lombardo and Benioff were in conversations about how best to create a world that looks like the $270 million “Lord of the Rings” but doesn’t cost $270 million to make. Lombardo declined to discuss specific budget details but puts the show’s pricetag in the top 25% of HBO’s series.

Filming took place largely in Northern Ireland, where budgetary conditions are ideal and environmental conditions less so. “It’s always cold there,” Weiss says. “We love working there because we love the people, but it rains something like 230 days out of the year.”

It was helpful that Martin had spent years in Benioff and Weiss’ chair, first as writer and producer on CBS’ 1985 revival of “The Twilight Zone” and later in the same jobs on ABC’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

But budget-cutting requests on those jobs (fewer characters, fewer locations, fewer vfx) began to wear on him.

“When I returned to prose after doing all this other stuff, I said, you know, I’m not going to worry about that anymore,” Martin recalls. “I’m going to do something huge — something with a cast of thousands and gigantic battles and sets that will blow your mind.”

It doesn’t hurt that the show has a ready-made fanbase. Bantam paperbacks editor Scott Shannon says book sales for the series, already strong, have nearly doubled since HBO started announcing production starts and cast members last year (the show stars Peter Dinklage and “Rings” thesp Sean Bean). And Bantam will have a new book for die-hards shortly after the final ep of the season airs: after a six-year wait, the series’ fifth novel has a publication date — July 12. The series currently has 4.5 million books in print.

The sheer scope of the books makes for some serious hurdles for the TV show, the first season of which is just 10 episodes long, compared with the 12 allotted to “Boardwalk Empire” and “True Blood.” For example, some of Martin’s characters disappear for thousands of pages only to dramatically reappear and assume great importance later. “Do you cast a major actor, pay him to say three lines and then tell him, ‘Five years from now, if we’re still on the air, you’ll have some great stuff?” Martin asks.

One actor, Margaret John, passed away after shooting on season one and will have to be recast if the series continues to hew to Martin’s vision.

Martin, who also writes one episode each season, says he understand the realities of production and is helping showrunners with its structure. “HBO has dealt with (large, morphing casts of characters) on other shows,” Martin says, pointing to “The Sopranos,” in which Joe Pantoliano’s character shows up in season three. “Where did he come from? Did he transfer from the gang in Chicago? Well, no, he’s been there all along, and you have to buy that.”

The “Sopranos” comparison is one HBO hopes others will make as the show matures. “(David Chase) took an established genre — a quite familiar genre — and then subverted it somehow and kind of blew it up into something unfamiliar,” Benioff says. “And that’s what we’re hoping to do here.”

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