LOS ANGELES – When George R. R. Martin started on a series of fantasy books called “A Song of Ice and Fire,” he was convinced it’d never be turned into a film.

“I wanted to spread my wings,” he says. Instead of cutting scenes and condensing characters – something he did while writing for television and film – he expanded his scope and wrote scenes that would break a producer’s bank. “I’m working in prose,” he remembers saying. ‘I don’t have to worry about a budget.”

And then? HBO executives came to him and said they wanted to turn the books into a series – a sword-clanking, cast-of-thousands extravangza – and Martin got excited. “They’re the only people who have the experience in doing epic television that really feels epic in scope.”

The result is “Game of Thrones,” a 10-part adaption of the story. Set in the middle ages, the series traces two families as they battle to control the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. It features plenty of sex and violence and twists so often minor characters wind up being leads. “None of the characters is safe,” says Executive Producer David Benioff. “Characters that you might think are going to go on for six seasons meet and early end.” As in “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” “you never know who is going to get whacked.”

To get the casting right, Benioff and his fellow producers sent Martin tapes of the actors auditioning. He offered his opinion and was pleasantly suprised when he saw the kind of work they were able to do. “It’s just an extraordinary group of people,” Martin says. The three children who play leading roles? “I don’t know how the hell these guys found them but the world is going to fall in love with them.”

Already, cast members say, they’re smitten with Martin’s work. Even though he starred in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Sean Bean says this fantasy “goes on much, much further and much longer and there’s many more twists and turns. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen on any other production, including ‘Lord of the Rings.’”

Bean plays Lord Eddard Stark, a soldier who is asked to help King Robert Baratheon run his kingdom. His son gets involved in the brotherhood of the Night’s Watch, a group sworn to protect the Kingdoms. And all sorts of mystical things start happening at the edge of the Kingdoms.

Actors with considerable swords and sorcery experience – like Bean – mingle with newcomers like Emilia Clarke in the cast.

Clarke had been on one episode of a British soap opera before getting the “Game” call. “I never thought I’d be here so relatively inexperienced, so it’s a blessing,” she says. “It’s incredible.”

And Martin? He wrote one episode of the new series, then went back to crafting the books. “The biggest challenge was mastering the new software because screenwriting programs had changed in the 10 years that I had been out of the game. There’s a part of me that would love to be more involved, be there on the set every day. On the other hand, I still have the books to finish and the books are 1,500 pages long and take me years. I have a mob outside my house with pitchforks and torches that are already very irritated about Book Five being late. The real scary thing is if these guys catch up with me.”

“Game of Thrones” begins at 8 p.m. Sunday on HBO.

See review on page C19.


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