Don't get me wrong: I devoured Martin's fantasy novels set in a medieval-inspired world of intrigue and recommend it to those who've got the time and aren't intimidated by, well, lots and lots of pages. I've also watched the first six episodes of Game of Thrones, and the good news is it's obviously a less daunting time-commitment and the show offers certain benefits the books do not.
1. The opening credits are a magical mystery tour of Westeros - Viewers get a raven's-eye view across a map of the fantasy world where castles, trees and other topographical elements burst into three-dimensional life. Better still, the credits are custom-designed to fit the events that take place each episode. In other words, it really helps sort the myriad characters and places out!
"You don't need a map if you're writing historical fiction," Martin says. "Most readers presumably know where France is, they know where England is. But when you're dealing with a secondary world, my readers don't know where Pentos or The Wall or King's Landing is or what's the relationship of these places. One of the things that has become very common for epic fantasy ever since Tolkien is the inclusion of a map in the book. The land, the setting becomes a character in many epic fantasies so I'm very pleased with the credits. They're gorgeous too."
2. "George is a savage god and he does terrible things to his characters" - We agree with Benioff — those "terrible things" are something you need to see. Nobody is safe from fate's often brutal whimsy in the land of Westeros, and having to watch these horrifying things happen onscreen and not just in our imaginations make them all the more real and compelling.
"I don't have any remorse or regret, but those chapters are hard to write," Martin concedes. "The Red Wedding sequence in the third book... when I reached that chapter, I just couldn't make myself write it. So it was emotionally wrenching for me as a writer just as it is I hope for readers. But to my mind, you want to engage the reader or the viewer on an emotional level. You want them to care about the characters, to share their ups and downs. And when there's a death, you want it to be something painful. Death is hard. That should be hard."
3. The spring chickens are more seasoned - It's a small consolation, but the show aged up Martin's child characters by several years, which makes some of the trials and atrocities they endure marginally more palatable than in the books. It's still grim, emotionally wrenching stuff (see Reason No. 2 to watch), but we are not monsters wanting to see babies suffer or child brides face their wedding night.
"I structured the ages of many of the characters based on actual medieval history," Martin says. "Life spans were a lot shorter back then and maturity came on a lot more quickly. I think Daenerys is 13 when the books begin and in the show, she's 17 and she's being played by a actress who's actually older." Weiss adds, "There are practical factors too in terms of how long a workday you can have with the younger actors. Also, we're asking very young actors to carry a lot of very serious dramatic weight. It's a tall order for any actor of any age to occupy this world and to bring reality to these scenes."
4. Watch bonus scenes before they hit DVD! - Weiss and Benioff inserted new, never-written-before scenes into Game of Thrones once they realized each episode was running about 10 minutes too short during production. How this is possible with Martin's novels as source material is baffling, but think of them as Martin-approved fan fic that doesn't mess with the mythology. With a cast this large, you'll be thankful for the extra character delineation.
"Some of those scenes are between characters that you don't really get to see interact too much in the books but you always wonder what it would be like," Benioff says. "In the months that the king's party is up at Winterfell, what if Jaime Lannister the Kingslayer encountered Jon Snow? Also, Queen Cersei is a horrible person in so many ways, but what's redemptive about her is that she has a ferocious love for her kids that might tilt towards insanity. She will do completely awful things to protect them. It seemed very important to us that we establish that maybe even earlier than it would have come out if we were being strictly faithful in the very literalist sense to the book."
5. Martin could pull an Alfred Hitchcock - The shaggy author looks like he'd be right at home in Westeros and even filmed a cameo for the original pilot. Alas, the scene was cut, but not before he caught the cameo bug. Martin is more than willing to step in front of the cameras again, and we wouldn't be surprised if the fans made it happen.
"There's a scene in the book — I presume some version of it will be in the show — in King's Landing where various heads are mounted on the wall," Martin says. "I suggested that they put my head as one of the heads on the spikes on the wall and that David and Dan include their own heads right next to me. We all thought that was a great idea until we found out it was very expensive to have a severed head made of yourself. So I think we got budgeted out there. Otherwise, I'd be a spiked head on a wall which would've been a lot of fun."
Game of Thrones debuts on Sunday at 9/8c on HBO.