It’s been 13 years, and George R.R. Martin still gets angry emails.
Ever since the publication of his third Song of Ice and Fire novel, A Storm of Swords, Martin regularly wakes to fresh reader outrage in his inbox. ”I get a lot of ‘I hate you!’ ‘How could you do that?’ ‘I’m never going to read your work again,”’ the author says.
Why the rage? On June 2 fans of Game of Thrones, HBO’s adaptation of Martin’s novels, found out, as they bore witness to the series’ notorious Red Wedding.
In the third season’s penultimate episode, young honorable rebellion leader Robb Stark is betrayed at his uncle’s wedding by the father of the bride, the decrepit Lord Walder Frey. Robb and his men are murdered, along with his mother, Catelyn (who takes one of Frey’s innocent young wives with her), and his pregnant wife, Talisa (horrifically stabbed in the abdomen repeatedly while Robb watches in shock). Outside the Frey castle, the ensuing butchery of Robb’s troops is witnessed by his long-lost younger sister Arya, who was finally about to be reunited with her family.
If anything, TV viewers were even more upset than Martin’s readers — Robb is a bigger part of the series than the novels (and, as portrayed by Richard Madden, is a dreamy fan favorite), while Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) is more sympathetic on the show than on the page. Plus, Robb’s wife doesn’t attend the wedding in the book, yet showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss threw her into the massacre, too — because, you know, the scene wasn’t already agonizing enough. ”It’s just like a kidney punch,” Benioff says. ”That’s the feeling we got in the books, and that’s what we’re trying to emulate here on screen.”
To shoot the episode, producers tapped acclaimed director David Nutter (a veteran of many TV pilots, from Smallville to The Mentalist), who was initially daunted by the infamous scene. ”The trepidation and fear was so prevalent it consumed me for a year,” Nutter says. ”How the hell am I going to do this?”
Nutter asked the showrunners about each moment, pushed for extra rehearsal time with the actors, and detailed his plan for the crew on a blackboard like a football coach. The whole sequence at Frey’s castle was scheduled for a generous five-day shoot, with the scenes deliberately staged in chronological order. ”So every day we edged closer to the slaughter,” Fairley says. ”As the week progresses, you’re getting more nervous.”
Benioff and Weiss wanted the climactic violence to be brutal — no elegantly pulled punches, such as the cutaway when the executioner’s sword came down on the neck of Robb’s father, Ned Stark (Sean Bean), in the first season. ”The audience deserves the real deal,” Nutter says.
The day of Robb and Catelyn’s death scene was also Madden and Fairley’s final day on the set — which made the sequence extra emotional for all involved. ”I remember turning to the script supervisor after one take where Richard was dying, and I was like, ‘That was a good take,”’ Benioff says. ”And she was just bawling.” The actors turned on the waterworks too. Madden recalls, ”I cried my eyes out completely.”
Creatively the move shakes up the game board once again in Westeros. With Robb’s rebellion crushed, the Lannisters have solidified their hold on the realm — unless somebody else rises up. (A certain dragon queen, perhaps?)
Meanwhile, Madden and Fairley have been snatched up by other productions. Madden will star in Discovery Channel’s six-hour miniseries Klondike, about a 19th-century prospector seeking his fortune in the Yukon, and he has also signed on to play Prince Charming in Disney’s live-action Cinderella. Fairley has booked a recurring role on the USA series Suits as a British entrepreneur facing a lawsuit, and there’s a chance she’ll reappear in some capacity on GoT if the show closely hews to the books. As for Martin, he’s currently working on the sixth book in his saga. But now that the Red Wedding has aired, he’d better steel himself: More emails are coming.