When A Game of Thrones: Book One, A Song of Ice and Fire was published in 1996, its multistranded and extraordinarily gritty political fantasy gained George R. R. Martin a devoted following and inspired a host of imitators.
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Fifteen years later, his disciples have grown somewhat impatient, as Martin has taken longer and longer to produce subsequent volumes in the series. Book five, A Dance With Dragons, has finally been scheduled for July; in the meantime, readers will be more than satisfied with HBO’s fairly faithful adaptation of book one, which premiered Sunday evening.
The series focus is on Westeros, a land comprised of what was once seven kingdoms, now united somewhat uneasily under a single ruler, King Robert Baratheon. Years ago, he and his friend, Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark, won the Iron Throne from the previous king, the insane Aerys Targaryen. Unfortunately, King Robert has proven to be better at winning a throne than keeping it. The nobles of Westeros are constantly scheming to snatch power; chief among them, his wife, Cersei Lannister, disgusted by her husband’s crude nature and resentful of his continued longing for his deceased former betrothed, Ned’s sister Lyanna. That unrest is made manifest when the king’s Hand, or chief adviser, is poisoned, and the dead man’s wife accuses Cersei’s family of the deed. Meanwhile, far across the Narrow Sea, the remaining son of Aerys Targaryen seeks an army to win back his throne by marrying his sister to a warlord.
Eddard Stark is perfectly portrayed by Sean Bean, who will be most familiar to viewers as the doomed hero Boromir from the first Lord of the Rings film. Although Ned is older, wiser and considerably more prudent than the brash Boromir, each suffers from a fatal rigidity in his worldview. Just as Boromir believes that strength and valor will prevent him from succumbing to the Ring, Ned believes his strict moral code will protect him from the corruption of the king’s court.
As readers know, both characters prove to be tragically, brutally wrong. The lovely, scheming Queen Cersei is well served in her portrayal by Lena Headey, whom fans will remember from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and 300. The standout is, of course, Peter Dinklage, whose sardonic wit is ideally suited to one of the most beloved characters in the series, Tyrion Lannister, whose short stature leads others to dismiss his caustic intelligence—usually to their fatal disadvantage.
The producers pulled out all the stops here. Sumptuously filmed in Malta and Northern Island, the series includes elaborately designed costumes and sets that draw on a variety of cultures. Previous fans of the series will be happy: As of episode one, the show is extraordinarily faithful to the book, even maintaining much of the dialogue, although the writers have tacked on a few years to the age of some of the Stark children. Of course, at this juncture, we don’t know how much show writers will have to cut from the book’s plot: Game of Thrones is only 10 episodes, while a season of True Blood is 12, even though each Sookie Stackhouse book is, at most, half the size of Martin’s work.
Clearly, HBO has ambitions beyond pleasing Martin’s already established fan base. Series promotion has been wide-ranging, including an extremely active Twitter presence, an online sweepstakes and the opportunity in multiple cities to have one’s picture taken on the Iron Throne and eat Westeros-inspired cuisine concocted by celebrity chefs.
But the question remains: Can the show draw in viewers new to this complexly plotted series? Fantasy fans unfamiliar with the books should be fine; they’re used to being thrust into a new world and allowing understanding to come gradually. HBO has given this process a boost by filming several mini-features about the series background, available via their On Demand service.
If the contemptuous critiques from some mainstream media outlets are any indication, HBO may have a harder time with viewers who don’t already love the fantasy genre. But don’t count them out too soon. After all, how much does Game of Thrones truly differ from HBO’s Rome or Showtime’s The Tudors or The Borgias? All are costume dramas with plenty of backstabbing intrigue and steamy sex scenes; although the latter three are loosely based on fact, most Americans are about as familiar with the historical source material as they would be with a fantasy novel they’ve never read.
Episode one ends with one of the most shocking scenes from the book—Cersei’s brother and lover Jaime pushing Ned’s young son Bran out a window after he discovers them mid-congress. That scene signals the reader/viewer that Martin is utterly uncompromising, that he’s prepared to allow his characters to suffer for their actions, even if those characters are adorable little boys. Regardless of what genre the viewer favors, isn’t such cynicism universal?