Due to certain circumstances I won’t get into here, HBO sent a friend of mine DVDs containing the first 6 episodes of its highly anticipated fantasy series, Game of Thrones. And since I was looking for an excuse to kick this series off anyway, this seemed like too good of an opportunity to pass up.
For those of you that don’t know, the show is based on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, a very popular fantasy series that has everything you’d expect: swords, shields, castles, honor, deception, glory. (It lacks things you might expect as well: orcs, elves, magic, dragons, etc.) (Well, there were dragons, but they’re extinct by the open of the series.) (There might be magic later on too, I don’t know.) (There’s definitely a dearth of wizards and fantasy creatures, though.) As it turns out, the show is pretty rad – regardless of whether you think fantasy is the bee’s knees or not.
In many ways, the fantasy setting is just elaborate window dressing for the real meat of series: deep characters, political intrigue, and backstabbing as far as the eye can see. The world of Westeros has many locales – from icy Winterfell in the North to sunny King’s Landing in the South – filled to the brim with characters and factions that make for good drama. The world itself is as important as any one character, and thankfully HBO takes the time to establish that. Every locale has its own identity, the same way Boston is distinctly different from, say, Dallas. Even without the (admittedly gorgeous) establishing shots, it’s never difficult keeping up with the constantly shifting scenery. A random 10 minute splice might, for example, bounce between three or four locations, but the set design alone makes it a breeze to follow – even so far as to recognize where an indoor scene takes place based solely on architecture. It’s a necessary quality for a show with this many settings, and the care given to each design is, perhaps, the biggest indication that the show has been crafted with a lot of love for and devotion to the novels.
(Partial aside: the opening title sequence is one of my favorites in a long time. It, too, highlights the importance of the world, as it’s a giant map that jumps from place to place, even going so far as to change from episode-to-episode, depending on what locations factor into that particular episode. I can’t lay enough praise on that little detail, especially combined with the fact that it’s all presented on what looks like the coolest boardgame ever.)
It would be impossible to lay out the particulars of the plot – what with more than 30 important characters and a dozen different factions vying for power in one way or another – in this write up. After six episodes, the single highest praise I can offer is that the show juggles everything extremely well. It was never difficult to remember who was who, and the show found time to cram in subtle plot threads and small character moments alongside the important stuff. The show defines personalities and political motivations seamlessly, strengthening our attachment to a dozen likable characters (and more than a few not-so-likable ones) while simultaneously keeping the plot hurtling forward at all times. It’s pretty impressive.
And that, that is the real reason this show is a good fit for TV, and HBO in particular. Simply too much detail would be lost if this were transferred to a movie – or heck, even a miniseries. I don’t mean to imply that the pace is slow (it’s actually much more brisk than I was expecting); rather, there’s just a lot of stuff to cover. A shorter format would inevitably hurt the intricacies of the web being spun, our investment in the characters, or both. Every episode has action, deception, and character development in spades. Heck, the plot points in the first book provide oddly good stopping points for each episode. It feels less like an adaption and more like it was made for television all along. That’s not a knock on the source material at all, mind you; I’m simply trying to give a sense of just how well this series was translated to television.
There are a million other things I can say in praise of Game of Thrones – Sean Bean’s awesome performance, the perfect casting of Peter Dinklage as Tyrion the imp, the number of boobs per episode – but I’ll stop here. Whether you’re a huge Ice and Fire aficionado or not, you’re in for a treat. (Full disclosure: I read the first couple books about 6 years ago, my girlfriend hadn’t read any of them, and some of our friends were huge fans that had reread them recently. We all enjoyed the show about equally.) Much like the Lord of the Rings films (you didn’t think I’d get through a write up of this without name dropping that at least once, did you?), it’s great to see a really good fantasy work in a format that will appeal to those unwilling to dive into such a daunting book series, and will give fans a quick way to get back into that world an hour at a time each week. All the bits that make the novels popular – the twisting plots, the politics, the characters – make for a great drama, and while fans won’t be surprised by this, they might be surprised at how well HBO pulls it off. Plus, again, a lot of boobs.
As I said, I’ve only seen the first 6 episodes, but with only 10 episodes in the season, I think it’s safe to say this show is a winner. It premieres in less than two weeks, I highly recommend everyone check it out. There’s a lot to love here, whether you’re a hardcore fantasy fan or not.