George R.R. Martin’s massive, engrossing “A Song of Ice and Fire” saga comprises a series of novels 20 years in the making (and still going, with the next entry due out this year). It’s a sprawling, sweeping, densely written, gripping story that has developed a legion of rabid devotees — rightfully so (I’m a recent convert myself). When the announcement came that HBO would be adapting it into a TV series, much trepidation was felt. On the one hand, it’s HBO, the station that brought us “The Sopranos,” “The Wire” and “Deadwood.” On the other hand, “A Game of Thrones” and its sequels are incredibly, seemingly insurmountably complex bodies of work, carefully balancing its sword-and-sorcery tale with brilliant political machinations and an intricate, labyrinthine network of people and places, families and ever-shifting allegiances. It’s not just that it’s so well written, it’s that there’s just so much.
After viewing last night’s premiere, “Winter Is Coming,” I must say that while it was by no means perfect, HBO certainly appears up to the task. I won’t try too hard to capture the plot, other than to say that it involves the inner workings of a series of different nations, each struggling with its own internal politics and schemes, as they slowly and inexorably head towards a clash with each other. The pilot episode serves as an introductory course to the major players — Eddard “Ned” Stark of House Stark, with brief moments with his wife Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) and each child, allowing glimpses into their respective characters. Ned’s friend, King Robert of House Baratheon and his wife, the beautiful, imperious Cersei (Lena Headey) of House Lannister, along with her brother/lover Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and their outcast dwarf brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage). And finally, from the exiled House Targaryen, there is the power-hungry Viserys (Harry Lloyd) and his sister, the child bride Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), betrothed to the hulking savage Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), lord of the nomadic Dothraki tribe.
There are certainly many other characters, but the characters of “Game Of Thrones” could easily be an article unto itself. What’s important is that the show managed to introduce its audience to the main players without dumbing it down too much, nor alienating the large, existing fanbase. HBO and series creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss inevitably had to make some careful adjustments in order to bring Martin’s 700+ page beast of a novel under control and to make it manageable for the small screen, and so they did it in the smartest way possible. They simply condensed scenes together, or took pivotal moments or lines of dialogue and inserted them into shorter scenes, thus allowing those crucial moments to take place, but without letting the plot expand beyond the show’s limitations. It was hard to say how effective it was for new viewers, but as one who has read the novel, it felt like a clever way of getting all of the requisite information out there, without sacrificing too much of the original heart of the story.
As for the actors themselves, they were overall excellent. They may not be as you visualized them as you read the novels, but they carry the load and expectations bravely, and acquit themselves well. The standouts were easily Bean as noble, tired warrior Ned Stark (a role he could play in his sleep by now) and Dinklage as the bitter, debauched Tyrion (which will likely prove to be one of the most entertaining, as well as the most complicated roles). However, Emilia Clarke was a pleasant surprise as Daenerys. That said, the remaining players all proved themselves capable, even if some of the younger roles felt a bit wooden at times. The show’s writing was strong, and even when it wandered off of the page’s original story, it still felt right. At times, certain elements seemed like they were downplayed, until they became the focus of a later scene — Jon Snow seemed downright neglected until his excellent scene with his uncle Benjen (Joseph Mawle) and Tyrion, which then successfully exposed his whole backstory in a matter of minutes.
The show’s production values are an exercise in painstaking realism, as every piece of armor, every gown and glove and sword and shield is carefully rendered and made to look suitably worn and rough-hewed when necessary (such as in the harsh wilderness of Winterfell), or sumptuous and elegant as depicted in King’s Landing, or even decadent and lavish, as displayed via the wedding/bacchanalia of Daenerys and Drogo.
What’s most important is that while the show made some necessary editorial changes, it didn’t pull any of its punches. The pilot was overall a grim, humorless affair, which may be a problem for future episodes, but is true to the story’s roots. There’s little room for joking beyond wry gallows humor in “A Song Of Ice And Fire.” Similarly, the violence was unflinching and the sexual trysts were honest and, while not explicit, certainly not implied. More importantly, they’re not romanticized. Despite the painfully obtuse analysis of certain writers, the sex in “Game of Thrones” isn’t glamorous or erotic. In fact, like everything else in this world, it’s workmanlike, often unpleasant, and almost utilitarian in its practical applicability. The violence is the same way — brutal, not particularly flashy, and intense. Sex and swords serve similar purposes in “Game Of Thrones” — both are tools. to be wielded carefully or recklessly, depending on who’s using it.
The show wasn’t perfect. The transitions seemed a bit jarring at times, and you could almost feel scenes being cut out, creating an occasionally discordant sensation when the setting would shift. While the production was top notch, the scenes across the Narrow Sea featuring the Targaryens seemed too small, as if they didn’t have enough extras or they ran out of costumes. The pacing was steady and even, though at times a bit too much so. That’s the consequence of an introductory episode to a show with so much going on — there’s little action, and if folks were expecting a rousing medieval tale of wizards and clashes of swords, well, they’ll get some of that, but not for a while.
Those very minor quibbles aside, “Game Of Thrones” was a solid, intriguing start to the series that was unlikely to disappoint Martin’s fans. It’s a grim, somber affair, densely plotted and filled with rich, multifaceted characters in an intricately created universe. The show promises to do for the lands of Westoros and Essos what HBO was able to do for the Old West — create a vibrant, violent, mature world. It’s free of fancied ideals of what such a fantastical world should be like, and instead a harsh, unyielding depiction of what it would be like. The world of “Game Of Thrones” is no fairy tale and it’s no fantasy. It’s its own harsh reality, beautifully rendered, and as such should be successful for fans and newcomers alike.