At one point, I’d have called myself a fan of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, before the example of Robert Jordan cooled me off on the series. Certainly, the first two books are excellent, but that’s as far as I’ve read, with the end of the series out of sight for the last several years. Thankfully (I’d imagine due to some prodding from the TV folks,) Martin’s next book in the series is due out in July.
And of course, we have the highly-publicized Game of Thrones TV series debuting on HBO this past weekend. I watched the first episode today and was, overall, delighted with it. One reviewer called it “arguably the most ambitious fantasy epic TV has attempted,” which makes me wonder what previous examples he was comparing it to. The only remotely comparable example I can think of was another HBO effort, the brilliant and tragically underwatched Carnivàle. Starz would have us think that its new Camelot, which looks like it might be pretty good in its own right, is in the same category, but it’s really not, treading as it does upon the very well-worn ground of the Matter of Britain.
On paper, the “prestige TV” format pioneered by HBO and further developed by Showtime and Starz, and now even copied by non-premium cable networks to a certain extent, is the ideal format in which to adapt the sort of dense, doorstop fantasy that Martin writes. It’s a medium often suggested by fans of Dune, for example, as the only one containing a large enough creative space to fully bring that world to life.
So too with Martin’s series, debatably (and largely that only because it’s not yet finished,) the most important epic fantasy series since Tolkien. It’s a measure of that status that saw Martin get an opportunity where other classic fantasy series – say, Moorcock’s Elric series, or Kartherine Kurtz’s Deryni sequences – failed. Attempts to replicate the format by networks outside of HBO’s class, like SciFi’s surprisingly decent adaptation of the laughably wretched Sword of Truth series, have just not measured up to the standards set by Rome, Dexter and other prestige shows of that ilk. Martin got the oldest and biggest, and likely still the best, of the prestige networks working on bringing to life the world and the story of his creation.
And the adaptation is very true. Unlike True Blood, which takes great liberties with its tongue-in-cheek source material, Game of Thrones is sticking very closely to Martin’s grim original. That Martin spent some years writing for such shows as Beauty and the Beast and the 1980s incarnation of The Twilight Zone is probably a factor – he knows the dramatic language of episodic television, something visible if not necessarily obvious even in the books. In some sense, then, A Song of Ice and Fire is a series ideal for the small screen.
HBO spends a ton of money developing its original programming, and every cent of it is visible on screen, from the lavish costumes to the massive sets to the stunning locations… and in the cast, which is as close to perfect as even the most ardent fan of the books could hope. Sean Bean and Peter Dinklage were Martin’s own top picks for their respective characters, and were far and away the top fan picks as well. Even the relative unknowns seem ideally suited to the roles they inhabit. It’s as lavish a production in its way as Peter Jackson’s treatment of The Lord of the Rings, and if the scale is necessarily smaller, it does a fine job obfuscating that fact.
The series’ stated intention is to adapt one book per season. The first episode, while it arranges events slightly differently than the book does, ends in exactly the right place in the narrative. It makes some changes, too, but they’re all comprehensible in the context of adapting to a different medium, and are relatively minor in the scope of the overall story – there’s nothing as jarring or out-of-place as Elves at Helm’s Deep or Evil Faramir, and while the show’s fidelity to the book over the course of the season has yet to be demonstrated, from everything I’m hearing, and from what I see onscreen so far, it’s going to stick very close to Martin’s original.
I do have quibbles, of course, but only that. There’s a scene where the CGI is pretty apparent for those who tend to notice such things, for example. But the most jarring thing for me – in a cast that could largely have stepped out of Eric Hotz woodcuts – was Jason Momoa’s brilliant, perfect white teeth. Fantasy fans might want to get used to seeing Momoa, though – he’s the new Conan the Barbarian.
Other than that, I have no complaints about the first episode. So far, it’s masterful television and a very faithful adaptation of Martin’s world and characters. It’s well worth watching, and may turn out to be HBO’s Next Big Thing.