When it comes to pop culture and entertainment, science fiction and fantasy have long been traditional favorites in geek circles. For a lot of geeks, that means this weekend is a big weekend because it is the debut of a modern fantasy favorite coming to life on screen. I'm talking about Game of Thrones, the first book in George R.R. Martin's series, A Song of Ice and Fire, which debuts Sunday, April 17.
However, one of the unique things about the Game of Thrones adaptation is that it is being produced as a 10 episode series on HBO to tell the story of the first book (and plans are already in the works for another 10 episodes for the second book next year). By comparison, the Lord of the Rings — which Martin's series is often compared to — had to be condensed into less than a third of that time and had to make significant plot and character cuts in order to accomplish it.
That's one of the main reasons that a lot of geeks are excited to see if this experiment will work, because there's hope that it could mean a much fuller and more faithful adaptation of the book. Plus, there's also just a lot of interest in seeing Martin's work come to life because his brand of fantasy has its own unique style.
Tom Merritt, co-host of Sword and Laser, said, "The Song of Ice and Fire series is regarded as the modern day Tolkien. It brings realism and fantasy together in ways that most people think are impossible. To see the vision carried out on screen by people who care about the story and are devoted to preserving its feel has us all very excited. Not a week goes by on Sword and Laser where we're not talking about a new trailer, food truck or other promotional piece of brilliance from HBO."
Thanks to HBO, I got the opportunity to pre-screen the first six episodes of Game of Thrones this week, and I came away dazzled by the series, with just a couple complaints. My immediate feeling after finishing the sixth episode was disappointment that I'm going to have to wait almost two months until the seventh episode airs. I take that as a very good sign that HBO is on the right track here.
First of all, they totally nailed it on the casting. None of the parts are badly casted, and Sean Bean as Eddard Stark and Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister are absolutely brilliant. They also cast two difficult parts very well — Lena Headey as Queen Cerei Lannister and Maisie Williams as Arya Stark.
The screenplay is also a homerun. It does an excellent job of bouncing between the different story lines without making the experience jarring, which was a big risk. I haven't read the book in a couple years, but after reviewing six episodes, I couldn't think of a single important part that was left out of the on-screen adaptation. There also wasn't a single instance where I thought the screenplay interpreted things wrong or butchered the story (that definitely wasn't the case with Lord of the Rings, which was still a great movie trilogy but had some awful cuts and changes). I'm sure a lot of that has to do with the fact that Martin himself was brought in as a consultant and producer on set. Martin even wrote the screenplay for episode eight in this first season.
To top it off, the costuming and cinematography were excellent and helped bring the story to life and give it a very realistic vibe. The special effects were also done well, with the exception of a few gory violence scenes that came off a little bit hokey. That said, these TV series adaptations don't have nearly as large of a special effects budget as a major motion picture, and overall the wide panorama effects shots in Game of Thrones were much better than the comparable Showtime series, The Tudors, for example.
My one other nit to pick with Game of Thrones was the action and fight scenes. It appears that most of the actors did their own stunts and action scenes, and as a result, these were sometimes a little slow and labored. It wasn't that big of a deal in Game of Thrones, because there aren't that many action scenes, but it does worry me when they tackle the second book because it has a lot more action. This is an area that will need some improvement before they take on the second season.
One more thing to keep in mind is that because this is on HBO, you need to be aware that there is some graphic language, violence, and nudity. You'll find all of those elements in the Martin books, but most of them would have been edited out if this was a theatrical movie. In most cases, these things move the story forward or are simply part of the realism of the story. Again, this contrasts with The Tudors, which throws in some gratuitous sex and nudity for no apparent reason in several cases (although it's still an excellent series overall). The bottom line here is that Game of Thrones is not something you'll want to watch with your young kids or teenagers. It is full of mature content and themes.
One last note: If you're totally new to Game of Thrones, I'd recommend trying it for two episodes. After the first episode, you might be a little confused with your interest mildly piqued. By the second episode, I think you'll be hooked.
Three things to watch
As you watch the first season, here are a few themes to look for, without giving away any spoilers."Winter is coming" - Notice how this phrase gets used a lot and look at how and why characters say it. As you hear about winter in the Westeros, think about what this phenomenon would actually mean for the physical reality of this world and its people. "The seed is strong" - This phrase is very important for a conspiracy theory in the story. Figure out what it's saying and the full implications of what it's getting at, and what it would mean, if true. The lion vs. the wolf - Look for the symbolism of the animals in the movie. Each of the clans, or houses, has an animal that serves as its sigil. You should especially look for the symbolism involving the stag, the wolf, and the lion.
Here is a 15-minute preview of the first episode, released by HBO:
How to watch it
The first episode of the Game of Thrones debuts on Sunday, April 17 at 9:00PM on HBO, and a new episode will air weekly on Sundays in the same time slot. Since it's cable, there will be lots of re-runs in case you miss it or you forget to set your DVR.
I also asked HBO if it will be selling the episodes individually on iTunes and/or Amazon Video on a time-delayed basis. Unfortunately, the company said, "No," but that it would likely release the episodes electronically around the same time the DVDs come out. So, the only way to get Game of Thrones right away will be to sign up for HBO, which typically costs about $15/month.
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.