Friday, April 15, 2011

George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones

The Lord of the Rings and Narnia films proved there is now adequate technology to credibly adapt epic fantasy for the big (or small) screen. Having sufficient time is a separate issue. Readers of big fat fantasy novels are not simply interested in hack-and-slash action. Exotic world-building and impossibly intricate plotting are arguably even more important for them. Enter HBO, who have done right by the fans of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice novels with their ten episode series adaption of the first book, Game of Thrones (trailer here), which debuts this Sunday night.

“Winter is coming” says the motto of the House of the Stark, but winters in the Seven Kingdoms have a bite beyond mere cold temperatures. Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark understands winters and wars better than anyone. A grizzled veteran who prefers his northern provincial home to life at the court in King’s Landing, he is ever loyal to his monarch and former comrade-in-arms, Robert Baratheon. However, when the “King’s Hand” (essentially a Viceroy) dies under mysterious circumstances, Stark reluctantly accepts the position. It will be awkward though. There is little love between the House of Stark and the House of Lannister, whose ranks include Queen Cersei and her arrogant twin brother Ser Jaime.

While the Lannisters give Stark plenty to worry about, there are other storms brewing on the horizon. Viserys Targaryen, Baratheon’s vanquished rival for the throne, has made an alliance with the barbarian hordes of the east, betrothing his sister to their Khal. Meanwhile, Stark’s illegitimate son Jon Snow has joined the Night’s Watch, which stands guard over the great northern wall, where there have been disturbing reports from the “lawless lands” on the other side.

Naturally, everything gets very complicated. In fact, those just looking for a little swordplay might grow impatient with the first two installments. Still, Game’s knack for ending each episode with a dramatic revelation should keep most viewers hooked. Fans of the novels should be especially delighted with the series’ attention to gritty details that vividly bring Martin’s fantasy world to life. Time is also profitably allotted to explore dozens of relations that a two hour feature would have had to sacrifice, such as the sparring sessions and life lessons dispensed to Arya, the youngest Stark daughter, by her fencing instructor, who looks and sounds as if he stepped out of a Rafael Sabatini novel (that is not a bad thing).

Coming in with serious swashbuckling credibility from his work as Bernard Cornwall’s Richard Sharpe, Sean Bean was the perfect (and perhaps only) choice to play Stark. He effortlessly combines a commanding presence with an unassuming integrity. An alumnus of sitcoms and The Full Monty, Mark Addy is surprisingly effective as the blustering, tempestuous king. He also has some intriguingly nuanced scenes with the beautiful Lena Headey, who makes a riveting Lady Macbeth figure as Queen Cersei.

Undeniably though, the real breakout fanboy superstar from Game will be Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, the queen’s hedonistic younger brother, known as “The Imp” for his diminutive size. Recognizing the appeal of a good anti-hero, Dinklage plays his role to the hilt, chewing the scenery and visibly enjoying his character’s wickedness. It is contagious. The Imp’s scenes crackle with verve, giving the series a jolt of energy with each and every appearance.

Game is a laudably ambitious undertaking that works remarkably well based on the evidence of the first six episodes. It gets epic fantasy right and definitely leaves viewers wanting more at the conclusion of each installment. While not especially violent (though there are certainly some intense sequences), parents should fully understand Game is not Narnia. There are plenty of elements that will definitely remind viewers they are watching HBO, the home of Michael Apted’s Rome, if you follow. Regardless, most relatively mature viewers should be absorbed by its intricate story and first-rate effects. Definitely recommended, Game’s first episode, Winter is Coming, debuts this Sunday (4/17), only on HBO.