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Where Wolves Prey: An Advance Review of HBO's Unforgettable Game of Thrones

There are few new series as widely anticipated or as closely watched as that of HBO's gorgeous and gripping Game of Thrones, which premieres later this month amid a flurry of promotion, from food trucks and sneak peeks to skyscraper-sized billboards in major cities.

Winter is coming, it seems, and just in the nick of time.

Based on the novel series "A Song of Ice and Fire" by George R.R. Martin, Game of Thrones arrives with its brutality and vision very much intact. Adapted by executive producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss, this is a staggering adaptation of a monumental literary achievement, a densely-plotted fusion of fantasy and potboiler political thriller with a deeply cinematic scope.

For those unfamiliar with the underlying material, Game of Thrones revolves around the power games enacted by a group of lords and ladies in a feudal society that's vaguely reminiscent of our own Dark Ages. But in this world, where seven kingdoms are uneasily bound together into an alliance under the Iron Throne, magic once ruled supreme, but has long died out of the land. In the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, summer can last a decade, but the threat of winter looms forever over the action, bringing with it darkness and ice and potentially years of snow. But, despite the brutality of the daily existence, there are those who would plot for their own amusement, engaging in power games in an effort to seize control of the Iron Thrones. Kings are killed, rulers deposed, eunuchs scheme, and lovers risk everything for a bigger piece of power.

Fans of Martin's novels (I count myself among their vast number) are understandably obsessed with the books, which unfold at a relentless pace and feature hundreds of characters and enough sex and violence to last a lifetime. Any concern fans may have had about the HBO adaptation should be allayed within the first few minutes of viewing. (HBO offered the first fifteen or so minutes of the pilot episode last night.) The care with which Benioff and Weiss have taken to painstakingly err as closely to the original text as possible is seen in every aspect of this highly ambitious production.

The first six episodes of Game of Thrones, provided to press in advance, are insanely fantastic, a groundbreaking work of television that's both visually engaging and thematically insightful. This is high fantasy done right, offering a wild and unrelenting plot about the games people play, the thirst for power, the ends men (and women) are willing to go in fulfillment of their own desires, and the things that we do for love. These six installments represent a crowning achievement for serialized television, its taut narrative the launchpad for dynamic conflict, copious bloodshed, and, yes, even a reflection of the mercenary times we live in.

There's a sense of doom hovering over the narrative here, the threat of winter and of darker things on the other side of the 700-foot wall between civilized society and the wild forest creeping ever closer. The opening sequence--which depicts a group of rangers from the Night's Watch searching for a group of "wildings" on the other side of the Wall--is overflowing with tension and horror.

But this isn't a production that coasts by on the small scenes of terror; it has within its bones an epic quality that is seen in the gorgeous credit sequence, which depicts a vast and three-dimensional map of Westeros (and soars across the Narrow Sea to Pentos and the Dothraki sea) in order to give the viewer a sense of space and location. Soaring over Westeros, we're given a raven's eye view of the world of Martin's books, as we see cities and citadels spring to life before our eyes, gears twisting and transforming to show us towers, walls, turrets, and minarets within this spellbinding sequence.

What's inherent within these episodes is an underlying love for Martin's work. There are, of course, some changes. It would be impossible to bring "A Song of Ice and Fire" to the screen exactly as Martin had written it. Any act of adapting a literary work comes with inherent challenges, but the alterations here aren't haphazard but warranted in order to translate Martin's weighty tome into a production that works for the small screen.

But don't let the small screen designation fool you: this is a colossal production that vividly brings Westeros and Essos to life, thanks to dazzling direction (notably of Tim Van Patten for the early episodes), taut writing, fantastic acting, and the high production values enacted by the various departments which have worked seamlessly to bring Martin's vision to television. Nothing on this expensive series is done on the cheap: the costumes, the weapons, the props, the sets, everything writ large.

For those of you who have read the books, I don't need to delve into the plot too deeply. For those who haven't, I don't want to spoil too much about the narrative that will unfold over the first six episodes. However, a few headlines: much of the action revolves around the Starks of Winterfell, a Northern clan whose roots connect them to the First Men, to the gods of old, and to the harsh reality of nature and society. When Jon Arryn, the Hand to the King, dies suddenly, it's Ned Stark (Sean Bean) who is visited by King Robert (Mark Addy) and his retinue with an invitation to replace the man who raised him, to sit beside the king and act as his right hand. While it's an offer that comes with a heavy price, one felt keenly by Ned's wife Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), Ned can't refuse his brother-in-arms. A feast at Winterfell brings the King's wife, the steely Queen Cersei (Lena Headey), her brothers--golden knight Ser Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and their stunted younger brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), who must suffer the undignified sobriquet, "The Imp"--and Cersei's children, arrogant Prince Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), sweet Myrcella (Aimee Richardson), and adorable Tommen (Callum Wharry).

The Starks are about to be split up, should Ned accept the King's offer and become his Hand, taking some of them to the south and the luxuries of King's Landing. Ned's children--five trueborn sons and daughters and one bastard son--are the lights of his life but duty beckons with a crooked finger. However, there are signs and omens that life in Westeros is about to change. A stag is killed by a direwolf, the sigil of House Stark, and the huge wolf (whose like hasn't been seen this side of the Wall in quite a long time) died with pups in her belly. When Ned's bastard Jon Snow (Kit Harington) suggests that it's a sign--five wolf cubs for the five Stark children--Ned gruffly allows his children to adopt them... just before Jon finds the white runt of the litter, separate and alone, echoing his own place in the Stark household.

It's an atmospheric beginning to a series that revolves around suspicion, manipulation, and mistrust. Everyone here has their own agenda, playing their own game of thrones, even as they remain oblivious to the true danger that awaits them. And, across the Narrow Sea, the last members of the vanquished Targaryen dynasty (Emilia Clarke and Harry Lloyd) plot their own return to Westeros to reclaim the throne that is rightfully theirs. An alliance between teenage princess Daenerys (Clarke) and a Dothraki khal (Jason Momoa) could sound the end of the peace of Westeros, though the tenuous unity of those Seven Kingdoms could be undone from within...

(Aside: I'm curious to see how easy it is for non-readers to keep track of the characters and backstories here, which are launched fast and furious at the viewer. My wife, who had seen the original pilot last year with me and has never read the books, didn't seem to have too much difficulty keeping track of who was who, etc., but I'll be interested to see whether that holds true for all newbies.)

The actors selected here are at the top of their games, each perfectly cast for the role they're playing. Bean's Ned Stark is quietly powerful, a true lord of the North in looks and action; Fairley's Catelyn all sinewy tension and determined strength. Dinklage is the only actor who could being the cunning Tyrion to life: he's short of stature but a giant in his own right. Headey and Coster-Waldau are superb as twins Cersei and Jaime Lannister; Addy roars magnificently as the bawdy and brutal King Robert; Aiden Gillen is divine as the Machiavellian Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish; Clarke and Lloyd soar high as Daenerys and Viserys Targaryen, the last of the blood of the dragon. Clarke delivers a stirring performance as Dany, transforming herself over the course of the six episodes from a victim into a powerful woman fulfilling the legacy of her forebears.

I'd list every single actor here (they're all amazing), but special praise has to go to the young actors cast as the Stark children, given the difficulty of the roles they have to tackle here. Isaac Hempstead-Wright delivers a jaw-dropping performance as fan-favorite Bran; Maisie Williams is fantastic as little Arya, so suited to her nickname of "Arya Underfoot," all tomboy pout and weapons proficient. (The water dance scene in the third episode brought tears to my eyes.) Sophie Turner brings an elegant glamor to her role as eldest daughter Sansa, Richard Madden a fierce undercurrent of strength to Robb Stark, the heir to Winterfell. Harington's Jon Snow is the role he was born to play: angry, isolated, and desperate to find his place in the world, he's dark and dour but hugely sympathetic. Alfie Allen maintains just the right combination of poise, pomposity, and ego suited for the Stark's ward Theon Greyjoy. The Starks are arguably the heart and soul of "A Song of Ice and Fire" and the actors here are supremely capable of transforming these characters from words on a page (or a few thousand pages) into reality. Their performances are gripping, heartbreaking, and hugely memorable.

What follows is a story of sellswords and slaves, princes and paupers, brave knights and craven conspirators, each vying for control of a throne that can cut you even as you sit upon it. Danger lurks around every corner and in the heart of everyone with something to gain... or something to lose. In Game of Thrones, HBO fuses together the very best of Lord of the Rings, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Rome into one sumptuous and seductive series that is utterly unforgettable.

Last week, I sped hungrily through the six episodes of Game of Thrones HBO sent out ("A Golden Crown," the sixth episode, might be my absolute favorite of the bunch), but I'm anxious to watch them again and again, to fall once more under their spell, to get caught up in the deft plotting and lose myself in the staggering and beautifully realized world that the production team has brought to life. This is the type of series that comes around but once in a lifetime, a groundbreaking and absorbing drama that is utterly unlike anything else on television today.

Miss this impressive and stirring drama at your own peril.

Game of Thrones premieres Sunday, April 17 at 9 pm ET/PT on HBO.


Ran said…
Good write-up! Yeah, episode 6 was definitely the favorite for Linda and I. 5 was also very good. But they're all enjoyable. Those two just seemed to have a bit more room to breath because a couple of storylines were dropped for those episodes.

As far as episode 6 goes, Dan Minahan's direction was phenomenally good, it seemed to me. I'm not expert enough to be able to put my finger on it, but there's a rawness to the way he shot the show that felt very in-tune with the grittiness of the story, which at this stage is getting very dark indeed.
Jace Lacob said…
Completely agree. While I loved all of the episodes, the final few of the run they sent out were absolutely stellar. Minahan's direction was completely spot-on, containing the right balance of grit and darkness as we reach the tipping point for the story. Knife's edge time, entirely.
Thomas said…
If the first 15 minutes hadn't already eased my mind than this certainly would have. It's going to be epic! (Please let it be a hit!)
Anne said…
Thanks for the great write-up! I'm almost embarrassed to admit how excited I got reading this. I love the books, I loved the 15 minute preview, but your review helped hammer home how HUGE this thing is going to be. I can't wait.

One thing I'm curious about - how does the series handle the changing POVs? One of the biggest strengths of the books is how it presents the world through so many different eyes, so does that come across at all in the filmed version?
Anonymous said…
Great review. The excitement for this show amongst my friends and I is palpable, and reading so many rave reviews of this sort is only building that excitement. Can't wait for April 17th!
Bella Spruce said…
The 15 minute preview was incredible and it sounds like they keep up that intensity through at least the first six episodes (so jealous you've seen them)! I haven't read the books but, from everything I've seen and read about this story, I know it's going to be amazing.
Anonymous said…
I don't know anything about the story, and judging by the first 15 minutes, I would hope there is something more compelling ahead. I saw scenes of a doll-faced murderer like something out of a "Chucky" horror movie, followed by a dispassionate beheading of the only half-way sympathetic character. This looks to me like a joyless tale of death and despair, not exactly something I would be attracted to watch.
cantuse said…
boffer, that's how pretty much every single Game of Thrones reader feels after the Prologue and first chapter, and if you've noticed there's quite a few of us around.

We're not all masochists, trust me when I say the books (and likely the series) is some of the most intense story-telling ever written.
EmilieCPA said…
@ Anne - it looks like (from the first 15 minutes and the various previews that I've seen) that they are using a "third person omniscient" viewpoint in the TV series, where we are following locations (and the characters at those locations) more than seeing the world from a particular POV.

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