George R.R. Martin's bestselling A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy is long. Each of the four books in the yet-unfinished seven-book series is a doorstopper-sized hunk of painstakingly crafted political dealings and fantastical arms races involving dragons, zombies, and ancient magicks. Martin juggles a dozen protagonists, not to mention 30 equally relevant secondary characters — and almost everyone has an unwieldy name, like Daenerys Targaryen, or Tyrion Lannister, or Petyr Baelish.
In spite of the obstacles to making Martin's story succeed as a TV show, someone at HBO must be a fan, because Game of Thrones — named after the first book in his series — makes its live-action television debut this Sunday, April 17. Condensing Martin's 800-page epic into a 10-episode season constitutes an acrobatic exercise in brevity and clever editing. But will viewers who haven't read the books be able to keep up?
The pilot begins just as the first book does, with a breakneck chase between the knights of Castle Black and a horde of blood-hungry zombies called the Others. Although Castle Black was built long ago to protect the rest of kingdom from the Others, the undead have become ages-old implausible legend by now, and no one even believes the story of the fight's lone survivor.
But Game of Thrones is not a mediæval Walking Dead, and this gory action sequence will be the only one of its kind for a while. Readers of the books know that the Others don't start posing a real threat until well into book three. After the bloody zombie battle, the show transforms from fast-paced action thriller to slow-paced, dialogue-heavy political drama. Eddard Stark (Sean Bean), Lord of Winterfell, sees his power increase unexpectedly when the King's closest adviser dies under mysterious circumstances. King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) took the kingdom by force, with Eddard's support, not long ago; the throne once belonged to the now-banished Targaryens. Meanwhile, Viserys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd) has married off his sister Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) to a warlord named Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), hoping to gain control of Drogo's army in return. But both Daenerys and Drogo have other plans, and so does King Robert's queen, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). And that brief rundown shaves ever so slightly at the tip of Martin's multi-faceted iceberg.
Some of the book's charms fall necessarily by the wayside. Daenerys's internal struggles and semi-prophetic dreams haven't survived, so Dany comes across at first as an emotionally disengaged bimbo rather than as Martin's profound, morose heroine. Similarly, Peter Dinklage's turn as Tyrion, the Lannister brother ostracized for his dwarfism, seems like little more than a comic-relief lecher, as opposed to the intellectual and surprisingly vulnerable Tyrion in the books. In what little room he has in the first two episodes (all that were available for review), Dinklage steals his few scenes, and one can only hope that young Emilia Clarke will grow into the role of Dany. But will the show's writers have the space to do these characters justice? And, dare I say, what about all of the other characters?
Martin relies on intricate personality detail to keep audiences invested, so those who come seeking Lord of the Rings–style epic battles may grow bored. Fans of Martin's books know what to expect, however, and patience is our middle name — after all, we've been waiting almost six years for him to release the next volume. One can only hope that uninitiated viewers will stick with all of these characters and watch as Game of Thrones transforms into the gripping drama we all hope it will be — in time.