In development since 2007, perhaps the most anticipated book-to-TV adaptation this year premieres Sunday on HBO. In the spirit of full disclosure I should go ahead and say I am a huge fan of the book series this is based on, Song of Ice and Fire. Specifically, this first season of ten episodes is an adaptation of the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones (curiously, the A is dropped from the title for TV). Written by George R. R. Martin, the paperback version of Thrones weighs in at over 800 pages and has eight viewpoint characters along with dozens more characters that are integral to the plot. And the plot is quite dense, full of political intrigue, violent conflict, graphically depicted sex, betrayals, unlikely heroes, multi-dimensional villains and just a slight hint of dark magic creeping back into the world. It’s also possible that the Song of Ice and Fire series might just be the greatest fantasy series since Lord of the Rings and in many ways surpasses Tolkein’s epic. Additionally, only four of seven books have been written to date, the fifth scheduled for this summer. All of that is to illustrate the high regard in which I and fans of the series hold the books. Much like the Rings trilogy, the Ice and Fire books have long been thought to be unfilmable. Thankfully, David Benioff, D. B. Weiss and HBO thought otherwise.

The first episode, “Winter is Coming” begins as three men of the Night Watch leave The Wall, a 700 foot high, 300 mile long ice barrier in the north of the land of Westeros. The three Rangers encounter a camp belonging to the Others, a fabled group of wild and darkly magical beings that have not been seen in many, many years. Suffice it to say, things do not go well for the three watchmen. After an awesome opening credits sequence, we travel to the castle of Winterfell where we are introduced to the Starks: Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark (Sean Bean), Catelyn “Cat” Stark (Michelle Fairley), their children Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), Robb (Richard Madden), Sansa (Sophie Turner), Arya (Maisie Williams) and Ned’s bastard son Jon Snow (Kit Harington). Ned is notified by his master-at-arms, Ser Rodrik Cassel (Ron Donachie) that there is a deserter from the Night Watch. As Lord of the northern part of the country, Ned is responsible for enforcing the laws of the Night Watch and the punishment for deserting is death. Turns out the deserter is one of the fellows from the prologue, but his babblings about what he saw are dismissed before he is ceremonially beheaded by Ned. Bran, Robb and Jon are in attendance to the execution and on the way back a dead mother dire wolf is found with her still alive pups. There is a pup for each of the Stark children and they return with the entourage to Winterfell.

That only covers the first few minutes of the pilot and there is a lot more story yet to come. In the capitol city, King’s Landing, the Hand of the King, Jon Arryn (John Standing) lies dead. This prompts King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) to travel to Winterfell to invite Ned to become his new Hand. So asks the King, so it is done. Along for the ride north are Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), their son and heir to the throne Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and Cersei’s brothers Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and the dwarf Tyrion (Peter Dinklage). In addition to the new gig, Ned is also offered a stronger tie between the Houses Stark and Baratheon by the suggestion of a marriage between Joffrey and Sansa. Again, so asks the King, so it is done. Meanwhile, across the sea in the country of Pentos, exiled Prince Viserys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd) is eager to once again rule Westeros by defeating the so-called usurper King Robert. To that end he has sold his sister, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), into marriage to the barbarian Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa). Viserys plans to rally the barbarian horde as his army and ruthlessly retake the throne. However, at the wedding the Dothraki prove to be perhaps more barbaric than Viserys has counted on.

That’s the basic plot of the first episode, and I do mean basic as there are several more characters and much more intrigue and subplots involved. This first 65 minutes covers roughly the first 85 pages of the novel. While that may seem like a whole lot of characters and story to keep track of it really isn’t. Granted, you do need to pay attention. I wouldn’t recommend doing laundry or a crossword puzzle* while this show is on, but, really, after the prologue you will find yourself glued to the screen, so it won’t be a problem. There are some TV shows that you can absolutely throw on as background noise, check in every few minutes and totally get what is going on. Game of Thrones is not one of those. It demands your full attention, but rewards your mental loyalty with something that will leave you thinking about it and an eagerness to discuss its intricacies with others who also watch. Based on the writing and acting alone, I expect those others to be very numerous.

Speaking of the acting, I would hand out Emmys to the cast right now, if I was in charge of such things. Granted, people like Sean Bean, Peter Dinklage and Michelle Fairly would be exceptional to watch just standing around telling knock-knock jokes and they certainly drive home the realism here. The performances that actually wowed me the most were from the children, specifically Isaac Hempstead-Wright and Maisie Williams. Considering what their respective characters will go through in future episodes and seasons, the roles of Bran and Arya required very young actors of exceptional ability. Usually, child television actors are around for comic relief or light, heartfelt drama. Rarely are they called upon for such critically important dramatic beats as what is required in Game of Thrones and definitely not for as long as will be required of these two. Yet Hempstead-Wright and Williams show off buckets full of talent in their limited screen time in this first episode and up the acting ante as the season marches on. Apart from that, the two roles I was most concerned over being played right were those of my two favorite characters, Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister. I needn’t have worried for Kit Harrington and Peter Dinklage, respectively, look and behave almost exactly as I’ve envisioned the two characters in my head while reading the books. All told, this show is a prime example of flawless casting.

As a TV show, Game of Thrones meets and exceeds the quality of the HBO series that have come before it and, indeed, leaves most other shows in the dust. But as an adaptation, how does it measure up to the much-loved original novel? As it turns out, this is yet another area at which I would have been wrong to have worried about. I literally got chills watching the prologue as it was watching the book come to life. Sure, there are things that have been condensed or left out or even shortened and a few small things that don’t happen at all in the novel. But just as Peter Jackson showed much love and reverence for the original material he was adapting, so too do David Benioff and D. B. Weiss take great care to refute any claim that this is any sort of loose adaptation or off-handed attempt to stay true to the original. Obviously, books and television are two entirely different mediums and what works on the printed page doesn’t necessarily always translate well to compelling or interesting television. But after having watched the first six episodes I am astonished by how closely the show has adhered to the novel. I honestly didn’t expect it to be this faithful and I am beyond happy to see my second favorite novel brought to life in such a way. Fans of the printed series will not be disappointed, quite the opposite in fact.

I suppose it should be noted that there is a fair amount of nudity, graphic sex and grisly violence, though I really don’t see why. Other venues have gone to great lengths to point this out, even to the exclusion of actually reviewing the episode. Most bizarrely, the inclusion of the graphic sex has been labeled as an addition to lure female viewers (yes, that makes no sense to me either). However, all of these things are very much taken directly from the book. I would even say, despite this being an HBO series, it’s very much possible that the sex and violence are slightly toned down from what is described in the original text. That or my imagination reading the book has an even more adult rating than HBO is comfortable with airing. I don’t think any graphic depictions in this show would be any more or less enticing or repulsive to members of either sex. There are probably equal numbers of female fans of the fantasy genre as there are males, but I think that whole point is irrelevant. Game of Thrones is appealing to those who enjoy well made, densely plotted and wonderfully acted drama, period. The fact that it happens to have a setting that resembles medieval England is no more important than if it were set in, say, mob-controlled New Jersey or a state-of-the-art hospital. The fact is that this some of the most compelling and riveting drama on television. This first hour will completely pull you into the story and get you emotionally invested in all of the characters. Just don’t get too attached, as the sword could fall on any one of them at any time…

PREVIEW CLIPS FROM THE FIRST EPISODE:

A VISUAL GUIDE TO THE GREAT HOUSES:
(click to see full size)

* No disrespect is meant to anyone who routinely does laundry or solves crossword puzzles. I often screw up the former and rarely am able to accomplish the latter, so both trades have my highest respect.