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HBO's Next (I Hope) Great Drama

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I didn’t end up watching a tremendous amount of TV on vacation, owing to (1) staying in a beach house without a DVD player, (2) it being the last week of June / first week of July (no Top Chef Masters? What gives?), (3) only being able to take so many Michael Jackson thanatopses, and (4) um, being on vacation. 

I did read, though, and of course it all ended up coming back to TV, because I started reading George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, which HBO is shooting a pilot for. And I am here to hope, and plead, that HBO picks up the show as a series, and gets it right.

Because I’m not close to done yet (four of seven planned volumes are finished, each one phone-book-sized–fortunately I’m reading on iPhone Kindle), I can’t appraise the series overall. For that, see real book critic, fantasy novelist and Nerd World blogger Lev Grossman, who deemed author George R. R. Martin “the American Tolkien.” But just judging from the first book, A Game of Thrones—which would make up the first season of a series, and gives the would-be series its title—it’s clear that this saga would not only make a great fantasy series, but is a perfect fit for HBO. 

For starters, the sprawling plot—about the rivalry among noble (and ignoble) houses for a mythical kingdom—offers a gripping, intrigue-filled basic story that’s like Fantasy Rome (complete with abundant blood, sex and kinkiness). That’s probably what attracted the network in the first place. [Update: Also—perhaps thanks to the fact that Martin has worked as a TV writer—the story is broken down, and the plots interwoven, very much like those of a cable drama. For first-time readers of this blog, I mean that as a compliment.]

But great HBO series are about more than plot and skin; they’re about great themes, which Martin’s story has aplenty. In the tradition of HBO’s antiheroes and antiheroines—and unlike the protagonists of The Lord of the Rings—Martin’s characters, even the best among them, are flawed, ambivalent and deeply fallible. He constantly forces you to question whether the “honorable” resolution to a conflict is the best in the long run. The saga is littered with fallen heroes and shattered myths, as well as apparent villains and rogues who make surprising turns. 

And as in series like The Sopranos, Deadwood and The Wire, the story is filled with the mournful sense that the characters and their civilization have outlived their best days. A Game of Thrones is a fantasy, but most of the magic is in the past. We learn early on, for instance, that there were once dragons in Westeros (the continent where most of the action takes place), but they died off; there were magicians hundreds of years ago, but all that remains of them are some of the weapons they forged, and a vaguely described “Doom” that has thrown the world off-kilter. (Among the oddnesses in its fictional world: the seasons last for unpredictable spans of time, often years. As the series begins, the world is in its ninth year of summer.) Magic is not necessarily dead—there are rumors, for instance, of a ghastly threat stirring in the primeval woods beyond the borders of civilization—but it is mostly considered to be child’s stories, or ancient history. It is a little like The Lord of the Rings, if you continued the story after the Elves and wizards left Middle Earth to the mundane and flawed rule of men. 

It’s also like nothing else, which is why I badly want HBO to make the series. (A pilot is being shot, with Peter Dinklage—reunited with Station Agent director Tom McCarthy—in the key role of Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf and nobleman of uncertain moral allegiance.) 

If you’ve read the books, do you want to see them made into TV, or do you want them left alone? What do you think are the biggest casting and logistical challenges? (For instance, I could easily see the budget dwarfing Rome’s $100 million price tag, depending how the series were made.) 

One last request: discuss the books all you want in the comments, but your host has not finished reading them, so label your spoilers. (One problem with reading a series late nowadays, I’m learning, is resisting the temptation to read spoilers at the various fan sites and wikis. I’m glad the Web was not around when I read LOTR in junior high.) You do not want to wake the dragon.

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