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Epic Win: HBO's Game of Thrones

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HBO’s fantastic (in more than one sense of the word) Game of Thrones debuts Sunday, and my review is in the new issue of TIME. It includes a few quotes from a long interview I did last month with author George R. R. Martin; I’m going to post the full (well, edited) interview in installments, starting this afternoon.

The series, as you may know, is based on George R.R. Martin’s series of novels, A Song of Ice and Fire. So far, at least (I’ve seen six episodes) the adaption is very faithful, at least to the particulars of plot and major characters. Which means the series, and my review, has to serve two audiences: those who have read the books and those who haven’t. Here’s a little about how I handled that in the review, and how I plan to handle that in my morning-after writeups of the episodes. (Yes, there will be a Game of Thrones Watch.)

I read the books, back in 2009 when HBO was considering picking up the show. I’m not a big fan of fantasy novels. I was, for a while, when I was in junior high school, but besides re-reading The Hobbit with my kids, I’d never found any fantasy books that engaged me as an adult. I read the Martin series on the suggestion of TIME’s Lev Grossman, and I loved it.

Now, I didn’t read the books out of obligation. I’m not a believer that critics should read source material in reviewing screen adaptions; if anything, I think sometimes it can be a hindrance. You learn things from it, but you lose something too—for one thing, the thrill of wondering what happens next. And as I wrote recently in my review of Mildred Pierce, if you need to have read or seen the source material to fully appreciate a TV show, then it’s a flawed TV show.

So I read the Martin books. But I made a point of not rereading them before watching Thrones (other than to look up some passages before doing the interview). I did not want to be watching the series, book in hand, seeing how this scene or that bit of dialogue matched the original.

I think that worked well for me. I know in broad strokes how well the series captures the story and spirit of what I remembered, but I wasn’t always sure watching it whether I was seeing a scene that actually existed in the book or not. (Some of the most effective scenes, in the later episodes, I am pretty sure were invented for the series.) I wrote my review assuming that the reader has not read the books, hopefully while offering something about the adaptation for fans who have.

And I think that’s how it should be: the books are what they are. I don’t want the TV series to be a literal illustration of them but a correlative that uses a different medium to tell the story and create the same emotional effect.

Does it? I don’t think the series, after six episodes, reaches the same literary level as the books do; there are subtleties and emotional shadings lost. By episodes 4, 5, and 6, once major exposition is out of the way and the characters have room to breathe, though, those moments start to come, so the trendline is encouraging.

Bottom line, as an HBO show, I don’t yet feel Game of Thrones is yet The Wire or Deadwood—that is, a series that feels like a work of literature in itself, creating its own language and artistic effects. It could become that, though. As it is, as I say in the review, it’s an absorbing, complex adult entertainment—much like Lost was, although the series are very different in tone and (obviously) setting. That’s pretty great for starters. (One caution: the first two episodes had the most problems in terms of pacing, as they worked to introduce settings, scenarios and dozens of characters. Trust me, things will become clearer.)

The other problem, obviously, is for the morning-after writeups: some fans are going to know (or at least probably know) what’s coming up. Including major events. Fans, you know the ones I am talking about. Do not spoil them. For my part, I’ll write like I do any series where I’ve seen episodes in advance: that is, I will try to forget I’ve seen episodes in advance.

That said, this is probably a good post for any readers of the books to ask more-specific questions that I didn’t address in the review. Just be considerate, keep any spoilers minimal and label them; I do not want to have to spend all day spoiler-patrolling. Thanks, and I’ll see what you all thought on Monday.

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