George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series of fantasy novels are some of the best literature I’ve ever read. It takes the fantasy genre and flips it on its head, focusing solely on humans and what makes them fallible creatures.
There are no other races; no elves and no dwarves (at least not the usual fantasy ones with beards and battleaxes). There is a focus on realism that is often missing from fantasy novels. Nobody is pure good or pure evil, and there is no Dark Lord or Evil Wizard threatening to destroy the land.
Instead, the plot revolves around power: The pursuit of it, the attempted holding of it, and the corrupting effect of it. It is a story of knights and their charges, of rulers and their vassals, and everybody who gets a taste of power wants more of it.
Every character is complex and not easily described in a few words. It is human nature to try to pigeonhole characters as a certain archetype when you first meet them, but all of the characters in Martin’s books defy those initial impressions. You may think you have a character pegged, but you never really do. They all will surprise you.
The books also go against the typical rules that the people of moral high ground are beautiful and the antagonists are ugly and twisted, and that the good guys always win.
Arguably the most interesting character is Tyrion Lannister, a stunted midget who becomes more deformed as the series progresses. And the characters who are the most physically attractive – Tyrion’s twin siblings Cersei and Jaime – are the closest the first book gets to true antagonists.
And nobody is safe from the headsman’s block. Ones to whom you grow attached die or are mortally wounded, giving every battle and every conflict an intensity that otherwise would not be there. You fear for the lives of the characters you like because you genuinely don’t know if they’ll make it out alive.
There is only one man who manages to stay noble and straightforward in these difficult times, Eddard “Ned” Stark. While most families’ mottoes declare their honor and their glory, the Starks have a simple message: “Winter is coming.”
The credo is meant both literally and figuratively, as tricksters scheme for the throne while a harsh winter threatens to overtake the entire continent. These winters can last decades, and bring with them the stirring of forces few living people have witnessed.
These forces are some of the rare mystic elements found in the novels. Such things are mentioned in tales and fables of ages past, but the masses believe any form of great magic died out long ago. In short, this is not your usual fantasy tale.
And that is why the HBO series Game of Thrones, which is based on the book series and premieres on Sunday, has the potential to do for the TV fantasy genre what Lord of the Rings did for the film version.
Martin held the belief for years that his series was unfilmable. Each of his books are massive tomes, making films next to impossible. There would either need to be multiple films per book or have massive chunks of the story cut out.
Then HBO came along and presented the only chance that might actually work, a television series with full seasons – which have a total running time of 10 hours – devoted to each book. Not only did HBO have the means to do justice to the work, but they also would not shy away from the rampant sex and violence in the books.
Executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are huge fans of the books and went to extreme lengths to make sure the look, feel and tone of the novels carried onto the screen.
They poured a ton of money into creating set pieces, costumes and scenery that matched each section of the world the show explores, from dull leathers and tough meat in the unforgiving Winterfell to vibrant colors and extravagant buffets in the golden city of Kings Landing.
The result is one of the most ambitious programs ever created. It has an immense budget, several recognizable actors (headlined by Sean Bean and Peter Dinklage) and a vision to create something people have never seen before.
The “fantasy” term does not do Game of Thrones justice. It examines human nature, the destruction of innocence and what makes a person noble. It deals with harsh realities and the fact that good men sometimes are driven to do terrible things.
The marriage between the Game of Thrones content and the HBO production is the best anyone could have hoped for. It stands to be one of the most interesting shows launched in recent memory, and everyone who has access to HBO should give it a shot before writing it off as conventional fantasy.
The show will air for the first time at 9/8c Sunday on HBO. It will be re-aired twice in succession after that, and then will be shown again across six different HBO channels the next day. It also will be available via HBO On Demand after its original air date. So tune in, and if you don’t have HBO, find someone who does and watch it with them.