Game of Thrones

Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO. Four episodes into the second season.

The challenges in adapting George R. R. Martin's dark, sprawling fantasy epic, A Song of Ice and Fire, for TV must have been daunting. You have an enormous, ever-shifting cast of characters, in which once-minor players periodically rise to the fore and major players are sometimes cut down without warning. You have action spread out across continents, isolating many subplots that nonetheless must be woven into the story as a whole. You have an elaborate, fully imagined world, in which intricacies of history and religion fit together in complicated ways, all of which must be conveyed without drowning viewers in a sea of exposition. And those are just fundamental storytelling concerns. Creating the story's supernatural beings, constructing the many required sets and costumes, staging battles and riots, and casting children in tricky yet key roles all present pitfalls of their own.

So it's a wonder that Game of Thrones (named for the first book in Martin's series) has succeeded as brilliantly as it has, especially considering that the show runners have been taking risks: committing completely to the books' often grim tone, elaborating on relationships only implied in the pages, seeking cinematic ways to handle some of the narrative issues rather than simply parroting the text rote. It's not unfailingly "faithful," in the way people usually mean, yet this is the kind of adaptation I love, not a stenographic rendition of the books but rather a faithfulness to theme and character over raw details. This is the kind of adaption that honors both its source material and its own medium, and the result here is a grandly entertaining quasi-historic saga—in short, great TV.