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.

The plot of Game of Thrones in notoriously complicated, but it can be reasonably well summarized as the story of a nation reminiscent of medieval Europe (albeit with some supernatural elements at the periphery) plunging into an ugly, protracted civil war even as it is beset by a more existential threat of which few are aware and fewer still wish to acknowledge. The cast is too vast to list even the principals, but of particular note in second season are Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister, the desperate, not entirely stable queen regent; Alfie Allen as the insecure, little-loved Theon Greyjoy, well on his way to being a particularly contemptible traitor; Richard Madden as Robb Stark, making the most of the fact that the young King in the North has far more time on screen than he ever had between the pages; Maisie Williams, a marvelously naturalistic young actress, as the lost yet resilient Arya Stark; Emilia Clarke, small but surprisingly regal and appropriately fiery, as Daenerys, the last of the deposed Targaryens; and, of course, the great Peter Dinklage (top-billed now that Sean Bean lost his head at the close of first season) in a witty, shrewd, thoroughly delightful performance as Tyrion Lannister, the black sheep of his powerful noble family, now ruling as the Hand of the underage King in spite of them all.

Martin writes each chapter from the strictly limited perspective of a single character, alternating among a dozen or so in each book—a technique that gives the TV show’s writers considerable freedom in adaptation, imagining scenes in which none of Martin’s perspective characters would have been present. And almost without exception (we all have our quibbles), I have enjoyed such diversions from the “canon” tremendously: they’re like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead embroideries within Hamlet proper (if one will allow the heresy of comparing Hamlet and Ice and Fire—I’m well aware they’re worlds apart).

As for the canon, Game of Thrones has realized that strikingly well also. There are compressions and the occasional misguided oversimplification (the decision to rename Asha Greyjoy so she wouldn’t be confused with the Stark servant Osha had merit, but why go with Yara, which sounds almost exactly like—and in fact is a goddamn anagram for—Arya, the name of one of the most important characters in the whole series?!), but by and large, the show gets things right. As one who has read each of the books several times, I can’t speak to how comprehensible it is to newbies, but I can see the show runners putting in the effort, casting talented, distinctive-looking actors rather than a stable of generically pretty people and filling in background with judicious, well-chosen details, both in the dialogue and, more subtly, in the evocative sets and costumes. In one of the most inspired touches, the gorgeous opening credits scan back and forth across an ornate map, each week locating that episode’s settings in relationship to one another. It’s a beautiful way to orient the viewer, and for fans of the book series, it provides a fun hint as to what each episode might cover. (This week, Sean and I cheered eagerly at the first-time appearance of Harrenhal, a key stop in the journey of our beloved Arya. We are dorks.)

But back to what the show gets right. What I appreciate most about Game of Thrones is how it draws out Martin’s themes: about what makes a good leader, about how war affects common people who hadn’t any say in starting it, about how the compromises of ruling tend to thwart good intentions, about how good intentions are never enough. The sometimes excessive use of the HBO-given right to nudity (the hand-wringing over which I consider rather silly) and the often shocking violence (which, OK, I admit I watch some scenes through my fingers) have gotten a lot of press, but more often than not, that sex and violence are in service of a story that takes them seriously. Martin’s series mercilessly deconstructs romantic mythologies of knights and chivalry and takes a fascinatingly nuanced approach to the politics and fallout of war. It shouldn’t be any surprise that Game of Thrones—an adaptation of the very best sort—increasingly does the same.