By Ken Tucker
Updated April 18, 2011 at 05:02 AM EDT

If you haven’t read the book it was based on, Game of Thrones may not have been what you were expecting. The ads made it look like a dark, gritty, grim historical epic packed with violence and sex. Turns out, it was a swift fantasy adventure rooted in the emotions of ambition, greed, and lust. In this make-believe universe, there’s a ferocious realism in both dialogue and action. This distinction in setting and tone is crucial; it’s what makes Game of Thrones rise immediately far above such history-based costume dramas as The Borgias, Camelot, or Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.

The opening hour, “Winter Is Coming,” did a canny job of laying out every theme that will be explored in this character- and plot-packed series… and did so by following the simplest, shrewdest, yet least often followed strategy in literary adaptations: It followed the text of the book. I know, right? Amazing.

Ominousness was established immediately with a journey along The Wall, one dangerous boundary-line in author George R.R. Martin’s imagined world. We got a taste of the kind of blunt terseness that will characterize the entire series in the dialogue among the mounted guards, and caught a glimpse of the eerie, deadly White Walkers.

After that, there was a luxuriously smooth introduction of the House of Stark clan, led by Sean Bean’s hard-boiled Lord Eddard, as well as a few of author Martin’s key imaginative inventions such as the beautiful-but-fierce direwolves. The hour had a lot to get across to its audience. How Eddard was loyal to his old friend, now the king, Robert Baratheon (a robust Mark Addy). How the Lannister clan had designs upon the King’s throne — well, at least Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his sister, the king’s queen, Cersei (Lena Headley) did. Their brother, Tyrion (a Peter Dinklage seeming to revel in his character’s sarcasm, drinking, and general wench-squeezing), holds his small self above that fray as much as he can.

Another plot seemed, during this initial episode, to exist almost outside the rest of the story: The delicate princess Daenerys Taragaryan (Emilia Clarke) being given to the gigantic warrior Khal Drogo in an arranged marriage also designed, ultimately, as a power-play for the throne.

By the end of the hour, we had an almost literal cliffhanger: Eddard’s young son Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), climbing a high wall, came upon the sight of Jaime and Cersei having sex. The act left him frozen; the incestuous couple knew they couldn’t risk being exposed, and so — push! Down went Bran.

The daunting task of turning a massive epic fantasy novel into a merely huge fantasy TV series has been met with bravery by the makers of A Game of Thrones. And by bravery, I mean that writer-producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss have taken George R.R. Martin’s capacious prose and adapted it with fidelity for its large fan-base.

HBO has been promoting Game of Thrones in so many places, with such persistence, you get the sense the channel is a wee bit nervous and a whole lotta proud of what it’s offering here. The show needs to grow beyond its book-readers right from the get-go, because there are only ten episodes to lay out this universe, and get you invested in its multiple plots and characters, in the hope that this is the beginning of a multi-season series that will adapt the other volumes of Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice.

I’ll bet a lot of people watched the first episode. The question is, how many will come back?

Are you on board for the rest of Game of Thrones?

Twitter: @kentucker

Episode Recaps

Game of Thrones

HBO's epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series 'A Song of Ice and Fire.'

  • TV Show
  • 8
  • 73
  • TV-MA
  • David Benioff
  • D.B. Weiss
  • HBO
stream service