HBO has built up a sterling reputation for its original series and their true-to-life settings; there's the old West in Deadwood, New York single life in Sex and the City and a recovering New Orleans in Treme. But this Sunday, HBO will premiere a series that is light on true life and heavy on epic fantasy.
It's called Game of Thrones, and some would liken it to The Sopranos, if it were set in the Middle Earth from The Lord of the Rings. Game of Thrones tells the story of several powerful families fighting to control a kingdom, which, says series co-creator David Benioff, makes it perfect for the HBO template.
"It's about families and conflict," Benioff says. "It's about people trying to gain power. It's about people who [are] in power trying to keep it."
Still, Benioff admits that a high epic fantasy wasn't the easiest HBO pitch.
"Initially, I think there was a degree of skepticism and nervousness because it didn't seem like an HBO show," he says.
It helped that Game of Thrones' magic is pretty minimal — no wizards throwing fireballs and no armies of orcs fighting armies of elves.
An Accidental Made-For-TV Book
Game of Thrones is named after and based on the best-selling first installment of a 4,000-page series of books by George R.R. Martin. Martin used to work in television, writing for The Twilight Zone and the CBS series Beauty and the Beast, but he felt limited by television's tight budgets and shooting schedules, so he turned to books.
"In books you can have [an] unlimited budget and you can have a cast of thousands and you can have the most magnificent sets and castle[s]. You can [have] battles in which millions of people are fighting," Martin says.
There's an irony to Martin's books — created specifically as something he thought could never get on TV — being brought to the small screen by other people. Benioff and fellow co-creator Dan Weiss say Martin's TV sensibility made Game of Thrones easy to adapt, in spite of the novel's complexity and length.
Martin is acting as an executive producer for the show — he has even written a few scripts. He says the network was solicitous of his opinions and approval, which makes sense given that his original book sold more than 4 million copies.
"There's an enormous audience out there for fantasy, for sophisticated adult fantasy, I think," Martin says.
Bringing The Audience To HBO
And right now, that audience is in the midst of an on-screen fantasy drought: there's no Hobbit in the foreseeable future; no great shows, like Lost, that appeal to fantasy fans; and it's still a few months until the summer buffet of high-end fantasy movies.
"It's not reckless, what they're doing," says Anthony Kelso, a media studies professor at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y.
Kelso, who has written about HBO, says international rights for Game of Thrones have been selling fast, and he predicts a strong secondary market — fantasy fans are proven investors in fully loaded DVD packages. Ultimately, Kelso says, this show may be more about attracting a new base of subscribers to the premium channel, and less about high ratings.
Unlike traditional television, of course, HBO doesn't rely on ads for revenue; it relies on people who will pay for its content.
People, perhaps, like Thomas Strickland, an information architect in Atlanta and hardcore fan of Martin's books. Strickland doesn't yet subscribe to HBO, so he's exactly the type of viewer the network may be hoping to attract with Game of Thrones.
"It's a bit of an investment to purchase access to an entire channel and pay that premium for basically one hour of programming a week," Strickland says.
But Strickland is considering it. He has been hanging out on the HBO website, poring over every little advance video, from previews to features about costuming.
Waiting patiently for the DVDs to come out is not an option, Strickland says. He and his friends want to start dissecting the show as soon as it airs, so they can compare it to the book they love.
And they may have a solution. They're talking about everyone chipping in for one HBO subscription.
"We'll all get together, we'll have some wine and watch the show," Strickland says. "Sorry, HBO."
Of course, the show's success in bringing new subscribers may determine whether Game of Thrones gets a second season.
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
But as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, HBO begins a series this Sunday based on a bestselling fantasy book.
NEDA ULABY: Some people describe "Game of Thrones" as "The Sopranos" meets Middle-Earth.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GAME OF THRONES")
SEAN BEAN: (as Lord Eddard Stark) I Eddard, the House Stark, Lord of Winterfeldt and Warden of the North, sentence you to die.
(SOUNDBITE OF SWORDS)
ULABY: The Lord of Winterfeldt heads up one of several powerful families fighting to control a kingdom, which makes "Game of Thrones" fit the HBO template perfectly, says show co-creator David Benioff.
DAVID BENIOFF: It's about families and conflict. It's about people trying to gain power. It's about people who in power trying to keep it.
ULABY: Still, he says, a high epic fantasy was not the easiest pitch.
BENIOFF: Initially, I think there was a degree of skepticism and nervousness because it didn't seem like an HBO show.
ULABY: It helped that "Game of Throne's" magic is minimal.
BENIOFF: It's not about wizards throwing fireballs and a million orcs fighting a million elves.
ULABY: That said, creepy supernatural forces are definitely afoot.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GAME OF THRONES")
ISAAC HEMPSTEAD: (as Bran Stark) Is it true he saw the White Walkers?
BEAN: (as Eddard Stark) White Walkers have been gone for thousands of years.
HEMPSTEAD: (as Bran Stark) So he was lying.
BEAN: (as Eddard Stark) A mad man sees what he sees.
ULABY: "Game of Thrones" is based on the first of a 4,000-page series of books by George R.R. Martin - yes, that's two R's. He used to work in television. He wrote for "The Twilight Zone" in the '80s and "Beauty and the Beast." But Martin felt limited by television's tight budgets and shooting schedules.
GEORGE R: But I'm writing books, and in books, you have an unlimited budget, and you can have a cast of thousands. You can have the most magnificent sets and castles. You can have, you know, battles in which millions of people are fighting.
(SOUNDBITE OF A BATTLE)
ULABY: So it's an irony that the books Martin created, specifically as something he could never get on TV, has been brought to the small screen by other people, people who say his TV sensibility actually made his books easy to adapt. Martin says he's made his peace with being, as he put it: A tourist to his own world.
MARTIN: There are times I thought, oh, no, and it's not quite the way I - oh, but it's very good the way they're doing it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ULABY: George R.R. Martin is an executive producer for "Game of Thrones" on HBO and he's written a few scripts for it, too. He says the network was solicitous of his opinions. Which makes sense, given his books sold over four million copies.
MARTIN: So there's an enormous audience out there for fantasy, for sophisticated adult fantasy, I think.
ULABY: And right now, that audience is in the midst of a fantasy drought. There's no Hobbit for the foreseeable future, no great shows that appeal to fantasy fans like "Lost," and it's still a few months till the summer buffet of high-end fantasy movies.
ANTHONY KELSO: It's not reckless, what they're doing.
ULABY: Anthony Kelso, a media studies professor, has written about HBO. He says international rights have been selling fast. Apparently, geeks know no borders. And fantasy fans are known to buy fully-loaded DVD packages. Ultimately, Kelso says, this show may be about attracting a new base of subscribers, not high ratings. Unlike traditional television, of course, HBO does not rely on ads.
KELSO: Their revenue comes from the people who pay.
ULABY: People perhaps like Thomas Strickland. He's an information architect in Atlanta, and a hardcore fan of the books, exactly the type HBO hopes to lure with "Games of Thrones." You see, Strickland does not subscribe to HBO - not yet.
THOMAS STRICKLAND: It's a bit of an investment to purchase access to an entire channel and pay that premium for basically one hour of programming per week.
ULABY: Unidentified Woman: Padding, fur - not really metal armor. It just has to almost smell.
ULABY: Waiting patiently for the DVDs is not an option, says Strickland. He and his friends want to start dissecting the show as soon as it airs, so they can compare it to the book they love. And they may have a solution.
STRICKLAND: It's very specific to our little group of nerdy, geeky, wonderful friends.
ULABY: They're talking about everyone chipping in for one HBO subscription.
STRICKLAND: We'll all get together. We'll have some wine and we're going to watch the show together. Sorry, HBO.
ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.