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 be premiering a series that's 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's 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 over 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's 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 their 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's been hanging out on the HBO website, pouring 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. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.