'Game of Thrones' review: Well-acted, beautifully shot fantasy for grownups

sean-bean2-game-of-thrones.jpgHBO did not go small in making "Game of Thrones," its first series in the fantasy genre.

For starters, there's the source material: "A Game of Thrones," a 700-plus-page novel by George R.R. Martin that's the shortest in his "A Song of Ice and Fire" series. Production on the show's 10 episodes ran for seven months in Northern Ireland and Malta. There are 17 actors listed in the opening credits, and at least that many more have good-sized roles in the series. The marketing has been nearly ubiquitous in recent weeks.

So does it all add up to something you'll want to watch when it premieres at 9 p.m. ET Sunday (April 17)? In two words: Hell yes. "Game of Thrones" is a grown-up fantasy tale that is less about magic and mysticism than it is about power, political gamesmanship and the consequences of both. It's stunningly rendered and very well-acted, and though the first few episodes have a tendency toward telling rather than showing, the pace rarely feels slack.

Caveat time: I wasn't familiar with Martin's work prior to the series. I started reading "A Game of Thrones" before watching, then stopped after I saw the first two episodes -- not out of lack of interest (quite the contrary), but because I found myself tracking how faithful the TV series was to the novel (quite faithful, for as far as I read) rather than really paying attention to what was on screen. I wanted to evaluate the series as its own work.

As adapted by executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, "Game of Thrones" follows the numerous power-hungry and amoral figures (along with a few decent ones) surrounding the Iron Throne, the seat of power in Westeros. It's currently occupied by King Robert Baratheon (a lusty Mark Addy), who took power in a rebellion some years before in which the previous king was killed by Jaime Lannister ( Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who happens to be the twin brother of Robert's wife, Queen Cersei ( Lena Headey).

As the series opens, Robert travels to the remote northern citadel of Winterfell to ask his hold friend Eddard "Ned" Stark ( Sean Bean) to be the Hand of the King -- his closest adviser. Robert doesn't really trust anyone else at the court, and with good reason; his wife is already looking forward to the day when their son Joffrey ( Jack Gleeson) takes the throne, others around him -- notably Petyr Baelish, also known as Littlefinger ("The Wire's" Aidan Gillen) -- have their own agendas, and, well, Jaime killed the last king.

Ned is more than a little reluctant to leave his home; he fought alongside Robert in the rebellion but would rather leave the power struggles to others. Duty-bound, though, he accepts and travels to the capital city, King's Landing, with daughters Sansa ( Sophie Turner) and Arya ( Maisie Williams, who's wonderfully feisty) while his wife, Catelyn ( Michelle Fairley) and sons Robb ( Richard Madden) and Bran ( Isaac Hempstead-Wright) stay at Winterfell.

That's the primary story, but the show also spends significant time in two other locales. Ned's illegitimate son, Jon Snow ( Kit Harrington) leaves to join the forsaken men who guard the Wall, a massive, miles-long barrier separating the north of Westeros from a frozen wilderness beyond that's home to "wildlings" (barbaric men) and, as seen in the opening scenes of the premiere, maybe something more sinister. He's accompanied on the early part of his journey by Tyrion Lannister ( Peter Dinklage), the dwarf brother of Cersei and Jaime, who's an outcast in his own way but also possibly the smartest (and definitely the funniest) character in the series.

game-of-thrones-review2.jpgAcross the sea, Viserys Targaryen ( Harry Lloyd), the exiled son of the murdered previous king, is scheming to reclaim the throne via his sister Daenerys ( Emilia Clarke), whom he marries off to a warlord, Khal Drogo ( Jason Momoa), in exchange for the promise of an army to take back to Westeros. Clarke, in her first major role, creates one of the most compelling arcs in "Game of Thrones" as Daenerys grows from a scared and lonely girl to a young woman who's becoming increasingly aware of and confident in her own strength.

Got all that?

It's a lot to absorb, and people who come to the show without knowledge of Martin's books will probably feel a bit lost in the first couple episodes. (In this aspect, "Game of Thrones" has a lot in common with previous HBO shows "The Wire" and "Deadwood.") The first couple episodes also have the characters delivering a lot of expository dialogue, which is a necessary evil in almost any show but here sometimes tips the talk-vs.-action scale in the wrong direction.

As the characters' motives and allegiances become clearer, though, "Game of Thrones" develops into what's often gripping television. Bean's "reluctant gunslinger" (as exec producer Weiss describes him), Dinklage's charming schemer, Clarke's growing force and several more performances -- including almost uniformly good work from the child actors in the cast -- ground the show's story firmly in reality. The show's production team also does a fantastic job at creating the world of Westeros, with location shooting enhanced greatly by excellent visual effects work.

"Game of Thrones" drops you into a fully realized world, and once you get your bearings, you'll want to stay there.

Here's a clip from Sunday's premiere, in which Daenerys meets Khal Drogo for the first time.

Photo/Video credit: HBO
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