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Phenomenal success for 'Game of Thrones'

Lena Headey in "Game of Thrones" episode 25

Lena Headey in "Game of Thrones" episode 25 (season 3, episode 5). Credit: HBO

George R.R. Martin, the undisputed king of epic fantasy fiction and author of the genre's most celebrated doorstop since "The Lord of the Rings," once observed that anyone -- himself included -- who attempted to adapt his work to television would be "mad."

"Mad" because his book series, "A Song of Ice and Fire," runs 4,273 pages, while the final two still-unpublished volumes should add a few more thousand pages to the pile.

Mad, because the book series contains about 1,740 speaking characters, spans three fictitious continents, covers 12,000 years of history and features numerous species of mystical creatures, including direwolves, shadowcats, krakens (think "homicidal squid") and three huge and hot-breathed dragons.

But especially mad because the sinew of plot lines is twisted into a vast interlacing ball of narrative beginnings, middles and (occasional) dead ends that are told by multiple narrators who often offer differing accounts of what may or may not have happened. Suffice it to say, this interlocking puzzle is fully decipherable to only the most dedicated of fans and the creator himself.

But, one might add, the madness of King George has also paid off. When the HBO series "Game of Thrones," which is based on Martin's opus, begins its third season March 31, it is assured a level of devotion among fans and viewers that is unparalleled anywhere in television. A hit, to be sure -- the show was seen by about 12 million people a week on HBO and its related viewing sites last season -- the ratings are merely the tip of a much larger iceberg.


A virtual community

"GoT," as the show is referred to in shorthand, is simply the most visible part of a worldwide virtual community that trades in gossip, speculation, analysis, games and character "role-playing." It has a "wiki" (online encyclopedia) that is almost as long as the book series itself. And there is an even larger mirror virtual community devoted to the books. All of this activity feeds the popularity of the series, and the series, in turn, stokes the virtual community, which is especially pumped up for the forthcoming season, based on "A Storm of Swords," the most popular book of "Ice and Fire." Meanwhile, critical acclaim for the TV series has drawn brand-new fans, who are now devouring the books.

While this may seem utterly incomprehensible, and vaguely ridiculous, to the average viewer who just wants to hang out and watch the new episode of "The Big Bang Theory," that's part of the appeal, too: "GoT" is something of a club whose membership is limited to those who have scooped up the books (at least 20 million have been sold to date) or to those who take the time to decipher the difficult dialogue or parse the various story lines.

This is not your grandfather's TV show (or your father's, either).

If "GoT" is the paradigm for the way TV is now watched and consumed, particularly among younger viewers, then it's an extreme paradigm. Every TV show has a fan site, of course, while a lucky few ("How I Met Your Mother") have several. But how many of them have conventions, like Throne Con, held at a Heathrow Airport hotel in late January, or the "Ice and Fire" convention to be held in Ohio next month that promises "a mini-tournament, medieval lunch and ... awesome prizes."


Man behind the 'Thrones'

How did HBO happen onto this phenomenon? That's a tale of luck and design. Martin, 64, a native of Bayonne, N.J., where his father was a stevedore, now lives in Santa Fe, N.M., where he's at work on the sixth and (possibly final) seventh volume of "Ice and Fire." He declined to comment for this piece, citing deadline pressures related to "GoT," which he also writes with series producers David Benioff (who wrote the screenplay for "X-Men Origins: Wolverine") and D.B. Weiss.

Martin sold his first story in 1971, then published a handful of other novels, all well regarded, none blockbusters. Like many writers intent on paying the rent and eating, he headed to Hollywood, landing gigs on shows like the late-1980s Ron Perlman vehicle, "Beauty and the Beast." For Martin, Hollywood was his wake-up call -- write what you want and how you want it.

In "Inside HBO's Game of Thrones," an oral history of "GoT" published last fall, Martin recalled that he decided to leave TV, with its limited budgets and vistas. His new plan was "to pull out all the stops. Huge castles, vast dramatic landscapes, deserts and mountains and swamps, dragons, direwolves, gigantic battles with thousands to a side, glittering armor, gorgeous heraldry, swordfights and tournaments, characters who were complicated, conflicted, flawed, a whole imaginary world and a cast of thousands. Absolutely unfilmable, of course. No studio or network would ever touch a story like this, I knew. These would be good books, maybe great books, but that was all they'd ever be."

The books were indisputably hits. Published between 1996 and 2000, the first three were huge bestsellers, and seemed to single-handedly slay a bias against the genre -- that it was too narrow or its appeal restricted mostly to geekdom. After the second volume ("A Clash of Kings," the basis of season 2 of "GoT") was published in 1999, Martin began to get calls from producers who saw elements of another "Lord of the Rings." But "Ice and Fire" was not only too long and lavish, it was unfinished -- and might not be finished for years, or decades, he said.

Still, "Television was the only way to go," he recalled in the book. "Not a network series; that would never fly. Network budgets were simply not high enough, and their censors would choke on all the sex and violence in the novels. At best you'd get bowdlerized versions, weak tea instead of strong mead. A long miniseries might work, something on the order of 'Roots' or 'Shogun,' but the networks weren't making those kinds of epic minis anymore."

He says he had settled on the possibility of HBO, and here's the "luck" part of this story: Weiss and Benioff, pals from college who met in Ireland studying a semester abroad, made a pitch. It was simple and rousing: HBO would fund a faithful adaptation, with multiple sets overseas, including primarily Ireland.

"The two madmen were undeterred," said Martin. "They loved the story and were convinced that they could bring it to the screen. So I let them try. Best call I ever made."

As HBO prepares to plow into the third season, "GoT" is far and away the most expensive show on series television (the budget easily exceeds $10 million an episode) and has long since settled any hard-core fans' concern that the adaptation would bastardize the literary source.

And -- this being TV -- there's always something to worry about, too. Martin and fans are reportedly concerned that the TV series will catch up to the book series. Martin has plans for two more volumes, "The Winds of Winter" and "A Dream of Spring," though the final publication dates are one of the topics of deep (and to outsiders, turgid) debate among fans. If they are published within (hypothetically) the next five years, then HBO will have enough material for at least six more seasons. (The 1,000-page "Swords" will make up the third and fourth seasons.) If not, then fans may have to wait years for the show to wrap on HBO.

Also this: How will "GoT" -- and its wellspring, "Ice and Fire" -- wrap? Expectations are, needless to say, stratospheric. Some fans are worried that "GoT" will fizzle out like "Lost," which established the web-TV paradigm that "GoT" has now perfected.

"That's the challenge, isn't it?" Martin said in an interview with the Atlantic last year. But, "you're probably never going to please everyone."


Playing catchup with 'Game of Thrones'

What is "Game of Thrones" about?

The answer is not as complicated as you may think.

In a distant land and time, where a single season lasts many years, the story begins on the continent of Westeros. Winter is approaching, and there seems to be peace among the seven kingdoms that comprise Westeros, which is ruled by one king, from one place, King's Landing. Appearances, of course, deceive: On another continent across the ocean to the east (Essos), the fleeing daughter of a murdered king of Westeros, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), wants to reclaim the so-called "Iron Throne." But she has competition -- a lot of it.

Meanwhile, on the northern border of Westeros, something particularly scary is happening. A 300-mile-long wall -- thousands of feet tall and made of ice -- stands along the frontier. It is manned by soldiers known as the "Night's Watch." They keep constant vigil to keep out a band of marauders ("wildlings") and an army of wraiths ... which is on the move.

In season 2, all hell quite literally has broken loose: All of the Seven Kingdoms are at war, fighting over retribution, independence or seeking the Iron Throne in King's Landing for themselves. In the penultimate episode ("Blackwater"), Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), the witty, calculating younger son of Lord Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), has allied with his evil older sister Cersei (Lena Headey) -- who was queen to now-deceased King Robert Baratheon, former ruler of all Westeros -- to fight off a spirited attack on King's Landing from the sea. The invaders were seeking to depose her rotten- to-the-core son, Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), the current king of Westeros. Cersei and Tyrion prevail, barely.

In season 3, Daenerys goes looking for soldiers, but she has key allies in her quest for the Iron Throne: Three dragons.


'Game of Thrones' by the numbers

5 -- Countries where season 3 of "Game of Thrones" is filmed (Croatia, Northern Ireland, Morocco, Iceland and the United States)

10 -- Maximum number of episodes per season

27 -- Series regulars

160,000 -- Square feet of sets

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