'Game of Thrones' ages up for HBO

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Life in the seven kingdoms of Westeros is hard -- peasant women and children are candidates for enslavement, brothers go to war against each other, and marrying off your 12-year-old daughter is no big deal.

Winters can last a lifetime, and as the saga begins tonight at 9 on HBO, winter is indeed coming.

Welcome to "A Song of Ice and Fire," author George R.R. Martin's sprawling world of knights, swords and the occasional dragon. The television adaptation, "A Game of Thrones," is based faithfully on the first book of the same name.

Mr. Martin, who is finishing the fifth book, "A Dance With Dragons," in what will be a seven-volume series, has worked in television as a writer. He knows the limitations of screen adaptations. So when he declared the books "completely unproduceable," D.B. Weiss and David Benioff took that as a production challenge.

They had met with Mr. Martin five years ago and pitched him the idea of turning his books into a TV series. He responded by asking a question that cannot be repeated here due to its nature as a spoiler.

"It was kind of a pop quiz on the book and we got the sense that if we were to get the answer wrong, it might not bode well for us," Mr. Weiss said recently.

Having passed "the Wonka test," he and Mr. Benioff finally got the pilot filmed a year ago. They serve as executive directors and writers for the series.

Fans of the book should be pleased with the 10-episode season. Many favorite characters, such as Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, "The Imp," are skillfully portrayed and some elements, such as "The Wall" are breathtaking.

One big departure from the books, however, is the "aging up" of some characters. It's one thing to read bedroom scenes about a young girl traded into marriage with a savage warlord but quite another to film it for the screen. Even by HBO standards.

"We did age the characters, which is partly the difference between prose and film and television," Mr. Martin said. "When I was writing the books I did a lot of research in the Middle Ages, and life spans were a lot shorter than now, and maturity came on a lot more quickly.

"They didn't have the concept of teenagers or adolescents."

Emilia Clarke, the actress who plays the young bride, Daenerys, is 23. Two of the actors -- Kit Harington as Jon Snow and Richard Madden as Robb Stark -- are 24 years old. Their characters in the book are 10 years younger.

When casting was revealed, the fan forums were abuzz with speculation. For the most part, readers seemed OK with the reasons for the age changes, but worried that this might cause problems down the road.

"It's not just about age gaps in terms of 'how many' years," wrote one. "It's also WHICH years."

There is one relationship in the book that is more brother/sisterly because the girl is 9, the boy, a young teen. But the potential for romance is hinted.

In the TV series, the girl is still quite young but the boy now appears to be 18.

"There were several factors in aging ... some of them practical factors, in terms of how long a workday you can have with the younger actors," Mr. Weiss said.

"And some of them were practical in that we're asking very young actors to carry a lot of very serious dramatic weight."

Ultimately, added Mr. Benioff, there were many cases in which the producers fell in love with a particular actor: "You know, when Kit Harington walked into Nina Gold's casting office that first time, we knew within about a minute that he was our Jon Snow because he just delivered such a fantastic audition."

Even some of the older characters were "aged," including star Sean Bean, who is in his early 50s.

"I think it's funny because I had pictured Sean Bean as Ned from the very beginning and it was relatively late in the game for me after probably having read the book twice that I realized that Ned Stark is supposed to be 35 years old in the book," Mr. Weiss said.

"[But] there's something wonderful about seeing the lines in Sean Bean's face and just feeling that all the weight of all that's he's seen and all that he's done," Mr. Benioff said.

Yet some characters remained relatively young.

The Stark sisters of Winterfell, Sansa and Arya are 11 and 9 in the first book. Actresses Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams are 13 and 14, respectively.

"I think, actually, that it translates fairly well," Mr. Martin said of the aging process. "A man in his mid-30s in the Middle Ages was a man who'd seen a lot of hard living ... .

"I think a 35-year-old man in the 12th century and a 50-year-old in the 20th are equivalent."

It's no surprise that a premium cable company would be able to show more sex and violence than the networks. It's just a matter of how much. "True Blood," for example, is based on a series of Charlaine Harris books that are punctuated by bloodbaths, but relatively few descriptions of sex -- certainly not the many colorful varieties depicted on screen.

"I think these things come in waves. You have the historic dramas in the [19]'70s and '80s that had more and more open discussions of sex, and at first people were shocked," said Elana Levine, a professor of journalism, gender studies and mass media at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

She noted that a recent flurry of genre shows such as Starz' "Camelot" and Showtime's, "The Borgias," is creating a new trend toward fantasy-driven, knights-in-armor shows.

"I think the genre element could be off-putting to some, but the sex and violence could always draw them in. What connects them is they have this aura of [pay-cable] prestige about them."

For his part, Mr. Martin -- who wrote the pivotal eighth episode of the season -- said he is thrilled with the reverent treatment given to his books, and dazzled by the promotion of the series.

"I think I've fallen through a rabbit hole to Wonderland," he said, noting HBO's media blitz that includes contests, video ads online and on iPads, and food trucks in New York City and Los Angeles, serving up Westeros dishes such as rabbit, crisped trout and lemon cake.

Even a replica of the Iron Throne, crafted from the swords of defeated enemies, is making its round of the sci-fi and comic book conventions this year.

"It's all amazing, it's all very exciting," he said. "I feel like a little kid with new toys."

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478. First Published April 17, 2011 4:00 AM


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