I'm writing this quick-and-dirty review of HBO's "Game of Thrones" after having seen the entire first season and the first three episodes of Season 2. Having already taken in hundreds of show clips on YouTube, I was quite familiar with the look and feel of the HBO series even before I began watching it in earnest over a week ago. Production values are generally high, although some of the green-screen effects are disappointingly fake-looking, e.g., when the camera points up at Bran on one of the castle walls at Winterfell, showing us both stone and sky. The acting by all the principals is quite good, even if I can't get past Peter Dinklage's horribly fake English accent. (Still, I'll chalk Dinklage up as artistic revenge: so many British and Aussie actors play American roles* that it's about damn time we Yanks had one of our own in a British-sounding role.)
Each season of "Game of Thrones" consists of ten hour-long episodes. This means that alterations to the original novels are inevitable. I'm not going to be a whiny purist and complain about the fact that the story has been altered, but I'll admit to some fascination with the nature of many of the alterations. Overall, the HBO series has managed to preserve—at least for the first two seasons**—the overarching story structure of the novels; the major beats are all there. But if the devil is in the details, then HBO's "Game of Thrones" is a radical departure from George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. From the opening sequence in the first episode of Season 1 onward, both large and small changes are plainly visible to anyone for whom the novels are still fresh in mind. It would be impossible to list all the changes here, but on a general level, two of the most striking alterations are (1) changes in dialogue between some of the characters (e.g., the "god of death" speech by "dancing master" Syrio Forel, who offers no such theology in the books), and (2) the sometimes-startling changes in character attitudes and motivation, e.g., Catelyn Stark's consistent misgivings about Ned Stark's going south to King's Landing. (In the books, Catelyn is at first apprehensive, but her attitude does a 180 when she receives word from her sister that John Arryn has been murdered by the Lannisters; at that point, Catelyn insists that Ned go south to serve as Hand of the king. On the TV show, Catelyn hates the idea of Ned's departure and never wavers in this.)
The changes aren't all discomfiting, though. For example, the writers have a good ear for the style of Martin's dialogue: even when characters on the TV show recite lines that aren't in the books, the lines sound plausibly like quotes from the books. Also: characters whose interactions we never see in the books are fleshed out a bit more on the TV show: there's a memorable exchange between Varys and Littlefinger, as well as private dialogue between Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell, whom the show depicts as gay lovers—a point never once made explicit in the books (although it might be hiding in the text as a subtle implication).
The show is watchable, a visual treat, but given the sheer number of changes to the plot, I think it's safe to say that "Game of Thrones" is very much its own thing—merely inspired by Martin's novels, and not faithfully based on them. While there's a lot on the show that's familiar to me from my YouTube viewing, I'm happy to watch the entire series from end to end so as to fill in all the missing details. The cinematography is generally well done, and there's certainly enough tits and ass to satisfy the male viewing demographic, although I find that most of the nudity is gratuitous—it's there primarily because this is an HBO production: wherever HBO goes, boobs are sure to follow.
I'll be binge-watching from now until the end of Season 5.
*Think of Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight": Batman is played by Welshman Christian Bale; Commissioner Gordon is played by Englishman Gary Oldman; the Joker is played by Aussie Heath Ledger, etc., etc. Were no Americans available for these iconically American roles? Do we Yanks suck that much at acting? At this point, I'd say it's a relief that red-blooded American Ben Affleck will play Bruce Wayne in the upcoming "Dawn of Justice," but I'm not certain as to just how reassuring that is.
**I'm aware that the TV show departs more radically from the books in later seasons.