RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The cable network HBO has built its reputation on developing original shows. It's earned praise for the way the programs feel true to real life, whether it's the Old West in "Deadwood," New York single life in "Sex and the City," or a recovering New Orleans in "Treme."
But as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, HBO begins a series this Sunday based on a bestselling fantasy book.
NEDA ULABY: Some people describe "Game of Thrones" as "The Sopranos" meets Middle-Earth.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Game of Thrones")
Mr. SEAN BEAN (Actor): (as Lord Eddard Stark) I Eddard, the House Stark, Lord of Winterfeldt and Warden of the North, sentence you to die.
(Soundbite of swords)
ULABY: The Lord of Winterfeldt heads up one of several powerful families fighting to control a kingdom, which makes "Game of Thrones" fit the HBO template perfectly, says show co-creator David Benioff.
Mr. DAVID BENIOFF (Co-Creator, "Game of Thrones"): It's about families and conflict. It's about people trying to gain power. It's about people who in power trying to keep it.
ULABY: Still, he says, a high epic fantasy was not the easiest pitch.
Mr. BENIOFF: Initially, I think there was a degree of skepticism and nervousness because it didn't seem like an HBO show.
ULABY: It helped that "Game of Throne's" magic is minimal.
Mr. BENIOFF: It's not about wizards throwing fireballs and a million orcs fighting a million elves.
ULABY: That said, creepy supernatural forces are definitely afoot.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Game of Thrones")
Mr. ISAAC HEMPSTEAD-WRIGHT (Actor): (as Bran Stark) Is it true he saw the White Walkers?
Mr. BEAN: (as Eddard Stark) White Walkers have been gone for thousands of years.
Mr. HEMPSTEAD-WRIGHT: (as Bran Stark) So he was lying.
Mr. BEAN: (as Eddard Stark) A mad man sees what he sees.
ULABY: "Game of Thrones" is based on the first of a 4,000-page series of books by George R.R. Martin - yes, that's two R's. He used to work in television. He wrote for "The Twilight Zone" in the '80s and "Beauty and the Beast." But Martin felt limited by television's tight budgets and shooting schedules.
Mr. GEORGE R.R. MARTIN (Author, "Game of Thrones"): But I'm writing books, and in books, you have an unlimited budget, and you can have a cast of thousands. You can have the most magnificent sets and castles. You can have, you know, battles in which millions of people are fighting.
(Soundbite of a battle)
ULABY: So it's an irony that the books Martin created, specifically as something he could never get on TV, has been brought to the small screen by other people, people who say his TV sensibility actually made his books easy to adapt. Martin says he's made his peace with being, as he put it: A tourist to his own world.
Mr. MARTIN: There are times I thought, oh, no, and it's not quite the way I -oh, but it's very good the way they're doing it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ULABY: George R.R. Martin is an executive producer for "Game of Thrones" on HBO and he's written a few scripts for it, too. He says the network was solicitous of his opinions. Which makes sense, given his books sold over four million copies.
Mr. MARTIN: So there's an enormous audience out there for fantasy, for sophisticated adult fantasy, I think.
ULABY: And right now, that audience is in the midst of a fantasy drought. There's no Hobbit for the foreseeable future, no great shows that appeal to fantasy fans like "Lost," and it's still a few months till the summer buffet of high-end fantasy movies.
Professor ANTHONY KELSO (Media Studies, Iona College): It's not reckless, what they're doing.
ULABY: Anthony Kelso, a media studies professor, has written about HBO. He says international rights have been selling fast. Apparently, geeks know no borders. And fantasy fans are known to buy fully-loaded DVD packages. Ultimately, Kelso says, this show may be about attracting a new base of subscribers, not high ratings. Unlike traditional television, of course, HBO does not rely on ads.
Prof. KELSO: Their revenue comes from the people who pay.
ULABY: People perhaps like Thomas Strickland. He's an information architect in Atlanta, and a hardcore fan of the books, exactly the type HBO hopes to lure with "Games of Thrones." You see, Strickland does not subscribe to HBO - not yet.
Mr. THOMAS STRICKLAND (Information Architect): It's a bit of an investment to purchase access to an entire channel and pay that premium for basically one hour of programming per week.
ULABY: Yet Strickland is considering it. He's been hanging out on the HBO website, poring over every little advance video from previews to features about costuming.
Unidentified Woman: Padding, fur - not really metal armor. It just has to almost smell.
ULABY: Waiting patiently for the DVDs is not an option, says Strickland. 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.
Mr. STRICKLAND: It's very specific to our little group of nerdy, geeky, wonderful friends.
ULABY: They're talking about everyone chipping in for one HBO subscription.
Mr. STRICKLAND: We'll all get together. We'll have some wine and we're going to watch the show together. Sorry, HBO.
ULABY: Of course, the show's success in bringing new subscribers may determine whether "Game of Thrones" gets a second season.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.