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Excitement in Middle East gathers as 'Game of Thrones' just days away

Game of Thrones, the most anticipated new television series of the year is set to premiere in the Middle East tomorrow, only three days after its first US airing - and it could be HBO's most ambitious project yet.

Sean Bean stars as Lord Eddard ‘Ned’ Stark in the HBO series Game of Thrones, which starts tomorrow in the UAE.
Sean Bean stars as Lord Eddard ‘Ned’ Stark in the HBO series Game of Thrones, which starts tomorrow in the UAE.

It has been called the most anticipated new television series of the year and, only somewhat jokingly, "The Sopranos in Middle-earth".

Based on a series of wildly successful fantasy novels, Game of Thrones, the latest mega-budget drama from the network HBO, is set to premiere in the Middle East tomorrow, only three days after its first US airing.

"This will be the show of 2011. The early reviews are starting to come in, and they are positively glowing," wrote Dave Banks of Wired.

"Cast, sets and direction look to be more than anyone could hope for. HBO looks to have another winner on its hands."

In development for almost four years, the huge production attempts to recreate the mythical kingdoms of the US writer George RR Martin's sprawling A Song of Ice and Fire literary series. Published in 1996, the first novel, A Game of Thrones, was followed by three further books that examined the fictitious mediaeval land of Westeros, where "summers span decades and winters can last a lifetime".

Based very loosely on England's Wars of the Roses but with added dragons and sorcery, it is, its star Sean Bean told the Los Angeles Times, "like a gangster movie and there's a lot of subtle and scary language, a lot of men of power who are watching each other and plotting in this nest of vipers".

The 10-episode run that is about to air will only cover material from the first book, but producers hope that future seasons will see the entire saga adapted. With yet another three novels expected from Martin in the coming years, if successful, Game of Thrones could be a regular TV fixture for years to come.

With an ensemble cast to match almost any TV show today, including Bean, Aidan Gillen (The Wire) and Lena Headey (The Sarah Connor Chronicles), the official synopsis states that "seven noble families fight for control of the mythical land of Westeros" and that "more than one family is plotting to take the throne".

The story begins with the King of Westeros (played by Red Riding's Mark Addy) asking his old friend Eddard "Ned" Stark (Bean) to serve as his chief adviser. Upon taking the job, Stark begins to suspect that his predecessor had been murdered.

Attention turns to the queen's family, the wealthy Lannisters, as well as the last surviving members of the previously deposed ruling family, the Targaryens, who are also plotting a return to power.

"Meanwhile, in the north, an ancient evil awakens," the synopsis continues, sounding more than a little reminiscent of JRR Tolkein's best-known work. "Amidst war and the political confusion, a brotherhood of misfits, The Night's Watch, is all that stands between the realms of men and the horrors beyond."

Perhaps aware that dragons and magic are not every viewer's cup of tea, the show's producers have attempted to downplay the story's fantastical elements in the lead-up to its premiere, preferring to describe Thrones as a human drama, rife with egos and intrigue.

"The fantasy is so incidental, it has a very adult tone," the HBO programming chief Michael Lombardo told the Hollywood Reporter: "You forget it's fantasy while you're watching it, and that's what I love about it."

After purchasing the rights to the A Song of Ice and Fire series in 2007, HBO hired David Benioff and Dan Weiss to write and executive produce the planned series. However, due in part to the Writer's Guild of America strike, the show's pilot episode was not commissioned until more than a year later.

In 2009, progress remained painfully slow, with only the occasional casting announcement to whet the appetites of diehard fans - the news of Bean's casting as the series' brooding anti-hero was particularly well received.

Shooting finally began in July last year, with an estimated production budget of $60m (Dh220m). The show's first season features the often inhospitable, castle-strewn countryside of Northern Ireland doubling as the kingdom of Winterfel. Meanwhile, the Mediterranean island of Malta was chosen for Westeros' sunnier lands, due to its unusual mixture of European and north African architecture.

At a time when fans, particularly of the sci-fi and fantasy genres, painstakingly analyse announcements about forthcoming shows and movies and often pass judgement online months before their release, the producers of Thrones risked killing the series in its infancy unless the correct reverence was paid to its source material. But unlike many adaptations, which run roughshod over the original author's vision, the producers of Thrones have had the full backing of Martin and even invited the 62-year old writer to script an episode.

"I think 95 per cent of [fans] are going to love the show," he told Entertainment Weekly. "I do think there will be a small minority who will be very upset by changes. 'How come my favourite scene wasn't in the show? How come this character's hair is blond and not black?' But they will be a small minority."

With some early reviews already praising Thrones as a particularly faithful adaptation, Martin's hope that the show will be embraced by his existing fans looks likely to be fulfilled.

It is not all good news for the author, however. Despite sporting an ample white beard that already makes him resemble the resident of a mediaeval land, the cameo appearance he filmed for the show was cut, along with all of the material shot in Morocco, when the location was ditched in favour of Malta.

A major concern of existing fans of the books is likely to be the distinguishing characteristics of the story's seven rival families. From the opulent House Lannister, with their sparkling armour and motto "a Lannister always pays his debts", to the Norse-like House of Stark who dress in furs and endlessly repeat the words "winter is coming" - producers of the show have claimed that costume and set design for each family was painstaking.

The show's creators went a step further than Martin's novels to distinguish one specific group of characters, the Dothraki, by creating a new language. In an attempt to make the nomadic warrior tribe seem as different as possible from the story's major houses, an expert language creator was enlisted who developed a vocabulary of more than 1,800 words and a complex grammatical structure for use in the series.

Although fantasy has been a mainstay at cinemas for decades, the genre has made less of an impact on the small screen. The 1990s saw successful outings from series such as Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess, but both remained cult concerns with modest budgets. In recent years, dramas exploring ancient history, such as Rome and Spartacus, have gained popularity, but neither incorporated fantasy in the way that Thrones attempts. As a result, the series is likely to prove HBO's riskiest project for some time, as well as its most ambitious. Will audiences be able to invest in a story of human drama and political intrigue in a land where dragons also roam? It will be worth tuning in just to find out.

Game of Thrones will begin on Orbit Showtime Network on Wednesday April 20, 2011