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Game Of Thrones Season 3: Reigns of terror

Costing $6 million an episode to make, the third season of the widely successful mediaeval drama Game Of Thrones is more epic than ever
The Straits Times - April 9, 2013
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Game Of Thrones Season 3: Reigns of terror

More than four million viewers tuned in for the Season 3 premiere of Game Of Thrones in the United States last Sunday. The ratings were 13 per cent up on the Season 2 premiere, establishing Game Of Thrones as HBO's third most popular series of all time, after The Sopranos in the top spot and True Blood.

With a growing global audience and syndication deals all across the world, the sprawling, fantasy-enthused mediaeval-themed series looks set to continue its march to world domination.

"When you look at the reasons behind the show's success," says Michelle Fairley, who has played Catelyn Stark since the show was first broadcast back in 2010, "there are those who are fans of the books for a start and then those who've always like a bit of fantasy.

"But then there are other people who have come across the show and then remained with it simply because of the strength of the characters. And that strength is apparent not because they are in a fantasy world, but because they are characters that transcend time and place."

The 48-year-old actress adds: "The issues they deal with are real ones, issues that we all might deal with in our everyday lives - loss, love, grieving, war, the destruction of a family."

The show is developed by David Benioff and Dan Weiss based on the best-selling A Song Of Ice And Fire, a series of novels by George R.R. Martin.

It unfolds in a continent called Westeros, the creators distilling the background and setting from a blend of North European myth, dipping into Icelandic saga, and giving the series a tight script filled with political machinations that recall all the murders and high intrigue of the late Middle Ages.

Actor Iain Glen - a series veteran who plays the loyal and brave Jorah Mormont, protector of Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), exiled princess of the Targaryen dynasty - says that he was "gob- smacked" at the scale of the production as Game Of Thrones entered Season 3.

"It was so impressive, the sheer number of people and the degree of CGI," he expains.

"The dragons that were babies in the last season are now quite formidable and they're much more integrated into the scenes.

"Some of the sets and the numbers of extras are unlike anything I've ever seen on television before. I thought the first two seasons had great production values and I don't think that the budgets were held back, but as the books unfold, they get bigger and the series can match that.

"Now it's such a successful show for HBO, they have the confidence to really support it. When you arrive on set, it is breathtaking and I still get a buzz from it as an actor."

With location shooting on three different continents (Africa, Europe and North America), Game Of Thrones dwarfs every other current television show in terms of scale and cost, spending longer in production each year (about four months) than most Hollywood blockbusters. Production budget for the show has not been officially released, but it has been reported in some American media as being US$5 million (S$6.2 million) an episode.

There are 160,000 sq ft of sets constructed for the show and 27 recurring characters.

"It is a very creative space," says actor Kit Harington, who plays Jon Snow, the illegitimate son of a warrior. "I think even the film companies have woken up to the power of shows like this."

Lavish production values are intrinsic to the success of the show as a whole, not just the new season, which is drawn primarily from the third of Martin's novels, A Storm Of Swords.

Fantasy is popular in the cinemas, courtesy of the Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings franchises derived from authors J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien, but only now is it flourishing on television. HBO had the confidence to invest in it and is reaping the rewards.

As Glen, 51, explains: "I feel that part of its appeal is that while it is portraying a mythical past with these elements of fantasy in there, it has a real plausibility about it.

"You look at the way people are and how all these factions vie with one another and how women were treated, it all feels plausible. That gives it a gravitas that often these shows don't have. And that is all to do with George's writing and how they've translated that. His attention to human detail is amazing.''

In fact, the show's creators had originally pitched the series as "The Sopranos in Middle Earth" and it certainly has a similar pan-generational appeal.

The world of fantasy had traditionally been regarded as a realm popular with teenage boys and what Fairley describes as "computer geeks", but the truth is very different today.

"There are assumptions that people who like fantasy are computer geeks but I meet the most unlikely people who are fans," she recounts.

"It's a great drama and it keeps you on the edge of your seat. It also surprises you. No one stays alive for too long in this world."

The show is popular with women too.

"There are lots of issues for women to engage with," Fairley continues, "like how do you find your place in this world? What do you have to do and what choices do you make in order to survive?"

The success of Game Of Thrones means the series plays in more than 30 countries worldwide, from Bolivia to Bangladesh.

"People can relate to so many characters in this show," offers Harington.

"Everyone has their own favourite. Because it is a fantasy, you can really delve into this world and who you think will emerge as a winner."

The show features about 30 recurring characters and is not afraid of killing off popular figures, as the execution of Sean Bean's Ned Stark in Season 1 proved.

"Each season gets bigger and better and while there are deaths here and there, you keep meeting new characters all the time," says Sophie Turner, who stars as Ned Stark's daughter Sansa, once betrothed to the cruel King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson).

The series, like all good potboilers, subverts viewers' expectations.

The fate of Sansa Stark is a case in point. Turner, 17, adds: "The idea of being a princess is such an illusion especially in mediaeval times."

In the character of Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), twin brother of Queen Cersei of Westeros who carries on an incestuous affair with her, the Thrones creators have crafted someone who is not quite what he seems.

"You see this guy and he has nothing redeeming about him," says 42-year- old Coster-Waldau of his character's path in the first two seasons.

"One of the first things he does is push a kid out of a window.

"But slowly, you see and learn more about him and he has more layers than you think, and morals. He lives in a brutal world but he derives no pleasure from the brutal things he does.

"And that ultimately is one of the reasons the show is successful. It deals with basic human nature."

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