You Know Nothing: Why ‘Game of Thrones’ Is Best When Diverting From the Books
Like any fanbase worth a damn, those who love George R.R. Martin‘s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series are passionate. Ask them to recite the words and name the sigil of any minor house, and they’ll respond. Request a timeline of events leading up to the start of Robert Baratheon’s rebellion against the Targaryen dynasty, and they’ll talk your ear off. Westeros is a deep, complicated place with a history so rich that it’s easy to get lost in all of the details. To be a proper fan, you have to be a bit of a historian.
So it’s not surprising that fans frequently get irked when HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones‘ strays from the source material, cuts characters, combines characters, and goes off on narrative tangents that seem at odds with the events of the novels. They’re not just adapting a book into a television series — they’re recreating history … and they’re messing it all up!
But are they really? Nah. Book purists can get upset about every little (and huge) change that occurs in the adaptation process, but they’re ignoring the fact that with every deviation from the source material, ‘Game of Thrones’ is becoming a better television show.
That’s not to say the show is becoming better than the books or improving Martin’s truly wonderful and gripping story. Adaptations are a tricky business and what works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen. In the case of Martin’s storytelling, which is told from specific POVs and leaves a great deal of hugely important information to the imagination, there had to be sweeping changes or the show wouldn’t function in the first place.
With that in mind, there are three distinct ways that significant alterations of the text’s events are transforming ‘Game of Thrones’ into a better televised narrative.
Tighten a Larger World
Since ‘Game of Thrones’ is a cruel show that never wants its massive cast of characters to be happy or find peace, it spent the better part of four seasons scattering them to the winds, putting hundreds of miles between trusted family members and forcing bitter enemies to share the same keep. By design, the show is all about severing seemingly important relationships and keeping characters apart.
But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t run into each other.
Martin’s novels may be sprawling, but they’re also internal, with just as much action taking place inside the characters’ heads as out. Even when characters are held prisoner or trek north for an endless number of pages, the action remains interesting and the relationships fresh because we are literally sitting inside the minds of our protagonists. It’s helpful to feel so close to a cast, especially when they’re scattered across an entire continent.
However, this does not translate well to television. The biggest and best changes to the narrative have involved characters who would never meet in the books crossing paths. They’ve involved us bearing witness to conversations that we would never have heard on the page. In some ways, it’s like showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are crafting their own fan fiction, asking, “Wouldn’t it be cool if so-and-so ran into such-and-such?” But it transcends being fan fiction because many of the additional conversations and meetings that are invented for the show feel like a reaction to what works and what doesn’t on the screen.
They know we have an affection for minor characters like Hot Pie, so they generate an encounter between him and Brienne because they know those characters would be hilarious together. They know that Tywin Lannister doesn’t appear much in ‘A Clash of Kings,’ but they know that Charles Dance is an incredible actor and know he’d ignite the screen with Maisie Williams, so they invent a subplot out of nowhere to bring them together. In the books, we don’t need to be in the room while Robert and Cersei discuss their hilariously doomed marriage, but in the show, with its expanded focus, it feels vital.
‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ is a sprawling epic told through a handful of eyes. ‘Game of Thrones’ is a sprawling epic told by a massive cast who we want to see clash, mingle and encounter each other unexpectedly. Consider this: by this point in the books, Bronn is long gone and we don’t miss him. But Jerome Flynn brought such roguish charm to the character that Benioff and Weiss keep him around and even have him train the freshly handless Jaime. By keeping the televised world of ‘Game of Thrones’ a little smaller and letting characters hang around and show up in new places, the show crafts its own identity and delivers pleasures that a 100% faithful show would not.
Preparing For Hard Times
The first three books in ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ feel like ideal templates for television. ‘A Game of Thrones,’ ‘A Clash of Kings’ and ‘A Storm of Swords’ are dense, packed with characters and subplots and twists. Despite their mammoth page count, they move swiftly, delivering event after event after event, assaulting you with cliffhangers and betrayals and sudden deaths. Heck, the particularly epic ‘A Storm of Swords’ had enough material to fill out two seasons of television.
This will not be the case with ‘A Feast For Crows’ and ‘A Dance With Dragons,’ the next two books in line to be adapted. Fans still argue over their merits — some enjoy their more low-key approach, while others find them drop-dead boring and slow — but everyone agrees that they’re not quite as suitable for television. The third book (and the fourth season) leave our cast of characters and all of Westeros in such a shellshocked state that’s taken two massive novels to even begin to shake them back into action. Only the final third of the fifth book finds Martin’s plotting finally finding its speed again.
Yes, the third book/fourth season is so great and so game-changing that the creator of the entire series didn’t know what to do next. So he spent two books following characters as they walked in literal and metaphorical circles, wondering how they managed to get to wherever the heck they are.
Since Benioff and Weiss are smart men with good instincts, they’re surely aware that these next two books will pose a problem (and if they weren’t aware, the internet surely let them know). But they seem fully prepared to whip Martin’s slower books into shape and make them work. Why else have they started planting seeds for significantly later events right now? Why else have they accelerated certain stories ahead hundreds of pages while pumping the brakes on others? Most importantly, why have they started introducing completely new characters and subplots that don’t seem to have immediate relevance?
It’s all simple, really. They’re setting the stage for a season of ‘Game of Thrones’ where they use the source material as the loosest possible template and just do their own thing. Considering how strong the invented material for the show has been, this is a fantastic sign. They’ll surely hit the necessary major beats of ‘A Feast For Crows’ and ‘A Dance With Dragons,’ but they’re going to do it at their own pace with their own plotting instead of copying and pasting Martin’s.
That’s the kind of confidence we can get behind.
Remind the Book Readers of What It’s Like to be Surprised
Deviations from the books make ‘Game of Thrones’ a better show on its own, but they also do something a bit more sly and crafty: they make the audiences better, meaning they catch book fans off guard, strip them of their power and put them on the same level as show-only fans.
Not every ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ reader is a snob who lords his or her knowledge of this fictional world over friends and family, but … okay, fine. Some of us are such snobs. We’ve forgotten what it’s like to be surprised by things like Ned Stark’s execution, the Red Wedding and Oberyn Martell’s (The Red Viper) duel with Gregor Clegane (The Mountain). We know these shocking events are coming and we actively anticipate them. We examine episode titles and HBO’s vague plot synopses, and piece entire seasons together before they even start. We feel safe in our knowledge of what’s to come.
But not anymore! Season 4 contained more invented material than any season so far, and book readers had the rug pulled out from under them. Storylines like Jon Snow personally dealing with the mutineers at Craster’s Keep were 100% invented for the show, and reveals like the White Walkers homeland (and what they do with the children they abduct) provide a peek at information that has flat-out not been revealed in the books. For the first time ever, book readers have actively joined the chorus of “OMG!” on Sunday night and it feels fantastic. We’re no longer just counting down the moments until the next big moment — we’re as in the dark as none readers.
Sure, some fans will complain about these changes, but the rest of us will just have to happily live with the fact that one of the best shows on TV is now truly surprising and unpredictable for everyone.
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