Game of Thrones: Do the books matter?

They’ll never catch up with the books, he said. I have all the time in the world, he said.

As Game of Thrones nears its end, one of the more frequent critiques of the series is that it no longer represents the vision of author George R.R. Martin. After all, the show’s storyline surpassed Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire years ago, and the recent seasons displayed a notable shift in terms of tone and pace. It’s understandable to blame this on a deviation from the source material — though, to be fair, this may be the only time a deviation has occurred because an adaptation ran out of track. However, as the show winds to a close and we look back over the series as a whole, it may be time to consider another POV: namely, that Game of Thrones is not an adaptation of Martin’s novels.

Or, more distinctly put, Thrones could only ever be a partial adaptation, because a full-scale filming of the books is borderline impossible.

Of course, no film or television version of a written work is 100% a recreation of the reading experience. Such a thing is fully impossible. There will always be alterations and deletions. One could even make a pretty convincing argument that the source material should never be considered, as all that matters is what makes it to the screen and how well it plays. Is anyone up in arms that the original Boris Karloff Frankenstein movie bears almost no resemblance whatsoever to Mary Shelley’s classic novel? Likewise, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker is considered one of the finest films ever made, yet few care what it does or does not have in common with Roadside Picnic, the book on which it was based. While there are plenty of examples of people huffing and fussing when a movie or TV series is not like the book, none of those criticisms objectively change the viewing experience. The adaptation is ultimately left to live or die on its own merits.

The complaint that Game of Thrones has gotten less measured and less thematically complex is certainly valid. The characters we assumed were going to be the heroes have heroically taken centerstage, journeys that sometimes lasted multiple seasons now occur within one episode, and the show is careening towards a rather predictable battle between good and evil. Yet, at least on the first two points, this may be less the show faltering without Martin’s work as a guidebook, and more an example of the series needing to get the fuck on with it. The show is ending, and building to a conclusion means narrowing the focus and bringing the various disparate elements home, which often involves some manner of acceleration.

Many tales become simpler and choppier as they approach the finish line, because the worldbuilding and oohing and ahhing from the beginning is replaced with the urgency to reach a very finite conclusion. At the beginning of a story, that story can go anywhere. Almost anything is possible. But at the end of the story, it just is what it is. This isn’t to say that all tales are forced to abandon complexity in order to conclude, nor that the series has entirely done so; more that endgames tend to be rather ruthless in their determination. Once open-ended mysteries are closed with a kind of cruel certainty. The gear shifts and it really does become about the destination, not merely the journey. Again, it is what it is.

Game of Thrones finally hit the marker where it had to be what it is. In early years, seeing characters take years walking from A to B was what the show needed. But after a certain point, Sam and Gilly spending 15 episodes sailing to the Citadel would actively work against the series. Thus, we end up with what looks like globe-hopping, because the span of weeks or even months is compressed into only a handful of scenes.

A change of pace is doubly noticeable on a show like Thrones, which is so adept at characterization and epically glacial momentum. This is a series which could take its time and really sink into the world of Westeros and the people who live there. When those elements are replaced with a pace which essentially plays like JON AND DANY HAVE NOW MET AND OH LOOK THEY’RE IN LOVE ALREADY AND OMG ICE DRAGON, it’s going to stand out.

And yet, this was likely unavoidable, because neither Game of Thrones nor any other show could realistically adapt the sheer breadth of Martin’s books, and that includes maintaining his rather leisurely pacing and penchant for diversions. The first four seasons were direct adaptations of the first three Ice & Fire novels, but after that, the series began to jump ship. Season five is more or less a truncated Cliff Notes version of the fourth and fifth books, before overtaking the novel’s narrative completely. Since then, the writers have been using their private knowledge of Martin’s endgame as a map onto to which they plot their own storytelling decisions.

But while even George R.R. Martin assumed Thrones would (mostly) faithfully translate his tale to the screen, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were upfront in the beginning that they imagined doing about seven seasons of the show. Seven seasons would not be enough to adapt even the five books which have been published so far, let alone the final two novels on top of that (assuming Martin publishes them). It would take upwards of two decades to cover that material.

That may sound exaggerated, but it’s true. All stories have to contract at some point — as we’ve seen with Thrones — but Martin’s continues to expand. Whole complicated subplots in the novels — Dorne, the Citadel, Euron Greyjoy and his brother Victarion, Meereen, Tyrion in Essos — are evolving in ways that would eat up tremendous amounts of screentime, introducing countless new characters and complications. At this point in Ice & Fire, the story is sorta kinda thinking about possibly beginning to consider the process of starting to rein things in, maybe. The beauty of these books is that Martin can take as much time as he wants, and explore as many new faces and nuances as deemed necessary.

On just a practical level alone, that approach isn’t doable for the show. It costs nothing to write a page; it costs a bazillion dollars to film an episode of TV.

In the age of prestige television where there is more opportunity and flexibility, most actors don’t want to be locked into a television series with no end in sight, in particular one as difficult and time-consuming to shoot as Thrones, and certainly not when they’d be increasingly shoved into the background of an ever overstuffed cast. It’s also worth noting that performers age . . . something like Arya’s plotline might not carry the same weight if Maisie Williams is thirty-five but still playing a teenager.

Further complicating the issue are the logistics of filming. These final six episodes took as long to shoot as a normal ten episode season of Thrones, as did the seven episodes of last season. Why? Because the scope and momentum of the story now demands an increase in the amount of action sequences, extras, special effects, location shooting, etc., all of which make the production unbelievably harder and demand copious amounts of both time and money.

HBO is willing to spend that money right now because Game of Thrones is a massive global hit, but by season fourteen — when ratings are falling, important characters have been unexpectedly written out because the actor didn’t renew their contract, key creative people have moved on to other projects — a show like this would be forced to end with a whimper. And it therefore wouldn’t be able to follow Martin’s plan anyway.

So, no, we did not get a thorough adaptation of the books, because one was never coming. Such an enterprise was doomed from the start. The show followed Martin’s footsteps for a few years, and then like one of Dany’s dragons, eventually had to fly on its own.

Granted, it’s impossible to read a novel and then watch an adaptation and not notice what was changed. Novel readers are always going to a feel a sense of missed opportunity.

But spiritually, the novels and the show are still telling the same story. While Game of Thrones may have evolved into a very loose rendition of A Song of Ice & Fire, it is nevertheless heading to the same place as Martin’s book. We currently don’t know what is or is not a deviation from the path of the unpublished novels, but many of the broad strokes are likely to be similar. The show hasn’t randomly thrown Jon and Dany together because it’s cute, or latched onto the threat of the White Walkers because the writers didn’t know what else to do. This is where the books are going (again, should the rest of them ever see publication).

Ultimately it’s impossible to say how successful the show was at telling its complete story until the finale has aired, just as we can’t say how faithful it was to the source material until we’ve read all the books. Regardless, Game of Thrones represents a first: a straight adaptation which slowly evolved into its own very different variation of the story on which it’s based, dual entities sharing the same heart.

In this case, the dragon has two heads.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store