BEWARE: SPOILERS for GAME OF THRONES’ novel series & HBO series!!

Unexpected is the best word to describe HBO’s GAME OF THRONES. Could a fantasy series with a massive cast of characters and dense fictional history be a hit? Sure, LORD OF THE RINGS and HARRY POTTER captured the cultural zeitgeist, but these were films based on beloved properties in the mainstream of popular culture. Led Zeppelin did not write any songs about the Lannisters, and there were not any midnight releases for A Feast for Crows. Even still, GAME OF THRONES the television show became a massive success. Somehow a premium channel show based on a niche fantasy series broke through to the masses. 

Perhaps that success is not as surprising when you take a look at what the series is fundamentally about. You have a group of warring factions, a sprawling ensemble, and cracking scripts filled with memorable dialogue. Frankly, other beloved HBO shows like THE SOPRANOS or THE WIRE are not much different from GAME OF THRONES. Putting characters first is what makes George R.R. Martin’s book series successful, and it is what made David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ adaptation successful.

Now, as the final season begins, GAME OF THRONES has done the unexpected once again. Martin’s book series is still at least two novels away from completion. We will, barring the unlikely, see the ending of this series in the form of the television show. Weiss and Benioff will be writing the ending based on outlines from George R.R. Martin.

Martin is not the fastest writer. That is his prerogative. He does not work for me personally or any of us, and therefore, he can write these books at his own pace. But if Martin has not finished it, it should be asked, do we as audience members even want an ending in the form of a television series before we have gotten to experience in book form first? That question goes to show how GAME OF THRONES has fundamentally changed the way we will look at adaptations of book series in the future.

Owning The Story

The most challenging thing about any book adaptation is creating a visual interpretation that satisfies every reader. Anyone who reads a book mentally becomes the casting director, art designer, costumer, and special effects supervisor. An author can provide an incredibly precise description, and audiences will still project their own interpretations of the location or character over the author’s words (sometimes to disastrous results).

Game of Thrones
Fun fact: this story line lasted 18 seasons

This community of readership is what sprung up around the Harry Potter novels in the late 90s into early 2000s. Legions of young adults were tearing through hearty novels and clamoring for more adventures of the boy wizard. The Harry Potter books had been massively successful as novels first and foremost. So much so that any departures from the text end up becoming the subject of ridicule from the fans themselves.

Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, while popular among fantasy readers, never reached the level of market saturation of Rowling’s books. The majority of people would likely envision Kit Harington when they think of Jon Snow. Compare that to the massive number of Potter fans who envision the characters in the novels differently than they are portrayed in the films. Google any of the central trios in Harry Potter, and you are likely to find race-bent fan art. It is a series that exists more in the imaginations of the readers than as projections on the silver screen.

READ: What is the difference between racebending and white washing? ComicsVerse investigates!

For many fans, GAME OF THRONES is GAME OF THRONES the HBO television series. Some chose never to read the books. Others, myself included, began reading the books because of the television series. Does this give Benioff and Weiss any real ownership of these characters?

In some very specific cases, yes. When looking at the earlier seasons of the television show, the writers stuck very close to the plot of the books. The significant departures came from what some dubbed the “deleted scenes” from the novel. Readers of the novels are only privy to what the POV character’s see and know. Benioff and Weiss took advantage of television to expand the purview for the audience.

Adapting And Expanding

In adapting the books, Benioff and Weiss decided to fill in some of the open spaces left by the original novel. As a result, characters like Varys and Littlefinger have clearer motivations for their schemes. It also humanized characters like Cersei and Jaime Lannister who do not become POV characters until later in the novels.

This might seem arbitrary, but the presence of these scenes would provide fodder for two great actors one of their many great verbal sparring matches. It would also perfectly encapsulate Cersei Lannister’s entrapment in a patriarchal society. These scenes created sympathy for a character without needing to explore her internal thoughts like the novels. Benioff and Weiss gave these characters new life and depth beyond what had been written on the page. With George R.R. Martin’s blessing on the series, they expanded on the history and characterization of key players in this saga.

Granted, these things merely make GAME OF THRONES an effective adaptation. A good adaptation should always consider the medium of adaptation and use it to strengthen the existing text. As a weekly TV series with a stellar cast, Benioff and Weiss wisely decided to break from the narrative structure of a novel to give us glimpses into the worlds of each character. They own their own “version” of these characters, but the world of GAME OF THRONES will always belong to Martin himself.

Of course, the adaptation has been far from perfect. More qualified people than I can elaborate on the show’s grotesque insistence on adding sexual assault as a plot device. There are also the bizarre changes to the story. (How much time did we waste trying to determine the significance of changing the name of Robb Stark’s wife only for it to be somewhat pointless?). As well as omissions or reductions of great female characters. (Like omitting Arianne Martell to instead bore us to death with a romantic subplot between Trystane Martell and Myrcella Baratheon.)  

Game of Thrones
Fun fact: Just looking at this photo is boring.

Does this make them unworthy of adapting Martin’s texts? Certainly not. The duo had a pair of fairly flawless seasons before making baffling choices in the third season. The fact remains that when Benioff and Weiss make big diversions from the text, the show often wavers. It remains to be seen if they can create mostly original work with these characters without a complete text to fall back on. Martin’s writing style only adds to the uncertainty of what he intends to put in his future novels.

The Constant Gardener

George R.R. Martin has often compared his writing style to a gardener. He is not someone who creates a specific plan for where his stories will go but rather begins with a rough idea of where he wants to the story to go and “give [his] characters the head and to follow them” toward the ending. This is partly why his novels end up as such sprawling works. He gives himself the room as a writer to create new ideas and conflicts for his characters if they feel natural to their journey.

However, this writing process often gets him into trouble. Martin was vocal about the challenges in finding a satisfying conclusion to Daenerys’ plot line in Meereen from book 5 (referred to by the writer as “the Meereenese knot”). It is this style of writing that often delays Martin’s work, but it also forced Benioff and Weiss to simplify and condense major parts of the story.

A DANCE WITH DRAGONS features another Dornish character who has been excised from the plot. In the novel, Quentyn Martell travels across the Narrow Sea in a foolhardy attempt to win the hand of Daenerys. His attempt to master her dragons ends with him being incinerated in their fire. It’s almost a sick cosmic joke to the reader. Martin spends numerous chapters with this faux romantic hero, only for him to die an ignoble death.

READ: What role does religion play in GAME OF THRONES? Click here for our analysis!

It is a very Martin-esque twist. There are no romantic heroes of that sort in Westeros. In a television series, that type of narrative is hardly satisfying. In the series, Benioff and Weiss used this same setup to reunite her with her wayward dragon. It is a more satisfying moment, but one that feels more conventionally “heroic” and breaking from the series’ subversive fantasy narrative.

Game of Thrones
Fun fact: Dany could kill every character you love!

While I miss the novels, moving forward does provide some satisfaction. We finally have confirmation of the R + L = J theory; and, every time more Stark kids reunite an angel gets its wings. On the other golden hand, we have seen Benioff and Weiss deflate or excise many great moments from the novel. The chief among them being the Lady Stoneheart reveal.

In the A Storm of Swords, Beric Dondarrion revived Catelyn Stark. The magic of the red god brought her back but left her a hollow shell of herself. She is now a zombie-like grim reaper, laying waste to all responsible for her death. Sounds pretty awesome, right? That was something that appeared in book three.

Removal of plot threads is fine, but it leaves book readers questioning whether these plots will even have any importance in the novels themselves? The narrative of the novel has almost been tainted by the series moving so far ahead of the books. There is an entire subplot about a (possibly) fake Targaryen sponsored by Varys slowly taking over the south of Westeros. Nothing about that has appeared in the series. So does any of that even matter to the final outcome of the novels?

READ: What role will Cersei Lannister play in the final episodes of GAME OF THRONES? Click here for our theory!

This is worrisome because Martin’s ending might change between now and when the series takes its final bow. Likely leading to an ending that is vastly different from what he initially outlined for Benioff and Weiss. If their output is any indication, it may be an ending that fails to convey the thematic weight of Martin’s work.

Learning to Adapt

Ultimately, I do not blame Benioff and Weiss for the need to move forward. We live in a world of short attention spans and nearly endless sources of mediapass. The quick pace of Hollywood and television demands things to be finished at a particular pace and with little creative conflict.

Commercial profit is more important than creative liberties, and they are doing their best to exist within that space. The odds are that the suits at HBO would have no problem replacing them if they tried to halt production while waiting for THE WINDS OF WINTER.

Benioff and Weiss have still managed to make a show that week in and week out has entertained millions. I would never want to pick the books over the television show or vice versa. Although I question what the point is in adapting something that does not exist.

GAME OF THRONES sometimes loses sight of itself when it moves away from the novels. In a rush to keep the series going, they are missing out on potentially revelatory character moments or iconic scenes from future novels. Imagine a DEATHLY HALLOWS film without Neville’s moment of badassery at the Battle of Hogwarts. Consider a SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD where he ended up with Knives Chau instead of Ramona Flowers (an ending they actually filmed). I want to believe that I will enjoy GAME OF THRONES’ final season, but the minute I pick up the remaining novels, I will know that the show was ultimately incomplete.

…Or maybe those books will never come out. Either way, something will be left unfinished.

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