For the last two seasons, “Game of Thrones” the TV Show has taken a fairly drastic departure from it’s source material, the “Song of Ice and Fire” novels by George R.R. Martin. Just how drastic is that departure? Well, until Martin (finally) gets the long awaited next installment of his series out, we won’t really know. But over sixty hours of television content and thousands of pages of Martin’s work do give us enough material to evaluate the clear distinctions between the two entities.
Now before I move forward, I’ll go ahead and make clear that I will not be directly answering that question I started the article with. I do not think one piece of creative material is necessarily better than the other. But I do think there are many things Martin did a much better job with than the HBO show based on his work. And (contrary to what some book purists will tell you) there are things the show did a much better job developing than Martin did. So first, here’s five things Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” did better than the show, followed by five things the show did better than the source material.
(Of Note: I will not be including any characters or arcs that were present in one, but not in the other. Though feel free to include those items in your comments)
What the Books Did Better
1. Jamie Lannister
Martin’s transition of the Kingslayer from hated villain who pushed a young boy out a window to awesome anti-hero is one of the best I’ve seen represented in literal fiction. Using the loss of Jamie’s hand and his relationship with Brienne, Martin transforms the arrogant Lannister into someone we actually sympathize with. We see a man who’s been forced to choose between multiple oaths that left him no choice but to betray at least one of them. And by the last time we’ve seen Jamie in the text, he’s masterfully negotiated a siege at King’s Landing, channeling his father Tywin for the first time.
The television show tried to follow this arc. But a poorly directed scene where Jamie rapes Cersei in the Holy Sept, a worthless excursion to Dorne, and a lack of any real development from the character in Seasons 4 and 5 left something lacking when the Kingslayer negotiated a peaceful end (well, for everyone except the Blackfish) to the siege at Riverrun. I mean, it was still a great scene watching Jamie “influence” Edmure to take back Riverrun. But Martin did a much better job moving Jamie to the point where he was a shrewd negotiator, while the show seemed to bring Jamie’s sudden diplomatic capabilities out of left field.
2. The Wall Battle
Season 4’s “Watchers on the Wall,” featuring the Night’s Watch defending Westeros from a Wildling invasion, is one of the best episodes the show has ever done. But while the production value of the episode is superb, the buildup and logistics of the actual battle leave much to be desired.
Martin splits the assault on the Wall up into three different attacks. The first was from the crew Jon was with that climbed the Wall and tried to take out the Night’s Watch from the Westerosi side of the Wall. After that attack was stymied, two more invasions at different times happened that the Night’s Watch was able to repel before Jon was sent out to negotiate with Mance Rayder.
The show, on the other hand, chose to save this battle for its showcase ninth episode. The problem was they did nothing over the course of season 4 to build up to this Wildling invasion. Instead, the Night’s Watch sat around the Wall waiting for the Wildlings to arrive. And the man leading the largest Wildling invasion of the North, Mance Rayder, did not appear until after the battle was over. How can you not at least show one scene of the Wildlings marching toward the Wall in Season 4 before that ninth episode? And by turning three separate invasions into one, the show confused non bookreaders as to why the Wildlings were split up into two separate forces.
So while I understand the decision to make the Wall Battle the ninth episode and the budgetary reasons for making it one battle instead of three, those decisions also made the show’s presentation of the events lack the cohesiveness Martin’s did.
3. Euron Greyjoy
Euron Greyjoy in the books: The brother of Balon Greyjoy is banned from the Iron Islands for sleeping with his brother’s (not Balon, Victarion, one of two Greyjoy brothers not included in the show) wife. Known as the Crows Eye, he goes pillaging and raping the coasts throughout the lands of Essos and beyond. He reappears after Balon’s death, is crowned King of the Iron Islands, and becomes a terror throughout the West Coast of Westeros. He sets his sites on the Iron Throne and sends his brother Victarion to secure a marriage alliance with Daenarys and her dragons.
Euron Greyjoy in the show: He shows up. He throws his brother of a rickety bridge. He wins the Kingsmoot, becoming King of the Iron Islands, and means to build a thousands ships (entirely from rocks) and ride them to make his alliance with the Mother of Dragons in hopes of ruling Westeros one day.
Which one of these characters seems a greater threat to the throne of Westeros? Benoiff and Weiss only used Euron to get Theon and Yara to Meereen. Martin appears to have a much larger plan for the character, and his development was way stronger in a “Song of Ice and Fire.”
4. Loras Tyrell
In the books, Martin creates a multi-dimensional character who is a brave warrior with exceptional skills and a confidence/arrogance only rivaled by Jamie Lannister before he lost his hand. The part of him being gay is never directly confirmed, but is heavily implied.
In the show, Loras is Margaery’s brother who is gay. That’s pretty much it. Yes, characters talk about his abilities as a fighter. But the only combat we ever seen is Loras’s ability as a jouster in the first season. After seeing the one dimensional treatment the Tyrell heir (which he’s not in the books) receives on the show, I developed a much greater appreciation for the multi-faceted book character Martin created.
5. Doran Martell
Now, many would include the entire Dorne plot on their personal lists here. But I personally didn’t think Dorne was a strength of Martin’s books either. When his books should be moving towards an end, he opened up a whole new front in the southern part of Westeros that I believe is one of many reasons “The Winds of Winter” is taking so long to be released. Yes, he did Dorne better than the show did. But meerkats at a zoo could’ve accomplished that.
But I did love Doran Martell’s character. In a world filled with people who act first and think later, Doran is a character who hides his manipulations behind his weak physical condition. Every move he makes is calculated and every one who tries to usurp his authority as Prince of Dorne is found out and dealt with immediately by forces loyal to Doran.
And while some of the plans he comes up with look a little too far in the future to be relied upon, he has prepared a plan b and moves quickly to it once his previous plan goes awry.
I believe the show was planning on moving Doran towards this character arc in season 6. But when reality set in of just how disastrous the Dorne storyline was in Season 5, the producers decided to cut their losses and the character Martin created was a victim of that.
What the Show Did Better
1. The Whitewalkers
Martin established in the very first chapter of his series that the Whitewalkers were going to be the most significant threat to all those in Westeros. How many times in the books have they shown up since? Twice. Both times were with Sam in the third book, “A Storm of Swords.” But where were the Whitewalkers in books four and five? The gravest threat to all of Westeros did not appear in either Martin’s most recent works.
The show, on the other hand, has built-up this growing threat at least once a season. Not only did we have Martin’s opening scene and Sam’s run-ins with the Ice Zombies. We also have a pair of “Where Whitewalkers come from” scenes. And most importantly, we have Hardhomme: the most dominant showing of Whitewalker power to date.
So while Martin may be holding back his ultimate build up of the Ice Zombie army for “Winds of Winter,” it’s the show that to this point, has made a far more convincing case of just how bad ass the Whitewalkers are.
2. The Red Wedding
This one is a little unfair to Martin. His portrayal of the Red Wedding in “A Storm of Swords” is just as much the gut punch the show’s version was. The problem for Martin is he’s restricted to his chosen medium, which forces him to simply list all the things that are happening at the Twins as the carnage ensues.
He can tell you the “Rains of Castemere” is playing in the background. But he can’t use the editing techniques of television to start the song as the doors are locked and show Catelyn Stark’s face as she suspects something is up. He can describe the brutality of everyone being slaughtered. But to truly appreciate just how awful an event the Red Wedding was, seeing and hearing the events is far more effective.
So while both portrayals of the Red Wedding were excellent in their perspective mediums, the show version packed a greater punch because of the multiple senses the medium of television can appeal to.
3. Margaery Tyrell
Martin used the daughter of Mace Tyrell and the pride of Highgarden as a pawn in the “Great Game.” At least, that’s the impression we are given from the various characters we hear about her from. She’s never a Point-of-View character in any of Martin’s five books, so we only get to hear about her character and actions from others. And considering one of those POV characters is Cersei, you’re not always left with a favorable impression of Queen Margaery.
But the producers of the show saw a chance with Margaery to include a savvy game player who kept all the key figures in King’s Landing on their toes. I personally can’t imagine the last five seasons with a diminished role for Margaery Tyrell. It also helped that Natalie Dormer was the actress portraying Margaery. And the last place for someone of her quality is in the background.
4. Daenarys Meets Tyrion
Everything was building in Martin’s last installment (“A Dance With Dragons”) to this encounter. Tyrion and Jorah were in Meereen, in reach of the Queen of the Dragons so this epic encounter could happen. But instead, Daenarys flies away on a dragon. Tyrion gets caught up in some politics involving the numerous sellsword companies in Slavers Bay, and the book ends.
To build up to that encounter only to have it taken away was a bit cruel to readers (yes, that is a Martin trademark, but still). The show recognized this and made this meeting happen before Daenarys flew away in Season Five. I’m sure this epic meeting is coming somewhere in “Winds of Winter” after Daenarys returns. But I loved how the show placed this first meeting where it did so these two characters can feel each other out. It really makes no sense for Tyrion to be named “Hand of the Queen” if they hadn’t met previously.
Now of course, Martin may be going in an entirely different direction with Tyrion’s role after he meets Daenarys. But I still like this meeting happening where the show placed it instead of making readers wait five more years (at least) before seeing this happen.
5. Winding Down the Story
One of the strengths of the first three books was the way Martin took his centralized story and expanded it, organically introducing new players and new stories to the larger narrative as he moved towards the exciting conclusion to the third book, “A Storm of Swords.”
But then, Martin followed his third book with “A Feast for Crows” and “A Dance With Dragons,” two books that decentralized his story even further. The story has spread so far out that it took Martin five years to write “Dance” and we are at five years and counting waiting on “Winds of Winter.”
The television show made a clear decision with season six that they were going to move towards a conclusion. If that meant beloved characters and story lines were taken out, then so be it. And I know many disagree with some of the plots and characters who were not included at all or were taken out prematurely by the show’s producers. But these decisions have all come with the central goal of moving the narrative to its conclusion, the fruits of which were clear after seeing the Season Six finale.
Now, I hope Martin brings a similar effect to the book story with “Winds of Winter.” But while Martin has yet to prove he can move his story to its conclusion, producers David Benoiff and DB Weiss left no doubt after season six they can.
What are the things you think the show has done better than the books? What have the books done better than the show? Also, if you haven’t done so already, check out some of the other season wrap-up articles from the past week.
Monday, June 27th: Season Finale Recap
Thursday, June 30th: Why was Lyanna in the Tower of Joy?
Saturday, July 2nd: Ranking the Seasons
Today: Book vs Show: Which is Better?