Game of Thrones: The Show vs the Books

August 19, 2017
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Warning: spoiler alert.

With the seventh season of Game of Thrones nearly finished, and now well beyond the source material, the show is a distinctly different beast from the books. For the first couple of seasons, the show adapted the books fairly faithfully, but then began introducing more and more off-book scenes, until deciding to completely change things.

At this point, it’s important to say that George R. R. Martin is an incredible writer and his work has changed fantasy as we know it. However, for Game of Thrones, I think that the change of medium from books to screen has actually resulted in a better, more streamlined story that is a more dramatic work of fiction. It’s also worth mentioning that George R. R. Martin has been very active in the development of the show, so this isn’t an attack on him but a discussion of one seminal work’s stunningly skillful transition from page to screen.

The show well and truly surpasses the books with season six, and is now far beyond the final published book. While a television series naturally lacks the level of depth and world-building of a series of fantasy doorstoppers, the small-screen version of Game of Thrones has simply become a better dramatic story than the source books for the following reasons.

1. Focus

Fine, I’ll admit it. I was once one of the people who lorded the fact that they had read the books over viewers who jumped on the bandwagon. I smirked as people gasped at Ned’s execution, and grinned with glee as they cried out at the Red Wedding. I relished the fact that I knew all of the random side-characters and locations, and the way various threads were meant to interweave.

But then, as the show progressed and (to my horror!) moved on from the books and changed my beloved source material, I couldn’t help but to enjoy myself. The first three books are amazing, but A Feast for Crows (book four) doesn’t even include most of the characters we love like Jon or Daenerys and, instead, introduces random people and plotlines that go nowhere.

A Dance with Dragons (book five) is better. We actually see the characters we care about but it also still introduces superfluous plot threads and new characters. George R. R. Martin’s books are all huge, but the content we care about is actually quite a small fraction of the latter books. The show, however, retains focus on the characters we love, and introduces new plot elements or location by focusing on connections to established characters. If the books are a floodlight, then the show is a laser beam.

Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow

Imagine a season without these two! There’d be riots. Yet, somehow we coped with a full book without them.

2. Pacing

In the books, things just take so long to actually happen. It feels as if the wheels are spinning in place for hundreds and hundreds of pages. Unlike the show, Sansa and Jon have yet to meet back up, Arya is still training, and Tyrion is enslaved and being carted around. Tyrion’s capture by Jorah in the show lasts a few episodes, whereas in the book it still hasn’t ended and he still hasn’t met Daenerys. Things just take so long that it’s hard to keep caring, not to mention how long the books take to come out. The first book came out when I was one year old, and now I’m old enough to half-competently write an article. While some may claim that the show can be slow at times, it’s still a big improvement on the books.

I don’t think that George R. R. Martin should rush his work at the expense of quality, but it’s undeniably frustrating to wait years between books and it hurts the flow of the story. The show releases episodes on a regular basis and that enables us to stay invested.

Jon Snow and Sansa Stark

This is still 10–20 years off happening in the books.

3. Investment in Characters

Many of the show’s added scenes involve the characters we know and love. For example, Ygritte shooting Jon as he flees the wildlings in the show is a poignant and emotional scene but, in the books, he only realises that he’s been shot after fleeing and it is unclear whether it’s Ygritte’s doing. The extra screen-time serves to increase our investment in these characters, and there are lots of little additions like this, like Arya being Tywin’s cupbearer at Harrenhal rather than Roose Bolton’s.

Given these additions and the way that the characters are so perfectly portrayed by the actors means that, unlike most adaptations, the on-screen versions of the characters have become the definitive ones.

Tyrion Lannister

He drinks and he knows things.

4. Payoff

The books are like a cruel, intimate partner, constantly keeping us on the brink, promising release but never actually giving it. The show, bless it, allows us to climax by showing us things like Ramsay finally getting what he deserves, Brienne finally finding Sansa, Arya getting sweet, sweet revenge for the Red Wedding and, most recently, the electric meeting between Jon Snow and Daenerys. The show understands that we want these narrative threads to tie together in a satisfying way, rather than unravel further and further.

The books have a lot of darkness and put the characters, particularly the Stark family, through a lot of punishment. That’s all well and good – this is grimdark after all – but it’s immensely satisfying seeing some justice being meted out in the show which still seems a long way off in the books. It’s been earned by what the characters have been through.

The characters and plot-lines are drawn into the central plot in recent episodes of the show. Therefore, in nearly every episode, we’re getting something that we’ve been waiting years for. When Daenerys sails across the Narrow Sea at the end of the sixth season, I almost cried. In A Dance with Dragons, she’s robbed of this triumphant Targaryen return by the unexpected entry of a new player – and while this may subvert the expectations of readers in a way that George R. R. Martin pioneered with things like Ned’s beheading – it’s profoundly unsatisfying after hundreds of thousands of words of waiting for her return.

Daenerys Targaryen's Fleet

Yesssss. Screw staying in Slaver’s Bay.

5. Understanding Fans

It all comes down to the fact that the showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, seem to understand what the fans actually want. While George R. R. Martin is a genius – his books providing insight into a huge, detailed world that feels amazingly real – the show presents a story that is simply better told and more palatable to people. It’s a more satisfying tale, and one that promises to actually have an ending sometime in the next decade. A story is only as good as its ending and the television show, if it continues the way it’s going, promises something spectacular.

Daenerys Targaryen and co.

We want these guys kicking ass in the Seven Kingdoms and dammit that’s what the show provides.

With screen adaptations of books usually being so poor, it’s interesting and heartening to see that it’s not the case with Game of Thrones. The characters and the world presented in the books are fantastic and, when paired with the focused storytelling power of television scriptwriting, the resulting show provides the best of both worlds and is a fantasy reader’s dream come true on screen.