Columns > Published on July 25th, 2014

Usurping the Throne: Game of Thrones and George R. R. Martin's Dilemma

Something interesting happened this year in Season Four of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Whereas until now the show had been largely shadowing George R. R. Martin’s novels (albeit with some trimming down and condensing), this season the television series became a separate entity. Not only were some events changed outright, but characters died that didn’t die in the books and there may even have been scenes that explore what might be revealed in future books. 

I’m not going to go into details on all of the changes. You can check out this site for a detailed list (very detailed). What I am interested in is the gap that seems to be widening between both series.

It’s not unusual for a television show to diverge from its source material — look at The Walking Dead, for example, which strays quite far from the comic story lines.  But Martin’s books are a tighter weave, and for three seasons now, the show has been seeming to follow the same warp and weft. 

Can’t we hold in our minds two separate versions of the Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire stories?

The reasons for these changes are numerous — one is clearly to make things more exciting for the viewer. Martin never wrote a scene where Brienne and The Hound fought each other, but I was damned excited by that very scene in the Season 4 finale. The show runners can see what they consider missed opportunities in the books and fix them. I don’t think these variations cause too much dissonance in the overall storyline and in some cases give the characters a bit more to do and react to. 

Another reason, however, must be the glacial pace at which the books have been coming out. Now I defend George R. R. Martin’s right to take as much time as he wants with his books (they are his books, after all) but the television series doesn’t have that luxury. They are committed to putting out a new season every year. Soon they’ll be caught up to the books. 

In an interview with HBO Martin said

I am aware of the TV series moving along behind me like a giant locomotive, and I know I need to lay the track more quickly, perhaps, because the locomotive is soon going to be bearing down on me. The last thing I want is for the TV series to catch up with me. I've got a considerable headstart, but production is moving faster than I can write. I'm hoping that we'll finish the story at about the same time... we'll see. 

Martin is optimistic, but there’s still no word on The Winds of Winter. I’m starting to have my doubts. And that’s where I start to really wonder as both a reader and a writer. 

Both Martin and the showrunners have said that they've met and Martin gave them a general sense of where the books were going to end. So Benioff and Wise have a place to shoot for. They have a destination on the horizon and it seems unlikely that they would ignore that, assuming that it’s the fitting end. So they can continue their series and get there and everything will be fine. 

But will it? As a reader, part of me is bothered by the idea that the ending to the series could appear on the show before it appears in the books. Part of the suspense for a reader like me is to know what the ending is. To experience that climax and then dissolution of tension. To go through that journey. If I know where the books are headed as I sit down to read, part of the excitement would be lost. 

However, I think it feels even worse as a writer. If it were me, I wouldn’t want anyone else to put an ending to any of my works. So how best to reconcile these two expressions? 

If it were up to me, and I was in charge of the series’ direction, I would choose to commit to my own version of the series from here on out. And ultimately, I think that’s what the show runners might be doing. This was the first season in which it seemed like they were confident enough to make the show their own. Why not take that all the way? 

Diehard fans will know that there’s plenty of speculation about how the books end, about which characters are related to others, about who will end up being the true Queen or King of Westeros and how the story will shake out. There are several great theories out there, too. Why not just pick the one that makes the most sense to the show runners and aim for that? 

Haven’t we seen this in the past? Every Marvel or DC movie ever made takes liberties with the storylines they are based on. Most film adaptations of novels bear only a superficial resemblance to the source material. Aren’t we used to this? 

Can’t we hold in our minds two separate versions of the Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire stories? Does it matter if Brienne goes on to great things in the television series only to die in the books? Can we cheer for a redeemed Jaime Lannister in the books only to curse a relapse into dickery in the series? 

Martin himself seems to think things will differ: 

Ultimately, it’ll be different. You have to recognize that there are going to be some differences. I’m very pleased with how faithful the show is to the books, but it’s never gonna be exactly the same. You can’t include all the characters. You’re not going to include their real lines of dialogue or subplot, and hopefully each will stand on its own. We have Gone With the Wind the movie and we have Gone With the Wind the book. They’re similar but they’re not the same. There are three version of The Maltese Falcon, none of which are exactly the same as the novel The Maltese Falcon. Each one stands on its own and has its own value and is great in its own way. Rings is a great example. There are Tolkien purists who hate Peter Jackson’s versions, but I think they’re a small minority. Most people who love Tolkien love what Jackson did, even though he may have omitted Tom Bombadil. He captured the spirit of the books.

It’s quite possible that, emboldened by that success of the series so far, the show runners have decided they can tell the story the way they want. The characters have been established, the situations set up. All they have to do is to hit the major story points at the appropriate times. The rest of the time they can do whatever they want. 

My question to you is, can you handle that? Would you be happy if the book series and television series became truly separate entities? Or would you lose some appreciation for one or the other? Is there a way to win here that doesn’t involve the book series wrapping up first? Let me know what you think in the comments. 

About the author

Rajan Khanna is a fiction writer, blogger, reviewer and narrator. His first novel, Falling Sky, a post-apocalyptic adventure with airships, is due to be released in October 2014. His short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and several anthologies. His articles and reviews have appeared at Tor.com and LitReactor.com and his podcast narrations can be heard at Podcastle, Escape Pod, PseudoPod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Lightspeed Magazine. Rajan lives in New York where he's a member of the Altered Fluid writing group. His personal website is www.rajankhanna.com and he tweets, @rajanyk.

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