Translating fiction from one form to another is a tricky endeavor but it’s probably never been trickier than HBO adapting George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, famously written to be “unfilmable,” into its flagship series Game of Thrones.
For a long time, only film had the purview and resources to do adaptations, particularly genre ones, of any scale. But in the Golden Age of TV, that trend is reversed and many more supposedly unfilmable book series have proven otherwise on the small screen (Outlander, The Expanse, upcoming The Handmaid’s Tale, Altered Carbon etc.). Such shows are less episodic and more 10+ hour films, time that allows for their sprawling casts and elaborate set ups. But Game of Thrones sixth season, concluding with tonight’s finale at 9 p.m. (my recap will go live soon after the airing), proves even all the resources and acclaim in the world can’t prevent a show from acting more like a conventional TV show than the unconventional books it is based on.
Superficially, the show remains faithful even as it diverges wildly and this year, in a first for any adaptation, goes past the published material in Martin’s series. More than plot digressions, it is the characters that changed the most from book-to-screen, many of whom are pantomimes or exaggerated versions of the characters from the book. Cersei, Jaime, Tyrion, Jon, Stannis, Renly, Littlefinger come to mind. Part of this comes from the adapting process and part comes from the authorial vision of showrunners David Benioff & D.B.Weiss.
The show often succeeds when it nails the tone and spirit of Martin’s world, if not his details. Sometimes, it’s like looking for meaning under layers of adaptation scar tissue, yet you can often still see Martin’s intent buried beneath, like light through the cracks. The books took their time to carefully turn the hinges (reaching their turning point in the beginning of the forthcoming sixth volume The Winds of Winter). Meanwhile the show’s door is Hodor-less, swinging open and close with the wind.
Of course, the greatest irony of all is that the show, often touted as the most expensive in the world, originated from books written specifically because TV was too cheap back in the day. Let’s take a look at the two mediums stack up.Book vs. Show structure
In the beginning, it was thought the show would adapt a season a book., a notion reinforced by the fact Season 1 was a very faithful adaptation of ‘A Game of Thrones.’ Seasons 2-4 began rearranging pieces on the board, filtering Martin’s tale through Benioff & Weiss into a TV format. For example, having to a big battle hitting every ninth episode of a season meant that in season four Jon Snow didn’t have much to do until that season’s Battle of Castle Black, necessitating the invention of Jon’s raid on the Night’s Watch mutineers at Craster’s Keep.
Season 5 and 6 is where the show became less adaptation and more fan fiction. It introduced substantial changes to the narrative while condensing and eliminating a great deal from the books. They are based on books focused not on the war but the fallout and trauma from it. Characters and storylines are constantly in flux. Martin had originally planned a time jump, which seems obvious given the inordinate amount of time characters spend training and/or traveling.
He conceived the series as trilogy until the tale grew in the telling. But the original three-act structure remains. Martin’s first three books correspond to the first four seasons of the show. Benioff and Weiss refer to this period as the expansion. The difference is whereas Martin used the climax of the third book (specifically, Tywin Lannister’s death) to further open up the world of Westeros, the writers treated the event as a “resetting” of the story on a downward slope towards the end.
This structural change trickled down to all storylines, allowing them to adapt later material far faster than earlier seasons. Thus, fifth and sixth seasons is where Benioff & Weiss start swimming against Martin’s current, drastically changing the fourth, fifth (and sixth) books by contracting the story instead of maintaining the expanse. Some is no doubt out of necessity; Martin fans out his characters far and wide, then takes his time with their individual journeys. The fourth and fifth books are full of transitory material, new characters and world-building. Delightful (if a bit slow) to read but full of introspection incompatible with a visual, action-focused format.
Not all narrative convenience is bad. Some, especially the earlier consolidations, work well. Gendry standing in as Melisandre’s potential sacrifice in season 3 stands out, as does Brienne stumbling across both Arya and Sansa – fighting the Hound and killing Stannis in the process. That one in particular feels like an exciting and narratively-purposeful alternative to the aimless wandering’s of her book counterpart in A Feast for Crows (literally hundreds of pages of it while we the reader know she’s not even close to the Stark siblings). Once again, what is soulful and existential on the page is boring on screen. On the other hand, Jaime’s journey to Dorne. Hoo boy, it’s astonishingly nonsensical (more on that next).
In the case of this season, a lot of the stakes are provided by characters returning simply to die, and thus wrap up their loose end. Nostalgia is a poor substitute for emotional investment and there’s an air of missed opportunity, especially given the contrived circumstances of many of these (the Martells, Three-Eyed Raven, Blackfish, Osha and Rickon) compared to the richness of their book counterparts. It also gives an air of invincibility the central characters, something particularly on display in the most recent episode “Battle of the Bastards.” It was impressively realized but strangely conventional for the series as well.
This continues a trend like from another flawed favorite of mine, Lost, a similarly epic ensemble show that insisted on whittling its entire supporting cast away so, by the end, it was just the characters from the earliest seasons. As opposed to raising the stakes by raising the named character mortality rate, it’s turned into a rote exercise wherein the showrunners depict the various ways someone can cut Meereenese knots.
Let’s take a look at the other changes that didn’t work so well, like Stannis, my favorite creation of Martin’s, getting character assassinated Jon Snow-style by the show writers.
You did what to my favorite character???
- The Bolton Bride
The downside of altering Martin’s narrative so much is that some changes come across as cheap, rendering several lingering threads pointless in the effort to wrap up the show in an arbitrary allotted amount of time. Most famously, the writers needed Sansa to have an active role in the story earlier so they replaced a relatively minor character with her as Ramsay’s bride. This had the effect of (at least appearing) to reverse her evolution into “Darth Sansa” and rob her of her agency by attaching her to a guy worse than Joffrey, culminating the controversial scene where Ramsay rapes her on their wedding night. Fans thought of it as repetitive and exploitative.
While I would argue it was ultimately a justified and well-done storyline, her betrothal to Ramsay can absolutely be seen as character derailment, partly because it comes out of nowhere, with no set up from the showrunners. Far from it, they teased Darth Sansa the previous season . . . and then had her sit on the sidelines getting abused by yet another psychopath in Season 5.
- Stannis the Mannis
No character who suffered in more last season than Stannis Baratheon. A fan-favorite for his unyielding leadership and contradictory rigidity, the showrunners made no secret they didn’t like the character’s personality. The idea of sacrificing Shireen to enact some sort of magic to halt winter comes straight from Martin, who imparted it to Benioff & Weiss back in 2013 (along with numerous other plot points like the meaning of Hodor) when it became clear the show’s pace would surpass his writing pace.
In the books not only is Stannis alive, but Shireen is far away at the Wall while her father marches on Winterfell and until Martin gets around to telling his definitive version, we won’t know if his story arc is meant to end in disgrace and defeat, as in the show. That said, the sheer trauma conga line the character undergoes in the final episodes of Season 5 smack of outright cosmic dump on his character, a case further evidenced by their decision to excise him and his good deeds entirely from the Northern Rebellion plot of which he’s entangled in the novels.
This a prime example of the writers seeing Martin’s creations differently than he does. Now that the Battle of the Bastards is over, it’s clear the showrunners shortcircuited Stannis’ story to tell essentially the same story of a Northern rebellion, only this time with Jon and Sansa leading it.
Part of the problem is that the writers’ plan is constantly in flux. For example, they never actually knew they’d make it to Dorne until Bryan Cogman thought up the idea of sending Jaime and Bronn on a mission there as audience surrogates. It’s not a bad idea but the execution was awful on every level, from Ellaria’s sudden turn into a raging psychopath, to the Sand Snakes acting out every cliche possible to utter lack of narrative impact. Not only does the plot turn into a massive shaggydog story when Myrcella dies, but the showrunners, clearly looking to cut bait, somehow made it even more nonsensical by having one half of the Dornish cast murder the other with minimal explanation in the season 6 premiere. So in order to get revenge on the Lannisters for killing Oberyn and his family, Ellaria and the Sand Snakes have murdered Oberyn’s family. Insane troll logic doesn’t even begin to apply.
The trainwreck in Dorne ensnared another character in its negative vortex: Jaime, whose arc doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anymore. Perhaps because we’re missing the internal monologue or perhaps because of the massive rearranging of Jaime’s arc but his Dorne mission was a bust in and out of universe. His reaffirmed dedication to Cersei runs counter to his arc in the books, where he moves further and further away until he finally severs their relationship when she begs for his help in her trial against the Faith.
- Jon’s assassination
Jon Snow gets off no better than the others because the writers have a different version of him in mind too, that of a traditional fantasy hero. Both Ned and Jon’s deaths – while the latter is only temporary – are meant to enforce that the “heroic” things these characters did were not only stupid, but got them killed. After the fifth book takes great pains detailing Jon’s struggle to straddle the line between helping Stannis defeat the Boltons and maintaining the neutrality of the Night’s Watch, he throws it all to the wind at the end by declaring war on Ramsay when the Bastard of Bolton sends him a letter threatening his sister (he thinks) and the Watch.
Because Stannis (among others) are still alive and fighting, Jon had slowly entangled the Watch in the war against the Boltons, earning the enmity of Ramsay. So instead of blind prejudice against Wildlings motivating traitors akin to the show’s Alliser Throne and Olly, the books make clear Jon’s decision is just as disastrously bad as his assassins, that he walked into the buzzsaw like Ned did. On the show, Jon is a more straight-forward character and so is his situation: the Watch betrays him because they’re convinced Jon broke his vows by allying with the Wildlings and letting them through the Wall.
While Jon’s decision on the show is portrayed as the heroic, pragmatic thing to do, all it does is make the mutineers look stupid, especially since their leader Thorne is is the one who opened the gate to the Wildlings just the episode previous. If perhaps Stannis’ demise convinced them Jon’s cause was lost and to cut bait, that might have been a reasonable explanation. But Thorne explicitly doesn’t make that argument when he explains himself in the mess hall in episode 2.
The narrative goal was to kill Jon and thereby deconstruct the traditional fantasy hero as an echo of Ned. Ned’s death wasn’t tragic because he was smart and got punished for it. Quite the opposite, he died because he was stupid, and everyone else was smart. Sure, Jon was stupid for keeping his enemies so close (as Stannis points out) but his killers were stupider for waiting until thousands of enemies were at their backs before executing their coup.
To make matters worse, his resurrection (a storytelling necessity) yielded zero impact. Jon post-death is not substantially different than pre-death Jon. The show made the impact entirely internal, which doesn’t work when your hero is brooding all the time anyway. Not only is he no different, he hasn’t even learned how not to be an idiot, as seen in the Battle of the Bastards. By contrast, Arya used the events of her story to defeat the Waif in “No One,” finally justifying the hours of blind stick abuse. There has been no real impact from Jon’s death and resurrection yet.
Even Jon’s peers like Davos and Tormund are blase. Whether they don’t believe it, think it was a trick or Melisandre is just a great healer, that needed to be elaborated on. The writers’ seemed to bank on viewers assuming both the world and the circumstances precluded the usual questions. That largely seems to be the case, with few complaints, but the show didn’t even bother to substantially change Jon Snow. The idea of “coming back wrong” was a big appeal of seeing the sacred rule of death cheated and, indeed, is part of Martin’s text. None of it comes into to play.
If I had to guess (hope?) given the books and show, Shireen is meant to be sacrificed by Melisandre to resurrect Jon (only a life can pay for death, royal blood is magic etc.), giving a very dark overtone to the whole endeavor and Jon absurd survivor’s guilt. I’d also guess/hope it happens in more epic fashion – Jon’s body is burned and emerges from the flames, Dany-style. It would rhyme in a neat way, I think.
Storytelling is a lot like music. One missed note can ruin a whole piece. You need certain notes to make others’ sound just right. By missing a bunch of notes in the storylines, the Song of Ice and Fire got out of rhythm with Game of Thrones.
By contrast, Martin refuses to let himself take the easy storytelling route. Often, he instead decisively detours to the worst possible option for his characters. His expertise at realistically yet reverently confronting every scenario and trope thrown at him provide the rich texture and gravitas that earned them acclaim and popularity. In another universe, perhaps more indulgent showrunners than Benioff & Weiss would follow his lead in world-building and make Game of Thrones a Marvel-esque shared universe for endless storytelling.
But those two are laser-focused on the story at hand (the White Walkers vs. everyone), not the immersive dressing Martin loves. It has served the story well on TV; this is the most popular show in the world after all. And who knows? Maybe we’ll still get more stories in this alt-Westeros (aka Westeros-2) they’ve credited, perhaps based on Martin’s prequel novellas The Tales of Dunk and Egg or maybe even a glimpse at another period of history entirely.
As we enter the annual Thrones hibernation period after tonight, we’ll have plenty of time to speculate on the show’s forthcoming conclusion. I’ll be back Monday morning with new piece previewing Game of Thrones season 7. If you’re a fan and want to know about next season, that is where you’ll find all the knowledge.
In the meantime, The Winds of Winter (a version of them) are finally here.