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.