When a book gets turned into a film or TV show, its fans will inevitably complain that the adaptation isn’t as good. But is Game Of Thrones better than A Song Of Ice And Fire?
I hadn’t read (or heard of) George RR Martin’s series of books before I first watched Game Of Thrones, and once I’d got into it I decided that I’d watch the whole show before going back to the books, so I wouldn’t have anything spoiled by knowing it was coming.
That worked a treat earlier this year when I managed to go into The Red Wedding with no idea what horrors awaited me, but after a few annoying spoilers for Season Four, I decided I might as well read the books after all.
And I’ve loved them, they’re brilliant. But, and this theory is probably controversial, I think the TV show has improved on many areas of them. Here’s what I’m talking about (obviously there are SPOILERS for anyone who hasn’t seen up to the end of Season Three or read up to The Red Wedding In A Storm Of Swords):
1 – Characterisation
Really, three increasingly thick books should provide much deeper insight into characters than 30 hour-long episodes of a TV show, but in many cases that just isn’t true. For one thing, the books are written in a way that focuses on one main character in each chapter, with everything seen from their perspective. So characters who aren’t given that treatment are sidelined. There’s also a lot of characters in the books. A LOT. Most come and go quickly, but it’s hard to keep track of them or care too much about them. It creates a rich and diverse world, but the show does better by cutting things down and even merging characters (most notably Robert’s bastards Gendry and Edric), while showing us more of some of the main players. Which brings me on to the next two items.
2 – Robb Stark
As one of the most important characters who isn’t focused on by Martin’s narrative style, Robb (along with Rickon) is the Stark we get to know least well in the novels. We mostly see him through his mother’s eyes and when they are separated in the second book, we only hear of his exploits. By contrast, in the show, he grows in importance after his father’s death and is definitely one of the main characters, portrayed excellently by Richard Madden. Instead of a fairly random wife we barely see in the books, he gets to fall in love on screen and get the promise of impending fatherhood. All of which makes The Red Wedding (more of which later) so much more of a suckerpunch.
3 – Joffrey
One of the first jarring things for me about the books was the affectionate way people referred to him as ‘Joff’, a nickname that goes against his wicked and vicious nature and one well avoided on-screen. Like Robb, he’s someone we only see from other people’s perspective, and is therefore missing quite a lot, so we don’t quite get the same chance to know and despise him. And while Martin does paint a horrific picture of him when he is involved, I feel like Jack Gleason’s performance takes him to a whole new level of evil.
4 – Theon Greyjoy
A character who flits in and out of focus, Theon gets his own chapters in the second novel, having been in the background for the first one. So far in the third (ie, the first half of it), he’s been mentioned a couple of times, but we’ve seen none of his torture at the hands of Ramsey Snow. Perhaps that will come later in the book, but regardless, his portrayal by Alfie Allen has had a lot more depth than we’ve seen in the novels, especially around his hapless exploits in capturing (and losing) Winterfell. Another victim of Martin’s interest in him only being occasional.
5 – Character ages
This may have been a neccesity when it came to actually filming the books (and the more explicit scenes) but it really does make more sense to have Daenerys Targaryen not be only 13 when Game Of Thrones starts. You can maybe get away with a girl of that age being married to a huge warlord in a book, but it would have been incredibly wrong to show it on TV. And her character, even in the books, seems so much older than the teenager she is meant to be. The same goes for Jon Snow and Robb Stark. The things that happen to them and that they do just don’t ring right for people who are still little more than children.
6 – Ned’s death
The first pivotal scene in both book and show, the shock execution of Ned Stark robs the audience of what we’d been led to believe was the main character. In the TV show, it was done brilliantly, with the horror of the Stark sisters evident and the skillful avoidance of the actual act taking nothing away from its effect. But like some other important events in the books (see below) it suffers from the mechanics of Martin’s story-telling. We see it from Arya’s perspective and because she doesn’t see the moment of death, it’s almost possible to misread it and not realise what’s happened. Then it moves on to a Bran chapter, which does focus on it, but still feels anticlimactic.
7 – The Battle Of The Blackwater
I was thrilled watching this episode in Season Two of GoT, but remember reading comments from book-readers who grumbled that it had to squeeze too much into one episode and the budget of a TV show (a similar complaint about previous battles had been rendered mostly moot by the fact that most of them take place away from our main action in the books too). But having now read the second book, I don’t think it’s a fair criticism. Sure, A Clash Of Kings takes its time with proceedings, but this is largely because we can only experience things on character at a time. And there’s nothing to match the adrenaline rush of watching Bronn fire his arrow to ignite the wildfire…
8 – The Red Wedding
If I’d thought the Blackwater episode had been TV perfection, it was only because I hadn’t seen The Rains Of Castamere. The Red Wedding was the scene that made HBO want to produce Game Of Thrones, and again I think they did it better. Taking pregnant Talisa along (rather than leaving anonymous Jeyne behind) added so much fresh horror and tragedy, while Roose Bolton’s part in the betrayal was much more shocking (largely because we’d seen relatively little of him, while in the books we’d already come to dislike him). To be honest, this is all quibbling about two things that are basically perfect, but I think the show edged it.
I should state again at this point that I love the Song Of Ice And Fire books and will be continuing to read them, even at the expense of spoilers for the rest of the show. By the time Season Four starts I’ll probably be bang up to date, book-wise, and it will be an interesting experience watching events unfold with some prior knowledge and expectations. Will the changes the writers make start to annoy me? Does my slight preference come from having watched it before reading any of the books (and vice versa for those who hold the opposite view)?
We’ll see, but at the moment I’m just grateful to have both of them in my life, to treasure both for the things they share and the little ways they differ.