Game of Thrones: How Much is the Show Departing From the Book?

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To get an expert's opinion on how well HBO has adapted George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones for television, we asked Pietari Kortekangas—a.k.a. RitariKnight, the editor of the Game of Thrones showspace here at TV.com and a longtime fan of the A Song of Ice and Fire books on which the series is based—to share his thoughts.

Caution: There are very slight spoilers in the article for those who have not read the books, with an emphasis on very slight! Read at your own risk.


Adapting the Un-Adaptable
How does HBO's new fantasy series Game of Thrones compare to its source material? Author George R.R. Martin is involved as a co-executive producer and even as a writer for the show (he wrote the upcoming eighth episode in the first season and will write another episode for the second season), which should bode well for the story to stay as true possible to the books. Martin, who spent a decade in Hollywood writing for TV, has said that he wrote these novels as a response to studio executives always demanding that he trim his scripts to fit the budget. He wanted to tell a story that literally has thousands of characters, dozens and dozens of locations, a vast history and mythology, and bigger “special effects” than anything anyone's ever seen before. He set out to tell an un-filmable story. So now that HBO is adapting that story for TV with a large-but-still-limited budget, let's look at how it's done in the six episodes that've aired so far.

Martin has built a very rich mythology, and conveying that to viewers is probably HBO's biggest challenge; it needs to come out mostly through characters' conversations, and lots of talk that’s basically just exposition can get old very quickly. I mean, how many times have we seen a conversation in a movie or on a TV show where it's obvious that, in the real world, such a conversation would never take place?

So far Game of Thrones has provided a ton of exposition, but for the most part it has been doled out in interesting ways. The writers have opted for the reveal-only-what's-necessary-for-the-next-scene approach—which should make some parts of the story more difficult to follow for the uninitiated, but makes the show more timeless and re-watchable. I would recommend re-watching the whole first season, once it's finished airing to better understand the details and the richness of the story. And read the book afterward, too; it’s excellent.

A-Casting We Will Go
The cast is huge—Season 1 features 18 star-billed actors and around 60 recurring roles, plus dozens of guest roles. The show has already been renewed for Season 2, and that will only drive the cast numbers up.

The show's casting so far is excellent. Sean Bean (Ned Stark) and Peter Dinklage (Tyrion) are perfect; both topped the shortlists for their respective roles in the executive producers’ minds. Emilia Clarke is a revelation as Dany, as are child actors Maisie Williams as Arya and Isaac Hempstead-Wright as Bran. Of course, there are differences between the show's depiction of its characters and the books' descriptions of them, and sometimes they're striking. On the show, many of the characters are older than they are in the books, which is the biggest change by a mile. Also, Tyrion Lannister is not the hideously ugly dwarf he is in the books—though he does retain the same personality. The Targaryens' coloring is not quite the same; their hair is more white than silver, and their eyes lack the unusual violet color described in the books, but that’s not really a big deal. And a slim Lysa Arryn instead of a plump one is no big deal; she’s equally deranged regardless.

There are also differences in the characterizations of some of the main characters: Catelyn, though still resentful of Jon Snow, is not as devilish toward him as she is in the book. Cat's stance toward Ned’s departure for King’s Landing is different, too—on the show she was very much against it, but in the book she was the one who tried to persuade him to go. On the show, Jaime and Cersei Lannister have been portrayed in a more complex fashion from the get-go; in the books, we didn't get to see what Jaime is really like as a person until volume three, and the same happened with Cersei in book four.

Finally, a few changes have been made to some character developments. In Dany’s case it is understandable, since much of her development in the books comes through her thoughts, but we can’t hear them in the show. Having her speak all her thoughts aloud, alone or in company, would be silly, now, wouldn't it? Thus, her story arc is somewhat differently portrayed; instead of being seduced by Drogo on their wedding night, she was practically raped, and is slowly coming to understand that she can control her life and not just be a puppet. But Dany's slow understanding happens in the book as well, so the only change, really, is how the development is shown on-screen.

Where Did That Come From?
A few of the changes have left me somewhat baffled, though. I’ll mention two. Early in Episode 2, Cersei went to visit Cat in Bran’s chambers, where she told Cat how she lost her first son. That conversation never took place in the book. There’s nothing wrong with adding such scenes to the show; on the contrary, they flesh out the characters nicely. The thing that confused me about this one was one bit of detail in Cersei’s little tale to Cat. In the books, Cersei never gave birth to any other children beside the three she has. I’ve been following the discussions on many forums about the TV show, and many theories based on the news in this scene suggest that Cersei and Robert’s first boy died an infant. From the books’ point of view, those discussions are mostly going in the wrong direction: The dead baby is misleading people to theorize things you would never even think of if you read the books. The private conversation between Cersei and Robert in Episode 5 at least ruled out the possibility that Cersei was lying to Cat about the boy (which was a possibility before that scene). This is either poor writing or very clever writing; we’ll find out when we get far enough into the HBO version's story.

Another scene that has raised cries of outrage from fans of the book: the one in which Littlefinger told Sansa about The Hound’s childhood. This piece of background on The Hound was disclosed to Sansa in the book, but not by Littlefinger. The info came from The Hound himself, who told her and then threatened that she'd better not tell anyone while escorting her back to her chambers after the tourney. Many readers, myself included, feel this was a strange change to make, considering the special kind of relationship Sansa has with The Hound in the books. The tale of how his face was burned by his big brother was an important, early step in that relationship. With that exchange absent from the show, it begs the question of whether their relationship will be different than it is in the books. It’s possible the writers will add other scenes to develop their relationship toward what we readers expect, but then again, maybe not—especially if the executive producers have decided to forgo the whole relationship to save screen time for other matters. (It's a pity if that is the case, but I could understand such a decision being made.)

The Devil's in the Details
Other changes have been made to the scenes found in the book. I’ll mention just one as an example: The first episode started like the book, with a prologue scene. Even though the basic stories in the two prologues are similar, the execution is very different—especially in the details. On TV, the action appeared to take place much closer to The Wall, while in the book the three rangers came upon the dead Wildling camp nine days after leaving Castle Black. In the book, there's no mysterious symbol of dead body parts laid out on the snow; the dead lay where they’ve been slain, with their limbs mostly attached to their respective torsos. In the book, the White Walkers, also known as The Others, wear icy (white) armor and look less primitive. The leader of the ranging expedition, who was not named in the show at all, died quickly in the HBO version; not so in Martin’s novel. And so on and so forth. So as you can see, the basic idea in the prologue stayed true to the book, but many of the details were different, overall making the scene more horror-like.

It's obvious that HBO can't stick to the book page for page, but so far the changes that've been made seem appropriate. What do you think?


Thank you, Pietari, for your contributions! And readers, weigh in: How do you feel about the differences between the show and the books?

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