Monday, June 1, 2015

"Game of Thrones" has been freed from the books -- and it's better than ever

When I watched the first season of HBO's "Game of Thrones" I found it absolutely thrilling, in large part because I was wholly innocent of the books by George R.R. Martin. Everything was new and vibrant. 

A dense, personality-driven mythological world in which the traditional heroic-and-true "main" character gets killed off at the end of the first book/season? That's brash, innovative storytelling, and I loved to see someone(s) bring a new approach to my beloved sword-n-sorcery genre.

By the time season two debuted, though, I'd torn through all five published books of Martin's series, which as fans know is actually called "A Song of Fire and Ice." GoT, as it's come to be universally known and hashtagged, is simply the title of the first novel in a planned seven-book series. 

But it's a killer title, and it aptly describes Martin's world -- various noble families vying for power and crushing those beneath them -- better than anything else.

(If you're tempted to be impressed by my speed reading, don't. When a "season" of television only lasts nine weeks, that means you have nearly 10 months of downtime in between. Even given the formidable lengths of Martin's books -- the man laughs at the 1,000-page threshold -- and my own itinerant reading schedule due to work/other work/family, it's quite doable.)

The difference between experiencing a cinematic work with or without having read the source material is wider than the Narrow Sea. I can only imagine what it must have been like to encounter the Red Wedding without knowing what will happen beforehand. Even just the ink-and-dead-trees version was an emotionally wrenching event.

So I'd be lying if I said the succeeding seasons of GoT haven't held somewhat less of a thrill for me. 

Oh, they were marvelously made and acted. But while a work of art or craftsmanship can please you an infinite number of times, it can only surprise you once. And a great deal of the appeal of Martin's world-building is his willingness to introduce sudden, head-snapping twists in the plot -- most notably, the death of characters you might otherwise have surmised were indispensable.

As things went on through seasons two through four, the show began to diverge more and more from the books. Some of this was out of simple necessity -- Martin has literally hundreds of named characters and innumerable side plots. Even with 20 shows per season, things would still have to be culled.

At the first the differences were mild -- shortening a journey or condensing eight secondary characters into three.

(Editors' note: Many, many spoilers ahead.)

But as time has gone on the show has made increasingly substantial changes from the books. And I'll admit many of these have bothered me. Even as I acknowledged the narrative reasoning behind them, I hated seeing some of my favorite parts of Martin's novels excised. 

That taint of disappointment has attached itself to my feelings about the show, knowing I'll never get to see the dark enigma of Coldhands brought to the screen, or the steely resolve of Lady Stoneheart and her increasingly less-than-merry band of outlaws.

As season five began we had a TV show and a series of books with the same bones of narrative structure, but much of the fleshly exterior has been altered completely, Qyburn-like. 

Minor, fleeting characters in the books have evolved into major enduring figures -- Bronn the mercenary and the fiend Ramsey Snow come to mind. Meanwhile, other people populating the pages have been diminished or eliminated in favor of others. 

It seems Jon Connington's storyline (greyscale infection and a quest for redemption) has been folded into Jorah Mormont's. A prince of Dorne's hapless diplomatic mission has been rendered into utter nothingness (which is probably where it belonged anyway).

Some important characters are on completely different journeys, both figuratively and geographically. 

When last we left the book versions of Jamie Lannister and Brienne of Tarth, they had evolved from adversaries into allies who had just embarked on some mysterious purpose. In the show, Jamie leads an ill-advised rescue mission to Dorne for his niece/daughter Myrcella, replacing another member of the Kingsguard. Brienne's TV counterpart has successfully tracked Sansa Stark to Winterfell and is biding her time.

Sansa was still in the Vale under the protection/tutelage of Petyr Baelish in book form, pretending to be his bastard daughter. Now she's married Ramsey Snow (now Bolton) in a long-game plan of Baelish's, replacing a commoner girl who instead suffered at the vile young lord's hands.

In the books, Jon Snow was leading a hot-headed mission southward to avenge his family against the Boltons, and suffering the pointed objections of his fellow men of the Night's Watch. Now, he's gone with wildling leader Tormund to Hardhone to convince his fellows to join the them behind the Wall, and encountered an army of zombies and white walkers for his troubles.

Sam Tarly traveled with Gilly and a baby (though not Gilly's) across the sea and then to Oldtown; his TV counterpart is still holding down the fort at Castle Black.

Also, an increasingly large number of people who are still alive in the books are already dead on the show -- Mance Rader, Catelyn Stark, Barristan Selmy, Jojen Reed, Grenn, Pyp. And some dead yet live -- Kevan Lannister, Pycelle.

Heck, Robb Stark married an entirely different woman in the books. I could keep going, but you get the idea.

The future is now

As season five is winding up, we've now moved completely past where Martin is with his books. Tyrion Lannister, on an interminable series of voyages to reach Daenerys Targaryen, has now met her as of last night's show. And it was all the crackling good encounter we'd hoped for. The existential threat of the dead army, which had more or less been shunted aside in the novels, was hauntingly crystallized in the big combat sequence.

We are now facing a situation that's unprecedented in the popular arts: a screen adaptation of an ongoing creative work that will conclude before the "source" material does.

Martin has committed to seven books, but the sixth won't be published this year. Given his notoriously slow writing process, it could well be the year 2022 before he winds things up. Meanwhile, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have hinted strongly at concluding after two more seasons.

This situation presents a tremendous set of opportunities and challenges for "Game of Thrones." But, I would argue, most of the benefits accrue to the show -- and at the expense of the novels.

Benioff and Weiss aren't just making things up. Martin has debriefed them on what will happen in the last two books, and they're using that as the basis for what we'll see. No doubt things will continue to be changed around from Martin's vision to fit that of the TV show. And Martin has already talked about how the show has altered his plans for the books going forward. 

Thus, for awhile watching GoT on TV after having read the books became an exercise in seeing how the show differed from the novels. Now, it'll be about how the books changed things up from the show.

I've read comments from people who are disappointed by the fifth season of "Game of Thrones," complaining that "nothing happens." (Though I don't doubt those voices are fewer and quieter after last night's pulse-racing episode.) For me, this year's run has started out very well and just gotten stronger. 

I'd argue it's the best season yet. I can't wait to see what the last two episodes hold.

If at times HBO's "Game of Thrones" has struggled in its quandary of whether to conform or rebel against the expectations of Martin's books, now the show has finally, definitively been freed of them. The TV version of GoT is now the primary one that will exist in the forefront of the popular consciousness.

The future is now. Winter has finally come to Westeros. 


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