Friday, June 21, 2024

Why the Game of Thrones Adaptation is Better Than the Books

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If you didn’t live under a rock for the last eight years, you’re aware of the pop culture milestone that is Game of Thrones.

An adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, HBO’s flagship show is one of the most popular TV series of all time, with ratings that only get higher with every new season and every new episode. Illegal ratings are impressive too, and Thrones is among the most pirated shows as well.

The show isn’t just popular among audiences: it quickly became a critical darling and common presence in the most prestigious awards. The numbers for the Primetime Emmy Awards are impressive and record-breaking: Thrones received whopping 128 nominations, winning 47 of them, including Outstanding Drama Series in 2015, 2016, and 2018. Seasons 5 and 6 won 12 Emmys each, with the episode “Battle of the Bastards” grabbing 6 of them alone.

Everything surrounding Thrones’ popularity is unprecedented. The show has one of the largest ensemble casts on television and one of the highest budgets as well. It spanned into video games, all sorts of merchandise, and now even successor shows. It’s a common topic of excited conversation at work or parties.

And, in a fortnight, it will air its 8th and final season.

The show would not exist without the books, but it seems to have vastly surpassed its source material in popularity. Has it surpassed it in quality, though?

Don’t get me wrong, both media are excellent at what they do. However, it’s common to hear that adaptations of books, and fantasy book series in particular, are never as good as their source material. Today I’m here to argue the opposite, and I present you reasons why Game of Thrones is better than A Song of Ice and Fire.

1) It’s actually going to get an ending

Forgive me for being salty with this one, but Martin’s writing speed is legendary, being the subject of many jokes and fan debate—and occasional outrage. The fan outrage is counterproductive and we shouldn’t be entitled, but it’s still disappointing to be two books away from the ending with no perspective of seeing any of them published any time soon.

The last book to be published, A Dance with Dragons, hit the shelves almost eight (!) years ago, and the space between books gets larger and larger after each installment. There are too many plots open and characters’ fates unclear for us to safely guess the ending, in particular coming from a writer famous for his plot twists and trope deconstructions.

Meanwhile, HBO is releasing the show at a steady pace. We had to wait a bit longer for the final season, but now it’s finally here and I suspect it will be worth the wait.

Everybody appreciates closure, but the future of the book series is uncertain. Game of Thrones is likely the only ending we’re going to get, and we’re lucky that showrunners David Benioff & D.B. Weiss worked closely with Martin and know how the series is supposed to end.

2) The visuals are stunning

Possibly the first thing one would notice about Game of Thrones is how beautiful and visually impressive it is. With an extraordinary budget, the show has the resources to create scenes like the fall of the Wall or the Battle of the Bastards, not to mention anything involving dragons.

The budget would not mean anything without the incredibly talented people putting it to good use. Directors like Neil Marshall or Miguel Sapochnik gave us some of the most remarkable experiences in television, while costume designer Michele Clapton created iconic looks that are still reproduced in every geek convention. From the scenery to the soundtrack, Thrones is a delicious visual experience.

Plus if you’re into the books, it becomes even more effective to see in your screen classic moments like Daenerys taking Astapor, the Blackwater Bay, and, of course, the Red Wedding.

3) The actors are incredibly talented

…also known as “it’s a crime that Lena Headey never won an Emmy.”

Characters are arguably the driving force behind A Song of Ice and Fire, one of the main reasons why the books are so beloved. Martin created a great range of characters, most of them nuanced and complex, with solid motivations and compelling arcs. It wouldn’t be possible to successfully adapt the books without capable actors bringing these characters to life.

Luckily for us, Game of Thrones has a fantastic cast. Peter Dinklage is the most cited example and its hard to miss his skills since the very first season, but he’s far from the only one displaying his acting chops. Actors like Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner have been nailing difficult scenes since they were children, while others like Charles Dance, Natalie Dormer, or Pedro Pascal stole the show even with comparatively minor roles. Seriously, the actors are so good they could be speaking complete nonsense and we would still pass it as A+ dialogue.

It’s hard not to admire the commitment and effort they put into their roles. It has been paying off, and the show wouldn’t be what it is without its stars.

4) It’s darker and grittier

Visual media allows us to experience some elements more intensely, and that’s especially true for violence. The Westeros created by Martin is bleak and merciless, so translating some of its more gruesome moments to the screen would be enough to impact viewers. But Benioff & Weiss were not afraid to go darker than the books. In understanding the realities of this particular world, they made Westeros even more shocking and horrifying.

Characters like Joffrey took a level in awfulness, while others like Ramsay gained importance and screen time, with all the gruesomeness that it entails. Show-only scenes include Sansa’s storyline with the Boltons, Ramsay feeding his baby brother to hungry dogs, or the burning of Shireen. Not to mention that some scenes that were mostly just implied in the books, like Theon’s torture, were developed in the show.

Those choices are still in line with Martin’s themes and tone in the books, though. The author is famous for deconstructing fantasy tropes and happy endings, challenging more traditional and less nuanced fantasy like Tolkien. He aims for a grey morality and a more realistic approach, which isn’t always pleasant to the viewers. But to quote Ramsay,  

“If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” (Season 3, Episode 6: “The Climb”)

If that feels too much, worry not: we still have plenty of humor in the show. Comic relief characters and comedic moments make constant appearances to lighten the mood, because everything can’t be terrible all the time. *insert your pick of any Bronn one-liner ever*

5) The fast pacing and twists will keep you hooked

Pacing is one of the biggest differences between the show and books. The books get longer and longer with each new installment, but you often get a sense that not much is happening. What is Daenerys’ plot in A Clash of Kings? Or Brienne’s in A Feast for Crows? Or Tyrion’s in A Dance with Dragons? Your enjoyment will depend a lot on who your favorite characters are, but some points-of-view are simply less engaging than others, some have less exciting events going on. And are those food descriptions really necessary? Really? All of them?

Meanwhile, the show is fast-paced and keeps you constantly hooked. As Emilia Clarke said“It’s just go, go, go, go. Shocking moment to shocking moment. Epic moment to epic moment.”

There are many reasons why the show has a much more engaging pace, beyond the obvious differences between distinct kinds of media. The show trims a lot of the fat in the books, cutting subplots and characters that are less interesting and giving more room for the main players. So instead of focusing on Catelyn while Robb is out there winning battles, the show brings the Stark heir to the center stage.

The show also counts with impressive action scenes and shocking character deaths to keep the viewers’ attention. Some of the most shocking moments of Thrones are show-exclusive: Tommen and Myrcella’s deaths, Arya finishing House Frey, Cersei blowing up the sept, the confirmation of Jon’s heritage… Sure, we have reason to expect that similar scenes will happen in the books, but they haven’t happened yet. Likewise, the show also gives us long-awaited moments that the books have not, like Daenerys and Tyrion finally meeting, the Stark siblings reuniting, or Daenerys finally sailing to Westeros.

Then you also have key changes that raise the stakes, like Olly killing Ygritte. In the books, Jon doesn’t know who gave his beloved the fatal blow, which doesn’t carry the same weight as her death being at the hands of his protégé that we spent the whole season following.

All in all, the small changes make Thrones a more engaging experience, especially if you consider the slog that Martin hit with A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. Sorry, guys, they’re just not that entertaining.

6) The show cuts all the unimportant stuff from the books

What to cut and what to keep will always be a controversial decision when it comes to adaptations. With limited time and resources, the show simply could not bring everything from the books to the screen. Sure, seasons 1 and 2 came pretty close, but the books grew considerably in size and scope after that.

“It’s always been about adapting the series as a whole and following the map George laid out for us and hitting the major milestones, but not necessarily each of the stops along the way. It’s an adaptation, it will have to adapt in order to survive. There are always going to be some people who want everything to remain exactly as in the books. For us, it was never a choice.” (David Benioff)

There’s no way to keep every fan happy because there will always be a favorite character or scene left out, but the show did a solid job choosing what to keep and what to leave to the pages only.

Part of the reason why Game of Thrones has great pacing is precisely because it got rid of characters and subplots that don’t really impact the story. Just to name a few, we lost Lady Stoneheart, Aegon Targaryen, Victarion Greyjoy, Jon Connington, and most of House Martell like Arianne and Quentyn. And don’t get me started on all the dreams and prophecies!

Sometimes the subplots weren’t left out entirely, and the show merged characters whose storyline was essentially the same—like Gendry and Edric Storm. It also gave the roles of some characters to others, like having Ellaria in conflict with Doran instead of Arianne, or placing Sansa in Winterfell to marry Ramsay instead of Jeyne Poole.

In other words, Benioff & Weiss would rather move existing characters into dramatic situations, while Martin is constantly introducing new points-of-view and subplots, diluting the attention of the readers and the tension of the story.

Last but not least, the showrunners also don’t like to underestimate their audience. Several moments happen off-screen, like Brienne traversing Moat Cailin, the Lannisters taking Highgarden, or Arya returning to Westeros and infiltrating House Frey. It’s up to the smartest viewers to fill in the blanks.

7) The writing is outstanding

Each person values something different in a story, but for me, the crème de la crème of Game of Thrones is the writing. Benioff & Weiss are the main brains here, but the whole team is brilliant.

The writing is what makes Westeros what it is. It’s behind the great pacing or the engaging storylines, responsible for giving actors their clever dialogue and consistent motivations. Without skilled writers, the story’s political machinations would fall apart under minimal scrutiny and the internal consistency of a world like Westeros would be lost. The writing is what gives us the shocking and exciting moments that Thrones became so famous for. Everything comes back to it, and we wouldn’t have so much to talk about this show if not for the writing.

Sure, Martin laid out the foundation for Benioff & Weiss, but they were doing the hard adaptational choices and taking the story to a compelling direction once they had to depart from the source material. Many of the examples I gave in this article are Benioff & Weiss’ own creations, demonstrating what they have to offer.

Take Jon Snow, for example. He’s a very internal character, whose journey involves understanding the wildlings and the dangers of the White Walkers, struggling with leadership and duty, his parentage and his status as a bastard, even facing death itself. Yet in the hands of lesser writers, Jon could have easily turned into the cardboard action hero that we see in so many generic fantasy productions.

Benioff & Weiss were not afraid to make bold choices on behalf of what creatively makes sense and always gave us what feels most dramatically satisfactory. When we refer to the show as “Emmy-winning writing”, we really mean it.

Do you agree with my picks?

*Now that I have your attention, have a sweet look at your calendars and enjoy the vast Game of Thrones content that our site has to offer

Image courtesy of HBO

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