A Song of Ice and Fire vs Game of Thrones: The Perils of Adaptation

Written by Jack McMahon.

Spoiler warning: for the night is dark and full of terrors.

Books vs film/television: it is the eternal debate that rages on and, more often than not, always results in a win for the novelists out there. The medium of a novel shares many similarities with film—they are both storytelling mediums, both create a transportive experience for the viewer or reader. The aim is to create a world that we can enjoy and cherish, laugh or cry, bringing us closer to our own humanity or further away. But it is when you cross these mediums that you enter an interesting dilemma: the differences in these methods of storytelling can often cause creative friction.

This brings us to A Song of Ice and Fire: an iconic fantasy series written by George R. R. Martin. It was initially said to be unadaptable. The multiple political, military, and personal storylines all interwoven with dozens of key characters makes for an unparalleled reading experience. But because of such a richly created and complicated world, it was nearly impossible to fathom including all of these details in a visual format. Along came David Benioff and D.B. Weiss with the idea to turn Martin’s sprawling epic into an HBO television series—it was the visual medium that made the most sense. Unlike film, they had time to tell the story, and the rest is history.

Game of Thrones became a worldwide phenomenon, praised for its intricacy, genre subversion, and its audacity to show gratuitous sex and violence. It was compelling television, garnering countless awards and rushing in a new era of television. But somewhere along the line, the television show seemed to lose its way, resulting in an unprecedented amount of fan backlash for the final season of the show. The visual production was flawless, the acting was great, the direction was handled with a steady hand, so what went wrong? The writing. The seeds for this failure were sewn years before and bloomed to create what would become season eight, illustrating the perils of adapting another’s work.

If a book were a river, then a screenplay is a road—it must be straight to the point, acting as a blueprint for the entire production. The first three seasons of Game of Thrones were nearly a page for page adaptation of the books. The strong writing of George R.R. Martin can be seen clearly, with the showrunners proving their talent at adapting the material for the screen. Adapting for the screen is difficult. What do you keep and what must you cut? How do you best honor the source material?

The first book was 780 pages featuring nine point of view characters. This is not including the numerous supporting characters who navigate the interwoven narratives of the point of view characters. The writers both added and subtracted the viewpoints of certain characters. For instance, Littlefinger, Varys, and Robb were never point of view characters in the books. Their actions were only ever perceived through another character—we never got to see them alone. Yet they played prominent roles in the show, directly driving the story. The writers were able to expand upon the world, and they had the luxury to include nearly every main plot point that George R.R. Martin carefully devised over decades of work. This resulted in the near universal acclaim for Game of Thrones over the first four seasons. The adaptation from page to screen was incredibly successful. It was a faithful retelling of the books, bringing subtlety and nuanced pacing that hadn’t been seen before. But that’s where it started to go wrong.

The problem arose in the adaptation of A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons.Martin released these books many years apart, yet in narrative terms, the books are happening in conjunction with each other. Two halves to a story split up into two sets of characters, all happening at the same time. Since essentially this is one monstrously long book, to adapt it as a show you need to condense it into one whole story. That means adapting a combined 1895 pages and an astounding twenty-five point of view characters into seasons five and six of Game of Thrones. The problem with having to cut and condense storylines is that you are changing the initial pacing the show had. In turn, you are also taking away key character defining moments from characters and even cutting main storylines. For instance, Tyrion’s epic journey across Essos, the political plot of Dorne, and the invasion of Westeros by Aegon Targaryen.

But even with these issues, the show was still successful, and fans still loved the show. These changes were needed when adapting work. But season seven signalled a big writing shift that developed into the mediocrity that followed in season eight. Put quite simply, Game of Thrones ran out of books. The showrunners had to steer these intricate characters into a satisfying conclusion without the luxury of adapting. They had to create. It was a problem that the writers didn’t think they had to face. They expected the next book to be out by the time season seven rolled around, but Martin proved to be notoriously slow with his writing process. The pacing that was disrupted from the difficult adaption of A Feast for Crows and A Dance of Dragons contributed to the nonsensical decline that would eventuate when the showrunners ran out of pre-existing material. Essentially, the writers had to create new content that directly led off the source material. They had to adapt a work that was not yet finished.

Viewers had expectations of what Game of Thrones should be, based off the adapted work that built its legacy. But when that foundation was taken away, we were left with a very hollow show with surface level ideas—a shiny exterior, but with utterly no heart.

Jack’s work can be found in the Skeptic, Contact, and Harmony editions of WORDLY.

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