There are several problems with adapting a series of books into a movie or a TV-series, and too often such adaptations fall short of capturing the quality of the original source material. HBO’s Game of Thrones, however, has managed to do what every good adaptation should: use its weaknesses to its advantage.
Though the books are much grander in scale, featuring immense amounts of history, characters and locations, the series cannot benefit from a similarly epic scope. Due to budgetary concerns, and in efforts to fit the story better into a TV-screen, the breadth of the story is much smaller – but also much more personal. The series has done a wonderful job during its five-season run to not only keep up with the quality of the source material, but also occasionally surpass it. Here are the six ways in which it manages to do just that.
1. Better pacing
One issue that often arises when creating a film based on a novel is that the pacing suffers. Game of Thrones has the advantage of dedicating ten episodes to each book, but keeping the story properly paced remains difficult. Surprisingly, the show has still been able to keep a steady, tight pace – one that is sometimes even better than the books.
Sure, there are important things in the books that have had to be cut out from the show, as is the deal with every adaptation, but trimming the story also gave the writers an ability to better rearrange the different plots. Bran’s storyline, for example, has never really been able to grab my attention in the novels, and reading through those lengthy chapters has been a chore. The show, on the other hand, distributes each episode’s runtime more evenly between the characters, so you never have to wait too long to return to a storyline that interest you.
However, it was when the series caught up with the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, that it managed to significantly tighten the storytelling. The book had been criticized for a lack of focus, as well as for lacking the most interesting characters of the story. The show took the opportunity to restructure the events of the fourth and fifth book, tying them closer together as well as starting to create its own, original storylines. Not everybody might’ve agreed with these changes, but they did end up improving the show’s pacing significantly.
2. The locations
“Winter is coming” is definitely one of the most recognizable quotes from the show. As such, the climate plays a large part in the story. The White Walkers are very much the physical representation of the impending winter and the cold and death it will bring with it, so to realize just what kind of a threat they’re bringing, the audience must understand what it means for the winter to come.
I’ve been camping during the dark winters of Finland, in temperatures as low as -30 Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit) – which is so cold that my snot would freeze solid before it had time to drop off my nose. And the worst thing about the cold is that it’s always there. It never goes away. It constantly tries to find a way under your clothes, onto your body and all the way to your bones. Get a bit too wet, or sit down for too long, and it’s there. It’s always there, all around you, just constantly nibbling your face, waiting.
Conveying all that through written word is difficult. Text can only deliver a single idea at a single point in time, so creating the feeling of that kind of omnipresent threat would mean constantly reminding the reader of it.
The show, however, doesn’t have that problem, thanks to being a visual medium that is able to deliver multiple ideas at once. Northern Iceland offered an absolutely fantastic shooting location for the lands beyond The Wall, the true north of Westeros. You only have to take one look at it and you can feel the cold.
The same is true for other kinds of weather as well, whether it be the harsh, soaking rain of the Battle of the Blackwater or the burning, suffocating heat of Red Waste desert. Thanks to the show’s excellent cinematography, you never have to be reminded of the ways the world itself fights against its people – you only have to watch.
3. The fights
I’ve never quite felt that the written word can do action scenes justice, since they rely so heavily on you actually seeing something extraordinary, instead of just imagining it. Some authors can describe action especially vividly, but they are few and far between. I have nothing against George R.R. Martin’s writing abilities – the action he writes is very entertaining – but it simply can’t match up against actually witnessing the action with your own eyes.
The show has had some great fight choreography, ranging from the swordfight between Ned and Jaime to the acrobatic duel between Oberyn and The Mountain. The larger fights have been just as impressive, whether it be the Unsullied and Drogon attacking the slave-masters of Asapor, or the chilling, hopeless fight against the White Walkers and their army in season five.
Yes, yes, the Battle of the Blackwater was exciting to read through, but nothing compares to actually seeing a fleet explode in green wildfire right before your eyes. And yes, the sword fights and the fear of losing one of my favorite characters made turning the pages incredibly suspenseful, but it was an entirely different thing to see Brienne of Tarth and The Hound just go all out against each other in a brutal brawl. And as shocking as the death of Oberyn at the hands of the Mountain was for the book readers, I’m sure the sight of seeing a man’s skull crushed with bare hands stuck to the show viewers’ mind like a nightmare fueling leech.
4. It’s less subtle – which is a good thing
One thing you can never say about George R.R. Martin is that he’s too obvious with his writing. The stories told in the books contain so many long-standing mysteries that still haven’t even begun to unravel, with Jon Snow’s mother being one example. Sure, the clues are there, and the fans have been able to create some very convincing theories, but Martin often avoids outright telling things to the readers, preferring to subtly imply them. This adds to the grand feel of the story – the world doesn’t revolve around the main characters, and so there are things left unknown to them. However, this can sometimes hurt the experience.
Take, for instance, the aspect of the books that the TV series seems to exaggerate most: the sexuality of Renly Baratheon and his relationship with The Knight of Flowers Loras Tyrell. In the books, the relationship was only implied with a few subtle lines – in fact, the entire thing was so easy to miss that the author had to publicly confirm it afterwards. Loras’ line about Renly’s passing, “”When the sun has set, no candle can replace it,” was probably the most solid confirmation of their relationship that the book offered, which could’ve easily been interpreted as a knight’s loyalty towards his former king.
The show on the other hand makes the romance between the two men very clear. They are seen sharing a bed together, and their relationship, as well as sexuality, is explicitly stated by multiple characters, with Olenna Tyrell even going as far as describing Loras “a sword swallower.” Some might question the significance of bringing the sexuality and the relationship between these characters so prominently forward, but I feel that the romantic relationship of one of the possible kings of Westeros, as well as his and and Loras’ homosexuality in an unaccepting society, is rather important to the story, and I’m glad that the show decided to present it more clearly than the books.
5. Warmer characters
There’s no denying that the characters in the Song of Fire and Ice books are interesting and human. However, as the story rolled forward and the world kept hammering them down more and more, sometimes all the way to the grave, I started growing weary of the way they were being shaped. Many of the characters – Arya, Sansa, Cercei, Brienne, Jon and others – were thrown into such dangerous and hostile lives that it was necessary for them to be on their guard all the time, having little to no one to trust and talk to. Very few of the characters had the opportunity to show genuine emotion, having instead to put on a charade or hide their weaknesses, and as time went on they started to feel less like people and more like pawns in the history of Westeros.
Which is fine – A Song of Ice and Fire is definitely a grand story which stretches far beyond its main characters, but I found this approach very tiring. The series had done a good job of introducing us to the relatively warm and happy lives the characters had been living before misery started to rain down on them, but now it was stretching that misery for so long that it was hard to keep caring anymore. Everything kept going down and down, with nothing valuable in sight – no warm moments reminding the reader of just what the characters were fighting for.
“You might be asking: “Isn’t the show just a series of miserable events as well?” Well yes, but it takes a more character-centric approach to the story and usually likes to humanize its cast, add warmth to them, and make them more identifiable than in the books. The relationships between the two Stark sisters and their guardians, Arya and The Hound and Sansa and Tyrion for example, are much more pleasant to follow than in the books where Sansa absolutely hated Tyrion, and The Hound was a lot colder to Arya. In contrast to their playful chatter about sheep dung pranks in the show, the books depict Sansa being thoroughly and constantly disgusted by Tyrion’s appearance and treacherous family name. And while in the show The Hound claims to “watch over” Arya, such words are never stated in the books, and it is very much up to the reader’s interpretation whether The Hound cares more about Arya herself or her prize money.
The show wasn’t afraid to throw in some fanservice either, such as Brienne almost blushing in front of Cercei while talking about Jaime. These alterations served as moments of joy in the character’s lives to break up the constant grey misery. This in turn made the moments when everything fell apart much more tragic and effective, because the characters had actually lost something precious instead of just sinking deeper into the tragedy that had tried to drown them since the beginning.
6. Elevating the minor characters
One of the problems with creating a story as big as A Song of Ice and Fire, with so much history, with so many families, and so with many characters running around, is that it’s difficult to keep track of them, let alone make them all interesting and likeable. This, combined with the budget constraints, led to many decisions which combined or drastically changed characters to better capture the audience’s attention. While the books might be about the grand events of the land viewed through the eyes of certain people, the show is absolutely about the characters themselves, who just happen to have the unfortunate fate to be dragged into these events.
The most obvious examples of characters that are elevated from their original status are the non-point of view characters, the ones who have not had their own chapters in the books but are still given their designated moments in the show, such as Little Finger, Varys and Ramsay. The show gives us the unique opportunity to view these characters not through the eyes of others, but just as themselves. There are also characters like Bronn, a savvy but common sellsword in the books, who through some strong dialogue and excellent performance has risen to be one of the most charismatic characters of the show, so much in fact that he was gifted a major role in the Dorne storyline during the fifth season.
But the most drastic and powerful change, in my opinion, was the character of Shae, a simple prostitute in the books whose alterations added much drama and emotion into Tyrion’s story.
In the show, Shae is in fact a combination of two characters: the book’s version of Shae, as well as Tysha, the prostitute whom Tyrion married when he was younger, only to be later told that she had been paid by Jaime to marry him. It was also originally Tywin’s slander towards Tysha, not Shae, which provoked Tyrion to shoot him. The decision to attach this romance to Shae might have made Tyrion’s story arc more traditional, but I thought it also made him much more sympathetic. The original storyline where Tyrion falls in love with the prostitute he knows he’s paying to love him was tragic, yes, but there wasn’t a huge emotional shock when Shae finally betrayed him. But by making the relationship between the two an actual two sided romance and then tearing it apart, Tyrion’s fate was rendered much, much sadder. The contrast between what I still believe to be one of the most beautiful lines on TV, “I am yours and you are mine,” and Tyrion strangling Shae until she lies dead in front of him is just much more tragic and something that I’ll happily take over what was delivered in the books.
Niko Nikkilä is a Finnish explorer of games, comics, movies and general geekery. He produces a regular, critical gaming series on his Youtube channel but is also working on his first book, which’ll hopefully be finished once the summer is over… and winter is coming. He can be best stalked on Twitter @CoconutmilkF.