Usurping the Throne: Game of Thrones and George R. R. Martin's Dilemma

Something interesting happened this year in Season Four of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Whereas until now the show had been largely shadowing George R. R. Martin’s novels (albeit with some trimming down and condensing), this season the television series became a separate entity. Not only were some events changed outright, but characters died that didn’t die in the books and there may even have been scenes that explore what might be revealed in future books. 

I’m not going to go into details on all of the changes. You can check out this site for a detailed list (very detailed). What I am interested in is the gap that seems to be widening between both series.

It’s not unusual for a television show to diverge from its source material — look at The Walking Dead, for example, which strays quite far from the comic story lines.  But Martin’s books are a tighter weave, and for three seasons now, the show has been seeming to follow the same warp and weft. 

Can’t we hold in our minds two separate versions of the Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire stories?

The reasons for these changes are numerous — one is clearly to make things more exciting for the viewer. Martin never wrote a scene where Brienne and The Hound fought each other, but I was damned excited by that very scene in the Season 4 finale. The show runners can see what they consider missed opportunities in the books and fix them. I don’t think these variations cause too much dissonance in the overall storyline and in some cases give the characters a bit more to do and react to. 

Another reason, however, must be the glacial pace at which the books have been coming out. Now I defend George R. R. Martin’s right to take as much time as he wants with his books (they are his books, after all) but the television series doesn’t have that luxury. They are committed to putting out a new season every year. Soon they’ll be caught up to the books. 

In an interview with HBO Martin said

I am aware of the TV series moving along behind me like a giant locomotive, and I know I need to lay the track more quickly, perhaps, because the locomotive is soon going to be bearing down on me. The last thing I want is for the TV series to catch up with me. I've got a considerable headstart, but production is moving faster than I can write. I'm hoping that we'll finish the story at about the same time... we'll see. 

Martin is optimistic, but there’s still no word on The Winds of Winter. I’m starting to have my doubts. And that’s where I start to really wonder as both a reader and a writer. 

Both Martin and the showrunners have said that they've met and Martin gave them a general sense of where the books were going to end. So Benioff and Wise have a place to shoot for. They have a destination on the horizon and it seems unlikely that they would ignore that, assuming that it’s the fitting end. So they can continue their series and get there and everything will be fine. 

But will it? As a reader, part of me is bothered by the idea that the ending to the series could appear on the show before it appears in the books. Part of the suspense for a reader like me is to know what the ending is. To experience that climax and then dissolution of tension. To go through that journey. If I know where the books are headed as I sit down to read, part of the excitement would be lost. 

However, I think it feels even worse as a writer. If it were me, I wouldn’t want anyone else to put an ending to any of my works. So how best to reconcile these two expressions? 

If it were up to me, and I was in charge of the series’ direction, I would choose to commit to my own version of the series from here on out. And ultimately, I think that’s what the show runners might be doing. This was the first season in which it seemed like they were confident enough to make the show their own. Why not take that all the way? 

Diehard fans will know that there’s plenty of speculation about how the books end, about which characters are related to others, about who will end up being the true Queen or King of Westeros and how the story will shake out. There are several great theories out there, too. Why not just pick the one that makes the most sense to the show runners and aim for that? 

Haven’t we seen this in the past? Every Marvel or DC movie ever made takes liberties with the storylines they are based on. Most film adaptations of novels bear only a superficial resemblance to the source material. Aren’t we used to this? 

Can’t we hold in our minds two separate versions of the Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire stories? Does it matter if Brienne goes on to great things in the television series only to die in the books? Can we cheer for a redeemed Jaime Lannister in the books only to curse a relapse into dickery in the series? 

Martin himself seems to think things will differ: 

Ultimately, it’ll be different. You have to recognize that there are going to be some differences. I’m very pleased with how faithful the show is to the books, but it’s never gonna be exactly the same. You can’t include all the characters. You’re not going to include their real lines of dialogue or subplot, and hopefully each will stand on its own. We have Gone With the Wind the movie and we have Gone With the Wind the book. They’re similar but they’re not the same. There are three version of The Maltese Falcon, none of which are exactly the same as the novel The Maltese Falcon. Each one stands on its own and has its own value and is great in its own way. Rings is a great example. There are Tolkien purists who hate Peter Jackson’s versions, but I think they’re a small minority. Most people who love Tolkien love what Jackson did, even though he may have omitted Tom Bombadil. He captured the spirit of the books.

It’s quite possible that, emboldened by that success of the series so far, the show runners have decided they can tell the story the way they want. The characters have been established, the situations set up. All they have to do is to hit the major story points at the appropriate times. The rest of the time they can do whatever they want. 

My question to you is, can you handle that? Would you be happy if the book series and television series became truly separate entities? Or would you lose some appreciation for one or the other? Is there a way to win here that doesn’t involve the book series wrapping up first? Let me know what you think in the comments. 

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Rajan Khanna

Column by Rajan Khanna

Rajan Khanna is a fiction writer, blogger, reviewer and narrator. His first novel, Falling Sky, a post-apocalyptic adventure with airships, is due to be released in October 2014. His short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and several anthologies. His articles and reviews have appeared at and and his podcast narrations can be heard at Podcastle, Escape Pod, PseudoPod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Lightspeed Magazine. Rajan lives in New York where he's a member of the Altered Fluid writing group. His personal website is and he tweets, @rajanyk.

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will.mazgay's picture
will.mazgay from Toronto is reading Trinity by Conn Iggulden July 25, 2014 - 10:54am

People are far too critical about the changes D & D have made. Not to say that fans aren't allowed opinions, but I'm sure that most of the people complaining have never worked in television. They don't understand the realities of budgetary constraints, time constraints and other things along those lines. When Martin set out to write his sweeping fantasy epic, he did so with the intention of creating something unfilmable. He was tired of the constraints placed on him by working in television, and through his prose he wanted to write a larger than life story that was only limited by his imagination. The result was phenomenal. But now, D & D are trying to film the unfilmable. They are trying to capture the essence of Martin's books, the scope, the magic, the lore, the sweeping battles, and all the minute details that make ASOIF what it is into 10 hours of TV a year. So far I think they have done a fabulous job.

That's not to say that I approve of absolutely everything they've done with the show. The last scene of season 3 with a crowd surfing Dany comes to mind. That is the nature of the beast when it comes to television though. Directors are always going to put their unique stamp on source material, and some times the results are going to upset people.

But for the most part I'm happy with the changes. They've served to make the source material a little bit more palatable for a TV audience. The fight between the Hound and Brienne was a fantastic example. I also appreciate how they have never missed the mark (in my opinion), with the big events of the story. The battles of Blackwater and the Wall respectively, the red and purple weddings. D & D have succeeded in bringing the emotional weight of those events onto the screen.

There are book purists out there who think the show is a complete waste of time. Whether they have something against D & D's adaption specifically, or they doubt the power of TV to tell engaging stories as a whole, I don't know. 10 years ago would anyone have believed that one of the most popular TV shows in the world would be a fantasy show? For a long time, fantasy and sci-fi programming have been pushed to the fringes. We have been told that those stories don't have as much power as others. The success of Game of Thrones has proved otherwise. It's brought the genre into the mainstream, and introduced people to a wonderful series of novels, novels they would have never read without being introduced to them by the TV show. 

I hope in the future that more projects like GOT will enrapture audiences. D & D and Martin's work have definitely laid the tracks for other similar success stories. I don't understand why people who consider themselves champions of the fantasy genre bash GOT so publicly and so venomously. We want more shows like GOT, not less. It's perfectly alright to have your problems with editorial choices or things you thought were lost in translation, but to flat out say (as many have), that D & D are doing the world a disservice, well that's just ignorant. They have shown audiences that epic fantasy is about more than just orcs and goblins, and the cookie cutter struggle between good and evil. They have brought into the light of day a genre that is full of complexity and nuance. They have introduced a generation to a type of story telling that they wouldn't have been aware of without GOT. Regardless of how things shake out with the show, how it ends, they have enriched the landscape of modern storytelling through their efforts.




Sean Cooper's picture
Sean Cooper August 7, 2014 - 3:30am

Both are good. Only a fool thinks that a TV series is for reading along to

Laurent Stanevich's picture
Laurent Stanevich August 9, 2014 - 7:33pm

First of all, as Martin points out, it's inevitable that the TV series and the books will be different, so it's pointless to insist on that as an ideal state. I also agree that when D&D go beyond that, and actually create their own narrative events, like Brienne and the Hound, they've done a great job, and I'm all for more creative excellence.

But even if D&D and Martin do all try and follow the same canonical structure, so that the main events from both remain in sync, there's still so much _more_ to the books (by design) that even if the TV series wraps up the narrative arc first, there's an enormous amount of insight and detail that will only be available once the books are complete. For example, even if the TV series is the first to reveal/confirm basic narrative events like "R+L=J"  (which I'm guessing is true), the books are likely to bring us a _lot_ more nuance in terms of the backstory and the emotional lives of the characters involved than the series ever could. There are already also huge storylines that have already been hinted at in the books that will be left out of the series altogether -- some of those could not only enrich the "core" canon, but actually flip them around completely. What if a character who performs some great altruistic act in the TV series is later revealed to have selfish motives in the books? What if some events that seem to happen by chance when we see them in the series turn out to have been the result of hidden machinations in the books?

There are just many, many ways that this _could_ work out really well, even if the TV series reaches the narrative finish line first. Thankfully, all the major creative forces involved have done such a good job so far, that I think there's a very good chance they could pull it off.

Hodgesr's picture
Hodgesr August 13, 2014 - 8:07am

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Dessie Edmunds's picture
Dessie Edmunds August 15, 2014 - 4:46pm

As a reader foremost last season was a jarring experience.  That is all