Prior to the season 4 finale a few weeks ago, Game of Thrones, the show based on author George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga, became the most popular show in HBO history. It beat out the 2002 season of The Sopranos, which averaged 18.2 million viewers, with a season average of 18.4 million total viewers. Needless to say the bloody dragons-and-swords drama has become quite a phenomenon, even the Queen of England herself recently got in on the action and visited the show’s Belfast set (regrettably, she didn’t sit on the Iron Throne though). But for however popular the television show has gotten there’s been small cries of dissent that have slowly gained strength, especially these past two seasons. TV watchers seem to love the guts and glory splayed across their screens each week, but these others can’t help but complain using a single common phrase: "That's not how it happened in the book!"
Adaptations are tricky sometimes. Actually, scratch that, adaptations are tricky all of the time, mostly because the creators of the adaptation need to toe the line between sufficiently honoring the source material by bringing enough of its spirit to the new form while also carving out enough of a niche for itself, on its own, in order to prove the worth of the adaptation’s very existence. Ask certain people and they’d say something like Zack Snyder’s Watchmen was way too beholden to the source material to create a compelling enough narrative. Ask others and they’d say that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (let’s not even get into The Hobbit) is the perfect blend of simultaneously representing the source material and forging your own unique artistic vision.
There are always people on either side of the simple representation argument, but Game of Thrones seems to extend it even further because of the continued undue expectations by book-readers in the show’s tendency to significantly restructure the narrative, either taking things out, putting new things in, or just resolutely doing its own thing. Someone doesn’t get their head lopped off following similar scenes in the book, or a minor character is excised completely and the book-readers cry foul. And yet, the show marches on.
I personally have an interesting little stake in the whole book reader vs. non-book reader situation. I’d never read any book in the Song of Ice and Fire saga when the show premiered in 2011, but I was aware that it drew from the rich and detailed Tolkien-esque-but-with-way-more-sex-and-violence world of the books, and that these books had quite an intense following. I became hooked on the show right away and eagerly awaited each knotty episode. Then before I knew it the second season premiered and it was more of the gloriously bloody same, but for whatever reason I still never had the desire to read the books.
But before the third season rolled around I was given a rather boozy ultimatum. My girlfriend, who breezed through all five currently-published GoT books with A Storm of Swords as her favorite, admitted that she’d probably let some major spoilers slip at some point (Red Wedding, et al.) about the upcoming season after drinking too much wine or what not, so she advised me to read the book or suffer from crippling spoilers that could ruin the subsequent episodes of the show. The third and fourth seasons of the show cover the third book, so I though why not? I’d seen the first two seasons of the show and I could just catch up or breeze by things I didn’t get from the previous books. I know this isn’t the proper way to do it, and is probably really foolish, but what’s done is done. Smash cut to last week with the season four finale and my ability to spoil the show based on my knowledge of how the book ended.
Except it ended with a whimper, not a bang. I won’t get into spoilers, but the major complaint from book readers at the end of season 4 of the show was that it left out a gigantic (no, seriously, a massively, enormously, tremendously huge) story beat that, in this writer’s opinion, would have made for one of the most jaw-dropping moments in television history. Hyperbole aside, and with the acknowledgment that the complete story isn’t over and this moment will pop up in subsequent seasons, it was a truly frustrating thing for me to have happen, and one of the first times I had felt that book-reader complaint: “That’s not how it happened in the book!” It kills you inside to know what could have been, especially when you know explicitly what could have been and wasn't.
But here was the epiphany for me, here was where I was able to sit back and uniquely ponder my knowledge of the books as source material and the show up until a single point. It may seem overly obvious to say this but the books and the television show, despite the fact that one is based off of the other, are two different things. The fact that I was expecting certain story beats from that source material almost detracted from my appreciation of the show, and that line of thinking ultimately put my enjoyment of the show in a lesser spot than if I had just let it unravel over its two-season arc. Let it stake its own claim.
They’re separate, and that’s a simple conclusion, but it’s an important one when you consider the book-reader nitpicks and the non-book-reader indifference. These two mediums telling the same story exist with many similarities but are stronger for their differences. The fact that the show didn’t end the way I was expecting based on the books shouldn’t take away from the aesthetic of the show or the way it chooses to tell its grand—and bloody—story. I may be disappointed, but I’m ultimately disappointed with myself instead of the show, which, I should say, admirably continues to push boundaries despite the sometimes-negative expectations from the many, many book-readers out there.
Maybe my view is skewed since I only foolishly read one book, and I don’t mean to vilify book-readers themselves, but instead I just felt the need to point out this tendency that I momentarily recognized. Who knows, maybe I’ll pick up the next book in the year or so until the new season of the show premieres and the debate will pick up again, especially with tempered expectations. But until then I can finally admit that the books exist separately in the minds of readers just as much as the show should as well. The more Game of Thrones, the merrier.