Destroy All Monsters: HBO's GAME OF THRONES Is Better Than The Books
[Now that the third season of Game of Thrones is over, I'm going to look at the series in comparison to its source novels. I will not reveal any book plot information that has not already been revealed by the television series. I will mention the fourth and fifth books in Martin's series in a general sense but will not discuss story. As with all other pages of this site, DO NOT post book spoilers in the comments for this piece. They will be deleted, and we will be angry.]
The show's better than the books. What seemed like a creative impossibility only two seasons ago is now as plain as the lack of nose on Tyrion Lannister's face. By the conclusion of season three of Game of Thrones, which has been the marvelous series' most marvelous season yet, series showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are doing a better job telling George R.R. Martin's story than George R.R. Martin did. Spoiler warning: they're going to beat him to the end, too.
(Martin takes a producer credit on Game of Thrones and has written one episode per season of the show. He also provides guidance to the production team. The showrunners, Benioff and Weiss, retain the final creative word on the production of Game of Thrones, and I will regard them as the architects of the series' overall strengths and weaknesses.)
There are easy and obvious ways that screen adaptation can trump the written word. It is altogether more viscerally disturbing, for example, to follow a young boy up a castle wall only to come upon a brother and sister having a doggie-style fuck, than it is to read about it from the boy's (limited, underage) point of view. But there are also significant areas where the word will always win, particularly in worldbuilding; the producers of Game of Thrones can imagine it for you wholesale, but when you're reading a book and picturing the realms of Westeros in your head, you're getting top-market retail.
At ten episodes per season, and a budget that is record-breaking for television while still being a pittance next to, say, those Hobbit films, the first season of Game of Thrones evinced a kind of narrative strangulation that made it a promising, but highly frustrating, watch. Season one hit all the requisite beats from Martin's book, and set the paradigm for seasons to come (watch out for episode 9, every single time), but man, it felt frumpy. I remember looking at a shot in the third or fourth episode, where two armoured soldiers had been placed conspicuously on a hill in the deep background, and realizing that they were likely the only two armoured soldiers the episode's budget could afford.
Budget isn't storytelling, though, and the first season allowed Benioff and Weiss (and importantly, their revolving team of directors, most notably Alan "Thor 2" Taylor) to figure out how and where to spend their limited budget to conjure the larger Westerosi world, while simultaneously breaking in their characters, which is where the real money is anyway. "The North Remembers," the first episode of the second season of Game of Thrones, is a marvel of character development and worldbuilding, dancing across the Seven Kingdoms like a Braavosi swordsman to reestablish all of the series' major characters, plotlines, and locales. The episode essentially served, brilliantly, as a one-hour dramatized version of the show's deft opening credits, and announced that Game of Thrones could, and would, be as big as Martin's vast ecosystem of people and places needed it to be.
As big as needed, then, but only as big as needed. This is where Benioff and Weiss's adaptation begins to win when compared against the novels. The show's writers are cutting a cleaner line through the story than Martin did. Admire the heaps of blubberous fat that have been excised from Bran's discovery of his warg powers, a throughline which develops incrementally over the course of two or three of the books, but which manifests, in the series, in a single merciful episode.
In a masterful sequence from "The Rains of Castamere," Bran spontaneously mind-walks into Hodor, Summer, and Shaggydog, while Jon Snow's conflict with the wildlings bubbles over outside, uniting three of the sons of Ned Stark through action and clever overlapping construction. The edited scene brings Bran, Rickon and Jon together in a manner that the novel strives for and fails. The television writers also smartly push the final beat of Jon and Ygritte's separation into the following episode, teasing out the schism and allowing Jon to prove that he does, at last, know something.
Of course, much of all this is the natural improvement that comes of being a second draft. Benioff and Weiss have the foresight of some 8,000 existent pages of the novels, from which to survey and critique Martin's narrative strategy. Martin himself is likely just as aware of the flaws as the rest of us. At this point I think we all need to divorce ourselves from the disturbing popular delusion that content creators of any stripe (be they Martin, Tolkien, Lindelof or Lucas) begin a fantasy project of any scale with a complete picture of where the story will go.
But Martin has no goddamned idea where he's going, as is clear from books 4 and 5 of A Song of Ice and Fire, which expend so much narrative energy (and page count) keeping fruitless plotlines spinning that reading them becomes somewhat like getting stuck in the recursive time loop from Star Trek: The Next Generation's episode "Cause and Effect."
Benioff and Weiss, on the other hand, do know where they're going - they're even reported to know where Martin's ending will ultimately take the characters - and in addition to cutting away the mountains of wasted narrative that entomb A Song of Ice and Fire's back half, they are in a position to make smarter choices about character. So, for example, we get a single character (Gendry) standing in for the multiplicity of Baratheon bastards that populate the novels, which doesn't just give us the opportunity to hang out with Joe Dempsie's abs for more than an episode or two, but means that when the Red Woman is threatening to burn him up like a leech to ensure Stannis' ascension to the Iron Throne, we actually give a fuck.
What all of this amounts to is a kind of breathability in the television storytelling that doesn't exist in the books. We're allowed to watch the characters behave in more complex, human ways than the simple rote of the novels. My favourite episode of season three is "Walk of Punishment," the one where Jaime loses his hand, and the first episode of the show to be directed by one of the showrunners themselves (Benioff). It's a damned weird episode, because it evinces a sense of casual, even frivolous, invention around the text - with beats like the Small Council's game of musical chairs (a literal game of thrones, if you will), or more memorably, Bronn and Tyrion grilling Podrick about the powers of his Magic Penis.
The series has a kind of metatextual sense of humour about itself that isn't entirely earned, and is based in part on the secret language of the fan base, but which makes for an altogether more engaging storytelling style. It's a sweeping TV story that can feel surprising and emotionally rich, even to those of us who already know what is going to happen. The casual handling of the fully-built Westerosi world in "Walk of Punishment," alongside the confident delivery of the novels' required plot points, seemed to me to suggest that the showrunners of Game of Thrones had moved full-time into Martin's world and announced "We're in charge here now." (Or, if you like, "The Mad King is dead!") The hard cut to a rock n' roll cover of "The Bear and the Maiden Fair" as soon as Jaime's hand comes off at the end of the episode was a punky middle finger to the bearded Old God who created the song of ice and fire.
(We've come to a point where the only thing I miss - besides Khal Drogo, of course, on a weekly basis - is Martin's attention to the "prequel" story, which the author was able to pay over the course of his five novels and which - Jaime's bathtime confession notwithstanding - is largely missing from the television series. Although, based on Sunday's numbers, if HBO has any sense they're already commissioning a mini-series about Robert's rebellion and the fall of the Targaryens right now.)
In a way, Benioff and Weiss are winning the game of thrones because they are, essentially, writing the fan-fiction version of the novels. This season, for example, their addition of the Theon torture plotline is much more than a simple gambit to keep Alfie Allen in the show (whereas Theon vanishes for the entirety of books 3 and 4). The invented plotline also allows the showrunners to force contrition into Theon's mouth for all the awful shit he did in season two. Sure, it qualifies as shameless license taken with the source material, but on a fan level, it's not just enjoyed, it's positively required: once Theon successfully unseated Joffrey as the Biggest Asshole in the Seven Kingdoms, the audience deserved some catharsis. Like Daenerys freeing the slaves, benevolent Benioff and Weiss prove mother to us all.
This is all perhaps best exemplified by Benioff and Weiss' most significant deviation from the books: Talisa Maegyr, wife of Robb Stark, who is plotted as a major character in seasons two and three, and who does not exist in Martin's work. Talisa takes the place of Jeyne Westerling, an offscreen wife in the novels, who is shotgun-wedded to Robb after a one night stand. Now, the one night stand thing is agreeable enough as a line into Robb's character, and it pairs Robb with his father Ned, who also had an indiscreet evening outside his vows of honour; but if Robb doesn't much care for his bride, then neither do we.
Talisa, on the other hand - deliciously portrayed by Oona Chaplin - makes us care. Benioff and Weiss write her as a compelling addition to the Stark camp throughout his war on the Lannisters - third part of a triangle which was previously only a double act between Robb and Catelyn - and then add further stakes (as if they were needed) to the Red Wedding by placing Talisa in the fray.
Here, the synergy of the series' adaptation of the books reaches a superb, if nauseating, peak: an invented character, avatar of an invented love story, pregnant with an invented baby, stabbed in the invented belly, all in the midst of a glorious (and largely faithful) adaptation of the novels' single greatest narrative turn. Robb must watch his wife die - as do we all - and Talisa's bleeding stomach becomes the visceral, cinematic incarnation of the death of the King in the North's whole mission. It is also, in ruthlessly effective visual storytelling, the death of our faith in the Starks' ultimate victory over the series' ostensible antagonists in the overarching story; it's the death of our belief that Game of Thrones will be a nice story that treats us the way we expect fantasy to treat us. All with a character whose name has never graced a single printed page.
At this point, Martin should hand the last two novels over to Benioff and Weiss - or as will more likely be the case, we should just wait for the series to wrap up the saga while the mooted sixth and seventh books in A Song of Ice and Fire remain a cluster of disorganized notes somewhere in the tower of George R.R. Martin's Santa Fe home. The TV show has the baton and isn't just running with it; it's soaring, like Dracarys, up into the clear blue sky.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture.