A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) by George R.R. Martin has been around now for over 20 years, and the HBO show adaptation, Game of Thrones, has just completed its sixth season. Both the book series and the show are incredibly popular with a huge, devoted fanbase. As a result, the official forum as well as sites like Reddit have ridiculously active discussions filled with fans who have massive amounts of information about the ASOIAF universe and people who have very strong feelings about them. My participation in such communities has taught me many things, the primary of which is that the fans who utilize these sites tend to be extremely critical of the HBO adaptation.
My pop psychology analysis of this widespread criticism leads me to believe that a lot of negativity comes from fan frustration concerning how long it has taken Martin to write the much anticipated sixth novel of the ASOAIF series, The Winds of Winter. As the years stretch on between the release of A Dance with Dragons and its sequel, everyone waiting for it wants it more and more desperately, and finds themselves increasingly frustrated with the fact that the only new ASOIAF material being released is the television show. I can’t tell you how many people have outright said the only reason they watch the show is because they need something to fill their time while they wait for the books, and while I think this amounts to a very small percentage of show viewers, it seems to be a large percentage of vocal internet critics. Understandably, the thing you turn to for distraction while you wait for the thing you actually want is never really going to meet your needs, so you probably don’t feel overwhelmingly good about it.
Although this post does not discuss specific events, it will be most interesting to people familiar with both the book and TV series, and links may contain spoilers. You have been warned.
Additionally, my general experience of the internet over the last fifteen or so years of my life suggests that, at least online, it’s way easier to bash something than to praise it. The negative requires less evidence, as it were, than the positive. So I hear a lot of people hating on the Game of Thrones television show, so many huge fans of the ASOIAF series calling it “garbage” and lamenting the fact that the show is in the hands of the Showrunners instead of Martin himself. Threads where seasons are rated on the above mentioned forums involve many people rating Season 1 as the highest, and often complaints about later seasons involve some reference to how the series now lacks the brilliance of the first season.
It is worth noting that the first season was adapted more closely to the books than later seasons, and beginning in Season 4 the Showrunners began to introduce more and more original content which set them up for Season 6, which involves some storylines from novels 3-5, but is mostly original content. It is also worth noting that, despite the seemingly overwhelming consensus among forum users that Season 1 was the pinnacle of Game of Thrones television, other evidence suggests that later seasons were received much more warmly by the general public, and critics in particular.
Game of Thrones itself is one of the biggest shows on television, drawing over 10 million viewers for the Season 6 premiere, which is pretty much unheard of for a subscription channel. The show also tops lists of “Most Pirated TV Shows,” and while it airs, major news sources like The Washington Post produce regular articles following each episode. Critically, Season 6, which was ruthlessly dumped on in fan forums, has received incredible ratings on major sites. The final two episodes of Season 6, “The Battle of the Bastards” and “The Winds of Winter,” rank 3rd and 2nd on IMDB’s top television episodes list, with impressive scores of a perfect 10/10 for “Winds of Winter” and 9.9/10 for “Battle of the Bastards.” Other sources hail “Battle of the Bastards” as the highest rated TV episode ever.
So what gives? If you read my post about the Outlander adaptation you’re probably familiar with my thoughts on adaptation at this point. Generally speaking, I am a fan. Sure there are some book to film adaptations that are truly awful, but for the most part I love watching a film or a TV show that uses a beloved book as its source material, even when the adaptation ends up being substantially different from the novel I loved.
The whole point of adaptation is that the story is going to be different. It will be presented in a different way, will likely emphasize different things (I mean, film and TV are visual media, let’s be real) and will be shorter. This means exposition is missing, parts of the story and often whole characters need to be left out, etc. The point of the adaption is to tell its own story, to adapt it, to take one thing and make it another. For some book to film/TV shows this means the story looks very similar, because the book likely lent itself well to be adapted to screen. For most, it means you get something totally different.
The Game of Thrones TV show is based on some of the densest, heaviest books ever to become popular. Martin knows how to write a long book, and he knows how to write a book filled with endless characters and vivid details and stunning scene after stunning scene. Even a TV show cannot capture everything in these books, though it certainly does a better job of it than a movie might. Because the TV show can’t replicate literally everything from the incredible dense source material it bases itself off of, it has to adapt the story to fit the medium and fit within the 10-hour per season time frame. Part of how this was achieved was the stretching of certain storylines so that plots from the third book in the series, A Storm of Swords, made up the bulk of both Season 3 and Season 4 (my second favorite season!) and even stretched into Season 6.
What I believe to be the greatest achievement of Game of Thrones is the way it set itself up to outpace the books so that Season 6 was able to be created and released on time, even if the sixth book in the ASOIAF series is still lacking a release date. And while I certainly have some substantial complaints about some of the storytelling in Season 6, I also view it largely as a pinnacle of what is so cool about adaptation. We had ten episodes of almost entirely original material in a universe that had previously been based on a book series and it culminated in two of the greatest episodes of television ever created (this is both my opinion and backed by science (see above)).
In so many ways, Game of Thrones has taken a familiar and beloved story and made a new story entirely its own. There’s been a lot of speculation about whether the books and the TV series will end in the same way, but people seem to pretty universally agree that the The Winds of Winter will look almost nothing like Game of Thrones Season 6, and I find that to be thrilling. We now officially have two side-by-side canons in the same universe that have been in conversation with each other for six years now. As a fan of the ASOIAF universe, I am all about this, and as someone interested in adaptation I think it’s fairly easy to argue that Game of Thrones has achieved what all adaptations seek to: it is at once deeply related to its source material and very much its own story.
I could spent days detailing the things I love about the HBO series that I believe to be lacking in the books, and I could spend days explaining why ultimately I think many of the details and character arcs from the books are more expertly weaved. But for now I’ll simply say this: I love both ASOIAF and Game of Thrones very deeply, and I am extremely grateful to have Game of Thrones in my life. I may be the one small voice overwhelmed by thousands on fan forums, but I thought Season 6 was absolutely brilliant television and I am absolutely all about the direction the show is taking.
What about you, readers? Do you wish that Game of Thrones more closely followed the books, or are you a fan of the show’s adaptation?
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