WARNING: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR SEASON 1 OF GAME OF THRONES AND MINOR SPOILERS FOR THE BOOKS.
Good news! I can consider myself a good nerd now that I have finally completed the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series.
That being said, I have many thoughts that I am wanting to share on the subject of both the first beloved now maligned TV series and the first book in the timeless saga written by George R. R. Martin.
In this post I won’t be going into the specifics on how the book and show differ necessarily (if you’re more interested in that, then watch this video series by The Dom). Instead, I will be discussing what I think worked best between the two in terms of story-telling.
Points to the show:
Faces to the names
George R. R. Martin has unquestionably made one of the most intricate fantasy worlds in existence, rivalling even the likes of J.R.R Tolkien in its density. Its packed to the hilt with lore and customs and people….
….and therein lies one of the issues in Game Of Thrones.
There are too many goddamn people.
I tried to read the first book before I started watching the series, but dammit if I couldn’t make it. There were just too many name to remember, too many notes that had to be taken.
It didn’t help that some of the characters had similar physical attributes, making it even more difficult keeping track of who was who.
“Wait…is Jorah Mormont this old, white, bald dude, or is he that other old, white, bald dude?”
Converting the written word into a visual format allowed me to put a face to the name and has made my reading experience less confusing as a result.
While in some ways I appreciate the characters in the book more than in the TV show, I think Cersei proves to be an exception to this rule.
Cersei is not a POV character in the first book and so we are only able to see how she interacts with other POV characters a.ka. Sansa, Tyrion, and Ned Stark. While we do get a taste of how nasty and demented she is in the novel, we don’t see her in her more vulnerable moments like we did in the show.
There’s a scene in the first season in particular where Cersei asks Robert if there was ever a chance they could have been happy, to which Robert responds with a heartbreaking “no.”I thought this scene added more emotional depth to Cersei’s character, enabling the audience to see her as something more than just a cackling villainess.
I love Ned Stark in both the novel and in the show. However, Sean Bean’s performance brings much more warmth to the character than existed in the book. For the life of me, I can’t recall a time where Ned laughed or cracked a smile outside of the show. I’m sure it happened, but for the most part he was ever the stoic Northerner, waiting for the next conflict to arise. In the show, there are more moments of levity and he actually lets out a chuckle or two. It makes him look more approachable and gives him sort of a Mufasa-isque quality to him.
Robb and Catelyn’s Grief
In the books, we don’t see how Robb and Catelyn react to Ned’s death immediately after they receive word of it. Instead the story flashes forward to when they arrive at Riverrun, heartbroken but not quite despondent.
In the show, however, there’s a truly tear-jerking moment where they show Robb futilely hacking away at a tree with his sword and Catelyn going over to console him, promising they will have their revenge on the Lannisters.
It’s a really sad scene and it shows how deeply Ned’s loss has effected them.
This one might be considered unfair because a book can’t have audible music, but it is definitely a point in the show’s favor. The composer, Ramin Djawadi, does a fantastic job of creating atmosphere with his music. I have yet to hear a soundtrack that packs such an emotional wallop. Death scenes, action scenes, emotional scenes. He can do them all.
Those cellos have me swooning every time.
Here’s a free video on Youtube that contains some of the songs from the show. I recommend you check them out here or on Spotify.
Points to the book:
One of the most obvious draw-backs of visual media is time. With each episode needing to be about 45 minutes or shorter, there isn’t nearly as much freedom to explore the world. I think the show did a pretty decent job cluing in the audience as to how Westerosi society operates, nevertheless, it was always going to be at a disadvantage compared to the book.
Point of View
There are very talented actors attached to Game of Thrones, but there is no substitute for being able to crawl into a characters mind and read their thoughts. The experience of reading is just far more intimate.
In the book, we see so much more about the world and we get small but satisfying tidbits about character’s pasts that make them all the more real. I think some of my favorite inclusions are Catelyn Stark’s ruminations on growing up in Riverrun. They were touching and added more dimension to her character, really driving home how out of control everything has gotten since her youth.
She is an outsider taken to a land much colder and harder than her childhood home. Their climate is different, their customs are different, even their gods are different. Nevertheless, she finds herself having to fight for this alien culture that she has never truly understood.
The book is pretty gritty in comparison to the traditional fantasy novel, but there is more of a nihilistic atmosphere to the show than in the book. I think this makes it more palatable for the casual viewer as fantasy tends to be an acquired taste, but I personally like the more fantastical environment the book creates.
Dany’s and Bran’s dreams in particular add a level of sinisterness and foreboding that don’t land quite as successfully in the show. We are shown the dream of Dany walking to the now destroyed remnants of King’s Landing, but there are other seriously messed up things she sees in the book. As for Bran, he has a dream towards the middle of the novel wherein he has to learn to fly while an endless pile of bones looms below him.
I can also appreciate the characters aren’t constantly saying “fuck” in the book. It’s not that I have a problem with the word, it just takes me out of the moment. I’m pretty sure “fuck” wasn’t a word in medieval times so when it’s used with reckless abandon in the show, it’s a bit distracting.
Aging down of characters
This might be considered a weird point in the book’s favor, but hear me out. The fact that all the kids are so much younger in the book makes the events that follow all the more tragic.
Can you imagine not even being in your teens and having all your family members murdered? Or, like in Robb’s case, having to take over for you Lord Father after he is held hostage and having thousands of people depending on you to be their leader?
To me, the aging down of the characters drives home the underlying premise of the novel: When we seek to destroy each other, we are also destroying our future a.k.a our children.
So which do I think is better: the book or the TV show?
I think I’m going to give a cop-out answer and say I don’t know.
There are things I believe the TV show did better and things I believe the book did more effectively. Most of the shortcomings of either are due to their respective mediums and not necessarily a result of incompetence on either side…..
That won’t come until much later.
Normally, I can’t read the book after seeing a film or watching a TV show based on it, however, I don’t believe my having seen the show beforehand hampered my ability to enjoy the book series. In fact, the opposite is true.
So if you haven’t read the books but have seen the TV series, I recommend giving the books a read anyway. There are very well written and will hold your interest regardless if you know what will happen later on.