Once upon a time, I thought I was going to be that guy. The one who didn’t read A Song of Ice and Fire, but only watched the HBO series, so that I could provide that perspective, crucial at dinner party conversations, of someone who had only experienced the television version. That was my plan. Its chief advantage, in my mind, is that it saved me the obligation of reading thousands of pages of text that I had started once but put down.
Then early last year the iBook version of A Game of Thrones was on sale, and I didn’t even know where my physical copy was any more, so I figured, what the heck, I’ll give it a try. A few months later, I had read all five books in succession. I then waited patiently for the first season of the series to be available on DVD to watch that, but having done so lacked the patience to wait for season two, and finished watching it recently by … other means.
I love me a good fantasy literature conversation. And I also groove on a good aesthetics-of-film-adaptation chat. So it’s been good times lately, all in all, but for those of you who thought like I used to think, I am here to tell you that, sorry, you do still have to read the books. The HBO series is very good. But if you enjoyed it, you should know you are still missing far too much to ignore. Being “that guy” just isn’t worth it.
Not speaking in absolutes here, but in relative terms, the most helpful way to think about it is that the television series is melodrama, and the books are naturalism. This is understandable. In a TV series you want to end each episode on, if not a cliffhanger, at least on an interesting plot-beat that makes viewers want to tune in the following week. You want an explosive ending. And, within your budgetary limitations, you favor action over dry conversation. To its credit, the series avoids one of the conventions of melodrama: black-and-white villains and heroes. That wouldn’t have fit A Song of Ice and Fire at all, so they rightly avoid it. But in most respects the series works to elevate the level of drama.
An example: in the books, when Daenerys goes to the warlocks’ tower, it’s out of curiosity after an invitation. They have dire plans for her which she escapes, after having visions, but all this occurs in the middle of her time at Qarth. In the series, her people are killed! Her dragons are kidnapped! And in the season finale she enters the tower alone and rescues them!
Television imposes natural limitations on the numbers of characters you can have, because each one has to have an actor, preferably one that can stick around for a season or two (until George R.R. Martin has them ruthlessly killed, of course). As a result there are fewer coincidences in the show, and more paths crossing. The whore who Theon visits in Winterfell shows up at King’s Landing, and fills the shoes of a handful of minor characters. Arya serves as cupbearer to Tywin Lannister, who she doesn’t even meet in the books.
That last one an example of crossing paths working really well, actually — their scenes are nowhere to be found in the book, but the series’ writers get a lot of mileage out of them, not only creating tension, but also conveying all sorts of details about those characters that comes across in the books in completely different ways. It’s probably the kind of scene that Martin wishes he had thought to include in the books.
When I say the books are more naturalistic, I mean that most of the time, Martin seems to be tracing the paths of his characters through the world he has created, and thinking, dispassionately and concretely, about what would happen to them in the circumstances they find themselves in, and then following that thread where it leads. In other words, while he includes plenty of instances of dramatic tension, in a battle between “wouldn’t it be cool if” and “this is how my world works,” the internal consistency of his world wins out every time. I happen to believe that he will round out this series of books with a suitably sweeping, loose-ends-gathering, perhaps even melodramatic ending, but in getting there he has been perfectly content to kill off characters, major and minor, and to introduce new characters when efficiency might dictate to keep it simpler, and sometimes to include whole chapters for little reason more than to introduce us to a new corner of his world.
All of this makes for a very different experience than the tightly-plotted TV episodes. Not necessarily better or worse, but different enough that you can’t really say that by experiencing one you’ve got the gist of the other.
One way that the television series cannot hope to measure up is when it comes to conveying the extraordinary detail and depth of the secondary world Martin has created. Where Tolkien’s world is mythic, Martin’s is sociopolitical, based on medieval Europe in a way many fantasy world’s only are on the surface. He has his (rather limited) supernatural elements, both historically and in the present, and works through systematically how such things might influence society, and what the resulting culture(s) would look like. And then he fills it in, with geneaologies and economies and religions and political divisions and all the rest. In the television series, most of these details can only be hinted at, referenced, perhaps alluded to in order to give a wink to fans of the books, but they can’t really be conveyed. There’s just not enough time.
Consider Dragonstone, Stannis’ keep on the ocean. If you’re read the books, you know that it was the built by the Targaryens when they first arrived from over the sea, escaping the apocalyptic ruin of Old Valyria. It was their citadel for conquering this new land — that’s why there’s a big map built into that one table. The place is suffused with the magic of the dragon-riders of yore. When Robert gave it to Stannis after the war, it was simultaneously a great honor, as a storied and formidable keep, but also a way to give a rather uncomfortable place for non-Targaryens to someone Robert was certainly uncomfortable with. And it was a slap in the face that Stannis didn’t get Storm’s End, the historical Baratheon seat of power.
That last point is (briefly) touched on in the television series, but Dragonstone itself is a just a moody keep built on rocky cliffs. They make it a dour place for a dour ruler, reinforcing character with visuals, in filmic fashion, but there is so much there that you don’t get to find out about without actually reading all those world details in the books.
Sometimes it’s not just background details that get lost, but crucial matters of motivation and plot. You have to be playing close attention in the final episodes of season two to understand just what Qhorin Halfhand is expecting of Jon before he provokes him to killing him, and if you didn’t already have some context from the books, you’re likely to miss it. And you could hardly be blamed for wondering “who the heck burned Winterfell?” at the end there as well. Everything in there plays out differently than in the books anyway, but it’s downright confusing. No doubt HBO will clear it up in season three, when they’ll be able to introduce Ramsay Bolton. But where on earth was he in season two? The way that he’s referenced but not introduced has everything to do with not having to find an actor for an extra season, the same way that Theon’s taking Winterfell in the first place is only presented after the fact because budgetary constraints limit the amount of swordplay you can fit into your ten episodes, and nothing to do with the best way to present the material. And don’t even get me started on all the tactical complexity of the Battle of Blackwater Bay getting reduced to a couple big explosions and a fight over a fifty-yard section of wall.
Looking ahead to what lies in store, in both the books and the television series, a great illustration of the stark contrast between them is provided by the matter of Jon Snow’s parentage. No spoilers here — we don’t know the answer yet! — but it’s easy to see that the answer to where he comes from will be one of the big reveals later in the story. And as exciting as it will be, in a way, we already know how it will play out in the television version. Come season six or seven or eight or whatever it turns out to be, in episode three and episode eight, we’ll have scenes bringing up the issue of where he comes from, reminding us of his details, and foreshadowing for the finale, episode ten, which will lead with a “previously on Game of Thrones” that includes that conversation between Ned and Robert from season one that no one’s thought about in forever, so we know something to do with that will be coming this episode. And then we’ll find out … something.
Now consider how it is in the books. Readers have been thinking about this for a while, and there are multiple theories. The one with the most textual evidence, and the one I support, involves a detailed reading of certain historical events that so far haven’t even come up in the series, key recollections of Ned’s in one of his POV view chapters before he dies, and a carefully constructed timeline of the events of Robert’s Rebellion in order to rule out other possibilities. All of this is only possible because of the sheer volume of history, backstory, and ancillary detail that you get in the books. When we find out the truth, whether or not it aligns with any particular theory, we can be sure that it will be consistent with all the clues that have been sprinkled throughout the years in these books, and that final “I knew it!” or “Wow, I didn’t see it, but there it is!” will be immensely satisfying.
So, by all means, enjoy the series. It’s a great adaptation. But there’s a difference between taking a dip at the shallow end of the pool and swimming in the ocean. You still have to read the books.