For those who’ve never heard of Game of Thrones (I have my doubts that these people exist, but am assured that they do), it’s this big, popular TV show about, like, medieval intrigue and battles and stuff, but set in a fictional country. And there are religions. And a guy who tortures people. And Tyrion. Oh, and dragons! And ice-zombie-heralds-of-the-apocalypse as well, but I’m fairly sure they aren’t important. Anyway, the show’s sixth season starts next week (Monday 25th), and lots of people are very excited about this. I’m here to question that excitement. And also to answer those same questions. Twice.
Should we even be excited for Game of Thrones?
MATT: Yes, because it’s Game of Thrones; a phenomenally acted, phenomenally written show, with a production value that rivals some blockbuster films, and a budget that’s growing almost as quickly as its fan-base (that is to say, very quickly indeed). Additionally, the show routinely delivers the best single episodes of television on air right now (and maybe even ever), in the form of episodes like ‘The Watchers on the Wall’ (season 4) and ‘Hardhome’ (season 5). Every season has been superb, so why shouldn’t this one be?
OTHER MATT: No, because has every season been superb? Last season was a bit ropey in places and it was lots of things, but consistent wasn’t one of them. It drew a lot of well-founded criticism for its unnecessary shock-tactics, and would swing wildly from brilliance (Tyrion vs. Varys, Hardhome) to anti-brilliance (DORNE). The show has so far been propped up by its source material, five of the most intricate, expansive and beloved fantasy novels of this century, books which arguably rival The Lord of the Rings, and it is now untethered. There’s nothing to fall back on, no dialogue to appropriate, no build-up to replicate, no plot-twists laid out in explicit detail. And there is no way to be sure that the showrunners (David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) can match George R.R. Martin’s storytelling (see: Dorne).
So does that mean the books are better, then? Is that what you’re saying?
OTHER MATT: I suppose it is. Everyone’s favourite moments are from the books. The Red Wedding, Jaquen H’Gar, The Battle of the Blackwater, Jaime’s redemptive arc (featuring Brienne), Shame (ding ding ding), Brienne and Pod’s buddy-cop storyline. And the worst parts of the show are not, they’re added in by Benioff and Weiss. Dorne in season 5, Sansa marrying Ramsay and all the fun that that entails, Dorne, Loras Tyrell suffering what amounts to character assassination, being reduced to that character who’s gay and nothing else, Dorne. I mean, good God Dorne was awful.
MATT: But wait a second, everyone’s favourite moments aren’t from the books. Some of the best bits of the show are entirely down to Benioff and Weiss. Arya and Twyin at Harrenhal, Arya and The Hound’s magical dialogue, Oberyn being raised from minor side-character to one of the best supporting characters on TV, frickin’ HARDHOME. And besides, the books aren’t that good. I mean really. They’re meandering, self-indulgent, and downright messy as far as storytelling is concerned. Characters spend entire books doing piss all because GRRM didn’t properly map out the series, and ended up having to come up with five years of character growth that he didn’t think he needed. Important characters (and by important, I mean game-changing) are introduced by the bucket-load more than halfway through the series, while others go on pointless journeys that take up hundreds of pages, are kinda very dull, and ultimately lead to nothing. And all of it takes, like, twenty to thirty years to be released, because in order to include such rivetingly pointless detail (and all the description of food that absolutely has to go along with it), GRRM can’t help but write at a glacial pace.
That was a bit vitriolic.
MATT: I think it needed to be said. In fact, I think that on a wider scale it’s something we at least need to consider. Just because something is the source, just because it’s the book, is not enough to justify calling it better than its adaptations.
So you think that the adaptations are better, then?
MATT: No. I think that they need to be judged on their own merit. You can certainly have bad adaptations – The Golden Compass, Eragon, the 2003 Daredevil film. But, I think, when an adaptation is done well, it has the potential to outshine its source material. Game of Thrones is one example, Fight Club, Netflix’s Daredevil series. I mean, I think the third Harry Potter film is arguably better than the book. Not in spite of the changes that were made, but because of them. I think that’s what adaptation is. Not a direct copy of the original, but an updating and a re-framing. Original pieces, and especially books because of the solitude inherent in writing a novel, are made in a vacuum, with nothing but the creator’s instinct to guide them. When something is adapted though, it can be done with the benefit of hindsight, informed by the public and the industry’s reactions to the work. I think Game of Thrones is a brilliant example of that. The biggest criticism of GRRM’s series is that it’s bloated, and Benioff and Weiss have gone to great lengths to strip it back, to combine characters, shift storylines, and make it more streamlined; to make it better.
But then doesn’t that bring us back to the argument made above, that this new season of Game of Thrones is not an adaptation anymore?
MATT: That’s – that’s a good point.
OTHER MATT: HA! I told you!
MATT: I don’t think that means a new season will be bad though. Not at all. Benioff and Weiss have proved themselves already over the previous five seasons. The moments that they created by themselves are still just as good, and Hardhome and Tyrion arriving at Meereen are both already ahead of the books, and are both at the same standard as the rest of the show (if not better). Besides, the show is still an adaptation. They’re still working off of GRRM’s plot, his plan for the series, and by all accounts those plans are quite detailed.
OTHER MATT: Pffff. I still think it’s going to be crap.
Recommendation: Keeping in line with the GoT theme of the post, my recommendation is the Tales of Dunk and Egg short stories. George R.R. Martin’s spin-off to the main series, the short stories (there as of 2016) are set a hundred(ish) years before the events of A Song of Ice and Fire, and follow Aegon “Egg” Targaryen, a prince and Daenerys’ great-grandfather, and his friend Sir Duncan “Dunk” the Tall, as they travel across Westeros in pursuit of adventure. Much lighter and more whimsical than the series proper, these stories are funny, well-written, and supremely enjoyable. All three are available in an illustrated collection titled A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.