Just over two years ago, right after the conclusion of Game of Thrones’ fourth season, I wrote an excitable blog post addressing the fact that the TV show would soon overtake the books it was based on. At the time, the television iteration was about to launch into the material of the fourth and fifth book, after which, short of a surprise release of book six, we’d all be in the dark about what to expect, no matter whether we’d read the books or not. And I was so excited about it. After all, Game of Thrones was a high quality, beautifully made and largely faithful adaptation of the book series, bringing everything I loved about the source material to thrilling, visceral, stunning life. So what if we saw the endgame on television before we read it? And sure, purists might complain, but either way we were getting answers, right?
Fast forward two years and that excitement has dissipated and then some. The issues began when the TV show started deviating from the source material. This in and of itself isn’t an issue; they are two different mediums after all and a lot of the material that made up books four and five was pretty disposable. It’s easy enough to understand the inclination to replace some of it with more cinematic events. The big problem, however, was the quality of the original plotlines. From Sansa’s marriage to the godawful Sand Snakes, season five made it so, abundantly clear that the real genius of Game of Thrones always lay in George R.R. Martin’s source material, which manages such an intricate balance of unpredictable plotting, fascinating characters, rich lore and some occasionally beautiful writing. Changing the plot lines in such significant ways threw off the balance to terrible effect.
Finishing season six, a season that was generally much better than the dreary slog of five, left me with some conflicting emotions. On the one hand, it was exciting, explosive, well made television. On the other hand, everything about it felt sort of… empty. So much of this came down to the sudden plethora of victories our heroes got, victories that never felt fully explored or even explained. Arya’s killing of Walder Frey made no sense. Jon Snow’s return from the dead was basically forgotten as soon as it happened, with no lasting consequences. Littlefinger’s eleventh hour rescue at the Battle of the Bastards was rousing in theory except the show barely explained why Sansa would keep such a trump card from Jon and allow him to lead thousands to their deaths before reinforcements arrived. All of these moments were briefly thrilling, until you thought about them for more than five seconds, and then the hollowness of the season started to become clear. It was lots of spectacle without depth, and depth was something Game of Thrones always had in spades.
In fact, season six made one thing really clear. Everybody complains so much about the time it takes for George R.R. Martin to finish each of his books (at the time of writing we’ve waited almost six years for The Winds of Winter with no release date forthcoming), but let’s stop and think about why that might be. A Song of Ice and Fire may well be one of the greatest storytelling masterpieces of our time, and those don’t come quickly, especially not with the sheer amount of material Martin has to wrangle. Thousands of characters, hundreds of plots and subplots, pages upon pages of history and context informing even the most miniscule actions of the most minor lordling. There is a reason ASOIAF is so brilliant, and Martin’s commitment always should be to ensuring that that brilliance is maintained. There is no way he should feel pressured to finish his masterpiece before it is ready.
However, fictional characters on the page don’t age and don’t have other filming commitments to work around, and so the television show doesn’t have the same luxury. So now the adaptation process has found itself is a very tricky position. It can’t adapt verbatim books that haven’t yet been written, it can’t wait for source material that might take years and chances are Martin won’t want to reveal all his secrets. And so now, from a show that was pretty much a straight depiction of what we saw on the page, we now have something more akin to The Walking Dead, something that roughly hits the same major beats and developments as its source material but otherwise makes up its own story to fill the gaps. And now the writing of the television series is a shadow of its former self.
But of course, it can’t go totally off the map, and so we’re assured that the big, big moments still to come in the books will make their debuts on the television show. Apparently Stannis burning his daughter, the truth about Hodor’s origin and Jon Snow’s parentage are all moments that come directly from Martin, moments he has planned for years and are now being spoiled by the TV show in a way far clumsier than he probably planned. In a recent interview that aired before season six came out, Martin was asked about where Hodor’s name came from. Before he gives his noncommittal answer, you can see an unmistakable expression of sad despondence cross his face, the knowledge that this huge truth is no longer his to reveal. And damned if your heart doesn’t break watching that.
The fact is, there’s no way around it. The TV show employs hundreds of people and needs to keep being made, not to mention the outcry that would ensue if HBO so much as suggested taking a break. And Martin can only write as fast as he writes. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion now that we will see the ending of his saga play out on our screens before we read it on the page and it’s just as much of a foregone conclusion that however it happens on the show, it won’t be anywhere near as good as how Martin will tell it. And while the books will eventually come and have secrets of their own, the thrill of discovery for so many major moments will be long gone. Ultimately the only way around this issue would have been to wait until the completion of the books before adapting the show, but there’s no point speculating on how that would have gone as it’s not what happened.
In general, it will work out. The show will continue to be a ratings success bringing fame and fortune to everyone involved. But the victory is a hollow one. Martin’s story is no longer his own. The showrunners can no longer rely on adapting the brilliance already written. And we the viewers, even those of us who have never touched the book series, will get a pale facsimile of the ending we’ve all been waiting for, even if we won’t know what could have been.