The Game Of Thrones Dilemma

The Game Of Thrones Dilemma
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In the first book of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Eddard Stark faces a near-impossible choice: Should he sacrifice his noble values to save his own life? This week, people across the world will have to make a similarly difficult decision: Should we watch the new season of Game of Thrones?

As of the season six premiere, HBO’s Game of Thrones will have outpaced the books upon which it is based. The last season ended roughly where A Dance With Dragons ended, and the next book, The Winds of Winter, doesn’t even have a release date yet. After five years of production, the TV show will have finally advanced the story past where Martin has taken it.

For those of us who have loved A Song of Ice and Fire for years, this is an outcome more depressing than any plot twist GRRM could have written. Fans of the books must now face the grim reality that the TV adaptation, which is inferior in many ways to the source material, may reveal key plot points before they’re in print. Avoiding the show will be tough. Game of Thrones has become a global cultural touchstone, and cataclysmic, Westeros-altering events will trend on Twitter and Facebook whether or not we want to hear about them.

Some of the events depicted on the show will differ drastically in the books, of course. HBO has already taken some big liberties with Martin’s plot, cutting out some characters and blending others together. In the show, Sansa is in Winterfell; in the books she’s still in the Eyrie. The books introduce Young Griff, who should be an essential part of the story — in the show, he’s nowhere to be found. A Dance With Dragons dragged Tyrion’s journey out for ages, ending just before he would meet Daenerys, but in the show they became BFFs right away. As season six of Game of Thrones airs, we’ll have no way of knowing which plot points draw from Martin’s story and which were invented for the show. If something cool happens, nobody will know if that’s how it will “really” happen. If something stupid happens, nobody will know who to blame.

And therein lies the dilemma. Should fans of the books watch the next season of Game of Thrones, risking that they will learn about major story arcs in ways that George R.R. Martin never intended? Has the show become enough of an independent entity that it can be enjoyed separately from the books? Am I out of my mind for giving a crap about this?

I first started reading the books way back in 2000, just after A Storm of Swords came out. I’d been looking for better fantasy to read — Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series just wasn’t cutting it — and an internet friend recommended that I check out A Game of Thrones and its two follow-ups. I absolutely loved them. For years, I read and reread all three books until their spines fell apart and I had to buy new copies, which I read and reread again.

I checked George R.R. Martin’s website every day as he apologised profusely for not finishing the fourth book, A Feast for Crows. I sighed when he announced that it’d actually be split into two books and that we’d have to wait for the next one — coming in 2006, he promised! — to see what would happen to Tyrion and Jon and Dany. I went to a GRRM signing in the now-defunct Barnes & Noble near Washington Square Park and brought home that much-anticipated fourth book, which I devoured like a feast of black bacon, buttered mushrooms and pigeon pie.

Then came the waiting, yet again. At some point, hilariously, Martin moved to Livejournal, where he’d update us regularly on the beast he called King Kong. For years he blogged about how he hadn’t finished the book, how he wrote really slowly, how he had to figure out something called the “Meereenese Knot”. He’d tease us with vague updates about the newly announced HBO show, which at the time seemed like a far-off dream. Then he moved to guessing games about casting announcements. All the while, we waited. Some people were patient; others, not so much.

On 27 April 2011, ten days after the show premiered on HBO, the day finally arrived. “Twas beauty,” Martin wrote. Kong was slain. A Dance With Dragons would be published that July. It was a dense, beautiful book, meandering in some ways and brilliant in others. Some elements of the plot, like Tyrion’s journey, felt way too long; others, like Dany’s struggle as a ruler, took a while to dissect and fully appreciate. It was clearly edited in a hurry — the phrase “Words are wind” is uttered something like 4000 times — but as a whole it was incredible.

At that point, I knew that The Winds of Winter might take another five years, but it never even occurred to me that HBO’s show might actually pass it by. Game of Thrones didn’t become a cultural phenomenon until the following year, and while I enjoyed the show a great deal, I’ve never thought it lived up to the books. There are some film adaptations that surpass their source material — Lord of the Rings, for example — but I’ve never considered Game of Thrones to be one of them. The show’s cast and crew are clearly talented. Yet even the best TV makers could never quite capture the depth and breadth of Westeros lore, let alone tell stories as intricate and subtle as the Frey pies or the Knight of the Laughing Tree.

In the last two seasons, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss took their story in entirely different directions, which never mattered much to me. So what if they had makeup-plastered Buffy villains and children hurling fireballs at skeletons? Who cared that they killed Shireen and sent Jaime on a pointless road trip? Why bother paying attention to that nonsense with Missandei and Grey Worm? The real story — the books’ story — was a totally different thing. It was easy to appreciate the show as fantasy pulp while also acknowledging just how much better the books were and are.

Now, though… now we’ve reached the point I’ve been dreading for a very long time. George R.R. Martin’s aversion to deadlines has put longtime fans of his books in a tough spot. Even if we do skip the show, it will be nearly impossible to fight off spoilers. Every podcast and news website will be broadcasting Jon Snow’s fate to the world by next Tuesday. The act of reading The Winds of Winter will feel compromised to me in a way that reading previous books never did.

I’m still making up my mind, but I’ll probably watch the new season. I’d rather experience someone else’s version of this story than ruin it for myself because I accidentally stumbled upon “Dany marries Tyrion” in Twitter’s trending topics. But it’s a real bummer that those of us who have been with A Song of Ice and Fire since the beginning have to make this choice at all.


  • So, this is kinda me as well.

    I started the books as the first season was clanking away. I’ve never watched past Season 2.

    I’m alright with the show existing though, I’ll just do what I’ve always done, try and ignore it as best I can. I managed to avoid a lot of stuff and end up still enjoying the books immensely.

    I doubt I’ll start watching S6, or catch up on what I’ve missed, but I’m happy to see people enjoy the show for what it is.

    EDIT: What are some book-centric sites/podcasts/outlets I should be checking out now I’m fully caught up? Re-reads or deep dives into What It All Means are what I’m after, really.

    • I agree. I still have half of season 5 to watch. I won’t start 6 until the books have caught up.

      I see the two as separate entities but common sense tells me that watching the show will reduce my enjoyment of the (still to be published) books.

        • They are both canon. Just different canon. There is book canon and show canon. The last season has made it abundantly clear that they are very different.

    • My favourite book-centric sites: (I won’t include links but just google the following)

      Race for the Iron throne (Chapter by chapter analysis)
      Nerdstream era (Theory discussion)
      PoorQuentyn (AMA style tumblr)
      Tower of the hand (Essays and forums. Organised group reads etc)

  • Nope. I’m over waiting for ol’ George to actually release books.

    I started reading the series on the second book back in 1998. It’s been 18 years and only three more books have been published. So in 10 years I looks forward to finishing the series…

    I’ll most likely have forgotten any plot twists by then anyways.

    • That was me with Robert Jordan. Totally refused to read the Wheel of Time series until it was finished.

      Then the author died on me.

      Thankfully his estate hired another author to finish the series, and so, I’ve now read it. My conclusion? Yeah, it was OK.

  • I am in the same boat but have a much different attitude. Basically I look at GRRM as a great writer but a terrible worker and horrible at delivery. The old saying of undersell and over deliver has been replace with under sell and never deliver with him. I have walked away from the whole book saga after so many years of waiting and listening to vague promises. I watch the show and enjoy it as a seperate entity, but I won’t go back to the books until they are all released.

  • It was Brienne plot seeking power that broke my interest in the show.

    I could deal all the changes, the odd portrayal of characters and bad pussy (cringe) but it was this clear betrayal of the source material to simply make Brienne a massive, self righteous her.

  • I only just caught up with the books, having watched all of the show, and I can’t wait for the show to start again.

    The way I see it, it’s like talking to a friend that’s also into the books and hypothesizing what’ll happen in the next one. The show, now that it’s past the books, is just an interpretation of what might happen in the next book. I’m happy theory-crafting with my friends, and I’ll be happy enough to watch the show.

    Spoilered for those that don’t want the show ruined (but, to be fair, you really should read the books!)

    It looks like the Greyjoy storyline will finally make it into the show, which should chew up a decent chunk of S6 given they will need to kill off Balon, introduce Euron and Aeron, go through the whole Kingsmoot arc, and then cover the Iron Fleet travelling to see Dany and nick her dragons, soooo…. I don’t know quite how much new ground they will cover. The show has already covered Stannis’ battle with the Boltons and Hardhome, so it’s already ahead of the books to a degree.

  • A Dance with Dragons was poo*.
    A struggle to get through it as much as it was a struggle for him to write.
    The problem with the books and with the show is that there is too many characters and too many plot lines.
    He needs to have a plague wipe out 1/3 of his “POV” characters so he can bring the story to a conclusion.
    I suspect there will be a few that do succumb to the stonescale from Jorah to help in Kings landing.
    One thing that is constant though, is that the two Davids have been told the story’s ending, so they have at least something to work towards regardless of the next decade of missed deadlines.

    *in comparison to earlier novels

  • George seriously needs to get his shit together. He’s had plenty of time to bloody complete this series. As hard as it is, I’m staying away from the entire series until the books are finished. Each book seems to take longer to write 🙁

    • This, Dance of dragons took him 6 years to write, that’s roughly 1/2 a page a day. The next one will take him even longer and I’ll give it even odds to if he will even live long enough to write the last one. His books are good don’t get me wrong, but i can’t see how it can be taking him so long to write them.

  • I think of the show and the books as different. As you point out in the article, we don’t know what from the show will be in the books or vice versa. Are they “spoilers” if you watch the show and then don’t know if they’re going to be in the books? I think the concept of being spoiled is getting a bit big – if you know for example that Dany’s main plot twist in the season is that she takes piano lessons from Jorah but you don’t know if that’s going to happen in the books then when it happens you’ll still be surprised – which means it’s not a spoiler, right?

  • Around the time when I started considering to get into the show, I learned how much they had changed Arya’s arc and I lost all interest. Even through the most meandering and almost pointless stretches of the books, it was Arya’s chapters what kept me coming back. I’d happily keep reading the books if everybody but Arya died and the story became all about her. Not interested in a show that minimised her adventures.

  • I honestly wish I never read the books. They’re mediocre and I think I would enjoy the show a lot more if I hadn’t read them.
    Without wanting to know what might happen next in the show, I think I would of struggled to “finish” the books.

    • would have* – geez, if you’re gonna call an item of literature mediocre without any semblance of reasoning or justification, at least make sure your presentation is a 10/10! 😛

      • Compared to books by Raymond E Fiest and other great fantasy novelist I personally feel Songs of Ice and Fire to be mediocre.
        I didn’t claim to be a great novelist myself.

  • If this is a problem for you, you probably should’ve decided it last year as some of the storyline have already gone past the books (and some others won’t be caught up for a little while yet). For example Stannis and Sansa’s storylines – granted both of which went in different directions but there are future-spoiler elements from the books there such as apparently Shireen’s death.

    So essentially the same as we’ll probably get going forward, different stories with some nicked elements from the books. I can deal with that, enjoying the show enough now and living in hope that some day GRRM will finish the books so I can see his (far better) story. Ever since season 2 it’s felt like a different story from the books to me so I’m happy to see where both these stories end up.

  • There are some film adaptations that surpass their source material — Lord of the Rings, for example

    If only this sentence occurred earlier in the article I wouldn’t have had to keep reading.

    • Poor Fatty Bolger and Tom Bombadil, didn’ even rate a lookin. And does everyone really believe that Merry did that damage to the Witch King with a normal blade?

  • Sorry, you lost me when you said that the LotR movies were better than the books… 😛

    But in all seriousness, I stopped watching after season 4 for this exact reason. I don’t want the damn books spoiled in any way at all!

      • I was worried about that fact, but I have managed to avoid any discussion about season 5 with pretty high success (I think the fact I stay away from social media for long periods of time tends to help a lot too).

  • I made the mistake of buying the audiobooks. God they are awful. They sound like they are read by a character from The Vicar of Dibley. I cant read the books without hearing Roy Dotrice’s voice now. 🙁

    Noo Noo Noo Noo… Dragons

  • I cannot speak from the experience of a book fan. I bought all the books after watching the first season, yet haven’t actually started reading them.
    But your dilemma reminded me of what I was feeling whilst Fullmetal Alchemist was releasing here. I was only new into anime at the time and was watching episodes as they were releasing on DVD. At the same time as this I was also buying and reading the manga. A bit into the anime I noticed noticed elements not shown in the manga. I understood the concept of “filler” and brushed it off, but then I noticed content that deviated from what I’d read. Small things at first, but then plot lines changed, characters were missing, others looked different, etc.
    When I looked up for the reason why online, I found out that the deviation was due to the manga being unfinished at the time of the anime being produced, and the writer had given permission for a script that deviated from her story. That was a totally new concept for me, to create something without the original work it’s based on being complete. Would they end up completely different, or would common elements permeate throughout?
    So I then came to a decision. I would still collect the manga, but I would not read it till the anime was finished. I would enjoy this diverging story for what it was and then read the creators true work. Comparison could wait till afterwards. Right then I just wanted to enjoy these two interpretations for what they were.
    I don’t know if you can really apply it to your case with the SoI&F books, as you’re so far into them, but I just thought I’d share my reaction to a similar scenario. 🙂

  • had this discussion with my wife the other night, i see the show as diverting away from the source material enough now that the show is “fanfic” to me, they are two separate entities and anything that happens in the shows can be taken with a grain of salt.

    even with George’s endorsement and giving the show runners critical plot points, anything i see on the show will become a half truth until confirmed in the book.

  • We’re in the reverse situation I was at the end of S1: back then I decided to read the books so people stopped spoiling everything for me. Now I’ll have to watch the show so show-watchers don’t spoil things for me. The difference is that it will be impossible to avoid show spoilers considering everyone and their dog watches the show.

    I don’t mind though actually since IMO show>books (fite me).

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