I tend to write about most things that I experience on this website. Whenever I watch, read, or play something I generally feel the need to write it up, especially if it illicit a strong reaction, either positive or negative in me. But, sometimes it just works out that there are things that I just can’t quite find the words to talk about. And, one of those such things has been Game of Thrones. Now, I know that an ocean of digital ink has been spilled about this television show, especially now that it has wrapped up, but I’ve just never found myself, at least since I started writing on this site, drawn to talk about it. Which is weird, because Game of Thrones has had a pretty big impact on me. I’ve watched it religiously since the beginning, eagerly awaiting each episode and essentially building my calendar around the show. And, I came into it, from the beginning, already excited, having been a fan of the novels. In college a friend of mine, upon learning some of my tastes in books, asked if I’d be up for reading a real nerdy fantasy series that he loved. At the time the show wasn’t even in any stage of development, it was just a fun new fantasy world to get invested in. And, I dove into it pretty eagerly, devouring the first four novels of this world and quickly becoming a huge fan of George R.R. Martin’s immersive world. So, when I learned that HBO was going to be trying to make a television adaptation of the series, I got excited.
In general, I’ve found that the television model is one that works far better for adaptations that movies. So often the problem that people have with movies that are based on books is the fact that it cuts too much out, and doesn’t end up being an accurate reflection of reading the book, something that is typically impossible for a generally two hour movie to accomplish. But, television series work far better for that, getting the time to expand and tell these sorts of stories with the time they need. It’s certainly riskier, planning a long-running television series and banking that the audience will stick around, but I feel like when it pays off, it pays off hard. And, there’s of course the problem that American television is such a broken system. The idea that we don’t create shows with definite endings, that they exist to be popular, and keep trucking along until people just stop caring about them, letting them end in swells of animosity is just kind of depressing. The best television shows are ones that had strong creative control, and that decided to end on their own terms, creating a story with a beginning, middle, and end, instead of just shuffling around until people stop caring about it. Which has usually led to quality adaptations of books. Yeah, sometimes even those fall into strange pitfalls, like the fact that HBO is getting ready to make a sequel to Big Little Lies, instead of just being satisfied that they made successful story that ended. By, by and large television has proved itself to be the best place to adapt long-running narratives.
So, an adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire, seemed like a great idea. But, even while the show was merely in production, and fans of the books started speculating what the show would even be, I know I started to feel some apprehension. Primarily because of the fact that the story they were adapting wasn’t even finished yet. At the time we had four books out of a planned seven, and it just didn’t seem feasible that the Martin was going to be able to finish the series before the show caught up, and surpassed him. Which, seemed like a very strange decision. And, this strange decision is what led me to assume that the show wouldn’t be a strict adaptation, that it would take Martin’s books and try to tell a similar but different story, so that it could tell it’s own tale, and end on its own terms.
But, that’s not what happened. Instead, the show became a shockingly accurate adaptation of the novels, bringing them to life in a wonderfully vivid manner, and really paying off the experience of having read them. It was a thrill getting to smugly watch the show play out exactly as I knew it would, hitting all the beats I knew were coming, while throwing just enough strange twists and changes to keep me guessing. And, for several years, I really loved the show. A Song of Ice and Fire had become some of my favorite books, and by adapting them beautifully the show was becoming one of my favorite shows of all time. But, as the seasons wore on, and no new books from Martin were released, that apprehension began to creep back in. And, finally, the unthinkable happened. The show started to move past the books. Which, is when it started to become a little murky exactly what was happening. In theory Martin told the two men who ran the show, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss what he had planned for the rest of the story, so that they could roughly adapt books that hadn’t even been released. They also started to promise that they wouldn’t admit what came from Martin, and what was their own ideas, leading to some very confusing experiences for fans of the books. Because, as time went on, you found yourself in a position where you kind of had to doubt if certain things you’d grown invested in even mattered, since they either didn’t happen or were so drastically changed as to be unrecognizable. Theories that fans of the books had been cooking for decades were suddenly either proved true or false, seemingly by the show’s assumption that everything that they were doing was roughly what Martin eventually would get to.
And, by and large, it hasn’t bothered me too much. Yeah, I can still get into heated conversations with other fans of the novels and debate if certain things we’ve spent hundreds of pages reading about are essentially red herrings, or if the show just decided to do its own thing, but I’ve never felt like it ruined the experience of reading the eventual books. I have no idea if we’re ever going to be able to read the books anyway, or if this series will remain unfinished. But, I remain somewhat hopeful that Martin will eventually be able to finish his series, at which point I’ll get to experience the “real” ending to his epic, doing my best to separate the books from the show. It’s entirely possible that what the show ended up giving us by the end of this series was indeed what Martin will end up giving us as well, and it’s also possible that Martin will have changed his mind and altered the story, either recognizing some flaws after seeing it all executed or simply by wanting to do something different. I can handle the fact that these are two different mediums, telling roughly the same story, and that they’re become different experiences.
But, it’s impossible to deny that something with the show changed when they stopped accurately adapting Martin’s books. People fell in love with the show primarily thanks to those first handful of seasons, which were largely stellar adaptations of the characters, plots, and themes of Martin’s novels. But, when it became up to the show to continue the story, potentially going off what Martin was already planning, the show noticeably dropped in quality. Now, I’ve seen it said that the largest reason for this is simply the fact that George R.R. Martin and the writing partnership of Benioff and Weiss and just fundamentally different storytellers. Martin prefers a sprawling character-based narrative where he invents vivid characters and just kind of lets them naturally drift through plots, while Benioff and Weiss appear more interested in hitting plot point, letting the structure dictate what the characters do. There’s no right or wrong way to tell a story, and both of these methods can lead to great stories. But, they’re very different from each other, and when the show abruptly shifted gears around Season 5 and stopped being a show about characters and more a show about spectacle and plot, it was noticeable. Character development and arcs started mattering less, and it became more like the show-runners were just moving chess pieces around, seeking to create the biggest spectacles to illicit the most emotion, while checking off all the requisite narrative boxes to reach the final conclusion. And, like I said, that type of storytelling can work. But, that shift between two radically different methods of storytelling created something like narrative whiplash for most viewers, more or less creating two rather different shows. So, the Game of Thrones that we all fell in love with became borderline unrecognizable by the end of the show.
By and large, I still think that the show roughly accomplished what Martin’s novels are attempting to accomplish. The finale, while leaving most people a little unsatisfied, does seem to line up with what Martin has been building. The problem is, it feels like we’ve been watching two or three seasons of summary, rather than an actual story. Everything has been moving at a break-neck, completely efficient pace. Which, has reasons. It certainly seems like everyone involved in this show is just kind of fed up with it, having given more than eight years of their lives to creating one of the biggest and most complex television shows of all time, they were just ready to end it. And, because of that desire to be done, they had to speed everything up, and lean into Benioff and Weiss’ method of storytelling, creating several seasons that feel like we were watching recaps more than actual episodes. Everything happened so quickly, with so little subtly and character, that it generally felt like you could feel the show looking at the clock, eager to just wrap up.
Which, has led to a lot of frustration. People who love the books have just kind of shrugged their shoulders and accepted that this show has become a lesser telling of Martin’s novels, and moved on while hoping that the show didn’t ruin anything too badly from any potential forthcoming novels. And people who just enjoy the show were mostly left confused, just abruptly dropped out of something they’d grown to love. And, there’s really nothing to have been done about that. Benioff, Weiss, and everyone else involved just seemed done with this story, but knew they had to check off all the boxed that Martin had left for them, leading to more than a whole season of people making a show apparently just to cross it off their list. The show just lost steam while trying to finish off what Martin had told them the show had to be.
And, that’s maybe where I’ve found the most frustration about the entire show. Because, it’s increasingly becoming apparent that it was a bad idea to make the show as accurate to the books as they did, when there wasn’t a finish to the books. The show excelled when they were directly adapting all of Martin’s wonderful ideas, and became much shakier when they were just adapting the broad strokes while leaving the details up to them. Because, as time went on it became clear that they had lost patience for the details, and were just doing the broad strokes. Which, begs the question, why did they structure the show like this? When Game of Thrones began A Song of Ice and Fire wasn’t a household name or anything, it was a fairly obscure series of books. So, it seems strange that they decided to do such a straight-forward adaptation, instead of creating a series that was more “inspired” by the books than adapted from them. By and large I’ve found that the most successful adaptations of books, be them movies or tv series, come about when someone takes what worked about the novel, and did their own thing with it. You’re never going to be able to replicate the experience of a novel in a visual medium, because you’re never going to have the time to get it all right.
Novels are a rather unique medium, an incredibly intimate experience that’s largely between and author and a single person, letting them dive deep into story and feel a sense of ownership over it. So, when you take that intimate experience, and transition it to a larger than life move or TV show, you suddenly have to sacrifice some things. And, as a result, the adaptation is generally looked at in a lesser light than the source material. This was most likely always going to be a losing battle. And, I really don’t want to be one of those people on the internet who decide they know better than professionals, because this is purely my opinion. I have no idea the actual constraints that the creators of this show dealt with, or why they decided to walk into this apparent trap, which perhaps has only become clear now that they’ve been snared by it. It’s something that we will probably never know, and that couldn’t have been avoided. But, it’s hard not to be confounded by some of the decisions that this adaptation made, all because they tried to tell someone else’s story without having any real idea how to land the plane. I enjoyed my time with Game of Thrones, and maybe in time we’ll be less critical of its final seasons, I just can’t help but wonder what could have been. Which, is perhaps a fool’s errand, but I just had to work through some of these thoughts.
Game of Thrones was created by David Beniof and D.B. Weiss and released by HBO.
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