How 'Game of Thrones' Masters the Art of Adapting Novels for TV

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The HBO show has a delicate relationship with the George R.R. Martin books that inspired it.

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HBO

"The people who read most are the people in the movies. They have to read. They want to read the books and see what they can option and ruin."

Bret Easton Ellis, author and screenwriter

If you want to find the next hit TV show, your best bet might be the shelves of your local library. In the six years since Ellis' interview, TV executives have adapted a wide variety of books, earning both massive hits (Dexter, Gossip Girl, True Blood) and critical darlings (Boardwalk Empire, Justified, Game of Thrones). And in the wake of these successes, the trend shows no signs of stopping. An FX adaptation of Powers, based on Brian Michael Bendis' comic series of the same name, will air later this year, and the success of Boardwalk Empire, True Blood, and Game of Thrones has encouraged HBO to target other popular books for TV adaptation: a Ewan McGregor-starring adaptation of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections is in the process of filming, and a series based on Neil Gaiman's American Gods is currently being planned.

But despite the benefits of adaptation, each book-based TV series also offers an additional challenge: How faithful should a TV adaptation be to its original source material? Stay too close, and you run the risk of boring fans that already know the original story; stray too far, and you run the risk of angering fans that already love the original story.

Given this challenge, it's unsurprising that the many, many literature-based TV series currently on the air have approached their source material with varying degrees of reverence. FX's Justified took protagonist Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal who appeared in several Elmore Leonard novels, and built a wholly original story around him. The first season of Showtime's Dexter closely resembled its source material, but departed from Jeff Lindsay's bizarre novels in favor of a more realistic direction. AMC's The Walking Dead features many of the comic series' biggest characters and plotlines, but routinely deviates from the original story to offer fresh twists for unsuspecting fans of the comic books.

But if Justified, Dexter, and The Walking Dead have found success by straying from their origins, Game of Thrones has found success by staying on the straight and narrow. The series' first season was so doggedly faithful to its source material that HBO made headlines just by changing the name of Theon's sister—Asha, in Martin's novels—to Yara. But showrunner Dan Weiss recently commented that there would be more deviations from the source material in season 2, and they began to appear in last night's "The Night Lands."

For a series as revered as Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire," such changes are often poorly received. The Wire creator David Simon drew headlines last week when he complained about bloggers who review a TV series episode-by-episode, arguing that their criticism is useless "until there's a beginning, middle and an end" to the series' overarching story. Game of Thrones has the opposite problem: Many of its biggest fans already know each plot arc's beginning, middle, and end—or at least as much as the first five books in the series has revealed.

This knowledge can cause significant dissonance between the longtime fans of a series and those who are experiencing it for the first time. Last year, I received several angry emails after a review in which I described Daenerys being "raped" by Khal Drogo on their wedding night. Some fans insisted—correctly—that Daenerys eventually consents in the original book, and that characterizing Khal Drogo as a rapist was unfair. But as depicted in the TV series—and independent of what happened in Martin's original novel—Daenerys was being raped. It didn't matter what the original novel said. An adaptation stands alone, without the need for additional context, and any changes made to the original story are presumably being made thoughtfully and deliberately.

There are, of course, some things that get lost in translation from page to screen. Financial constraints necessitated that A Game of Thrones' several large-scale battles—some of the book's highlights—take place almost entirely off-screen. And Martin's astonishingly detailed world-building, which includes the full arc of Westeros' political and religious history, is relegated to brief dialogue and occasional window-dressing.

With all the grumbling about changes made to the original series, it's worth noting that there are also some significant advantages the TV series has over the book series. On the page, the endless strings of names and titles can begin to run together; on screen, with faces and voices attached to them, the social structure is much easier to follow. And the books, which tell each chapter from a different character's perspective, can be fenced in by their own structure. Because Robert and Cersei don't narrate any chapters in A Game of Thrones, we only learn about their relationship through hearsay, but the insightful, brilliantly-acted exchange between the two characters in "The Wolf and the Lion" was one of the highlights of season 1. The same is true of Renly Baratheon's love affair with Ser Loras, which is implied in A Game of Thrones but never depicted outright. Seeing Loras goad Renly into entering the "game of thrones"—and using seduction to do it—adds an emotional charge to Renly's actions that's far less pointed in the original book.

But the biggest thing lost, for those who've read the books, is the element of surprise. As a non-reader, Ned Stark's death was a stunner of a plot twist—in part because it broke two of the biggest rules of television: Don't kill your lead character, and don't lose your biggest actor. For those who know what's coming, the question isn't what's going to happen, but how the series will depict what they already know is going to happen. Fortunately, Game of Thrones seems to have some surprises in store for even its most ardent fans: the cliffhanger ending, in which Jon Snow catches Craster leaving his newborn son for a white walker to collect, is original to the TV series.

When it comes to reviewing a TV adaptation of a book series, every critic has to decide exactly how much additional context they should have—and how much that extra context should inform their reviews. (for the record, I'm attempting to each corresponding part of A Clash of Kings alongside Game of Thrones' second season; though the book and TV series don't line up perfectly, it's close enough that I've been able to make it work so far). But in the end, a great story is a great story, regardless of the medium. And as Game of Thrones continues in its symbiotic relationship with its literary source material, it's hard to find much fault in either.

Note: For the sake of viewers who are experiencing the Game of Thrones story for the first time, we request that those who have read the Song of Ice and Fire series avoid revealing spoilers for upcoming episodes in the comments section below.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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