HBO's adaptation of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice book series is without a doubt the best fantasy television we've ever had the pleasure of viewing. The culmination of over ten years of hard work by show-runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, along with their creative team.
The show perfectly captures the familiar medieval tropes, mystical landscapes, magical spectacle and supernatural eeriness which Martin vividly describes in his epic, world building novels. Not since Peter Jackson's The Lord of The Rings trilogy has the fantasy genre been given so much love and care when being transferred from beloved books to screen.
A Song of Fire and Ice was not just ahead of its time but specifically for our binge viewing, social media commentating time. When first published in 1996, as a fantasy series it was only going to be found in the deepest circles of "geekdom". However, since those simpler times, when niche was really niche, Science Fiction and Fantasy have found greater acceptance and become part of the mainstream cultural zeitgeist. Comic book adaptations now make billions of dollars at the box office and zombie television show have become, "must-see" events.
Along with the greater acceptance of genre fare, HBO capitalised on the—then new—binge watching phenomena led by the advent of DVD box sets, home-cinemas and long-form adult orientated shows such as The Sopranos, Sex and The City, Mad Men, True Blood and Breaking Bad. With all this coming together like lightning in a bottle, Game of Thrones was a hit.
Unfortunately, a divisive final season split the fan-base and dampened the shows critical response as its final episode aired. Though I sit somewhere in the middle of loving and hating the final season, it must be noted that the show lost some of its brilliance in the final six, sombre episodes. A fault which I believe lays in the rushed execution rather than the direction of the story. This came about due to an odd decision to shorten both the final and penultimate seasons, raising questions as to whether Benioff and Weiss had become fatigued with the show as their value in Hollywood had raised exponentially during the years and they have been lined up to helm a new Star Wars trilogy.
It's worth noting also, that a rush-to-the-finish-line ending isn't unprecedented at HBO, as anyone familiar with their historical, swords and sandals series; Rome can attest. However that was due to the shows cancellation. The popularity of Game of Thrones would suggest it was a creative decision to shorten the seasons, rather than Benioff and Weiss being told to, "wrap it up."
Despite a shaky landing though, it cannot be argued that Game of Thrones delivered amazing performances, magnificent sets, meticulous costumes, brilliant cinematography and the sort of music you can hum while driving. Like few other shows, over its eight season run, "GoT" became an audience cross over hit and pop-culture phenomenon.
With all that said, we can examine what may be the contributing factors to the decline in viewer satisfaction as it reached its climax. There are some objective facts we can point to which identify changes in the writing style between the end of season six and the start of season seven. Primarily, the fact that Martin's own epic series isn't finished and that the story would have to be written rather than adapted. Indeed, there was always a risk that the adaptation was going to have to find it's own way eventually, as it has been well documented that Martin—while prolific—does not write quickly on demand.
Martin is known for taking his time, along the scenic route and way back in 1992 he intended for A Song of Fire and Ice to be completed in four parts, until realising he couldn't wrap up so many story threads. He then decided it would be a seven book series, of which only five have been published. At the time of writing this piece, The Winds of Winter is set to be released, very, very overdue, in 2020.
So how did this affect the show? Let's examine in three parts;
- Seasons 1 to 5 as true adaptations of the novels.
- Season 6 as an adaptation of sorts, of the unfinished, The Winds of Winter.
- Seasons 7 and 8, as divergent creations of the show-runners, perhaps following some general outline by Martin.
The adaptive seasons
Of all the seasons, season 1 of Game of Thrones is the best adaptation and one of the best translations from book to screen ever. It's a marvellous, perfectly paced and emotive journey into Martin's historically inspired, fantastical world. The attention to detail could never be afforded without the popularity of long-form episodic television, making it viable.
Ned Stark, the stoic warden of the north and his family is perfectly cast by Sean Bean. King Robert Baratheon, surprisingly cast by Mark Addy as the man who clearly preferred taking the throne than sitting on it. They are joined by a brilliant ensemble of arrogant, cunning and cruel Lannisters as well as a host of other unique individuals such as Verys, Littlefinger, Bronn and many more.
The tension between the great houses of Westeros is palpable, and peace is being kept together by very thin threads of loyalty and compromise in the seven kingdoms; including the odd kidnapped/adopted sons and daughters of potential rebels. This is juxtaposed by the otherworldly feel of Essos, where Illario Mopatis is hosting Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen in Pentos. The siblings are the last of their family, kept safe after the fall of King's Landing, where Robert's rebellion ended their father's (and family's) reign.
In 2010, I was watching the show and reading the books in parallel. I was amazed each week at how the characters, settings, mythology and cultures of Westeros and Essos were being portrayed, with this type of mesmerising, classical painting-esque shots being delivered each week;
It was a fascinating experience; reading a book while watching the world being brought to life in both my imagination and a television screen simultaneously. I vividly remember reading the paragraph in which Eddard Stark is executed in A Game of Thrones only days before sitting down to watch Episode 9, Baelor of Season 1, knowing it was about to come.
The show had already created some buzz in mainstream circles by this point and certainly demonstrated attributes that made it "HBO" however I knew that this shocking moment was going to flame the hype and let everyone know they were going to be in for something different.
In-between Season 1 and 2, I powered through the books. In 2011 while on a trip through Japan I devoured A Feast for Crows and on my return finished the series with the then recently released, A Dance with Dragons.
After the execution of Ned Stark, the books would continued to deliver these sorts of tragic moments, and every time you thought things might turn out for the better, Martin would betray a loyal audience by killing his most beloved characters; gruelingly and gruesomely. All the while, the most hated, like Joffrey, would get their comeuppance in less satisfying ways; almost pitifully.
Season 2 followed a Clash of Kings, where Robb Stark, Stannis Baratheon, Renly Baratheon, Joffrey Baratheon-Lannister and Balon Greyjoy each controlled parts of Westeros and proclaimed themselves king. The season builds up to the Battle of The Blackwater and gives us a glimpse or what we could expect from the show in terms of big budget action. Something season 1 had avoided.
Seasons 3, 4 and 5 blended the narrative points from a Storm of Swords, A Feast For Crows and A Dance with Dragons in a format better suited for television than how it was split in the books, which would often leave whole characters out for an entire novel, only to go back and retracing their story later. This is a luxury afforded in books that doesn't work so practically in television. We got a glimpse of this when Bran disappeared for a whole season, and I believe it didn't serve the character well in terms of how the audience rceived him on his return; a year is a long time, especially when a child actor returns looking much older. Contrasted with the gradual aging of his siblings, especially Arya.
In "the adaptive seasons", the show thrived on Martin's ability to subvert expectation and each shocking moment in the novels played out in live action perfectly. Beyond water cooler conversations, scenes like "The Red Wedding" permeated pop culture via mainstream media and social media alike. By the time The Mountain squeezed Prince Oberyn Martell to death, we knew what to expect but still felt the shock, continually amazed how much we loved to hate how our favourite characters were being treated. In short, audiences cared.
Perhaps Martin's real genius however, is not in subverting fairy tale tropes by killing off the righteous and showing Knights, Lords and Ladies as murderers, adulterous and hypocrites but by writing character arcs that challenge our opinions of them; such as the evolution of Jamie Lannister. This "unmythologising" of characters baked in mythological tropes is what grounds Martin's long and winding books. His characters are relatable because they are flawed, and those who are good, are good to a fault.
Martin's endless setups and abrupt wraps up are also a treasure trove of adaptable drama, which could be tightened for a television script, and tightened they were. There were many threads left open in the book such as Lady Stoneheart, which were left out of the show and give more weight to scenes like the "Red Wedding". The removal or aggregation of characters and plot threads into the show until season 6 never felt like they were cutting corners but rather tightened the already large and complex weave of the Game of Thrones' tapestry.
As it stands, aside from some slight characters variations and changes to event order to streamline the plot, the finale of Season 5, Mother's Mercy is essentially the end of Game of Thrones as an adaptation to George R.R. Martins books. The fifth book in A Song of Fire and Ice is A Dance with Dragons and it ends with two pivotal moments in the series; the death of Jon Snow at the hands of mutineer Night's Watchmen and the return of Drogon, who saves Daenerys in the fighting pits of Meereen.
Albeit, there were some moments before season 6 which went beyond the bounds of the books, such as the events of Hardhome and a lot of what was shown in regards to the White Walkers, however for the most part all the events based on A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons were sufficiently put to screen, and exceptionally so.
A transitional season
There is a sharp turn in tone between Seasons 5 and 6. After the huge cliffhanger with the death of Jon Snow, no one knew what would happen next. No longer could the smug book reader like myself act like an all-knowing so-and-so. There was however, always a hope for Jon's resurrection by Melisandre. I think the audience was faitigued and couldn't believe Game of Thrones could do it again, killing perhaps our most beloved character of all. Jon had by this stage really become the closest thing we had to a lead protagonists, and one of the few candidates remaining along with Daenerys.
Like many, I'd given up hope of the next book, The Winds of Winter arriving before Season 6 (even though I believed had it done so, it would have been the biggest selling book ever). Thus, we would, for the first time, be entering new territory with the television series becoming a true divergent reality entirely.
Season 6 kicks off—as expected—with the resurrection of Jon Snow and a collective sigh from the audience. This was to be a very important marker of the tone the show would take. One with more satisfying moments for the audience, and deserved "justice" for the antagonists.
Jon's resurrection does two things. It solidified Jon as the lead character in a show which had primarily focused on many protagonist and antagonists in a non-traditional narrative. It also signaled the end of killing off beloved characters. The few who don't make it to the end from this point on, die more noble and heroic deaths, which clearly end their arcs. Something which we never felt with the abrupt and painful deaths like those in The Red Wedding.
Further to this, in season 6, everything begins to focus on wrap up and adopts more traditional narrative structures. It is because of this, that perhaps it's one of the best and definetly most satisfying seasons. It's certainly the best of post book seasons. It gives us many of the best moments in the series, including, The Door which provides a powerful and emotional revelation in regards to Hodor and in the heart-stopping Battle of The Bastards, we are gifted the well-earned and rewarding demise of Ramsey Bolton, who perhaps surpassed Joffrey as the world's most hated fictional character. However, it is in the season finale, The Winds of Winter that we get the biggest and most critical revelation about Ned Stark.
While technically, Season 6 is part of the "post-book" seasons, I'm convinced it borrows much from the eternally "nearly finished", The Winds of Winter, as no-doubt the show-runners had access to what would be extensive, unedited manuscript from Martin.
Season 6 is a bittersweet juncture, as a viewer without knowledge of the books, it was more surprising to see what was coming but also the story clearly becomes focused on closing out the endless story threads that had been opened in previous seasons. The world started becoming a little smaller, as characters started to band together.
At the start of Season 6, the show was still dealing with everything going on in Essos between Daenarys and those whose power she'd taken across Slaver's Bay. While, in Westeros, there was open drama in King's Landing between Cersei and the Tyrells, as well as the High Septon. In the North, Ramsey Bolton was causing havoc and their were White Walkers on the march south.
The season is consequently spent meticulously distilling this down in a satisfying and logical way, and setting up a grand finale. The Battle of The Bastards was the most rewarding episode of the entire show, while in King's Landing, though a win for the "bad guys", Cersei's destruction of the Sept of Baelor and all her enemies, is spectacular.
Season 6 is a perfect closing note for all the many open plot points. Jon and Daenery's come together to protect the north, and Cersei takes control of King's Landing, beginning the endgame.
Too short a season(s); the post book finale
With two seasons left, there were two major plot points to resolve; the war against the White Walkers and the consolidation of power in Westeros.
Tying up the extensive narrative would be up to Benioff and Weiss however, perhaps running with an outline of what was to come in the A Dream of Spring. There would be no fleshed out narrative from Martin, and it shows.
It should also be noted that George R.R. Martin wrote 1 episode per season until season 4, and contributed to the show as an advisor however it seems somewhere around season 5 or 6 his role was reduced. I recall reading that at some point he was directed to focus his attention on finishing the book series, for what little good that did.
Season 7 focuses on the White Walker threat primary, with Jon pleading with Daenerys—now held up in Dragonstone—to help protect Westeros from the coming threat since she has a powerful force, and sits atop a mountain of Dragonglass. Having finally arrived in Westeros, with an army strong enough to take the throne, she must now decide whether to go North with Jon to protect the realm (her realm), or South to take the throne from Cersei. In the end, she is convinced the White Walker threat is a higher priority, so much so that together, her and Jon follow Tyrion's plan to try and convince Cersei to send Lannister help.
Season 7 does have memorable moments, including a Dirty Dozen inspired trip beyond the wall to capture a White Walker which includes some of our favourite characters banding together on what seemed a suicide mission. We also saw the demise of Viserion, when the night king spears the dragon, demonstrating his horrific power. Later of course, we see Viserion become a White Walker and the season ends with the wall being breached by his white dragon fire in an ominous scene.
Cersei on the other hand, is also still clinging to the Iron Throne in King's Landing. The big reveal of Jon being a Targaryen to the audience is still unknown to the characters and therefore the awkward relationship developing into a sexual one is how we leave Jon and Danearys as they travel from Dragonstone to Winterfell.
Season 7 unfortunately doesn't have time to resolve either of the major plots, and further to that fails to dial up Daenery's road to madness, which is problematic in season 8. While it is true that over the seasons, she'd shown glimpses of being quick to anger, with very harsh consequences for those who become her enemies, there was always some valid justification.
In season 8, we get a sharp turn in her character. Her efforts to win the affection of the Northerners, the least likely people in Westeros to even pretend they like someone, are in vein. She is immediately distrusted by everyone because of who her father was; especially Sansa. Daenerys' insistance that Jon bend the knee is not taken well on their return to Winterfell and the lack of affection she finds in Westeros—as opposed to her experiences in Essos—sets off her demise.
The first three episodes of Season 8 conclude the White Walker story, and these would have been better served if they were included in a 10 episode season 7. Having a two year break in between had audiences expecting something much more grandiose, complex and perhaps surprising than the how the White Walker threat is ultimately resolved. The Night King was setup as a such a horrifying menace, and potentially the main enemy, however it played out as a mere bump in the road.
If we were given a 10 episode Season 7, then we could have had a full season 8 to focus on "The Last War" and had a better paced transition for Daenerys; demonstrated her becoming bent on taking the throne at all cost. Obstacles to this could have progressed her drive toward madness through a more realistic passage of time. In season 8, as we saw in season 7, people are moving at an alarming pace around Westeros and it goes against the realistic nature of time we experienced in earlier seasons.
Instead, with just three episodes to wrap things up, we see the quick demises of Jorah, Missendei and Rhaegal. The impact of their deaths isn't really explored in relation to Daenerys' mental state, other than to justify her rash anger. We also don't really explore a justified deterioration of her relationship with newer allies such as Tyrion and Verys who are quick to turn on her as soon as they learn about Jon's parentage (the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen), kept secret by Ned for years and causing his own shame and a rift with his wife who believed he'd bastard a child.
By the time Daenerys has burned King's Landing down, destroying not only her enemies there, but the innocent populace, her transition is odd and unsatisfying. This great shot, unearned;
If we want to understand how Martin would approach a transition from pure stoicism to complete madness, we need look no further to the more successfully adaptation of Stannis' arc. It took seasons to flesh out and little-by-little the justifications of his actions became more and more of a stretch.
Stannis too believed he was to be the chosen ruler (ordained by the Lord of Light) and while we could find merit in his claim earlier in the series—forgiving even the murder of his own brother—it became harder and harder to agree with him. By the end of his road, when he decides to burn his own daughter as a sacrifice to the Lord of Light, we understand that he's slipped beyond rational thinking.
So, while Game of Thrones continued to give us many joyful moments since the shackles of Martin's books were loosened, it wasn't able to really flesh out enough of the character arcs to earn its tragic and bittersweet finale.
The revelation of Jon being Aegon Targaryen became a plot device for Daenerys' story, rather than a vital piece of his own. What was set up to be explored becomes "information" as Vary's notes. Daenery's herself dismisses it as trivial; concerned only that it may give him a stronger claim to the throne rather than the implication on the family and the continued Targaryen name, and the line of Dragons.
Jon's role becomes interesting in that his "duty" which he always put before love is actually for once, the harder choice for him. A child of both Stark and Taegarean, he must decide between the two in order to end the cycle of warring houses. He loves, yet realises, Dany won't be the queen he believed she would be, and knows he must betray her love for him for the good of the world.
After stopping the White Walkers, which would have put an end to the world with ice, Jon understands that it would be just as bad to have saved if from ice, only to cover it in flame if Dany is allowed to rule. The shot of him holding her as she dies in the great hall is perhaps the greatest in the show; the Iron Throne, empty. The act of duty over love is the victory of Stark over Targaryen.
While operatic, this ending perhaps exemplifies the take up in a more traditional—albeit Shakespearean—narrative style. A tragic yet abrupt way to end the story and "break the wheel". Drogon's destruction of the throne moments later, while a stretch in logic, is also poignant, as if he understood the corruption it had led to in his mother.
Breaking the wheel
In the end, we can be satisfied with the fact that the story serves our beloved Starks favourabily, especially after the hell Martin put them through. The least ambitious house in Westeros becomes the most powerful, ruling three independent realms; the six kingdoms under Bran, the northern kingdom under Queen Sansa and Jon, who becomes the new "King Beyond The Wall" after agreeing to become the Lord-Commander of a new Night's Watch as a compromise to keep the peace between those still loyal to Daenarys and the North.
Tyrion's idea of coronating, "Bran The Broken" ends the cycle of linage as the determining factor in choosing future kings and ensures that no one really wins the "Game of Thrones". Bran is proclaimed king despite being the least interested in the events of the present since becoming the Three-Eyed Raven and Tyrion, also against his wishes, is pronounced Hand of The King.
With everything pointing to a more democratic approach to the selection of future rulers; which will be selected, on merit, by the nobles of Westeros, the wheel is broken. A much more political new world order is set in motion. One which may not necessarily be less violent, but perhaps one where the days of warriors like Robert Baratheon taking over with force, are over.
So, the subtle splinter of adaptation becomes a canyon between word and screen...
Looking back on the television series as compared to the books. The early seasons feel like such a different show, and much more like the books tonally. With many long dialogue scenes which drove the plot along at a pace which intrigued and hooked us in as opposed to the more exponentially increasing action-orientated style of seasons 6, 7 and 8.
A Song of Fire and Ice, with its grandiose story, vast spectrum of characters and expansive world building is the perfect vehicle to explore the human condition without worrying about a conclusion. In this, I find a subtle difference between the books and the show because the show had to try and find a way to satisfying the plot beats setup in Martin's books, rather than waiting for them to emerge naturally (or not at all). Martin has the luxury of doing this or simply leaving thing open, as the natural world would.
Perhaps poor in articulation, I can only describe the differences between the two mediums as such;
- A Song of Fire and Ice explores the malleable human being through physical and psychological metamorphoses, often forced on characters against their will. Some rise to the occasion, others, remain stubborn. Some lives end abruptly, some survive, either by embracing their change (mutation or mutilation) and accepting their fate (destiny or duty). Martin subverts both our understanding and expectation continuously because as the characters transition, we still maintain our original feelings for them until we must accept they are changed or that we misunderstood them to begin with. In either case, the world they live in is not really shaped by them, as in reality, anything can happen, fair or not.
- Game of Thrones however, hangs onto the name of the first book, and explores change through a more literal lens while aiming to deliver a clear start and end. Thus, the show pragmatically explores the corruption of power and decisions and consequences made therein. Characters who lust for power, albeit for reasons we can understand, tend to make extreme choices on the way to their demises, experiencing extreme highs and lows; such as Cersei, Littlefinger, Stannis and of course Daenerys. The reasons they maintain for wanting power may start as well-intended but ultimately play second fiddle to the want of power itself. This is balanced by those characters who have power thrust on them, ultimately giving up their selfish desires to fulfill their duty; to the realm and to the plot.
While both versions of the story play out similarly in terms of story, and deliver very similar emotional beats, there is something, perhaps more universal in the books or at least in the experience of reading them and getting deeper into the mind's of the characters. This, I believe is made evident by the ending of the show where things seem mundane and become a little more matter-of-fact. Despite how epic it is all portrayed, all the mystic vastness of Westeros and Essos seems to evaporate in order to finish the story against a deadline.
In Seasons 1 to 6, the creators had a abundance of story, fleshed out, and running off it different directions with threads that came together in the most unexpected and emotive ways. They were able to refine these to meet the needs of telling a story on screen without sacrificing the core. Added to this was a book reading audience that could further flesh out the details in their own minds based on their knowledge of the books.
While it cannot be taken away that Game of Thrones was masterful television enjoyed by millions and will continue to be enjoyed on re-watch, it did indeed suffer from being a three quarter adaptation. The blessing perhaps, is that now, my personal interest in reading the final books, The Winds of Winter, and A Dream of Spring (if ever released) has increased. I want to see how Martin will finish his version. That is, if he ever chooses to, or if, almost more poetically, subverts expectations once more, leaving his world—like ours—an open book...