The New Gods vs. the Old: Is Game of Thrones Better As a Show or a Series of Books?

HBO Ser Davos and Shireen Baratheon on 'Game of Thrones'

The book is better than the movie. Or TV show. And the movie is inevitably better than the video game, right? It’s an article of faith: The first thing is the best thing. But it’s not so clear that’s the case with HBO’s Game of Thrones and its source material, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Avowed Westerosian tour guide netw3rk and unrepentant book-shunner Steve McPherson go all Ramsay Bolton on this problem to see if they can’t make it talk.

Steve McPherson: I’ve stopped reading A Song of Ice and Fire. I read the first book before I watched the first season of Game of Thrones, and then the second before the second, but by the time the credits rolled on “Valar Morghulis,” I realized something: I was ruining what was likely one of the best TV shows of all time by reading some pretty average books.

That’s going to piss some people off, but I think the precedents are pretty easy to set. Game of Thrones falls into a lineage of shows that have been gradually pressing at the boundaries of what we think television is capable of. Call The Sopranos the beginning of this, and then include The Wire and Breaking Bad and a few others along the way. And yes: This pushing often involves unspeakable violence and gratuitous sex, but to me that’s not what genuinely ties these shows together.

I’m certainly not the first to point out that these shows are doing the kind of work on the human character that used to be the province solely of the novel. And with the conclusion of its third season, I think it’s now possible to say that Game of Thrones is doing that work better than any show that’s come before it.

With greater direction (which is, I admit, a byproduct of basing it on a series of novels) than The Wire or Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones is showing us how plotlines create character, not just reflect it. Events in Game of Thrones are like living things that die and leave their bones inside of characters, slowly fossilizing and then being ground into the shale and coal and oil that become a character’s fuel. Although it doesn’t do everything exactly right, it does this thing better than any other show I’ve ever watched.

This is quietly revolutionary for television, but it’s what has been at the heart of good fiction for generations. And weirdly, it’s not done all that well in Martin’s books. Structurally, they’re bold in their departure from the conventions of fantasy literature with regard to goodness and honesty winning out in the end, but go talk to Cormac McCarthy about that shit.

And that’s the basic calculus for me here. The very best that fiction has to offer — both from classic authors like Dostoevsky and Hemingway and current authors like McCarthy, Zadie Smith, Don DeLillo, and even genre writers like Richard Price — is just much, much better than what George R.R. Martin can give you. And yet Game of Thrones appears to be well on its way to being one of the top 10, if not top five, TV dramas ever.

Why would I want to wade around in the shallow end and thumb my nose at the people diving off the high board? Up until Season 3, I was always busy marking off similarities to the books, but now I’m free to be shocked and moved without precondition.

But you’ve read all the books. You can’t unread them. What’s your perspective on this?

netw3rk: If part of your reasoning for deciding to stop reading the Song of Ice and Fire books is because you find the delivery of the core narrative to be better executed by the Game of Thrones show, I’m not going to argue the point. What the books do really, really well is world creation; Martin has crafted a complex, free-standing fictional world with elaborate, millennia-old histories for every character lineage and geographic location. What the show does better than the books, in my opinion, is to present the actual narrative in a distilled and concise form. So, where Martin tends to fall into bottomless Westerosian history rabbit holes describing dead rulers, their numerous offspring, their heraldry, their velvet doublets, and what they ate during some long-ago tournament, the show pares things down to the core characters and locales, numerous though they may be.

Additionally, if the other part of your reasoning for quitting the SOIAF books is to preserve the mail-fisted plot punch of the show, I have no grounds to object. People consume fiction in whichever way suits them; I don’t care whether a person reads all the books, listens to the audiobooks, watches the show, or just reads the Wiki of Ice and Fire. That’s a personal choice, and five brick-thick fantasy books is a decent time investment unless you’re living off a trust fund because your great-grandfather invented baby powder and the no. 2 pencil. I’m sure there are people who prefer the show to the books because tits and dragons, and I’m not going to argue.

Personally, I’m impatient. The earth could get Deep Impact–ed tomorrow; I want to know all of the story — whatever the story — that I possibly can. Sure, my eyes glaze over at the narrative flow getting bogged down in yet another description of the taste and texture of lamprey pie, but, generally, I love the shading that the history of Old Valyria or the Blackfyre Rebellion or the customs of Dorne add to the story. That’s the nerd in me.

Here’s where I draw the line, though: that ever so slight peering down the nose at fiction that features magic or swords or robots because they have the temerity to exist in the same format as the hallowed works of certified prose sculptors like Cormac McCarthy or Hemingway, as if those dudes never threw a pitch in the dirt now and again. Listen, I get it: I’d slit my own wrists before I drank a blended scotch, but there are only so many “bests” of any particular thing. After I’m done with those, I still want something to read.

McPherson: It’s interesting that you would bring up the idea of “world building” vs. “narrative momentum,” because recently there’s been a movement by so-called “literary” writers in the direction of genre writing, and I think it’s often seen as a way to do away with the tedious “aboutness” of literary fiction in favor of simple, old-fashioned storytelling. (Allow me to apologize for deploying not one, not two, not three, but FOUR terms in quotes in that sentence. I know: It makes me feel like my ex-girlfriend, which feels awful.)

Colson Whitehead dabbled in zombie fiction with Zone One. Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem dipped into comic books with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Fortress of Solitude (plus Lethem cut his teeth on the detective novel in earlier books like Motherless Brooklyn). Benjamin Percy’s recently published Red Moon is about werewolf terrorists. Even The Road is somewhat genre-y in its exploration of a postapocalyptic America. Obviously every writer is different, but in general, writers seem to be embracing genre writing because they’re tired of trying to use the world we have to explain the world we have. Authors want to be able to set the rules of their own worlds and then set characters loose inside them in order to better plumb the depths of the human condition.

And that’s interesting to me in relation to Game of Thrones because that’s very much what I see happening in the show and what I distinctly missed in the books. As you said, it seems like Martin’s desire to dress the set often overwhelms the story, and the result is that the characters often seem restricted, and not like living, breathing (or in many cases, choking-on-blood) people. Don’t get me wrong: I agree with you that the little filigrees and ornaments have their own kind of worth (and provide so much background that the show doesn’t have to worry much about the mythology). But let me present two key choices the show made in the second season that are flat-out better than the ones made by Martin.

First, in the book, Shae is not brought to the Red Keep in King’s Landing, but rather is stashed by Tyrion in the city, safe from immediate harm. But the threat of immediate harm is what every character needs in a good story! By immediately making Shae Sansa’s handmaiden, the show eliminates a clutch of extraneous characters and keeps the stakes high for Tyrion; as De La Soul told us, it’s important for stakes to be high.

Second, Arya spends much of the second book doing a bunch of different things at Harrenhal before eventually becoming Roose Bolton’s cupbearer. After the events of the Red Wedding, we now have a reason to know who Roose Bolton is, yet I suspect a lot of people still don’t. But the show made the fantastic choice to put Arya to work for Tywin Lannister. As already mentioned, this considerably raises the stakes and it also led to many of the best-written scenes in the second season, including this gem:

ICE WATER. I could go on — I remember Daenerys’s stay in Qarth being somehow even MORE protracted and mind-numbing in the book than it was in the show — but there seems to be a method to the way the show is dealing with the book, and it’s what any good editor of fiction should do: Whenever possible, combine characters, and always push for more and more immediate danger.

However: I can respect your “eat dessert first” approach, even if the dessert is some kind of bean-paste-based dish that looks great but takes forever to eat and isn’t all that satisfying. And I can recognize that the existence of the books makes a lot of things possible in the show that wouldn’t otherwise be (viz. killing off major characters) because there’s a plan. I realize the books aren’t done and this could still go lamprey-pie-shaped, but I have this faith in the direction of the show that I never had with, say, Battlestar Galactica, because there was no source material.

But but but: I’m ready to encourage everyone to do as I have done and just stop reading or never start the books. The show is that good to me. I’m willing to live with the risk that Bruce Willis and Aerosmith won’t be able to blow up the asteroid — that was Deep Impact, right? — and I’m going to die without knowing the bare facts of what happens. What case could you make that I or anyone else should keep going with the books?

netw3rk: The show is better at delivering the story than the books are. More concise, more efficient, and, often, more logical. I’m already on record with preferring the show as a narrative over the books. In addition to your excellent examples, I would add one more that seems especially germane:

In Storm of Swords, Robb is really a peripheral character. He’s not part of the POV structure; everything is seen through Catelyn’s eyes. In the books, Robb falls in love offscreen, returning from campaign with his new bride, the highborn Jeyne Westerling, in tow. No romance, just: “Guess what, met this swell lady while off storming the castle, and, well, I got married.” In the books, Jeyne survives Robb; lives to mourn him. Instead, the show created the character of Talisa (no need to introduce YET ANOTHER highborn family, the Westerlings, to the already muddled character family tree) and allowed us to watch her and Robb fall in love over the course of two seasons, plan their lives and their unborn children’s lives together, and, finally, die together, thereby increasing the emotional devastation of the Red Wedding.

OK, OK: So if the show is better as a story, why not skip the books?

For one, we’ve just talked about a number of ways the showrunners have changed details, shifted timelines, and invented characters to tighten up the narrative and better connect plot points. A byproduct of these changes has been that, unsurprisingly, the books and the show are now pretty different animals. Knowing the Red Wedding was coming may have lessened the blow somewhat, but it also cranked up the dread. And, as strange as it sounds, watching the episode after having read the book kinda helped me put reading the chapter in perspective.

The way Martin has written the series, you can never quite get away from the sense that he’s hidden things — details, foreshadowings — within the word choices. So, when I read that chapter, I couldn’t quite grasp it. This is happening? This can’t be happening. It must be symbolism. Dear god, this is happening. Then there’s the way the mind processes narrative text as opposed to moving images. The way the mind generates the images from the words made me, for lack of a better word, complicit, in some way, in the violence. I see the knife at Cat’s throat because my mind creates it. One can turn away from a television, and the sounds of slaughter and pleading can carry you through to an understanding of what your eyes don’t want to see. But turning away from a page only freezes the scene in your mind’s eye. The horror waits there, patiently, for you to come back to it; if you want to know what happens, you must take part.

And that was traumatic. I had to reread the chapters directly following the Red Wedding several times because I was in a daze.

I guess it’s pretty silly prattling on about the different ways in which we process text versus moving images, but I feel like that’s really what we’re talking about, and maybe the answer is as simple as you didn’t like the books as much as I did. Which is fair. But, I think, the things the show and books do — and the ways they do them — are so different that they can really support and augment each other. Like a Venn diagram of blood and fire, or something. If that makes sense.

McPherson: You make an excellent point about the difference between how active a participant we are in reading versus watching; you can see from those videos of people watching the Red Wedding and covering their faces with their hands how watching a show is like riding a bicycle. If you stop pedaling, you keep moving. (Well, unless you’re some dirty hipster with a fixie.) But reading a book is much more like running. If you stop, you’re not going anywhere.

And that idea of complicity is tremendously powerful in fiction, although I would argue that the show has even achieved a measure of that. I mean, when Jaime walked into Cersei’s room in the season finale, I couldn’t believe that I was actually HAPPY for them after the way I’d seen them in the first couple episodes of the first season. My mind was practically eating itself, thinking, It’s so sweet and touching but oh gross they’re still brother and sister but still but OH GROSS. But this is what Game of Thrones gives you to hold on to. When an episode’s other feel-good moment is a 13-year-old girl killing her first man, you realize how far out on the ledge the show has gotten you.

And I’d heard that Jeyne didn’t die in the books, and I can only think now how glad I am that Talisa died in the show — as terrible as that sounds — because I don’t think I could have dealt with her having to deal with losing Robb. Having rewatched the scene in bits and pieces, I can see something almost merciful in it now, especially in Robb and Catelyn’s deaths. Catelyn, just before she’s killed, has absolutely nothing left. To quote from everyone’s other favorite Sunday-night serial drama (at least until Breaking Bad returns), “How do you get to heaven? Something terrible has to happen.”

Finally, you’ve hit me where I live with that point about how the show and the book can augment each other. I fully read Clockers and Homicide after I watched The Wire because of the connections there, just to get a chance to live in something like that world that David Simon had created a little longer. You may have just convinced me to go back and read the books after the fact, although that’s not going to make the smugness of the “I’ve read the books” crowd any easier to take right now.

But who am I kidding? When HBO makes Brian Jacques’s Redwall series into a bloody, mouse-sex-filled serial drama, I’m going to be the one grimly anticipating Abbot Mortimer’s untimely end and telling everyone how much better the books are.

Filed Under: Game of Thrones, HBO