The book’s not always better, kids. Despite popular opinion, onscreen adaptations of literary works CAN actually improve upon the source material. We weren’t mad at the extra Legolas at the end of “The Hobbit,” were you? There’s a lot to be said for experiencing a story that’s been given a life of its own. In fact, sometimes changes made to plots or characters can surprise us with how much more effective they were than the original choice.
Generally we get things thrown at us when we suggest that “Game of Thrones” is one of those adaptations (and there’s certainly PLENTY of moments when it isn’t), but we feel strongly enough about the 15 entries on this list that we’ll don some plate, raise our shields and risk your wrath.
15. TYRION AND SANSA
In the books, Tyrion and Sansa achieve something approaching a cold peace when they’re forced to marry. Sansa’s a more tentative character in the books to begin with, completely mistrustful of any Lannister, and unable to overcome her disgust at Tyrion’s appearance. While she doesn’t go so far as to openly insult him, she refuses to kneel at their wedding so that he may drape her in a Lannister cloak as is tradition. Instead, in order to reach her, he’s forced to stand on the back of Ser Dontos to everyone’s amusement.
Conversely, the show uses Tyrion and Sansa’s forced engagement to showcase the best parts of both of their nature’s. Tyrion is kind to Sansa, understanding of the many reasons she would be unhappy with their match. Sansa responds by letting her guard down and returning said kindness with some of her own. She helps him with the cloak and he promises to never force himself upon her. It’s really sweet! It didn’t last very long considering Sansa’s entire family was slaughtered soon after, but for a brief moment, the show allowed us to see two people being good to each other, and it was really nice.
14. BRONN AND JAIME
This one’s easy — there’s no Bronn and Jaime in the books, and there is in the show. Thus, improvement. Book-wise, Bronn doesn’t help Jaime try to train his left swordhand, and the two never take a trip to Dorne. If you’re all familiar with the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, you’ll know that the show’s adaptation of the Dorne storyline was not necessarily well-received, and for good reason. It turned one of the more intriguing parts of the series into a strange, cartoonish romp. The one bright spot was the buddy-cop flick that was Bronn and Jaime.
Not only did they make for killer comic relief as they sneak into the Water Gardens like a couple of “Looney Tunes” characters, it was kind of interesting to see Tyrion’s best friend hang with his older brother. Considering how alike Bronn and Tyrion are, it was almost like getting a sneak peek into what Jaime and Tyrion might have been like as boys. Also, if you think about it, Jaime is virtually squad-less, so it was nice to see him finally get his bromance on.
13. SANSA LEAVES THE EYRIE
In “A Dance With Dragons,” Sansa goes to the Eyrie with Petyr Baelish just as she does on the show, but even after Lysa’s murder and her confession to the Lords of the Vale, she remains with Petyr, posing as his “niece,” Alayne Stone. Her chapters become sedate and almost a little delusional as she embraces her new identity. It’s an interesting character study, to be sure, but once again, it’s Sansa’s passivity that saves her, not her agency.
In the show, drastic changes were made to this storyline. The show was set to outpace the books, and it made sense to merge Sansa’s storyline with Jeyne Poole’s and have the former marry Ramsay instead. While no one here is happy that Sansa endured what she had to at Ramsay’s sadistic hands, the injury allowed her to become one the strongest female characters on the show. Her story is now one of triumph over adversity rather than one of a princess in a tower.
Littlefinger doesn’t suffer from the absence of exposure that Robb does in the novels due to the POV structure — he’s so well-traveled that he finds himself in front of nearly everyone in Westeros at some point. His character is one of the more well-rounded supporting characters in the series. That said, we think the show still manages to improve upon him by tweaking his characterization a bit. In the books, the intimate picture of his upbringing we get through Catelyn’s (and later Sansa’s) perspective doesn’t serve to make him more sympathetic — the opposite is true, in fact. He’s a more petulant figure, whining about his upbringing and obnoxiously glorying in his triumphs.
He’s aged a bit more on the show, and while Aiden Gillen plays him with all the mustache-twirling goodness of a Disney villain, the actor provides more depth and a weightier presence than ever manifests in the book. By showing more of Littlefinger at work as opposed to pontificating (okay, he still pontificates, but not all the time), he becomes a more intimidating villain. It’s a credit to the show and Gillen’s performance that they’ve elevated a petty manipulator into a puppet master with the capacity for real evil.
11. THE GIANT SCYTHE
During the Battle for Castle Black, the Wall had to defend itself against thousands of Wildlings while heavily outnumbered and outgunned, for lack of a better word. As audiences and readers, we’d sat though books and seasons-worth of foreshadowing that the Wildlings were amassing a large force coupled with bearing witness to the Wall’s repeated pleas for more men and supplies.
While Martin’s telling of the Battle is certainly riveting, it was considerably lacking in pizazz. No one was expecting dragons or wildfire or anything of the like, but it made sense to expect the Brothers to have at least one ace-in-the-hole, and the show gave them one. And their ace was So. Freaking. Metal. Literally, it was a giant metal scythe, buried in the ice at the top of the Wall. When climbers started to come within range of the summit, instead of wasting arrows that probably would’ve missed anyway, Edd releases the scythe from its ice shell and it obliterates everything in its path with explosive force. It’s an incredibly crowd-pleasing addition that actually isn’t that impractical, and it kind of makes up for the elimination of Tyrion’s great chain in the Battle of the Blackwater.
There are plenty of characters that get thankfully more fleshed out, due to the adaptation from the character-based POV structure of the novels to the more omniscient POV on the show, and Robb Stark is primary among them. He’s a pivotal character whose choices directly result in one of, if not the most memorable event in the series — the Red Wedding. Because his story is told almost entirely through Catelyn’s eyes, the audience is absent while he makes the fatal decision to choose to marry Jeyne Westerling for love, and irrevocably damage his relationship with Walder Frey.
Martin was trying to really nail down the point that love-based marriages are kind of totally ludicrous in the face of conflicting political interests, and it’s not that he doesn’t. The story just feels incomplete, and Robb comes off looking stupid and irresponsible, which he isn’t. The show, armed with the ability to show Robb’s very mature (if idealistic) love for Talisa and Richard Madden’s incredible performance, turn the literary Stark from impulsive youth to tragically flawed man. The books didn’t really stand a chance on this one — the story we get to see is always better than the one we don’t.
9. SELYSE AND SHIREEN
Contrary to the endearing relationship they cultivate on the show, Davos has very little contact with Shireen in the books. He has even less with Selyse and, given that he’s the primary window into Stannis’ private life, that means we see far less of the Baratheon women in the books than we do in the show. They’re familiar echoes of the fully-fleshed characters that appear on the show, and while they’ll supposedly get more time in “The Winds of Winter,” Queen Selyse and Princess Shireen far outpace their book counterparts.
Selyse, for her part, gets a deliciously macabre makeover. In addition to maintaining her status as blind acolyte of Melisandre, she also keeps her stillborn sons in mason jars and is way too excited (at first) to kill her own daughter. Speaking of said daughter, in Season 5, Shireen quietly became one of the most enchanting and ultimately tragic casualties of “Game of Thrones'” history. She revealed herself to be the one person who could soften Stannis Baratheon, and thus turned his story into a family tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.
8. GILLY’S BABY
Due to the elimination of much of the Mance Rayder/Wildling storyline, Gilly’s baby switch doesn’t happen on the show. We literally haven’t met anyone who’s complaining. At the end of “A Storm of Swords,” Gilly acted as wet nurse for Mance Rayder’s son after Dalla, his mother, dies in childbirth. Before Gilly and Sam head to Oldtown in “A Feast for Crows,” Jon swaps Gilly’s son with Dalla’s to protect the technically royal baby from Melisandre, who’s hella thirsty for king’s blood at the moment.
Jon doesn’t reveal any of this to Sam, though, so for nearly the entire journey (which constitutes a goodly portion of “A Storm of Swords”) to Oldtown, Gilly sobs uncontrollably and no one knows why. She eventually finds some measure of peace with the situation and after taking Sam’s V-card, heads off to Horn Hill with Dalla’s baby, all set to tell the Tarly’s it’s Sam’s bastard. That’s right. Jon forces her to trade babies, and she heads to Horn Hill by herself so we’re denied the perfection that was “Meet the Tarlys.” Thank you, Show, for improving upon this morose and decidedly unfunny chain of events.
7. CHARACTER AGING
Martin wrote “A Song of Ice and Fire” from a medieval historical perspective, so the relatively young ages of the characters (especially the children) in the book make sense in that context. However, both the books and the series have 21st-century audiences. Despite the historical accuracy of 13-year-olds getting married to 20-somethings, it is never not icky reading about Drogo graphically having sex with Dany on their wedding night.
It’s also a big leap to think a child under 10, as Bran is, could achieve the wisdom and composure he does in his short-lived position as Lord of Winterfell and later in his journey Beyond-the-Wall. Yes, he’s got some mystical guidance, but he’s not the Three-Eyed Raven just yet. Same goes for Robb commanding an army at 14 and Shae being such an accomplished seductress at 17. Aging everyone a few years made watching these stories come to life more believable and palatable to a modern audience on several different levels.
In the books, there’s no doubt Shae will eventually betray Tyrion and manifest herself as the weakness his father’s always seen in him. She’s a shallow, materialistic young woman who doesn’t even try that hard to convince Tyrion she loves him. Aside from lip service and sexual favors, she’s far more interested in bettering her circumstances at his expense than she is in his company. Tyrion even admits this to himself when she doesn’t blink at his marriage to Sansa, but he’s in love with her and can’t let go of the fantasy that she loves him back. It’s hard to watch a character so intelligent and goodhearted be deceived and ultimately corrupted by one so unworthy of him.
Thankfully (kind of…?), the series redraws Shae into someone more three-dimensional, more intriguing and thus, a better match for Tyrion. Despite all odds, they forge an actual relationship built on mutual love and respect. It makes watching the slow-motion train wreck they become beautiful instead of cringe-worthy. While the outcome in the novels and the show was literally the same, and in neither case a surprise, the show turned the couple’s journey into something truly heartbreaking for both characters.
5. THE WHITE WALKERS
Okay, this one’s really unfair because the White Walkers are better on the show BECAUSE of how good they are in the books. George R. R. Martin’s descriptions are so utterly chilling that it’s impossible not to want to see these monsters brought to life. We’ve seen all kinds of dragons in all kinds of movies, but the Others were a totally original creation, and there’s no doubt at least one or two readers tuned in just for them. It was worth it.
In addition to giving life to Martin’s monsters, it’s gifted us with a few tastes more of them than what we get in the books. The terrifying transformation of Craster’s son added another disturbing layer to their “culture” and reminded us they were still around during a season that only saw them make one other appearance. As for the events of “Hardhome,” because the show’s shown restraint in the extra moments they’ve thrown our way, seeing the White Walkers give a demonstration of their full power was strong on the intimidation factor. The show has walked a fine line with Westeros’ biggest threat, and it makes for a much more satisfying experience than just reading it.
4. THE HOUND
Believe it or not, the Hound actually softened on the show. Yes, this is the same dude who ran over Micah the butcher’s boy with a wink and a smile. His disposition is amplified in the books — he’s disillusioned, hopeless and far more sexually attracted to Sansa than he should be. His offer to ferry her to safety in the midst of the Battle of the Blackwater, comes with a far more lecherous charge in the books than it does on the show. It’s this kind of behavior that paints a picture of a man perhaps not quite as sadistic as his brother, but still beyond hope of redemption.
On the show, he’s less gruff in general, and his black comedy/buddy cop journey with Arya serves to humanize him without eliminating his edge. The Hound’s is a story of redemption, and it looks like we’ll actually get to see him attempt said redemption, whereas there’s very little indication in the books that that will happen. We’ll take him palling around with the Brotherhood over anonymous grave-digging any day of the week.
It’s a favorite pastime of book readers to raise hell regarding what storylines the show has chosen to either merge or eliminate completely from their adaptation (see: Lady Stoneheart). But, it’s a necessary evil, given the size of Martin’s work, and frankly, some of their changes have been welcome. The density of the series has long been a turn-off for non-fantasy fans, and considering Martin was still adding characters and storylines as late as “A Dance With Dragons,” it’s not surprising it’s been critiqued as growing a bit unwieldy.
Decisions like thinning out the Greyjoy background surrounding the Kingsmoot and eliminating the slow-simmering vengeance of Prince Doran allowed room for other story-arcs to shine and didn’t burden audiences with information that may never become relevant. While we absolutely think a legend like Areo Hotah deserved better than what he got, it’s a small price to pay for a show that moves faster than a glacial pace.
2. ARYA AND TYWIN
In “A Clash of Kings,” Arya serves as cupbearer to Roose Bolton, then a Stark bannerman. While she never reveals her identity, she does provide excellent insight into a character that would later become so crucial. It’s interesting, of course, but it’s nothing compared to what we see on the show — the tense, yet companionable relationship forged between Arya and Tywin Lannister.
Not only does this pairing up the stakes of every scene they share due to Arya’s value to Tywin as a hostage and her simultaneous desire to kill him, these two have serious chemistry. While Tywin remains unaware of her identity and she remains trapped at Harrenhal with no escape, Arya doesn’t have much choice other than to do her job as best she can. Because she’s both obedient and clever, they build a companionable working relationship. It’s only during these scenes that we ever see the affectionate side of Tywin Lannister making it clear he can only let his guard down when he’s neither threatened nor invested. It made us long for a “Heidi” reboot starring Charles Dance and Maisie Williams. It’s sad. It’s sweet. It’s utterly hypnotic. We shipped this harder than Jon and Ygritte.
In the books, Cersei is a paranoid, power-hungry, vindictive alcoholic. On the show, Cersei is a paranoid, power-hungry, vindictive alcoholic, BUT somehow she’s more likeable in person. While Martin’s queen revels in the suffering of those she despises, it’s hard to see Lena Headey’s the same way. She killed her husband… after he physically abused and raped her for years. She sacrificed others for the sake of her children… because they were all she had. The show went further than the series illuminating the context of her actions and the lack of agency she’s endured her entire life. When Cersei victimizes someone, we can feel it comes from a place of self-preservation, however misguided.
This isn’t a Cersei-apologist post for many reasons, not the least of which is that Margery didn’t deserve to go out like that. (Lancel DEFINITELY did, but Margery didn’t.) But the show’s characterization and Lena Headey’s performance gave her Cersei a soul, however damaged. It makes it possible to sympathize with and at times, even root for her. She’s a villain, certainly, but a tragic and fascinating one. In the books she’s a drunk Regina George. Trust us, you like this better.
Do you agree that the GoTV is better than the books or are we wrong? Let us know, either way, in the comments!
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