Talking Game of Thrones: Adaptation versus Reimagining


“Blackwater” approaches, and with it the suspicion of many fans that it may be the episode most faithful to the tone and character developments of the novel, as it features King’s Landing — an area that has, besides some reduction in scale, largely remained fairly closely following the novel — and is written by George R.R. Martin himself. This fact makes it seem like it’s a good time to discuss an interesting phenomena this season that is becoming more and more apparent as it progresses: more and more people seem to qualify their high enjoyment of the series with the caveat that they have to “separate” the novels from the TV show.

By this, they seem to mean that if they think too much about the television show as an adaptation, their enjoyment is lessened — it’s “its own thing”. This apparent need to remove the novels from the equation of how much a viewer likes the show is a change from the last season when there seemed to be very few fans who felt that the adaptation on the screen was significantly harmed by comparison to the novels.

There seems to be a splitting of the fanbase this season that did not exist in the previous season, along the lines of those who judge the adaptation by how well it adapts the books (as many seemed to do last season) and those who judge it by how much it entertains them without specific reference to the source of the novels. And that, I believe, directly relates to the change of approach of the writers to how they’ve adapted the novels: they are reimagining the story and characters more frequently, rather than merely adapting it as they generally did last season (with one or two notable exceptions).

As executive producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss had stated, for the first season, Game of Thrones was pretty much a direct adaptation of A Game of Thrones. They also stated back then that “one book, one season” was their goal. The season, as it played out, largely proved that out: readers of the books saw much of the heart of that material translated directly to the screen. In those instances where there were, shall we say, reimaginings — Catelyn Stark reimagined as a homebody mother who’d prefer to just lock the gates of Winterfell and shut the rest of the world out rather than a noblewoman with some ambition and a strong belief as to where her husband’s duties lay, Cersei reimagined as a cool, bitter victim of an unhappy marriage rather than the fiery, ambitious schemer who is as much victimizer as victimized, Renly reimagined as a reluctant schemer with a distaste for violence — there were fans who might have scratched their heads, but these were relatively few instances. Most changes could clearly be seen as trimming the huge story to fit it in ten hours, to find ways to squeeze as much of the core story into the time and budget they had — and so the adapted, rather than the reimagined, text remained as the foundation.

But with the second season of the series, the tune changed: they pointed out how difficult, especially in potential later seasons, it would be to maintain the “one book, one season” goal, and so with this season and on their aim was more to adapt A Song of Ice and Fire as a whole without being stuck on precisely using any one book as a complete outline.

On the face of it, this sounded perfectly reasonable. After all, it’s still adapting the series, correct? Some wondered why A Clash of Kings — which is not obviously difficult to adapt, as A Storm of Swords (which will very roughly occupy the next two seasons of the series,) or A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons with their geographically bifurcated narratives, would be — was the novel that led to this particular change in approach, but it didn’t seem to matter. Based on the first season, the adaptation of the text to screen would be carried out thoroughly and with care… or so some fans expected.

Eight episodes in, and the increasing role of reimagining aspects of the story, characters, and themes has become quite evident. It’s not something that’s necessarily bad, when it works: Theon Greyjoy narrative has been successfully translated to the screen by reducing the number of characters present, shifting what sound like the Reeds and Reek (based on unconfirmed casting rumors) into the next season, and introducing a somewhat different characterization and development for the character (highlighted by the exceptional “What Is Dead May Never Die”, widely regarded by devoted fans as the best episode of the season to date).

But it works so rarely. Arya’s narrative for half the season has been static (a far cry from the dark progression of her character in the novels), reimagined as a showcase for Maisie Williams and Charles Dance; Jon’s time with Ygritte proved a repetitive winter wonderland journey of saucy come-ons followed by insults, doubtless largely to be a showcase for Kit Harington and Rose Leslie and detracting from the drama and thematic depth of the flight through the Frostfangs; Qarth’s politically-charged turn of events has absolutely no one speculating on the political outcomes for a place that’s barely sketched; the meet-cute of Robb and Talisa that seems to frustrate many viewers (reads or not) has not particularly compelling; and more.

Now, even the most annoyed fan will admit that in broad outline, the story remains much the same. But through their choices of what to emphasize and what to de-emphasize the writers have been paring away themes and character beats from the novels and choosing to substitute their own.

The clearest example is the way that this season was promoted by the showrunners the “season of romance”, a notion that would be very foreign indeed to anyone who read A Clash of Kings. But in increasing a romantic (or at least sexual) elements, the narrative weight, tone, and focus has shifted away from that of the novels. An adaptation is never going to be the exact same story in the course of translation, but when the adapters decide that they’re more interested in some parts of the stories than others, when they decide to bring a character who was deliberately left out of the story and make them a central character, they’re reimagining the story rather than adapting it.

The question really is, what do viewers prefer? The ratings for this season have been stable with a small upward trajectory, but nothing like the second season surge that True Blood saw, and which fans had hoped for, has not materialized. “Blackwater” has been presented as an “event” episode, and will almost certainly see an up-tick which the finale, “Valar Morghulis”, will doubtless benefit from. But at the same time, there are those who say their non-reader friends (the “Unsullied”, as they’re called in some quarters) are not exactly fans of some of the narrative choices the producers have made, leading to protests from those who’ve read the books that “it’s not that way in the book” or “it’s a lot better in the book.” It’s all subjective, it’s all anecdotal…

But what isn’t anecdotal is that there is, indeed, a split among that portion of the viewership that’s read the books.

So let me poll readers here who watch the show: Do you enjoy this season as much as last season, and if not, why not? Do enjoy the show differently this season?