Full disclosure: I’m not the most tolerable of filmed adaptations of books that I like. There are definitely a few out there – “The Hunger Games” is a good recent example, and there’s my absolute favorite adaptation, “The Princess Bride.”
But most of the time, they don’t live up to my exacting standards. For example, I like “The Fellowship of the Ring,” but I have a very low tolerance for “The Two Towers,” and “The Return of the King” is only OK. Some of that is purely related to filmmaking complaints (is it always night in “TT”-era Middle Earth?), but a lot of it is related to how divergent they get from their source material. I cringe at the elves in Helms Deep, the warg attack on Aragorn, the Arwen dream, etc.
But I’m already drifting. Lord of the Rings is not the fantasy franchise I’m here to talk about. Instead, I’m talking about HBO’s Game of Thrones, the blood ‘n’ guts-fueled drama based on George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire Series. The show just finished its second season, and unlike seemingly everyone else, I like the first season better.
When the first season came out, it was like a dream come true, sans one budget-related snafu (the omission of the Green Fork battle, for you readers). It was a tightly plotted yet expansive show that captured the spirit and winding complexity of the books.
It was also one of the truer adaptations of a book I’ve seen, and that made me so happy.
I realize that much of what I’ve just said probably brands me as hard-to-please nerd, and you know what? I am. But there are two big reasons I like my book adaptations to more or less line up.
The first reason goes back to why I get excited about book adaptations in the first place: when I watch one, I expect to see a thing that I already enjoy translated into a visual form. That doesn’t mean that I need to see an exact representation of what’s on the page, but I expect it to be relatively the same as the books. The fun comes from seeing the filmmaker or showrunner’s vision of things I too have envisioned, not from seeing drastically changed material.
Take, for example, Daenerys’s lengthy stay in Quarth, widely panned as the second season’s weakest link. I understand that this section is not the Mother of Dragons’ most interesting chapter, but the showrunners changed virtually all of it, from her entrance into the city to what she does there to why she eventually goes into the House of the Undying.
None of what happened in the show (besides her reunion with Drogo, I mean, I’m not a robot) caused me to ever have any emotional investment in Daenerys’s story this year. Part of that has to do with the fact that a lot of it was a bit hammy, but most of it was due to the fact that I want to watch a screen version of my favorite Song of Ice and Fire book, not a kind-of adaptation that hits some of the same plot notes in different ways with similarly-named characters. When the show enters that mode, I just don’t care.
The second reason is that, more often than not, the original author had good reasons for what he or she did. When a show or a movie deviates from its source material, it does so at the possible expense of future plotlines of even an overall interesting story.
Robb’s storyline in Season 2 is a good example of this. While I understand the desire to follow a character that doesn’t have point of view chapters in the books, the Robb/Talisa plot ate up screen time that would have been better served developing the expansive plot that was in the book (doing the book’s complicated Theon at Winterfell plot a little more justice would been nice) and makes even less sense than his ill-advised decision in the original story. Ever wonder why a particular sequence is draggy or perhaps a bit nonsensical (like the weird rope-tied Jon/Ygritte episode)? Maybe it’s because the master storyteller whose books are being adapted knew how to structure the flow of his story.
There’s also the opportunity for a butterfly effect situation, doubly so in a series as murderously plotted as this.
I mean, I get it: while filming an adaptation, you need to make changes and you need to make cuts, and the show’s writers have done a very good job of that at times. This season, Littlefinger’s wheelings and dealings and Arya’s cupbearing chats with Tywin come to mind.
But this season also featured the premature death of a relatively important character, a nearly complete change in the story arcs for Robb and Daenerys, the characterization of Stannis as a potential woman abuser, and many other changes that were unneeded and unhelpful.
I don’t watch Game of Thrones because I want to see HBO’s R-rated take on the fantasy genre. I watch it because I want to see HBO’s version of George R.R. Martin’s R-rated take on the fantasy genre. I’m not saying the former can’t be good. It’s just not the latter, and the latter is what I signed on to watch.