On Sunday, April 24, Westeros — or at least its frequent visitors — will be liberated. With Season 6, HBO’s fantasy saga “Game of Thrones” will move past the story line of “A Song of Ice and Fire,” the uncompleted series of George R. R. Martin novels that it is based on.
For those of you who haven’t read the books, good news: Those of us who have will finally have to shut our smug pie holes. No more can we tease, “Wait until you see what happens!,” as we did before the deadly Red Wedding or the deadly Purple Wedding. Any future murderous nuptials, and their color schemes, will surprise us, too.
Will the Boltons be driven from Winterfell? You tell us. Will Daenerys and her dragons retake the Iron Throne for the Targaryens? (Shrugs.) Is Jon Snow dead, or at least permanently dead? We don’t think so, either, but we can’t prove it.
Among readers, the Great Catch-Up has caused angst. It’s highly unusual for an adaptation to begin behind its literary source only to overtake it. Will we be spoiled? Will it be the same to read Mr. Martin’s next books — when and if he ever finishes them — with images from TV already squatting in our imaginations?
Fear not. For readers, this is an opportunity to learn that a great novel is more than its plot. For viewers, this means that “Game of Thrones” — always an awe-inspiring spectacle but sometimes plodding and frustrating — can become its own thing.
To some readers, the ideal screen adaptation is essentially a video illustration of the book: the thing that was in our heads, projected for us on a screen. Think of how some “Harry Potter” fans practically watched the movies with a checklist, praising them for how much of the source material they retained.
But book-based series succeed best when they choose to — or have to — declare independence. HBO’s “The Leftovers” became one of TV’s best shows in Season 2, when it exhausted the Tom Perrotta book. Syfy’s “The Magicians” took a scissors to the narrative of Lev Grossman’s fantasy novels, becoming nimble and funny in a screen-friendly way. Starz’s “Outlander” took liberties with Diana Gabaldon’s narrative but kept its spirit.
It has become common to compare complex serials like HBO’s “The Wire” to novels — the implication/insult is that TV should be flattered — but the analogy goes only so far. TV is visual, telegraphic and more linear. Above all, it’s unforgivingly fast. Mr. Martin has written five novels in two decades. A showrunner who promised HBO that pace would quickly be shown the Moon Door.
“Game of Thrones” may have been taken awhile to find its identity in part because the novels seemed so perfect for TV — for HBO in particular, even though its first volume appeared three years before “The Sopranos.”
Like the western “Deadwood,” it took a popular genre, dirtied it up and added politics and psychology. Its ideas about power — for instance, that leaders can be doomed by rigid purity — muddied the moral dichotomies of Tolkienesque fantasy. Whacking its seeming protagonist, the principled Ned Stark, was a mission statement made for pay cable.
But the early episodes of “Thrones” were burdened with the books’ stature and vast story. The changes that were made, like Daenerys’s wedding-night rape (a warning sign that the series would use sexual violence clumsily and too much) seemed to exist mainly for shock.
“Thrones” found its voice in “The Wolf and the Lion,” the fifth episode of that first season. The soon-to-be-late king, Robert Baratheon, sits with his wife, Cersei Lannister, to share red wine — their only common interest — and assess the sorry state of their realm. Westeros is troubled by schemers and threatened by invasion, and the only thing holding it together is their hateful marriage of convenience. “Don’t you get tired?”he asks her, ruefully. “Every day,” she says.
It’s a masterly exchange. In a few minutes, it lays bare their bitter relationship. It gives depth to the queen, who might otherwise come across a simple fairy-tale villain. It establishes the series’ perspective on the personal toll of political gamesmanship. And it appears nowhere in the novels.
For all its stunning set pieces — the battles of the Blackwater and Hardhome, the duel between Oberyn Martell and Gregor (the Mountain) Clegane — “Thrones” at heart is a series of conversations. Varys and Littlefinger. Jaime and Brienne. Tywin and Arya. Cersei and Lady Olenna. Tyrion and … well, anyone. In the Season 5 finale, the swordsman Daario, assessing Tyrion’s suitability for a search party, sums up his abilities: “So mainly you talk.” It’s true — and it’s why Tyrion, a disinherited dwarf, is the series’ most dangerous character.
Mr. Martin’s anvil-size books are more expansive. They include vast downloads of Westeros history and religion, outlines of genealogy and toothsome descriptions of banquets, which are vivid on the page — and should stay there. “Thrones” has lost some of the books’ majesty, but it has given them a much-needed edit, a Valyrian sword hacking through the expository clutter.
It’s been a good marriage, but it’s past time for a separation. “Thrones” slowed to a jog in Season 5, and story lines like Jaime and Bronn’s road trip to Dorne were advertisements for the fast-forward button. Even if the rest of the series follows Mr. Martin’s plans (the showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have worked in consultation with him), it may be better off for being TV first, without the anxiety of a best seller’s influence.
Which version will be authentic? Each will be authentically itself. Sometimes a story doesn’t have a single, definitive narrative. Artworks evolve, be they the variants of Shakespeare’s plays, Kanye West’s revisions to “The Life of Pablo” or George Lucas’s edits to “Star Wars.” We grasp at canonicity — Han shot first! — to deal with uncertainty. But while we can argue which version is better, no one, not even Mr. Martin, can end the argument. “A Song of Ice and Fire” is not the novelization of “Thrones,” and now “Thrones” can be more than the serialization of the novels.
I’ll watch the new “Game of Thrones” as soon as it airs (HBO is not sharing it in advance with critics). I’ll read Mr. Martin’s final books whenever they come. It doesn’t matter which gets there first, because there is no single “there.” They share the same world, but they’re two different continents, separated by a narrow sea.
by James Poniewozik