Warning: spoilers about the fifth season abound.
Winter is no longer coming. It's here. As the fifth season of Game of Thrones heads towards its final three episodes, the White Walkers may not be marching their army toward the wall, but it's only a matter of time as everything else is going from bad to worse. Sansa is married to a psychopathic sadist who rapes her every night. Stannis's army (and when did Stannis become a good guy and our best hope for rescue?) is trapped in the snow. Meanwhile, Melisandre the Red Priestess is recommending sacrificing Shireen, Stannis's beloved daughter. Things aren't much better elsewhere. Both queens of Kings Landing are in prison with the city in the grip of a fanatical group of puritanical inquisitors. Daenerys is marrying a noble who represents everything she despises as a way to pursue peace, allowing slaves to kill each other in her honor, and her dragons seem to have gone feral. In Dorne, a plot that showed so much promise early on has either been played for laughs or been laughable when trying to be serious.
Meanwhile, somewhere in an undisclosed location, George R. R. Martin is trying to finish a book called The Winds of Winter . He better hurry, because when season five concludes, the HBO show will reach the end of the published source material.
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Season five has been a troubling one. It aggressively veered away from the books, especially with Sansa's story. At first, the deviations were exciting, as she seemed to be finding herself as actor, rather than a passive pawn being dragged across Westeros. Alas, the show creators—David Benioff and D. B. Weiss—seem to have made this move only to increase the pathos of her eventual rape at the hands of her husband. Maybe within the next three episodes she'll become the agent of her own liberation, since Theon has betrayed her and Brienne is outside the castle, but I'm not counting on it. No matter what, many viewers (including me) are tired of the endless pattern in which female characters can only develop through abuse.
But there's another, subtler, impact of the changing relationship between the books and the show. This season has overlapped with A Dance with Dragons, book five of A Song of Ice and Fire. When the Benioff and Weiss cut characters and scenes from the show, as they have to in adapting the book, it reveals to readers that those characters weren't very important. Dorne wasn't just a site of liberated women with badass weaponry and poor impulse control in the books, but the site of a branch of the Targaryen family. Most readers expect there to eventually be three dragon riders, and there's a vast web of speculation about who they might be. As the show eliminates characters from the script altogether, our options are narrowing.
These options are going to narrow further. Either next spring, when season six starts, or possibly in the following year, Game of Thrones will plow forward while the books lag behind. Martin is a famously slow writer, and in a recent interview, admitted that he's still weighing major plot twists. Although it's important to him that the book comes out before the next season, he said, "Maybe I'm being overly optimistic about how quickly I can finish." Fans need to face the possibility that the show will become canon for the world, with the books lagging behind.
Martin has, of course, consulted with the show creators on the whole story . They know how it's all going to end. That's different, though, than providing scriptwriters with hundreds of pages of action, setting, and dialogue from which to draw. The writing of Martin has informed the voices in the script throughout; but that's likely to change.
As near as I can tell, this is basically unprecedented. Shows and movies have abandoned their source material from time to time, or gone past the limits of a narrow text, but the relationship between Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire is intimate and intricate, and I can't think of a similarly popular work, especially not in fantasy, in which the dynamic between book and show has switched like this.
Books and short stories, of course, have long provided the base for television shows and movies. Justified, which just ended a five-season run, was based on an Elmore Leonard novella . Given that the work is 60 pages long, the show ran past its source material quickly. Procedural shows like Bones and Rizzoli and Isles draw from books, but by their very nature, the shows quickly go their own way. Every episode has to have a mystery which the protagonists solve, in some sense doing the work of a whole book in 60 minutes with time for commercials. Dexter and True Blood, likewise, adapted characters and settings from books, but really only for the first and part of the second seasons. As both series progressed, the show creators used characters and settings to tell new stories that they thought would work best on the small screen. True Blood introduced multiple-POV characters beyond Sookie, while in Dexter the Ice Cream Truck killer is the only serial killer to appear in both the novels and the series. I see these shows as "inspired by" rather than adaptations of a linear work of narrative fiction.
There are, of course, widely successful adaptations. The BBC has just finished airing Wolf Hall, a series based on the first two novels by Hilary Mantel on Thomas Cromwell and the reign of Henry VIII. Had Mantel not finished the books, though, as a history drama, we know how the story ends (spoilers: Cromwell dies. Henry dies. We all die. Valar morghulis). Even just confining oneself to fantasy, the last few years of movie-making have featured many popular adaptions— The Hobbit, The Hunger Games, Twilight, and countless more.
But imagine that the last Hunger Games movie was written, shot, and even released before Suzanne Collins had finished Mockingjay. It's not unthinkable. When Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone came out in 2001, only the first four books had been published. Had J. K. Rowling not managed to regularly churn out three more books from 2003 to 2007, Hollywood, rather than Rowling, might have provided our first depiction of the death of Dumbledore and the defeat of Voldemort.
That's what's going to happen with Game of Thrones. Whatever the final plot reveals, we'll see it depicted on HBO first, and only later get the chance to read it. So as seasons six and seven unfold, it's time to stop thinking of the books as canon. It will be the end of thinkpieces detailing how the show and books differ . Maybe this will be good—at their best, Benioff and Weiss have stripped away a lot of the excess in Martin's prose, presenting tightly-written and well-directed scenes that make for a better story. At their worst, their insistence on adding extra rape scenes and their obsession with Theon (I have yet to meet a fan who thought Theon was worth all the screentime. There's a reason that Martin did all the torture off page—not for squeamishness, but boredom with the character) drives away fans of the book and show alike.
Game of Thrones is a problematic show. As a fan, I think it's best to admit it and listen to people who have decided they're done. I, however, am a completist. I'm going to keep watching. I'm going to read. I still believe that the bad guys will be defeated, the Starks will be restored to Winterfell, and the dragons will burn the White Walkers to ash. I can't wait.
Game of Thrones airs on Sundays on HBO.
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