Game of Thrones: The 15 Best (and 11 Worst) Book Changes
With Game of Thrones Season 5 over, we look at the series' best and worst changes from A Song of Ice and Fire.
and “A Song of Ice and Fire.” They’re the same story heading to a shared predetermined end. Only the author of “Ice and Fire,” George R.R. Martin, and the
showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, know where that snowy path will lead, and until the fifth season, they mostly have been making that journey together.
season five, the HBO adaptation has seemingly parted ways with the book series for good, even surpassing it narratively and spoiling for book readers the reemergence of the Night’s King, the outcome of the Battle for Winterfell, and most especially the bitter, bitter fate of Shireen Baratheon. But all of those elements are apparently things to come in Martin’s prose, for even if one moves at the pace of a direwolf and the other like Ser Dontos during a king’s Name Day, each narrative is still the same story. Except when they’re not.
season six makes this divergence total, we thought it prudent to look back at the past five seasons, which more or less adapted the five published novels of “A Song of Ice and Fire,” and decide what were the very best changes that Benioff and Weiss made…and which were the very, very worst.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Martin’s novels is that every single chapter is a perpetually fixed angle that never gives a full picture of the events it documents. By telling an epic only through the eyes of
point-of-view characters over some 6,000 pages, he crafts a mosaic of unreliable narrators that can rarely see Westerosi politics or events beyond the five feet in front of their face.
This has allowed him to intentionally leave several major blind spots with important players throughout the saga, including until recently the Martells in Dorne, all five men who called themselves “king” during the war, and the entire inner-working of the House Tyrell.
But for better or worse, television does not have that luxury, and in the case of the Tyrells that turned out to be an advantage. On the page, Margaery Tyrell is a pretty young thing who at 16 years of age either has the worst or best luck in the world depending on your vantage. Married three times and twice the widow before consummation, she is intentionally a blank slate for characters like Cersei to project their hatreds and paranoia onto. And the Tyrell matriarch, Olenna Redwyne (aka the Queen of Thorns), is even more mysterious since she only appears twice before the hopelessly outmatched Sansa Stark.
Yet, on the show both were by necessity developed into fully fleshed out characters—which is all the better for us when Benioff and Weiss cast actresses of Natalie Dormer and Diana Rigg’s caliber in the roles. Instead of being mysterious gameplayers in the wings, we see the skill and cunning with which Margaery manipulates every man in her life, and the actual sharp-edged point of the proverbial queen’s thorn.
Coloring Margaery with both avarice for a crown and disdain for her mother-in-law who shares it, as well as genuine compassion for Sansa Stark and her brother’s plight, makes all the difference in creating one of the best characters on the series. And then the other is Diana Rigg dispensing more venomous barbs than Tyrion Lannister. This is nothing if not an improvement.
Honestly, there was no desperate reason for Jaqen h\'ghar to return after he frees Arya and her band of childhood heroes from the confines of Harrenhal. And he has not as of yet in “A Song of Ice and Fire.”
Still, one of the smallest but most gratifying changes about
season five was the reintroduction to the Man Who Speaks in Third Person at the House of Black and White. In the novels, there is likely not a single reader who had not hoped to see this dryly funny assassin again when Arya landed in Braavos—and probably still more than a few who suspect the Kindly Man who trains her to be Jaqen in disguise.
realizes this small yet gratifying reunion, which gives Arya’s storyline in Braavos more familiarity, is wholly welcomed by sullied and unsullied fans alike.
As with every year, there seems to be some debate about the pace of
season five. While we tend to agree here that it was a step down from the quality of the past, generally pacing issues tend to be borne just out of fans’ impatience for the next episode to air. Indeed, for the sullied fans of the show who have read the books, season five moved like a freight train with the way it sped through characters’ travels and adventures.
This was most especially true for Tyrion Lannister and his journey to Volantis and Ser Jorah Mormont. By comparison, Tyrion’s chapters in
long tourist’s guide and travelogue of Essos. He even does a degree of sea turtle watching with Griff and Young Griff—a father-and-son duo who turn out to have a
For the Unsullied reading this, you should know that the rest of this entry
In one of the most bizarre choices of Martin’s labored fifth novel, it is revealed that the too-educated-to work-a-riverboat father-and-son duo are not related at all; they are young Prince Aegon Targaryen (Daenerys’ nephew and son to the long deceased Prince Rhaegar Targaryen and Elia Martell) and his sworn bodyguard, the former Hand of the King and the former Lord of Griffin’s Roost, Jon Connington.
Essentially a double-blind Targaryen revelation, Tyrion learns that there are two exiled Targaryens in Essos with dreams of reclaiming their family’s honor; he then seemingly tricks Prince Aegon into a suicide mission of landing in Dorne without any army and to order Prince Doran to help him reclaim King’s Landing!
It is certainly a plot twist. It’s also a belated game player entering the proceedings with winter nigh upon us and Dany still wasting away in Meereen after 1,500 pages. If Dany’s storyline is any indication, the pace with which this younger Targaryen reaches Westeros might be decades after the fact, and he most egregiously feels like a cheat this far into the story. He also never comes back at all in the fifth novel.
Thus there is good indication that Benioff and Weiss feel the same way since not only did they excise this run-in with Tyrion Lannister, but they also gave Jon Connington’s story arc to Jorah Mormont. In
, it is Connington who is infected with greyscale when the stone men attack his boat with Tyrion on it, and it is likewise Connington who hides his condition from Prince Aegon as he seeks to place the boy on the throne. Aye, it’s much like the latest dynamic between Mormont and Daenerys, who viewers
readers both would prefer spending time with over this ill-fated duo.
Didn’t expect this one, did you? Well, let’s just say that before the episode “Unbowed, Unbroken, Unbent,” this entry would have been much higher. Still as it stands, Sansa Stark spent all of the first three novels and first four seasons of the television series being abused and psychologically tortured by Joffrey, Cersei, and the whole court of King’s Landing, save for her impish husband. Even her Aunt Lysa tried to kill her. Much of this seemed to be building towards Sansa hardening from victim to survivor, and to finally major gameplayer.
…Yet, we’re still waiting for that last bit in both mediums. However, one of Martin’s most interesting characters spent the whole of
taking an epic elevator ride down from the Eyrie and then touring the Vale while Littlefinger tutors her by day and steals lecherous kisses by night from his “bastard daughter.” So giving her a major arc about taking back her namesake and homeland from the Boltons seemed like an inspired decision once, and it still might be in the long run…except for, well see the next page’s list for more…
Pretty much like the title suggests, having Brienne fight the Hound was a much more satisfying moment for both characters’ arcs in season four. While this fudges the timeline a little bit, Brienne’s search for Sansa Stark in
got the most amount of chapters this side of Cersei. And since we could safely see that Sansa Stark was in the Vale for the
of those chapters, the feeling of listlessness and failure were omnipresent during Brienne’s tribulations.
. Barely out the door of King’s Landing, Brienne the Beauty had a beautiful chance to test her much-praised steel against another one of Martin’s most fearsome and lauded warriors—and she came out the better. It is an epic, grueling fight to death between Brienne and Sandor Clegane that includes biting, near eye-gouging, and cruelly aimed punches and kicks at each other’s most sacred of areas. It also made for a satisfyingly blood-soaked cause for the Hound’s demise, as opposed to the simple infection that began to rot in
That’s pretty much it. In “A Song of Ice and Fire,” Bronn vanishes from the novels after refusing to fight in Tyrion’s stead against the Mountain. In
he has gone from Tyrion’s sidekick to Jaime’s. If we could pair him with every character, the show could only get better still.
We certainly have issues about how Arya’s exploits were downsized, but this addition nearly makes up for any such grievances.
When Arya goes to Harrenhal in season two, she does not have to spend her time scrubbing floors or pretending to be a boy. Instead, she proves to be the kind of child that Tywin Lannister always wanted: a budding sociopath. Discovering that she is a well-read girl with the wits about her to dress as a boy, Tywin takes her on as his cupbearer and provides the series with some of its still greatest performance highlights.
Charles Dance and Maisie Williams make their screentime together both endearing and uneasily tense; they honestly make us almost wish that Benioff and Weiss blew a hole in Martin’s intricate narrative tapestry just so these two murderous personalities could square off with admiration and veiled hatred for the length of the entire series.
8. Sansa Does Not Tell Cersei About Eddard’s Plan
“A Song of Ice and Fire” is a stunning work of imagination and intense “big picture” plotting. However, one issue that I think Martin tended to overlook in his early novels is how to predict reader reaction. For instance, he has repeatedly admitted surprise and apprehension to the cult of personality and fandom that has developed around Stannis Baratheon amongst book readers; nor could he guess the level of unforgiving scorn certain fans developed for either Catelyn Stark or her daughter Sansa.
To be sure, there might be something cultural to consider about how readers can forgive a man who murders his brother and has countless more burned at the stake due to the prophecies of a red witch (and that’s not even bringing in what may or may not happen to literary Shireen in the near future), yet simultaneously condemn Catelyn or Sansa as monsters due to their much less deadly and fratricidal foibles.
In Sansa’s case, this vitriol stems from her rather petulant warning to Queen Cersei that Ned Stark plans to leave the Capitol with his family. For a certain stripe of reader, this naïve but believable action by a 14-year-old girl led many to blame her for her father’s maiming later that day at the hands of Jaime Lannister, and most strangely the eventual events that befell him and their whole family. Indeed, there are many fans that say Sansa deserved Joffrey’s beatings, naked humiliations, and worse because of this act.
Such ignorance and female scapegoating should not be placated. Still, it is probably for the best that Sansa not become the patsy for television viewers for an action that would all but be inevitable with Varys and Littlefinger’s spies everywhere to explain away Jaime’s confrontation (never mind Ned’s own numerous blunders before and after this incident).
It only lasted a moment in season five, but it made a world of difference. While it is a shame that Brienne and Podrick did not have nearly enough to do during the back half of
fifth season, at least they featured in a role of success and competence that allowed them to discover Sansa Stark and follow her North. Think if season five had Brienne and Podrick still riding around the riverlands, repeatedly getting jumped and essentially mugged while vainly looking for the Stark girl that we know is hundreds of miles away.
Like the title suggests, Catelyn Stark as a whole is given added dimension in
that is not present in “A Song of Ice and Fire.” This is not to say that Cat is uninteresting in the novels or narratively plays a different function, yet a few subtle choices by Benioff and Weiss made for a much more sympathetic and mourned protagonist.
For instance, like the aforementioned Sansa issue, Benioff and Weiss wisely chose to remove Catelyn telling Jon Snow that she wished it was him who fell from a window and was paralyzed instead of Bran. Similarly, she is depicted in season three as showing remorse for how she treated Jon Snow throughout his childhood, suggesting that her current tragedies were a result of not keeping her oath to the gods that she’d treat the boy as her son if he pulled through an illness.
she is a better diplomat with Renly—possibly negotiating a potential accommodation between the two kings before Stannis’ shadow got involved—and more understanding of Brienne’s hardships as opposed to judging. She even has a more believable reaction to Ned being summoned to King’s Landing as Hand of the King: don’t go. This seemed a more human reaction than the wife he’d leave behind singing the praises of Ned’s eventual glory in such a position.
Less one change than a multitude of miniscule ones, they ultimately played out all the better into our sorrow when Cat met the business end of Walder Frey’s hospitality.
Cersei Baratheon is one of the most troubled, layered, and quite mad characters in Martin’s mythology. Imagining herself a Machiavellian mastermind at the center of a complex play, Cersei’s self-delusion and arrogance can often take on at least Shakespearian qualities—especially after Tywin is dead and nobody can hold her back from her worst inclinations and phantom paranoias.
wisely decided to add an extra nuance of genuine humanity and compassion underneath all that vanity and bitter resentment. The first instance of this occurred in the second episode when Cersei reveals to Catelyn that she too lost a child in childbirth—apparently her first babe that was truly consummated with Robert Baratheon.
This admission is one of nigh guilt since she knows that Bran is in a coma, likely to die at that moment, because her brother and lover pushed him out of a window. She too wants the boy dead, and confers as much to Tyrion when she ponders whose side he is on when he boasts of curiosity to hear what the boy saw before his fall. Yet, this infinitely selfish queen can still take pity on a fellow grieving mother in Catelyn and finds some of her own past horrors in the Starks’ current anguish. It’s a small but incredibly telling addition to Cersei’s backstory. Which leads us to…
, Martin’s first novel, the king and queen’s relationship extends only so far as shared public events. Otherwise, one is seeing to his boars and whores, and the other is planning to see him die by them. While that is all still very much in tact in the HBO series as well, both are rounded off in much more dynamic ways when we are given a glimpse into their married life past and present.
Indeed, one of the very best scenes of the series is created out of whole cloth by Benioff and Weiss as Cersei sits down with Robert to discuss his strategy about the Targaryen girl across the Narrow Sea, his seeming break-up with Ned Stark, and of course the state of their eternally broken marriage. The conversation reveals much about both characters, including that Cersei attempted to truly love Robert and perhaps was not always as deranged as she is now. She was sold off to marry the handsome leader of a rebellion and was then subsequently raped on their wedding night. Yet, she even still tried to love this man after their first and (unbeknownst to Robert)
child died. Sadly, Robert’s irrational grief over Lyanna poisoned any hope of happiness for either royal spouse.
Instead of being the crazy-for-incest Lannister who came to King’s Landing already planning to jump her brother at any passing moment to make her babies, Cersei was once a frightened girl (much like Sansa) who came to marry a king, but only found a crown of Seven Hells. It’s only when she achieved the same level of acrimony and disdain that her husband wallowed in that she was able to sit across a table from him and speak plainly about Lyanna and the past. It is a small tragedy for both people, an enormous one for the realm, but also a fascinating victory for the viewer.
In the books, Hardhome is a place we learn about in passing via cryptic letters from Beyond the Wall. Knowing full well that this last holdout of Wildlings will soon become fresh recruits for the Army of the Dead, Jon Snow sends men on ships from Eastwatch by the Sea to rescue them. The mission was apparently a disaster with many brothers in black stranded in the North by the incoming attacks of Others. Not much more is known.
, Jon Snow personally leads the rescue at Hardhome. While the geographic realities of this are a bit suspect at best, it provides hands down one of the most jaw-dropping moments in television history when Jon Snow’s Night’s Watch brothers stand shoulder-to-shoulder and terror-to-terror with Wildlings as the White Walkers and Wights descend upon them like an avalanche of death. It is a grisly and breathtaking sequence where the heroes categorically lose, and tens of thousands of Wildlings are slaughtered—adding to the ranks of the dead.
, the slaughter at Hardhome and the Night’s King’s reveal to the Night’s Watch acts as the first snowfall of Winter on
For any unsullied viewers out there, imagine for a moment that you read a near 1,500-page book. Now consider that said book is structured in large part around the idea that one of the fan favorite characters (Tyrion Lannister) is on a quest to meet another fan favorite character who has yet to meet a major player from Westeros (Daenerys Targaryen). And just as you get to the end of the book where both are in the same gladiatorial arena at the same time…the meeting never happens. Dany flies away with Drogon, and Tyrion remains a slave with Yunkai masters.
Well fortunately for you, Benioff and Weiss decided not to spend all of the fifth season or more teasing this plot development with no payoff. Aye, Tyrion does meet Daenerys, and East and West collide in spectacular fashion. It’s so satisfying that it could have been a series finale closer, but instead we got three more episodes, which includes amazingly clever tete-a-tetes between the characters, showcasing Tyrion’s ability to talk his way out of any situation not involving Cersei.
When Tyrion piques the Silver Queen’s curiosity with small hints about Cersei, Tywin, and Joffrey’s cruelty, he lands himself the open position of being Dany’s Westerosi advisor. And for fans of any House, there was much rejoicing at the prospect of this wonderfully potent Targaryen and Lannister combination.
This change might have largely been implemented out of practicality, but it has made a world of difference from the very beginning.
In “A Song of Ice and Fire,” nearly every character is either a teenager or still considerably young by modern standards. When
begins, Lord Eddard Stark is 35 years of age, his wife Catelyn is 34, Robb is but 15 (the same age as Jon Snow), Sansa is not yet 14, and little Arya is merely nine-years-old. Tyrion, meanwhile, is 25, and perhaps most problematically, Daenerys is just about to turn 15-years-old as she is taken by the barbaric Khal Drogo for her wedding night.
The list goes on but in “A Song of Ice and Fire,” most of the characters are still essentially children.
This is partially done because Martin wants to expose readers to medieval notions of adulthood in shocking ways with his fantasy series. Further, it allows him to also deconstruct fantasy archetypes like the boy hero and boy king (see: death of Robb Stark for more).
Yet primarily, it always seemed a bit uncomfortable how other than Tywin Lannister, nobody of age or increased experience was developed in a meaningful way. Ned and Catelyn are depicted as young and pretty as just about every other character in the saga, despite also being parents of five children. But more awkward for any television series is the insistence that teenage girls, such as the aforementioned 14-year-old Dany, are considered the most beautiful “women” in the land as they are the objects of lust and lechery for all the men around them, including siblings.
For whatever subversive reasons Martin had to keep his characters young, and even childish, it is more than welcome that a few were allowed to age past their mid-30s, or indeed not be played by children for when their brothers covet their flesh on their wedding day. In fact, all things considered, it was probably the shrewdest and most appropriate change
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