There is an endless struggle and debate that rages about what’s better: the book or the movie. Readers claim films and TV shows are never as good as the source material. They are also angered when a TV show or film detours too much from this material.
The creators of these shows and films have a delicate balancing act. They need to somehow capture what made the book so interesting and engaging in the first place but are also hampered by time constraints, and budget.
Why do TV and film have to deviate from books?
Creators are also influenced by what they perceive to be different consumer needs. Research suggests that the medium we choose (i.e. film, TV, book) may be influenced by these needs.For example, research suggests that fantasy stories meet our desire for thrills. Fantasy portrayed on TV and books appear to meet this need. However, literature generally meets another need as well, called ‘aesthetics’, which is an interest in complexity and nuances.Perhaps this may explain why book readers can be so easily frustrated when the complexity and nuances from the books is watered down for TV and film.
Game of Thrones balancing act
Take the popular series Game of Thrones. The series on which it is based ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ has sold a reported 24 million copies worldwide. That’s 24 million people who are primed to watch the show.The audience for the show is even larger. For just season 4 of Game of Thrones, there were over 18 million viewers, which doesn’t factor in the millions who illegally download individual shows or those who purchase the DVD.It’s safe to assume that many of these millions of viewers are a mix of book readers as well as those who would never take on the epic read.
At some point, there’ll be a crossover of needs.
Book lovers will be aghast at their beloved story being chopped or streamlined. Television lovers may get frustrated by the drawn out plots that are better suited to novels.
I remember reading articles that predicted doom for the series after staying true to the books and killing off the main character, Eddard Stark (Sean Bean), in season 1. They claimed that the removal of such a high profile actor would not resonate with fans of the TV show, suggesting that television requires a different mentality to the books.
They should somehow find a spot for Eddard. An idea that’s absurd in hindsight.
As both show and book fans know, this death is a catalyst for many of the most exciting plots. The show quickly differentiated itself from other television shows by having a reputation of killing off popular and—seemingly—untouchable characters to shock viewers and send the plot down interesting and unpredictable paths.
More recently, the writers have deviated from the books significantly. The last two books were renowned for being slower in pace, and for introducing a number of new characters and sub-plots. The writers addressed these concerns by streamlining the stories and cutting many of the new characters. Has deviating from the books paid off? Let’s look at some of the most significant changes from the show.
Change #1. Jamie and Tyrion Depart on Good/Bad terms
When dwarf, Tyrion Lannister, is sentenced to death in Season 4 of Game of Thrones, his brother, Jamie, comes to the rescues. They embrace and part ways. In the novel, things don’t end well.In a backstory revealed in the earlier novels and first season of the show, Tyrion talks about a woman he loved who turned out to be a prostitute paid by Jamie to show his brother a good time. The woman was then raped by a gang of Tywin Lannister’s—Tyrion’s father—army and sent on her way. Jamie reveals she was never a prostitute. Their love was real.In anger, Tyrion dishonestly claims to have killed Tyrion’s son, Joffrey, and informs Jamie that Cercei—Jamie’s lover and sister—has been sleeping with a gamut of other men.
Why the series is better: The writers planned for Jamie to go on a quest to help Cercei, in Season 5 which would have been hard if he resented her. Even though Tyrion’s backstory was revealed in Season 1, many of the viewers would have forgotten and found it hard to reconnect with this particular story.
Why the book is better: This scene sets up Tyrion’s quest to find his one true love. The books imply he will find her, perhaps promising a happy ending for Tyrion. Meanwhile, Jamie is disgruntled and abandons Cercei, leaving her to self-destruct with no hope Jamie will return to save her.
Which is better: The book
Change #2 Jamie visits Dorne
In the show, Jamie travels with fan favourite, Bronn, to Dorne to rescue his daughter, Marcella. He fights, gets captured and finally makes peace with the Prince of Dorne.In the book, Jamie is nowhere near Dorne. He takes off to the Riverlands to negotiate peace terms after the war. Meanwhile, in Dorne we are introduced to several new characters and a slow, emerging plot that reveals the Doran has sent his son to Mereen to marry the dragon queen, Daenarys Targarayen. Why the show is better: The show gives us some adventures with Jamie and Bronn and keeps the plot lean. The various sub-plots and characters from the books may have been confusing and are edited to present a simpler, cleaner story.
Why the book is better: The book introduces us to a completely new culture through the eyes of new characters. It takes time to get to point, but presents Doran as a patient player and wild card in the Game of Thrones.
Which is better: The book.
Change #3. Tyrion meets Daenerys
In the latter books, Tyrion spends much of his time travelling, meeting a variety of new characters. When he finally makes it to Mereen, we can only hope that he’ll meet Daenerys and we’ll finally see these two important characters align. However, they never meet.In the show, Tyrion’s travels are condensed and cut right back. He even meets Daenerys and commences advising her in some of the better scenes of Season 5. Why the book is better: George RR Martin knows we want Tyrion to make his way to Meeren, befriend Danerys and return to the seven kingdoms to help right all the wrongs. The fact that Martin didn’t give the readers what they want will just keep us more interested for the next chapters.
Why the show is better: The Tyrion chapters in A Dance with Dragons were notoriously disliked by a vocal fanbase because they dragged on so long and started to make Tyrion unlikeable. The show has short circuited this and has managed to keep most of the highlights from the book.
Which is better: The show
Change #4 Sansa meets Ramsay Bolton
In the books, we don’t know what happens to Sansa yet but the show has pushed forward with re-engineering the Theon Greyjoy storyline. The book has cruel Ramsay Bolton rape and torture another character, Jeyne Poole, who is posing as Arya Stark (it’s a long story). In the show, Sansa replaces Jeyne much to the horror of book readers.Why the books are better: It’s hard to know what will happen to Sansa but being raped and tortured by the Boltons seems a bit much after she’s endured so much already.Why the show is better: The Jeyne Poole chapters were more about Theon Greyjoy overcoming his post-traumatic stress to redeem himself. The show provides an opportunity for this redemption to come in the form of saving Sansa, which may be more powerful to the audience.
Which is better: Unknown until we see the new Sansa chapters.
Change #5 Stannis burns Shireen
Stannis Baratheon has a bit of a cult following. In the books, he’s one of those underdogs whose motivations are grey. He does horrible things, like burning people, but also remains fiercely committed to his own code of honour.In the latter books, George RR Martin lets us warm to the character by uniting him with hero, Jon Snow, rescuing the Night’s Watch and then taking off to take down the evil Boltons, the primary antagonists.Stannis even appears to be shifting away from all the burnings and returning to his roots when he leaves Melisandre—the red witch—back at the Wall with Jon Snow.
In the show, Melisandre accompanies Stannis with his daughter and wife. Stannis is still committed to his religion and sacrifices Shireen to the fire prior to his battle with the Boltons.
This deviation from the books removes the grey from Stannis’ character and makes his actions irrefutably evil.
Why the books are better: We are slowly warming to Stannis when it is revealed that he has been defeated in battle. It’s not known whether this is a deception, but it creates a drama that may now be missing from the show.
Why the show is better: The show gives us the inevitable pay-off of Stannis sacrificing his soul for his ego. He will win at any cost and the burning of Shireen is one of the more shocking moments.
Which is better: The books.
Change #6 Mance Rayder is executed
In the books, the wildling king beyond the wall is sentenced to burn by Stannis Baratheon. However, the red witch— Melisandre —uses her magic to change Mance’s appearance with another character, Rattleshirt, who burns in his place.Mance ultimately leads a rescue mission to save a woman Jon believes to be his sister, Sansa. Mance is then presumably captured by the Boltons, energising the wildlings to assist Jon to rescue their leader.In the show, Mance burns and his story ends.
Why the books are better: Mance has a better rapport with Jon in the books and becomes a sort of mentor/ally. The sub-plot throws yet another motivation for Jon to abandon his vows to save his friend.
Why the show is better. The books are a bit convoluted here. Melisandre sudden ability to change people’s appearances seems a bit convenient and ultimately pointless, and the Stannis plot may not really go anywhere other than finding him captured and finally killed.
Which is better: A draw.
Overall Winner: The Books