In the first book of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Eddard Stark faces a near-impossible choice: Should he sacrifice his noble values to save his own life? This week, people across the world will have to make a similarly difficult decision: Should we watch the new season of Game of Thrones?
Originally published 4/19/16
As of Sunday, HBO’s Game of Thrones will have outpaced the books upon which it is based. The last season ended roughly where A Dance With Dragons ended, and the next book, The Winds of Winter, doesn’t even have a release date yet. After five years of production, the TV show will have finally advanced the story past where Martin has taken it.
For those of us who have loved A Song of Ice and Fire for years, this is an outcome more depressing than any plot twist GRRM could have written. Fans of the books must now face the grim reality that the TV adaptation, which is inferior in many ways to the source material, may reveal key plot points before they’re in print. Avoiding the show will be tough. Game of Thrones has become a global cultural touchstone, and cataclysmic, Westeros-altering events will trend on Twitter and Facebook whether or not we want to hear about them.
Some of the events depicted on the show will differ drastically in the books, of course. HBO has already taken some big liberties with Martin’s plot, cutting out some characters and blending others together. In the show, Sansa is in Winterfell; in the books she’s still in the Eyrie. The books introduce Young Griff, who should be an essential part of the story—in the show, he’s nowhere to be found. A Dance With Dragons dragged Tyrion’s journey out for ages, ending just before he would meet Daenerys, but in the show they became BFFs right away. As season six of Game of Thrones airs, we’ll have no way of knowing which plot points draw from Martin’s story and which were invented for the show. If something cool happens, nobody will know if that’s how it will “really” happen. If something stupid happens, nobody will know who to blame.
And therein lies the dilemma. Should fans of the books watch the next season of Game of Thrones, risking that they’ll learn about major story arcs in ways that George RR Martin never intended? Has the show become enough of an independent entity that it can be enjoyed separately from the books? Am I out of my mind for giving a shit about this?
I first started reading the books way back in 2000, just after A Storm of Swords came out. I’d been looking for better fantasy to read—Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series just wasn’t cutting it—and an internet friend recommended that I check out A Game of Thrones and its two follow-ups. I absolutely loved them. For years, I read and reread all three books until their spines fell apart and I had to buy new copies, which I read and reread again.
I checked George RR Martin’s website every day as he apologized profusely for not finishing the fourth book, A Feast for Crows. I sighed when he announced that it’d actually be split into two books and that we’d have to wait for the next one—coming in 2006, he promised!—to see what would happen to Tyrion and Jon and Dany. I went to a GRRM signing in the now-defunct Barnes & Noble near Washington Square Park and brought home that much-anticipated fourth book, which I devoured like a feast of black bacon, buttered mushrooms and pigeon pie.
Then came the waiting, yet again. At some point, hilariously, Martin moved to Livejournal, where he’d update us regularly on the beast he called King Kong. For years he blogged about how he hadn’t finished the book, how he wrote really slowly, how he had to figure out something called the “Meereenese Knot.” He’d tease us with vague updates about the newly announced HBO show, which at the time seemed like a far-off dream. Then he moved to guessing games about casting announcements. All the while, we waited. Some people were patient; others, not so much.
On April 27, 2011, ten days after the show premiered on HBO, the day finally arrived. “Twas beauty,” Martin wrote. Kong was slain. A Dance With Dragons would be published that July. It was a dense, beautiful book, meandering in some ways and brilliant in others. Some elements of the plot, like Tyrion’s journey, felt way too long; others, like Dany’s struggle as a ruler, took a while to dissect and fully appreciate. It was clearly edited in a hurry—the phrase “Words are wind” is uttered something like 4,000 times—but as a whole it was incredible.
At that point, I knew that The Winds of Winter might take another five years, but it never even occurred to me that HBO’s show might actually pass it by. Game of Thrones didn’t become a cultural phenomenon until the following year, and while I enjoyed the show a great deal, I’ve never thought it lived up to the books. There are some film adaptations that surpass their source material—Lord of the Rings, for example—but I’ve never considered Game of Thrones to be one of them. The show’s cast and crew are clearly talented. Yet even the best TV makers could never quite capture the depth and breadth of Westeros lore, let alone tell stories as intricate and subtle as the Frey pies or the Knight of the Laughing Tree.
In the last two seasons, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss took their story in entirely different directions, which never mattered much to me. So what if they had makeup-plastered Buffy villains and children hurling fireballs at skeletons? Who cared that they killed Shireen and sent Jaime on a pointless road trip? Why bother paying attention to that nonsense with Missandei and Grey Worm? The real story—the books’ story—was a totally different thing. It was easy to appreciate the show as fantasy pulp while also acknowledging just how much better the books were and are.
Now, though... now we’ve reached the point I’ve been dreading for a very long time. George RR Martin’s aversion to deadlines has put longtime fans of his books in a tough spot. Even if we do skip the show, it’ll be nearly impossible to fight off spoilers. Every podcast and news website will be broadcasting Jon Snow’s fate to the world by next Monday. The act of reading The Winds of Winter will feel compromised to me in a way that reading previous books never did.
I’m still making up my mind, but I’ll probably watch the new season. I’d rather experience someone else’s version of this story than ruin it for myself because I accidentally stumbled upon “Dany marries Tyrion” in Twitter’s trending topics. But it’s a real bummer that those of us who have been with A Song of Ice and Fire since the beginning have to make this choice at all.