Game of Thrones: why the TV series must depart from George RR Martin's source novels
So far, it's been a season of surprises on Game of Thrones.
Wildling regent Mance Rayder was unhappy guest of honour at an impromptu barbecue thrown by Stannis Baratheon. Daenerys' mission to bring peace and understanding to Meereen has triggered a distinctly un-peaceful insurgency, fronted by bloody-thirsty fundamentalists wearing pointy helmets. Tyrion is no longer interested in bedding prostitutes (and was freaked by the fad for Cosplay Mother of Dragons at that brothel in Volantis). Truly, strange times are upon Westeros (and bordering continents).
Several of these upsets will have been anticipated by fans of George RR Martin's novels. They knew, as more virginal viewers did not, that Jon Snow wasn't bluffing as he placed Janos Slynts' noggin on a chopping block and had an underlining fetch his sword. And they will have appreciated that Arya's unfortunate first encounter at the House of Black and White was merely a feint – it was always her destiny to study with the mysterious Faceless Men.
However, many of the shocks will have been doubly surprising to book devotees – representing as they did a sharp departure from Martin's sacred texts. In the novels, Mance Rayder is still alive (albeit a prisoner of the Boltons) while Jaime's journey to Dorne never happened. That deliciously horrific marriage arrangement between Sansa and Ramsay Bolton, craziest man in the Seven Kingdoms? (and yes, that's a lot of crazy). Completely 'made up' by the show – in the Martin-verse, Sansa sits out several novels mooching around the Eyrie.
Some of the narrative zig-zags have prompted unease among GRRM zealots. You sort of see their point: to dispatch Mance Rayder just like that had a whiff of gimmickry. For two seasons, the King Beyond The Wall was presented as a semi-mythical figure. Here he was reduced to glorified prop – a plot device by which Jon Snow's leadership qualities could be emphasized (as Rayder bakes, the Bastard of Winterfell, risking Stannis' fury, humanely put him out of his misery with an arrow).
And yet it is telling that a majority of book fans appear perfectly at ease with GoT's waning fealty to Martin. No doubt they are experiencing flashbacks to the often dull slog later entries in A Song Of Fire and Ice represented. Where the earlier novels were fast moving and whipsmart – reading like virtual TV scripts in places – as the saga has gained in prestige and found an audience beyond the geek-o-sphere, so Martin's prose and pacing has turned increasingly turgid.
The truth of this became undeniable with the last two dispatches, A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons, bloated 2000-page affairs that meandered somnolently, as if determined to test unwavering readers by boring them half to death. More and more, Martin is obsessed with the thudding details of Westeros and Essos – the cut of a protagonist's cape, the precise dimensions of a washer-woman's cleavage and so forth
Early in A Dance With Dragons, for instance, Tyrion Lannister sits to dinner with his host in Pentos and the reader is required to endure an endless extrapolation as to the particulars of their meal – when something interesting happens towards the end of the scene, the impact is much diminished. Recreating such studied dreariness on television would be a kiss of death – Game of Thrones is arguably too slow moving as it is. Squeeze any further on the brakes and the forces of entropy would grow overwhelming.
True, in stepping outside the world of the books, HBO risks falling victim to the curse of 'TV logic'. Glimmers of this have already manifested. Are we to believe Brienne and Pod would randomly bump into Sansa and Littlefinger in the back end of the Riverlands (in the novels Brienne searches in vain for the Stark heiress). Similarly, the vastness of Westeros feels increasingly diminished, as characters ping all over the map, the better to keep the plot rumbling onward ( is it credible that Cersei's messengers should be able to track Littlefinger to Winterfell so quickly? No it is not).
In other ways, the subtle repudiation of Martin can only be regarded as positive. One of the winning story-lines this year is the looming betrothal of Sansa and Ramsay Bolton, a cunning riff on a minor Song Of Fire and Ice thread. We're also enjoying Jaime and Bronn's new spin-off, The Only Way Is Dorne, in which the roguish duo are unleashed on a land of sun, sea and Sand Snakes. The alternative – sticking loyally to the books – would condemn us to a season of plodding intrigue the only purpose of which would be to manoeuvre characters where they need to be for the saga's grand denouement (whenever it arrives – unlike Winter, the final two Martin novels aren't coming any time soon).
Granted, the small screen Game of Thrones is going to have to eventually figure out how move the chess pieces into their final positions also. The difference, thus far, is that the TV show seems to know how to do so without inducing swords and sorcery narcolepsy among the fan-base. Long may it continue to blaze its own trail.