By Zach Hagadone
My wife and I can’t remember when we started reading The Game of Thrones — the first book in fantasy author George R.R. Martin’s yet-to-be finished seven-book series A Song of Ice and Fire. Though it was published in 1996, we didn’t come to the world of Westeros until sometime in 2009 or 2010, about a year before the premiere of the HBO series Game of Thrones.
What we can remember is tearing through the then-available books prior to Season 1, being fully-up-to-speed “book readers” by the time there was such a thing as “show watchers” in the GoT fandom. This used to be rare; now it’s not. Regardless, I’ve been thinking about the world Martin built for more than a decade now, and I’m about to write something that will make me a bigger traitor in some people’s eyes than Roose Bolton at the Red Wedding: Altogether, the show is better.
I have come to this harsh conclusion after much consideration, facilitated by our ongoing quarantined lifestyle, during which my wife and I have revisited the entire HBO series, plus listened to hours upon hours of fan-produced YouTube podcasts and tried — emphasis on “tried” — to reread the currently published five Ice and Fire books.
I could pretend that there’s widespread debate on this question of “books vs. show,” but I’d be a bigger liar than Petyr Baelish. The overwhelming consensus is that Martin’s books are far superior to the version conjured by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, which ran for eight seasons from 2011-2019.
Still, I can’t help but think that a big part of this latter-day GoT hate is sour grapes over the — I admit — pretty disastrous final season, whose finale aired almost exactly a year ago on May 19. However, I submit that people wouldn’t have hated Season 8 so much if they hadn’t loved the previous seven seasons so much. During its heyday, almost every critic who cared to weigh in praised it as the greatest small-screen spectacle of all time.
Here’s my beef with Martin: His prose is god awful. For instance, I can’t stand how often he feels the need to tell the reader that a character “broke fast” in the morning. That’s a super cool old-timey way of saying “breakfast.” Also, who cares?
And another thing: People thought the show wantonly killed characters? Martin will spend three whole pages introducing some “ser” (his nifty way of writing “sir”) astride his “destrier” (a horse) — complete with his “broke fast” menu, his house and sigil (coat of arms), and his three closest relatives — then chop off his head for no damn reason at all. I remember reading that stuff and having to put down the book with an audible WTF? There’s a reason his books are so long.
Speaking of irrelevance, I skipped every other chapter on Brienne of Tarth because all she ever did was break her fast and ride her destrier around failing to do much of anything but wring her hands over Renly Baratheon’s death. I feel like this went on for at least two books. Meanwhile, the show version of Brienne was among my favorite characters — and, yes, I wept when Jaime Lannister knighted her in the final season.
Finally, people always tittered about how much sex Benioff and Weiss put on the screen. Well, their version paled in comparison to how much getting it on got gotten on in the books. However, and back to this issue of Martin’s prose, he wrote about sex like a Jane Austen translation of the Marquis de Sade. I’ve read finer-crafted scenes of sensuality in Dean Koontz books (and let’s not forget that Martin’s female characters, especially, were typically in the 13- to 16-year age range).
Ultimately, I argue that Benioff and Weiss contributed by trimming away most of Martin’s excesses to streamline the plot — thank the Seven that Lady Stoneheart never made into the series — and still managed to convey the sweeping terror and epic romance intrinsic to the story in a way that we’ve never seen on television.
Maybe if Martin’s editors had performed this service to begin with, we might also be reading those final two promised book installments right now.
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