The adaptation of HBO’s Game of Thrones: Part One

Game of Thrones Season 2Season Two of HBO’s Game of Thrones has come and gone, and a third season is on the way in 2013. This time last year I was fully hooked, got by GoT you could say, and my enthusiasm for the series knew no bounds.

This year, in the wake of Season Two, my enthusiasm is less than it was. Is the love-affair over? No, not at all. Let’s just say that relations have cooled.

So yes, I will be there for Season Three when it airs next year because, when all is said and done, GoT remains unmissable television. Much that was outstanding about the first season was outstanding in the second, from direction to production to the performances of the cast. But the one element which raised the first season so far above my expectations – David Benioff and Dan Weiss’s writing – was, for me, the least satisfying aspect of Season Two. To be more precise, it was Benioff and Weiss’s adaptation of A Clash of Kings and some elements of A Storm of Swords, Books Two and Three in George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire, which fell short of the benchmark set with Season One.

Viewers unfamiliar with Martin’s novels may be surprised to learn that material from Book Three made its way into Season Two. In itself, this isn’t a concern, so long as bringing material forward in the narrative timeline is not detrimental to the narrative (and I don’t believe it was). Of some real concern was the amount of material in Season Two that isn’t found in Martin’s novels at all. Change, of course, is part and parcel of any adaptation of literature for the screen: the page and screen are such different media for telling a story after all, and much that a novel is able to present to us must be reinterpreted for the visual medium of the screen.

However, of far greater concern than the quantity of change introduced with Season Two, was the quality of some of those changes.

There’s no question to my mind that Season One of Game of Thrones was a watershed in the adaptation of fantasy fiction for the small screen (or any screen for that matter). HBO’s vision to invest sufficiently in the series was critical to its success, but more than that, the success of the series was a result of Benioff and Weiss’s writing. Together they brought to the screen a complex and intelligent work of fantasy fit for adult consumption, capturing the essence of Martin’s novel without being slavish to it.

This last point is important because even when a respectable budget and significant screen time are provided to tell a story, as HBO has, the brutal reality of adaptation is that it almost invariably entails reduction.

Cutting stuff out.


When a narrative is as complex and sprawling as A Song of Ice and Fire (with its vast cast of characters and narrative threads), cutting stuff out really does mean eliminating it: removing it in part or entirely and reworking the narrative so that the gaps don’t show. A slavish adaptation of Martin’s novels would require many more than ten episodes per season, in fact ten times ten would probably not suffice and even if it would, no budget could stretch so far. It is only to be expected that Benioff and Weiss’s adaptation involves eliminating characters entirely, or merging them, compressing or omitting events. It would be naïve to expect anything else.

So what does make for good adaptation?

If the critical skillset of an adapter is their ability to understand a narrative and identify its essence, their true artistry is interpreting the narrative for the different medium and retaining that essence. It’s such a rare combination of skills and talent that only occasionally does an adaptation compare favourably with the original work. But when it does it’s often the case that the adaptation is in many ways quite different from the original. A good example is Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, a superlative adaptation of Macbeth which reimagines Shakespeare’s Scottish play in a feudal Japanese setting with barely a line uttered from the original text. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is another fine adaptation, a film that is thematically faithful to Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but with little more than the bare bones of the novel.

Clearly when considering what is good adaptation, change is not a primary concern. As Kurosawa and Scott demonstrate, an adaptation can be very different from the original material and yet remain faithful to it. The question is not then whether Benioff and Weiss should have introduced changes when adapting Martin’s novels for the screen, but whether the changes they introduce make for a faithful adaptation of Martin’s fiction.

[There is of course a value-judgement here that the adaptation of a novel for the screen should be faithful to the novel that it adapts. Perhaps you’ll disagree with this.]

It’s very difficult to please both consumers of the written word and the screen but Benioff and Weiss did so with their adaptation of Book One of A Song of Ice and Fire. As with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, there is a large and obsessed fan base for Martin’s writings and it seems that Benioff, Weiss and HBO targeted this ready-made audience with their adaptation (as Warner Bros. clearly did with the Harry Potter movies). So well did they produce an adult fantasy series for the screen (and so potent was the word of mouth of the satisfied readership) that the audience for GoT has grown well beyond the readership.

Who the target audience is now, is an interesting question: viewers unfamiliar with the novels are far easier to satisfy than those who know Martin’s material well as for them there is no issue with how faithful the adaptation is to the novels. This audience is also likely to be far larger than an audience comprising readers of Martin’s novels: in short, there’s more of them and they’re easier to satisfy… I have no doubt that if I were unfamiliar with A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords, I would have enjoyed Season Two more that I did. Benioff and Weiss introduced such a vast amount of change from the source material in this season, that whole swathes of the action were new to me. Far too often though  I was jarred from any suspension of disbelief not simply by an awareness that something was different, but that the difference was in significant ways inferior to Martin’s narrative.

In Part Two of this article I take a look at some of those changes and try to justify that last statement.


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