I read George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, the first volume in his Song of Ice and Fire sequence, in 2005, and came away feeling that it was rather poor stuff. The post in which I listed the reasons for my disappointment received a fair share of peeved comments, but the one that's stuck in my mind these six years came from a commenter who wondered how I could say that A Game of Thrones didn't diverge from the conventions of epic fantasy nearly as much as I'd been led to believe. Wasn't the fact that Martin had killed his main character, Ned Stark, in the first book a huge deviation from those conventions? I remember feeling baffled at this question. Far from surprising me, Ned's death had seemed to me both predictable and, by the time it finally happened, long overdue. It had been signposted early in the novel; the book's YA tone and its emphasis on Ned's young children all but guaranteed that he would be done away with; and it took forever--most of A Game of Thrones's 800 pages--to come about. I was reminded of this exchange last week, when I watched the penultimate episode of HBO's adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire. I knew, going into the episode, that it would most likely end with Ned's death, and yet I was nervous throughout the hour and, though obviously not surprised at Ned's death, somehow shocked by it. I can think of no response that more thoroughly encapsulates how much Game of Thrones improves on Martin's novel--the same death that left me yawning on the page when I only suspected it was coming, riveted me on screen when I could expect it with certainty.
The most obvious reason for the superiority of television series to book is rooted in the shift between mediums. Martin's novel alternates between the points of view of less than a dozen characters, most of whom are young children. It's locked into their perceptions and their limited opportunities to observe their world. A television series can't allow a single character's consciousness to dominate it to the extent that a book can, but the creators of Game of Thrones could still have chosen to follow only the characters that the first book does. Instead, they widened the book's universe, adding scenes in which none of the point of view characters are present and complicating the presentation of many of the characters who, in the first book, are presented as flat-out villains. A lot of the responses to my post about A Game of Thrones pointed out that my complaints about the novel--the stark division between good and bad characters; the absence of any acknowledgment that the novel's wars of succession were being fought over the backs of the common people, who would suffer equally no matter who was on the throne--were addressed in later books in the series (to which my response was and remains that the book is 800 fucking pages long; no author should need longer than that to come to their point). The series injects this complexity into its world from day one, and is better for it.
Game of Thrones gives us better sense of Westeros's history and the horrible wars that have led to its present state. With that information at our disposal, it's easier to see that the war between the Starks and the Lannisters is just one more succession battle in a long list, and that none of the people who have sat on it or aspire to it truly deserve the throne, because in the end no one deserves to have that much power. That impression is compounded by the view the series gives us of the people who have no chance of ever sitting on the throne of Westeros--prostitutes, commoners, wildlings, warrior tribes--and how they're exploited or destroyed by our main characters, whose consciences are only rarely troubled by this suffering. Maybe the later books in Martin's series make all these points, but why wait? We're all smart people; we all know the conventions of epic fantasy. Why not start exploding them from the first minute? If there's a single theme to A Song of Ice and Fire, in any medium, it's disillusionment--with ideas of chivalry, honor, and rightful kingship, with love, friendship, and loyalty. My impression of A Game of Thrones was that Martin wanted to make sure that I had been well and properly illusioned before he pulled the rug out from under me. The series seems to have more respect for me.
I see this also in the way the series handles its villain characters, most notably Cersei. She's still, as she was in the book, an evil schemer who sanctions--requires, even--the murders of children and puppies, is having an affair with her brother, and will stop at nothing to put her psychotic son on the throne and make herself de facto ruler of Westeros. But Game of Thrones (and Lena Heady's performance), without ever compromising Cersei's wickedness, also gives us a very good sense of how she got to that place. We see the coldness and cruelty of her marriage to Robert, and its juxtaposition with the hopeful, yet just as clearly doomed, beginning of Sansa and Joffrey's betrothal speaks volumes about the limited options that were placed before her, and how little thought was given by the men who directed Cersei's life to her happiness. Perhaps most importantly, we get a sense of Cersei as a human being--when she befriends Sansa, or sympathizes with Catelyn's fear for Bran's life. This is rank hypocrisy, of course, especially in Bran's case, but it's a human sort of hypocrisy. It shows us that, no matter how many terrible things she's done, Cersei doesn't think of herself as a villain. Again, I just don't see why this wasn't in the book to begin with. Why was it so important to hammer in for 800 pages that Cersei is a Bad Girl--as if incest and child-murder weren't enough to establish this--before revealing that there's another side to her?
The second way in which Game of Thrones improves on the book is by sidelining the child characters and condensing their storylines in favor of the adults'. A Game of Thrones suffered from many of the flaws of a YA novel without possessing any of its positive attributes. It was mired in too-familiar bildungsroman narratives--Jon, the unappreciated child with Special Qualities who goes off to A Special School and finds A New Family and A Destiny; Robb, the Heir to the Throne who is Forced Into a Leadership Role; Bran, who must Overcome Disability; Arya, the Tomboy; Sansa, the Fairytale Princess. Worse than that, it was mired in the oversimplified terms in which a child--and particularly these children, who have been raised to believe in Ned Stark's ideas of honor and chivalry--views the world. And yet it lacked the lightness, brevity, and humor that make YA novels worth reading. It was obvious that all of these children were headed for a rude awakening, but did we have to spend so much time on the preamble? (I realize that I'm repeating myself, but something like 90% of my complaints about A Game of Thrones would have been nullified it Martin had gotten through its events in 300 pages instead of 800.)
A story about disillusionment needs children in it--we need to see Jon and Sansa learning that life is very different from fairytales, Robb, Bran, and Arya learning that their position doesn't guarantee that they will be obeyed or protected. But it doesn't need to be told at a child's level. The series shows us the selfishness and thoughtlessness that underpins the children's behavior--Jon's inability to grasp that he's privileged compared to his fellow Night Watch conscripts; Bran's thoughtless expectation that he will be waited on hand and foot after being crippled; Robb casually promising Arya's hand in marriage to the son of a lord whose lands he needs to pass on his way to battle, then balking when the same promise is asked of him. It also shows us how a combination of innocence and pernicious education can produce a monster like Joffrey, or a helpless victim like Sansa. More importantly, Game of Thrones recognizes that though children are necessary to a story about disillusionment, they are not the most interesting part of it--that adult characters who have experienced disillusionment and been stunted by it, like Tyrion, Robert, and Cersei, and the rarer kind who refuse to accept it, like Ned, are a lot of more interesting, and more varied, than the child who is just learning for the first time that life isn't fair.
Game of Thrones clearly has its flaws. As everyone has noted, the series is too fond of exposition and too convinced that no exposition scene isn't made better by the presence of a naked woman or two cavorting in the background. The one plotline in the original book that actually proceeded from one end of an arc to another, Daenerys's story, is rather horribly shortchanged here, flattening her growth and, more frustratingly, thoroughly Othering the one non-white character in the novel. More interestingly, people I know who are watching the series cold are making the same complaints about it that I made about the book. My mother doesn't understand how I can call Cersei a complicated character when she's so clearly drawn as evil. Niall Harrison had the same FINALLY response to Ned's death on screen that I did when it arrived on page. I wonder, therefore, whether I'm not more forgiving of the series than I ought to be simply because it's such an improvement on the book.
That's a question that will presumably be answered next season. I'm very curious to see how I'll respond to Game of Thrones now that I'm, minus a few spoilers here and there, ignorant of how the story is going to proceed. More importantly, I'm just curious. I want to know whether Arya will make it to the Wall and unite with Jon, whether Sansa will find some way to rebel against Joffrey or sink into despair, and whether Daenerys will cross the sea with her dragons before or after the Stark, Lannister, and Baratheon armies tear Westeros apart. I felt no such curiosity after finishing A Game of Thrones, no eagerness to know what happens next, no desire to pick up the next volume. And that, even more than my response to Ned Stark's death, is really all I need to say to make it clear how much better I like the series than the book.