Game of Thrones is a living, decanonized story–and that’s fantastic
By Rowan Kaiser on March 2, 2015 in Editorial, General.
Game of Thrones entering a season widely promised and expected to have massive changes from the novels, things are bound to get controversial. And, to be honest, I didn’t know how to best deal with it. I am a fan of the novels, yes, but also of the show. Fascinatingly, it was the news a few weeks back of George R.R. Martin’s original A Game of Thrones outline that managed to resolve whatever qualms I had. Game of Thrones (and A Song of Ice and Fire) is a living story.
A living story means that, regardless of initial plans, the story has changed and will change based on the interest of the writers, the budget, popularity, continuity mistakes, etc. It means that it becomes much easier to reconcile the fact that I now see Oberyn’s duel with the Mountain as the staging from the show, or that King Robert’s tragedy is granted depth by his non-book conversation with Cersei. The mild disappointment I have with the Dorne of A Feast for Crows, meanwhile, can coexist with the simple, excellent intrigue of A Game of Thrones and my excitement for the remixed version of the story in Season 5.
A Game of Thrones when the news about GRRM’s original draft for A Song of Ice and Fire hit the internet. After my initial shock at how different the story was from what we know today, I was then surprised to realize that, as of a fifth of the way through A Game of Thrones, almost everything the original outline promises is still on the table: Jaime is the lead Lannister threat until Cersei makes her personality known on the Kingsroad; the Dothraki are an impending danger to the Seven Kingdoms until they aren’t; and even Jon and Arya’s close, supposedly inevitably romantic, relationship is present at that point.
In short, the book I was reading, for over a hundred pages, was the Game of Thrones of Martin’s outline, not of his five-book, 40-episode series. But perhaps I shouldn’t find that terribly surprising—the scope and focus of the series in, say, A Feast for Crows, already feels significantly different from the first season/book of Game of Thrones. What the outline makes clear is that my feeling of difference is born out—Game of Thrones has always been a living story.
I already mentally divide the novels into three relatively distinct story types. There’s the taut political thriller of A Game of Thrones, focused largely on a single (very important) family in tumultuous times. A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords form the next section, with Martin shifting from the all-Stark focus to one of the political intrigues of the Seven Kingdoms. Using new point-of-view characters Theon and Davos, then Jaime and Brienne, Martin moves from telling the story of the Starks to the story of the War of the Five Kings.
The chronology of release bears this conception out. The outline suggests that Martin was working on the series in 1993, while the reason that the next two novels came relatively quickly is that they were extensions of the plot expansion from the initial A Game of Thrones plan.
Finally, in the latest two novels, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, the focus shifts again—Martin is now committed to telling the story of the entire world. By adding more Ironborn and Dornishmen, GRRM now has point-of-view characters related to almost everything interesting going in both Westeros and Essos. Theoretically, the last two novels, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, will serve as a fourth narrative chunk: major characters and storylines will be resolved and cut off, instead of expanding as they had for every previous section.
Both the television show and the original outline fit within this conception as well. The original outline was simpler, with clearer divisions between good and evil and more romantic drama. The TV show’s differences are well-documented, of course, cutting out most of the historical background, combining or deleting characters for simplicity’s sake, and prioritizing interpersonal drama over strict point-of-view adaptation.
What makes all of these different forms interesting to me is that they’re mutually incompatible with one another. I love the more centered, Stark-based storytelling of the first season/novel, but Dany’s, and even Jon’s stories don’t entirely fit within that. Meanwhile, Arya’s story and eventually Bran’s diverge from the political focus of the sequels, but it would be ridiculous to declare those characters opposed to what the story means. Finally, while I do think that the Martells and Greyjoys added in the fourth and fifth books may dilute the story somewhat, they do add to the world and, as contributor Fergus Holliday argued, the themes as well.
The big question here is: “where does the show fit in?” For me personally, I don’t have an answer. There are some things I prefer about the TV series, primarily in production. In terms of aesthetics and action, for example, of course the series gets preference. And while I dislike the HBO show’s dips in cruelty when it diverges from the book at times, I’m a fan it giving more depth to its political players like Margaery, Littlefinger and Varys who take up less space on the page, but cast a wide shadow over King’s Landing and Westeros.
What makes this exciting is that all of it exists simultaneously in my head. The massive, wonderful spectacle of “The Watchers on the Wall” exists alongside my mild disappointment that HBO adapted it so late in the season. My skepticism as to why the relatively straightforward politics of
A Game of Thrones turned into confusing Dornish plots three books later works alongside my excitement at seeing where that storyline ends up, both on the show and in the novels.
Even that outline has made me reconsider my expectations of the ending, both in terms of the White Walkers and Dany’s potential return to Westeros. And it’s not just limited to the two big products, the show and the novels. My interest also includes stories like Telltale’s Game of Thrones adventure game, or the histories from A World of Ice and Fire.
Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire are especially well-suited to this form of de-canonization for two reasons: first, they’re serialized and aimed toward an ending; second, they’re dense with detail and history. The latter provides dozens of different gateways into caring the story—characters, writing style, costumes, fan theories, sex and violence, and so on. No matter what you might care about, chances are that something interesting and different is happening in relation to that in every incarnation of Game of Thrones.
That Game of Thrones is so intently serialized means the possibility for change—even error—exists throughout. For example, one of my favorite theories comes from a moderately important character from the novels—Jeyne Westerling—and changes to her description over time. The initial contuinty mistake led to a series of fan theories about whether Jeyne had a more important role to play—but was eventually corrected.
I bring this up not to get into the nitty-gritty of one particular fan theory, but as a demonstration of the power of serialization to engage the imagination. In one form of the books, Jeyne Westerling may or may not be the focus of a secret body-swapping plotline. In another, she’s just another tragic figure. On the show, she doesn’t even exist—and the closest analogue is long dead. But all these things can exist simultaneously: the theory was fun to run with, it’s fascinating that Martin is apparently making Jeyne a POV character for the start of The Winds of Winter (perhaps to resolve the supposed error?), while the show suggests she was never more than window-dressing in the first place. Serialization makes this possible—it creates gaps that we can project our ideas of the most interesting parts of the story into.
This, then, is the power of Game of Thrones—its serialized story gaps are among the most interesting and fruitful of any. Because it’s working toward an endpoint, it’s not just a bunch of stuff that happens, as is the case with the ridiculously dense shared universes of Marvel or D.C., for example. But there’s also centuries of Westerosi history, major adaptation issues both good and bad, and dozens of compelling characters. It makes Game of Thrones a worthwhile story almost no matter canon is given priority…and that’s fine. There isn’t going to be a single, great answer, because everything about Game of Thrones is too interesting and too dense to grant one. In surrendering to not having an answer, the answer can be found.
Tagged George R. R. Martin, Jeyne Westerling, season 5, The Winds of Winter
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This is why it’s so ridiculous Martin’s “It’s in the books” lines:
So what it’s in the books, Martin! These aren’t some gospels written from on high, they are books that you’d quit fiddling around with had printed at some point.
The books are different from your outline and they are different from the TV show and guess what you haven’t even finished them. They all exist to entertain us. They are all works in progress until they are done. Frankly, some of the ideas in the show, as envisioned by two other guys than yourself, are better than what you’ve come up with.
It’s like Stan Lee saying “in the books Spiderman had webbed armpits.” Who cares? It exists as it is and later authors have taken it and changed it. They’ve adapted it for other audiences and included their own visions. Sometimes things are made better than they were originally, sometimes they are not.
The originals are not always the best versions. There’s room for more than one version of Spiderman and there’s room for Show Tyrion and Book Tyrion.
I’ll be honest, I was ready for this post to be a load of hooey – so many similar attempts unfortunately are. I was very pleasantly surprised that not only is it spot on, it’s actually something I’ve been waiting for someone to say. My only nitpick would be the use of the word “canon” in the title, as I think both are valid – but I know, getting folks to click can be tough. :)
I share many of the same experiences, though in a different order (show first then books then more show) – as well as the games (board, card, video) and basically whatever I can get my hands on involving GoT. I too arrived at the same place the author of this article did – it is all one grand woven tale that does meld into one experience, if you allow it.
With this coming season widening the gap between the narratives, I suspect that more folks will come around and stop obsessing or at least stop expecting congruity. Some will likely just stop watching (though I have a feeling more will threaten that vs. actually go through with it). Some will just keep watching and becoming even more vocal as the divergence continues.
That said, I think the most fascinating thing once you manage to turn off that “oh no a change!” mentality is that the changes end up becoming extremely informative when juxtaposed against the book and vice versa. For example, while it would be difficult for someone to naturally come to R+L=J soley from watching the show, if you also know the books and note the relevant changes in the television version, it reads totally differently and there are additional clues (one major one in an inserted scene between J and another character, and little bits more in a half dozen different scenes).
So once you are a “shooker” (able to allow the show and book to meld into one experience in spite of contradictions/incongruities), it feels like you are elevating the experience to a whole new level of understanding instead of banging around trying to pick (or being starkly loyal, pun intended) one or the other which we know at this point is just futile.
TL,DR? I hope more folks start to get the message of this article, I think everyone will be a lot happier if they do. :)
Litte one-sided. Ofcourse there are different versions, but a lot of people, like me, are interested in the differences. Let’s talk about the adaption! With the line “In the books..” is nothing wrong.
AwLannister, the books are the gospel. They are the original work of art, the source material. It’s the truth and only respectful to recognize this.
As for the story being fluid, it’s not really. Martin’s story is done – he knows how things will end and how they will get there, but the exact words are yet written up and published yet. The show will end the same way as the gospel, but it’s great that they are taking liberties to make things more interesting for the screen in getting there (and they had no choice in fact). I am interested in both.
Personally, I don’t have time or interest to comb through the differences between the narratives. The books and the show are merging into one story in my mind. If there are significant differences, I think my imagination will resolve them in its own way and just say to hell with both stories. In other words, I will write my own version. The story invites us to do this infinite times.
Jeyne as a point of view character makes little to no sense to me. Wherever she is, I can’t imagine how she would be witnessing something critical. But who knows?
One would hope this becomes true: Theoretically, the last two novels, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, will serve as a fourth narrative chunk: major characters and storylines will be resolved and cut off, instead of expanding as they had for every previous section.
In my opinion, Martin wrote himself into several corners out of indulgence. Knowing what to cut is basic to good writing of all sorts. Once a writer has worked hard to produce sometimes something as simple as a wonderful paragraph, it is very difficult to cut it.
I’d like to know the end of this story before I die. My new rule just might be to never start a serialized story until it is finished. But then I didn’t realize that five novels later the story would still be just beginning.
Song/Game may just end with lots of unanswered questions, just like life. Not seeing Bran for at least one full season is going to be very difficult, especially as the actor is maturing into a young adult. When he emerges from that underground cavern, will he be flying inside a bird or a dragon?
So, basically, what you’re saying is, you enjoy both the show AND the books equally?
Hey, look! I just rewrote your whole article in one sentence.
In principle I’d be fine with this, but those comments from the director who didn’t know jack squat about Tyrion or Tysha are pretty concerning and do not leave me with a warm and fuzzy feeling. I’m not upset with the changes so much as the motives (or lack thereof) for making them. Definitely could use some reassurances from the show runners.
Lady Stoneheart (yet) and swapping Arianne for Trystane makes me pretty concerned.
Haven’t a lot of people already said that it’s better to take the books as one entity and the show as another?
I’ve offered a solution for people needing an angle. Treat the series as a maester’s eye-view. Distortions creep in because a maester views events with bias, intentionally and purposefully. Plus, his own ego drives his thoughts. He wants to be known as the greatest amongst maesters.
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