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The HBO Season 4 Finale of Game of Thrones: How Different Was it from George R.R. Martin’s Version?

Thursday, June 19th, 2014 | Posted by Elizabeth Eckhart

Daenerys Targaryen Sseason 4 Game of Thrones-smallThough it’s one of the best works in the epic fantasy genre, there’s no denying that George R.R. Martins A Song of Ice and Fire series has its share of flaws. The HBO series, based on the books, lacks in some areas in comparison (simply due to a more compressed narrative), but has proven itself to be as good, if not better, than the source material – especially when it comes to plot execution.

Which is why last Sunday’s finale (available on demand through HBOGo or DirecTV, if you haven’t seen it already) was as filled with surprises for those who have read the book as it was for show-only fans.

SPOILER ALERT! Spoilers for the Season 4 finale ahead.

For instance, as much as we love Daenerys, it’s obvious her story was in danger of becoming somewhat dry, which led the show’s editors David Benioff and DB Weiss to make the decision to bring the period of her rule in Meereen forward in time, as opposed to when it occurs in the books. They made the same choice with Bran Stark, who at the point in the novels where the events of the finale are happening in King’s Landing has yet to even cross the Wall.

The show’s producers also fleshed out what had been insignificant or smaller scenes, such as the battle at Craster’s Keep, and reorganized the series of events for most significant impact. Imagine if Jaime hadn’t been around to watch his son Joffrey die -– in the books, he returns shortly after, instead of weeks prior.

Jon-Snow-Season-4-Game of Thrones-smallOr if Jon had returned to Castle Black days before the attack on the Wall, instead of taking the time to prove his loyalties, reconnect with his Night’s Watch friends and begin establishing himself as the leader he was born to be (Ned Stark’s son or not).

The changes are more often than not decisions George R.R. Martin should have probably made himself. The main characters in the show are able to maintain logical and well-paced arcs, as opposed to being hunkered down by filler scenes or large gaps in their story.

Cutting a few wildlings here and Tyrells there also made room for further dialogue and scenes with characters we’re already invested in — mainly Tywin Lannister and Olenna Tyrell — as they flex their political prowess, which is hardly a negative change.

The series also bettered many characters, who in the books either hardly existed, or were dramatically different. In the novels, Shae is exactly the type of prostitute Tywin warns Tyrion to avoid: she is manipulative, fantasy-fulfilling, solely involved in the elicit profession for the status and gold.

The show turned Shae into a sincere character, who truly had feelings for Tyrion, resulting in a deeper, wholly unexpected betrayal when she testifies against Tyrion and winds up in Tywin’s bed.

Shae was also given the role of Sansa’s handmaiden in the show, a change from the books which forced Shae to more often display her jealousy and conflicted feelings regarding her love for Tyrion and protectiveness over Sansa. Just as the show’s editors did with Rob Stark’s wife, Talisa, and Jon Snow’s love, Ygritte,  who both seem to have been made more interesting and fleshed out solely to break fans’ hearts as they die, Benioff and DB Weiss built Shae up into a much more important character than she ever was in the books.

The season finale was undoubtedly epic, with no significance lost when each of Tywin Lannister’s children defy him one by one (Cersei by admitting and then threatening to reveal her incestous relationship, Jaime releasing Tyrion), before he comes face to face with Tyrion and a crossbow while he sits upon not a throne, but a toilet instead.

The Hound’s likely end is equally significant: after years of brutally murdering women, children, and whomever gets in his way, he is finally defeated by Brienne of Tarth, a female and not a true knight herself, and left to beg for his death from the very child, Arya, whom he’s been keeping captive.

Shae Season 4 Game Of Thrones-smallNow, however, fans are left to wonder at what might come next. Stannis has proven himself the most worthy contender for the Iron Throne with his last minute swoop-in at the Wall, though we’ll have to wait until next season to understand why he chooses to head North and what exactly the Red Woman’s significant glance at Jon Snow meant. Arya is off to Braavos, finally free to choose her own path, while Tyrion and Varys head toward the free cities and Bran, after spending an entire season chasing visions, coming face to face with the ancient “seer” who promises to help him “find” what he has “lost.”

Fans of the book know we’ve veered far from the novels, but stuck close enough to retain some resemblance to the original plot. Now, with George R.R. Martin’s best moments well behind us in both the show and books, it’s likely that Benioff and Weiss will be forced to stray further from the source material than ever before in order to maintain the level of excitement and movement the show has provided thus far.

It has been largely acknowledged that the fourth and fifth books of Martin’s series are less eventful than the third, which is generally heralded as the best. That means Benioff and Weiss, who have signed on for at least two seasons, weren’t just testing the waters by veering away from the page in season four; they were preparing fans for what they know must be a conglomeration of Martin’s best narrative moments and their own expansions on both plot and character elements.

Many fans, I think, may see this as beneficial for the show’s progress, but if you’re the type to become disgruntled over major changes, you may want to avoid 2015’s season five…


Elizabeth Eckhart’s last post for us was The Top Five Differences Between HBO’s Game of Thrones and George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.

8 Comments »

  1. I enjoy the show quite a bit. Mad Men or Breaking Bad it isn’t, but it’s a lot of fun; it’s a well done example of trashy, fast-food TV, which is television’s natural level, what the medium usually does best. The books, on the other hand, I have many reservations about. (I’ve read the first three, and I’m standing on the precipice of the fourth, daring myself to jump.) Martin piles up huge mountains of words that create a world in great breadth but little depth; too much space is devoted to detail for detail’s sake (detail that remains on the surface as it were, that adds nothing to the story except length); the prose is undistinguished; the enormous cast features about a dozen memorable characters and literally hundereds of others who are almost impossible to keep sorted out; and after almost 3000 pages of this thing, I’m now convinced that Martin doesn’t really have anything to say, that he’s essentially a pulp writer with a hyperactive thyroid whose greatest goal is to keep the royalty checks coming in. (“Pulp” isn’t a term of derision for me, either – I love good pulp. But one of the great virtues of pulp is directness, speed of delivery, its quality of being unimpeded by the extraneous. Martin’s frequent self-indulgence has pretty much cast those strengths aside. I’d love to see the whole series rewrittten by the Donald Westlake/Richard Stark of the Parker novels; it would be about 300 pages long, there wouldn’t be a spare syllable in it, and when you finished reading, you would be drenched in sweat.) Martin does have undeniable virtues – Though his characters exist only to serve the plot (that’s one of the things that make him a pulp writer) at his best they serve it with a vengance, and the combination of character clashes and genuinely surprising plot twists can make the books compulsively readable. Plot is really all Martin gives you, but when he’s got up a head of steam, it’s truly a pleasure to watch the gears of that plot mesh as they power this gargantuan beast of a story. Structure, though, isn’t one of his strengths – and I’m not talking about the multiple viewpoints, I’m talking about the overall shape and pace of the whole story as it develops over the course of the books. As I finished A Storm of Swords, I felt like Martin had told 80% of the story he set out to tell, and that if he had any discipline he could wrap it up in one more volume. Of course we know that’s not what’s happening. More more more story makes the accountants (both the publisher’s and Martin’s) happy, but it doesn’t always genuinely serve the story itself. So I say to the TV people – change away!

    Comment by Thomas Parker - June 19, 2014 2:45 pm

  2. I agree that he is not a great writer but I think it is unfair to say he doesn’t create good characters. If anything, he has just moved away from the excessive focus on characterization that has poisoned much of the genre and reminded people that plot matters.

    But back to his weakness as a writer. He is not writing to be concise. He is, as has been said elsewhere, a soap opera writer and this is why his story works better on TV than in giant novels. He would be better off not even writing the last books and just finishing the series via TV scripts.

    To the original post, Shae was not well done on the TV series and the whole thing was implausible and struck me as something written by a teenage girl.There is still great dramatic impact in having your father/judge proven right at your own trial because of the betrayal.

    The Hounds demise was disappointing as well because the choreography was so silly and looked more like something from Batman.

    But, overall, the changes are good.

    Comment by Tyr - June 19, 2014 3:31 pm

  3. His good characters are very good (if entirely creatures of the plot), but for me, any way, the good ones can be ticked off on ten fingers and a toe or two – in a series with hundreds of significant characters. I think you’re right in calling Martin a soap opera writer; his strengths and weaknesses all stem from that. (And that’s why it irks me to see blurbs on the books saying that he’s “elevated the genre to literature” or other such nonsense. That was written by someone whos aquaintence with fantasy stopped at He-Man and She-Ra…)

    Comment by Thomas Parker - June 19, 2014 3:41 pm

  4. Well, I do like green Eggs and Ham.

    Comment by Thomas Parker - June 19, 2014 5:19 pm

  5. And rest assured, Nymeria, no one regrets my ignorance and lack of understanding as much as I do myself.

    Comment by Thomas Parker - June 19, 2014 5:26 pm

  6. Deleted a comment by Nymeria on this thread for being insulting.

    This isn’t a public forum. It’s my personal blog. Think of it like my front porch, where I’m having some friends over to chat.

    You’re welcome to stop by and listen, and even chime in if you like. But if you can’t communicate without insulting my guests, you need to get your ass of my porch and let the adults talk.

    Thank you.

    Comment by John ONeill - June 19, 2014 5:48 pm

  7. Hate to say but with my projects I haven’t followed either the HBO or got into the book. I’d long dismissed all ‘modern’ stuff as “Surface only PC Vomit” and though the show looked promising I never managed to catch it. Also, usually when something gets popular I hate it, Star Wars being the exception.

    One thing that got me really mad was the media whine over Daerny’s freeing some slaves or something. Hadn’t followed it, but the scenes made me want to catch up on it, seeing the artistry of the picture, something I thought far beyond HBO these days. But the scream was “Great white liberator” haalp us! Eeeeevilllll Non-PC….!!! And, uh, a strong female protagonist and more active than the books also if I understand right, but the “Outrage Machine” is a barathrum that can ne’er be satiated and only grows in hunger, no?

    Heh, wish I could put some of MY stories to movies or TV, I’d be “Chester the Molester” to their precious innner children. We’d give these “Professional PC Outrage Victims” free movie tickets or limited HBO subscriptions “Uh, yes, there is a big bag of free popcorn and soda for everyone…” Then lock the doors and when we open them it’ll be like “Event Horizon” or maybe their heads just go explodey…

    Comment by GreenGestalt - June 20, 2014 4:17 am

  8. I think the show is not giving the Littlefinger the attention he deserves. Lord Baelish is the main chess player (at least one of the most important ones) and has his fingerprints on some of the major plots. the show (specially that episode where Sansa “saves” him was almost insulting to his greatness!

    Comment by tabadian - June 21, 2014 4:50 am


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