Generally speaking, film and television adaptations rarely live up to the complexity and depth of novels. In an effort to condense plot and keep things moving relatively quickly, and understandably, shows and films often act as the tip of the iceberg.
The original works, however, are more likely to reveal the underlying complexities (the rest of the iceberg, you might say) and true personalities of most of the characters. And, as expected, whole scenes are generally chopped from the film version due to lack of time.
So, of course, when a show like Game of Thrones comes along (the fourth season of which will be starting next week), that has some fans claiming the show is as good, perhaps even better, than George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, then we have no choice but to examine the merits of each.
In my opinion, the show lacks in several major areas. First: relationships.
The show does an excellent job of setting up every relationship clearly, and one example is the Lannister family dynamic. We know that Queen Cersei and Jaime Lannister —two siblings, for those still unaware — are having an affair. We learn relatively early in the first season that Joffrey, who is in line to be king, is likely a product of incest and thus, not actually the son of king.
We see the Lannister’s overbearing father, Tywin, and his hatred for his dwarf son, Tyrion, quite clearly explained — Tyrion’s birth caused the death of Tywin’s wife. That, in addition to Tyrion bringing shame to the family for being half-sized, is all pretty evident in the first season.
While watching the show, all these nuances are undoubtedly clear, but we miss many of the reflective thoughts from each character that perhaps explain, if not quite justify, their actions. For instance, Cersei and Jaime reflect no more than twice about the beginning of their relationship. In the novels, we have multiple flashbacks to the burgeoning of their sexual relationship when they were barely more than children, the fear of their father and loss of their mother, Cersei’s acceptance of an arranged marriage, and even both characters’ initial confusion regarding — and eventual acceptance of — their feelings.
This background helps when later the novels begin to turn, shifting the audiences perception of Jaime into a more positive light. Readers who are privy to more details, descriptions, and characterizations may be more forgiving towards Jaime, whereas audiences who have only watched the show may continue to harshly ignore any explanation of the siblings’ behavior — and Jaime’s better qualities.
Likewise, the extent of the abuse to Tyrion, who grew up hated by his entire family, is often glossed over and minimized to a detail or short story here and there.
There’s another area in which the show is lacking.
Sexuality, Torture, and Other Adult Content
It’s an HBO show, so there was never any doubt that the novel’s rampant sexual escapades weren’t going to make the final cut on screen. Like many other series on HBO, viewers are guaranteed an average of two nude scenes — sometimes less, often more. True Blood and Girls are two very different, but equally sexual, shows that like GoT are viewable online (more info here).
It’s worth noting that in GoT, the sex and nudity has its place within the plot. It’s not as gratuitous as it may appear in other HBO series.
A good choice of network for the novel, since George R. R. Martin often uses these scenes, along with gruesome scenes of torture — and sometimes a mixture of both — to reveal the deepest, darkest aspects of a character’s desires, perversions, and weaknesses. In many ways, the novels’ more sexual scenes reinforce the class system that Martin was intent on keeping alive throughout his books.
One of Martin’s biggest pet peeves as a writer is authors that use the medieval class system (kings, peasants, nobility, etc.), but then ignore the implications of the very hierarchy they are calling upon. In Martin’s opinion, if the “spunky, cute peasant girl” spoke up to the “lonely, authoritative prince,” she would not woo him and show him the difficulties his lavishness is causing his people. The spunky peasant girl who spoke up would be unceremoniously whipped, likely raped, and possibly murdered — no questions asked.
Likewise, affairs, secret perversions, and the frequent use of prostitutes existed because one did not simply skirt an arranged marriage to run off with their true love. You married who you were told to, no matter if you were a king or a minor noble, and you conducted your sexual affairs elsewhere.
And finally, as many others have suggested, the novels’ structure — particularly the way the chapters jump from character to character — does work well with the episodic nature of television.
Despite the deviation from the book, the show is still one of the better adaptations available today. The visuals are phenomenal. From the costuming to the setting, Martin’s world has been recreated with an astoundingly perfect touch. In addition, phenomenal actors, including Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister), Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister) and Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister) bring the characters to life.
It will always be my recommendation to read the novels in order to fully appreciate the wide spectrum and hugely large cast of complex characters Martin created, but either the way, the show is entertaining on its own merits.