Sep 14 2011 11:13am

Firsts in Fantasy: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

You’ve watched the last episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, and you’re staring at the screen with your jaw on the floor as the final scene cuts to black. And your first thought is: “I want more! When’s the next season?!” But the next season isn’t starting until Spring 2012, the almighty web search tells you. What to do? You could rewatch the show, sure. Or you could try and find something that hits the same sweet spot — The Lord of the Rings films, maybe, or perhaps or perhaps Deadwood for its gritty-bygone-era feel. Or maybe, just maybe, you decide... how about the book that the series adapted? Crazy idea, sure. Didn’t you just watch the story? Maybe the book will be a let down, maybe it’ll just feel like the same thing all over again, maybe—

No. Just... no.

Let’s be frank: George R.R. Martin has repeatedly stated that after years of wrestling with television budgets and deadlines as a screenwriter in Hollywood, the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series was going to be completely and deliberately unfettered from such constraints. He wanted a big wall? Sure. REALLY big? Sure. Of ICE? Yep. As an effect, the Wall might cost tens of thousands of dollars to realize on the screen, but on the page, there’s not much difference between writing down twenty feet and seven hundred, or stone instead of ice. The series was deliberately created to be, for all practicle purposes, unfilmable in relation to its massive scale.

David Benioff, Dan Weiss, and everyone else in the production have done an excellent job of capturing something of the core essence of the series, of Westeros and Essos, of the Starks and Lannisters and Baratheons... but it’s just something of it, not the whole, because cuts had to be made, budgets had to be attended to, schedules had to be kept. When you read the novel, every detail is as the author intended it, limited only by his imagination and his ability to pour his imagination onto the page. If you love Westeros as a place, if you want to know more about its history and its marvels, the novel’s certainly the way to go.

The budget impacted in another area: large-scale set pieces. Remember how Tyrion gives the clansmen a rousing speech and then runs along with them into the fight... only to be knocked unconscious by one of his own? Funny, right? But in the book, that doesn’t happen — instead, Tyrion’s in the front lines of a gripping battle, and the ugliness of war is brought vividly to life. Or the Hand’s tourney, which involved three people in the show, as opposed to dozens in the novel, brought to life with all the colorful, chivalric pageantry that Martin could muster.

“That’s it?” you might ask, incredulous, thinking that, really, that’s not so much difference. But there’s more to it than that, because the setting is more than just the sprawling castles and giant edifices, the jousts and the banners. It’s the history as well, and the history is something that’s deeply important to this story. The producers again did pretty well... but Martin does more than “pretty well.” In particular, there’s one area of history where the show has opted to diverge from the novels, opted more as a matter of simplifying: the way that there’s a romanticized mystery about much of it, an aspect of the story that for many readers is absolutely integral to their appreciation of the series.

You went through a whole season, right? Think you’ve got a good grasp of what happened to make Ned and Robert and Jaime who they are? But you don’t know who Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning is, or what his fair sister Ashara Dayne meant to Eddard Stark, do you?

The White Bull? Prince Lewyn of Dorne? Meaningless. The details of the Battle of the Trident, the reason why the ruby ford has its name? The great tourney at Harrenhal, and the importance of the crown of winter roses? Or who was named the Queen of Love and Beauty there, and by whom, and why it mattered?

You know little and less, as Martin might write. The show covered a lot of the book, but some of the heart of it had to be cut out to make room for the present day story and characters. Understandable, and handled as well as anyone could have hoped. But still....

Take all the things you loved about Game of Thrones. Add more layers and nuance, a richer pallete if you will, and a bigger, bolder vision that outstrips even an impressive budget such as only HBO can afford, and what you get is A Game of Thrones. So, what are you waiting for?

Having met on a game (yes, on the internet), Elio crossed an ocean to join Linda in her native Sweden. Establishing their “A Song of Ice and Fire” fan page, Westeros, in 1998, they now host the largest fan forum and oversee sub-sites covering all facets of George R.R. Martin’s works, including a wiki. can also be found on Twitter and Facebook, where they provide official syndication of George R.R. Martin’s blog updates. They are co-authors, with Martin, of the in-progress The World of Ice and Fire, an official guide to the setting.

This article is part of Barnes & Noble Bookseller’s Picks: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. Heleri
Agreeing with the point of the article --- read the book! --- but raedership might not be the best demographic for that kind of a story. I see its need to be published somewhere more mainstream. For the ones who actually have not read it nor aren't reading it nor already crave the books. This message needs the attention of the TV generation. Spread it! Imagine the amount of converts...
2. benjicat
You know little and less, as Martin might write.

You know nothing, Jon Snow.

I would actually make this argument about any book that is translated into film. Would most people agree? Is there any film that is superior to its novel?
Rob Munnelly
3. RobMRobM
Elio - Linda - nice piece but I would have preferred more focus on the books themselves and what a great entry GoT is into the full series, especially since many people don't have HBO and haven't seen the show. (The HBO show has captivated all who have seen it in my office and all are reading the books; I've convinced several others to read the books without benefit of the TV show.)

Rob Munnelly
4. RobMRobM
@2 - Godfather, Jaws, Prizzi's Honor, the 1980s version of 1984 with John Hurt as lead all come readily to mind, but agree it is a relatively short list.
Kat Blom
5. pro_star
I got lucky, I had one of the lawyers at my office suggest the first book to me, so I, not realizing it was a series, added it to my first amazon order. Then one of my bosses saw my amazon order, told me he had the series, if I liked the first book he'd lend me the others...and thus, an addiction was born...(of course, I got him on WoT, so I have my sweet vengence mwahahaha)

There is much more depth in the books. My sister watched the series first...and now she's reading the books, she's amazed at how much she missed!
6. ryamano

How about "Last of the mohicans"? I think the movie was better.
7. Raskolnikov
Disagree with the article. The HBO series ended up being a significant improvement over the novel, much better paced, greater genuine moral ambiguity, a much more interesting presentation of Cersei, and not nearly dogged with the degree of creepiness with Martin's pet obsessions. It's not a total break in this way, book-Daernys is a lot better than the frankly tedious stuff we got on the little screen, but overall I wouldn't say the book has much advantage over the show. Quite the opposite, really. Indeed, reading through the article I'm reminded again of the tedious derivative-grimdark-psuedo-Europe worldbuilding for the sake of it and glacial pace to events that mark Martin as very far from top rate fantasy.

Opinions vary, obviously, though given the tone of this piece is less real analysis and more a naked plug I feel less need to soften my opinion than I ordinarily would.
8. cjhuitt

I've always thought the movie of Princess Bride was far superior to the book... but I admit on that one, I don't know which came first.
9. benjicat
@3 Jaws was based on a novel?? I had no idea. I guess I agree about The Godfather. The book was definitely dull and focused differently (though many will say that the movie is dull as well).

@6 Terrible movie AND book, IMHO ;)

@8 I have to say I prefer the book on that one but the movie is great too.
p l
10. p-l
@2: No Country for Old Men is definitely better as a movie than as a book.

As for the book vs. the show, I agree that the show is better-paced and that a lot of the key plot moments are handled better. SPOILER ALERT: The execution of Viserys is a prime example. It felt phoned in on the page, but it was dreadfully suspenseful and nigh-unwatchably brutal onscreen.
john mullen
11. johntheirishmongol
It is very seldom a movie is better than the book. The one that readily comes to mind is The Sound of Music, which was based on the terribly dull bio of the Von Trapp Family Singers.

@2, diagree about Godfather (movie highly overrated) and Jaws, never read Prizzi's Honor but the movie sucked.

@6, not even close...the book was tons better than the movie

@8 Love both, but I lean towards the book

@10, thought the movie was pretty weird, didn't care about trying the book. I didn't like it.
Ashley Fox
12. A Fox
I have to admit I was not nearly as impresed as I thought I would be when I read this. After seeing all the Martin fans gushing, I was expecting something amazing. I found this rather lacklustre, after a couple of ch's I tossed aside my expectations, and still found it to be just OK. However, I would reccomend picking it up (charity shop) and giving it a try.

Tell me, does the series get better? Is this book just falling into the danger zone of series set up?

Oh and I havent yet seen the programme, and felt this article was oddly focused on it! Hunchback of Notre dame, Disney, is better that the book. (Lets face it you have to have a very in depth knowledge/degree of Paris in the 1820/30's just to plow through the opening!)
Rob Munnelly
13. RobMRobM
Benjicat - you obviously are unaware of the oeuvre of Peter Benchley - King of the 1970 thriller books (Jaws, The Deep, the Island), all made into movies (great, good, lousy, in that order).

Princess Bride - book came first and was excellent (slightly better than the excellent movie, IMO), but is almost cheating - as author William Goldman is one of the best screenwriters ever (e.g., Butch Cassidy) and wrote the book as a parody of action/fantasy stories of his youth.

Re Prizzi - YMMV, I guess. The multiple Oscar nominations for best picture, acting, screenwriting, directing, etc. were well earned, as far as I am concerned.

Re GOT - prefer book to the HBO show even though I love the HBO show. Very different art forms, each well executed.

Marcus W
14. toryx
The Godfather was great in novel form. I much prefer the book over the movie, myself.

Game of Thrones on TV is fun but in my mind, it doesn't hold a candle to the book. I have successfully persuaded people to read the book before finishing the season and they all agree that it makes the entire experience far more enjoyable.

As far as the books go...I didn't stumble on A Song of Ice and Fire until I read "The Hedge Knight" in Legends I, back in 2000 or early 2001. I'd seen A Game of Thrones in the bookstores, but I have to be honest: knights don't do anything for me. I have little interest in a bunch of people wearing platemail and going about the motions of chivalry.

Then I read "The Hedge Knight" and my entire concept of the series was turned upside down. I waited about five minutes after finishing the novella before I logged onto and ordered A Game of Thrones. Which also makes AGoT my first Amazon purchase, by the way.

When the book arrived in the mail I wasted no time in reading it and was hooked about fifteen minutes into the read. Fortunately for me, A Clash of Kings was already out. I didn't even bother with Amazon that time. I went straight to a Borders Book and Music and bought it.

Not long after that I went to a convention and met Martin and discovered that he's not only a magnificent writer but a very kind and generous man as well. He introduced me to a few attending members of the Brotherhood Without Banners and they graciously invited me to lunch. The next thing I knew I was eating barbeque with Martin and discussing the characters and his plans for the future of the series. A year later he knighted me at TorCon (Worldcon in Toronto) and my dedication was assured.

I'm extremely lax in my Brotherhood activities these days and I haven't seen Martin himself in a few years but A Song of Ice and Fire is still my favorite fantasy series, bloody armored knights and all.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
15. tnh
Raskolnikov @7:

"Indeed, reading through the article I'm reminded again of the tedious derivative-grimdark-psuedo-Europe worldbuilding for the sake of it and glacial pace to events that mark Martin as very far from top rate fantasy."

Derivative worldbuilding? Derived from what? The distinctive features of George R. R. Martin's worldbuilding owe more to actual history and geography than they do to other multi-volume fantasies. Events are sometimes grim and dark. If that confuses you, pick up a nice single-volume history of the Thirty Years' War or the Wars of the Roses and find out what the real-world equivalent was like.

As for his invented world being "psuedo-Europe", I have two observations. First, you must not have been reading very carefully when the story wandered southward or eastward. Second, the areas that are cognate with Europe are a better version of it than you usually see in fantasy. Westeros doesn't suffer from the peculiar absence of bogs and bog dwellers so common in other fantasies, and its castles and cities have drainage problems. There are elaborately realized mercantile Free Cities on Essos' western shore. The Iron Bank of Bravos has real clout. Shipping insurance is expensive, but it exists. The same goes for glass. There are winches, mills, and other large works of engineering. Eastward there are vast plains of grass, and cultures that practically live on horseback. In the north, winter can kill you. The western isles raid shipping because all they have at home are rocks and fish. And so forth and so on.

Finally: glacial pace? I can only repeat: compared to what?

A. Fox @12: What a pity it doesn't work for you. You'll just have to find something else to read.
16. Raskolnikov
#15 tnh:
Yes, I'm aware of the complexities and brutality of past historical climate. No, I don't see Martin as capturing a real sense of that--again contrast the first book with the HBO series, it's significantly blindered by taking most perspective from a single family. And of course they happen to be the one decent aristocratic family tha believes in honor in some form. They suffer for it, but Martin flat out fails, if he is indeed trying, to create a deep historically-comparable setup of how people in the society operated and thought. Doubly so by making all of the Lannister faction except Tyrion mustache-twirling, cartoonish evil. As to the derivative aspects, all things about the far North quality--ominous inhuman elemental demons, massive defensive position with long-standing customs of defenses, magic reanimated zombies. The use of magic is fairly light in the first book, but what's there draws on countless iterations of the main theme--the witches and blood magic especially, and subsequently Melisandre.

Finally: glacial pace? I can only repeat: compared to what?

China Mieville. Jeff Vandermeer. Catherynne Valente. Hal Duncan. Caitlin Kiernan. Even writers I find a lot less impressive like McGuire and Pratchett can move along a complex story with vastly less bulk and slow momentum. For Game of Thrones, in particular, much, much of what occurs between the Stark's arriving in Winterfell and the death of Robert is unnecessary. How many scenes do we need showing Ned being decent and politically outmanuevered because of it? Of Sansa living in a fairy-tale perspective that, shockingly, is not the way the world works? Martin seemed to feel about twenty and fifteen respectively. I suppose it pays off if one is absolutely shockcd, shocked that a protagonist in a fantasy novel can die even though their good and things might be more cynical than Sansa believes. If the idea of knights being brutal thugs and rape being widespread in pre-industrial society is mind-blowing for you, then by all means go have your mind blown. I certainly don't begrudge anyone please they have in the book, and I'm not saying Game of Thrones is terrible. I think the notion that the series is the best of current fantasy is rather over-ambitious, though, and that the HBO series has a number of decisive advantages over the words on the text.

In terms of the visual vs. text question, I'd say the movie of The Pianoe Teacher was better than Jelinek's book. I love both, but the acting brings the main disconnect in more effectively, and the film leaves as implicit things the book states outright, particularly with the psychological backstory.

#12: My view is that the series gets better for two books, then plumets in quality drastically. Books two and three play out the story more than just trying to shock by not being Tolkien duplicate, the plot goes to less predictable places, and some of the flatter earlier characters get a lot more interesting, especially Jaime. With books four and five, though, momentum stops entirely, the reigning villains have become utterly, ridiculously over the top (Ramsey Bolton? Seriously?), important character wander around for five hundred pages without quite meeting up with each other, and it seems increasingly plausible that Martin is planning to draw out the series as long as he can, whether from his own inability to put in actual events to his story or through pecuniary considerations.
Elio García
17. Egarcia
Regarding the focus on the TV series, when we were approached to write the article, it was noted that part of the impetuous for wanting it (and for why this B& collaboration is starting off with epic fantasy series) was the buzz about the novels thanks in part to the success of the TV series.

So, it seemed to make sense to acknowledge that and explicitly pitch the novel to those who were potentially interested in the book because they had seen the show, or were aware of it because of the buzz.
18. sofrina
i read the first book after watching the series. the series so many questions it fairly begs you to read the book. but some of those tidbits you mention are not clarified in the first book. the dayne's are mentioned, intriguingly, but ashara's importance to ned - if any - is not told. i'm not sure the 'ruby ford' was mentioned in the show. if so, it was a throwaway, but the story is pretty impressive.

daenerys' story is transformed by reading the book. it is a much richer journey from pentos to the pyre.
Magdalena Kamenev
19. MagdaK
Given how the pace of the series has led to flame wars online, as well as Neil Gaiman tossing around the term "bitch," I will wait until the series ends before I pick up book 1.

And for those of you who think it's a cop-out -- well, sure. But then again, I'm also a Warren Ellis fan. I have enough heartbreak over stalled out/suddenly cancelled/"has it been a year between comic book issues?" serial stories. (And any fans of Planetary will know what I mean)

Loved GoT, looking forward to more seasons, and happily spoiling myself on the whatever bits I can find out about all the books.
Gabrielle Jagoriles
20. Geese5000 me it feels like you are watching a tv series, I like the detail in GRRM's prose, and being that English is my second language I don't find it hard to read like other works of fiction that uses deep words, also the wit of Tyrion is the best, and the gloom of the story is top notch, I will wait for the tv series to be done before I watch them, but for now I will be reading the books ....
21. ThePointyEnd
The first Bran POV chapters confirmed for me the importance of reading the book. His interior monologue as he climbs informs us of the different understanding he had of Winterfell, one that his father and brothers don't; secret pathways on the roof, the above ground perspective, the story about how Cat tried to get him to stop climbing with his punishment in the godswood and how he is found in the weirtree.

It's not just the McLuhan hot/cool medium that makes books and movies different; we experience them differently, which is why those movies and television shows which are truest to their source material are often times less captivating than those which aren't faithful.
22. ThePointyEnd
The first Bran POV chapters confirmed for me the importance of reading the book. His interior monologue as he climbs informs us of the different understanding he had of Winterfell, one that his father and brothers don't; secret pathways on the roof, the above ground perspective, the story about how Cat tried to get him to stop climbing with his punishment in the godswood and how he is found in the weirtree.

It's not just the McLuhan hot/cool medium that makes books and movies different; we experience them differently, which is why those movies and television shows which are truest to their source material are often times less captivating than those which aren't faithful.

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