Game of Thrones is a TV show based on George R.R. Martin’s epic series A Song of Ice and Fire. Historically, movies and shows based on novels aren’t as successful as its original material, but the HBO series is a hit and continues to win praise from critics and fans alike -- particularly those who like to see their sex and violence in their face rather than on the page.
As fans know, the television show has veered away from the novels, and at this moment has overtaken the series plot. But there are many scenes that have been lifted directly from the books.
So how do the two compare? See for yourself.
Daenerys and Drogo's wedding night
Young Daenerys was sold into marriage to the leader of the Dothraki, the Westerosi equivalent of Genghis Khan, and they do not speak each other’s languages. On their wedding night, Drogo and Dany attempt conversation, but his only word in Common is “No.”
Winner: The books
The TV series made their wedding night pretty damned rapey. As you can see in this video, Drogo undresses Daenerys, and she cries as he has sex with her.
In the book, their stilted conversation is pretty much the same. But their physical interaction is quite different: Instead of raping his new wife, Drogo seduces her.
He stroked her face, tracing the curve of her ears, running a finger gently around her mouth. He put both hands in her hair and combed it with his fingers. He turned her around, massaged her shoulders and slid a knuckle down the path of her spine.
It seemed as if hours had passed before his hands finally went to her breasts.
At last, Daenerys says another word, one he likely recognizes: “Yes.”
While Drogo was more than capable of taking Daenerys by force, in the book he arouses her to the point where she wants him. It makes Drogo a richer character, and it makes the scene much more compelling.
The Death of Ned Stark
Eddard Stark was accused of treason by claiming — correctly, as it happens — that King Robert’s son Joffrey was actually the product of an incestuous relationship between the queen and her brother. King Joffrey, the worst of his name, almost sentences Ned to a life of military service in the Night’s Watch. Instead, Joffrey changes his tiny little mind and has Ned killed.
A crowd has gathered for the sentencing, and Yoren, a member of the Night’s Watch, is in attendance, as is Ned’s daughter Arya. Yoren grabs Arya and prevents her from looking at her father’s beheading. Ned was quickly executed.
Winner: The TV show
In the book, the execution takes place entirely within the point of view of Ned’s young daughter Arya.
Dimly, as if heard from far away, she heard…a…a NOISE…a soft sighing sound, as if a million people had let out their breath at once. The old man’s fingers dug into her arm, stiff as iron. “Look at me. Yes, that’s the way of it. At ME.”
That’s all Arya knows of the death of her father, and therefore, all the reader knows. The TV show, however gives us multiple point of views…including the soon-to-be-late Ned Stark.
After Joffrey unpardons him, we see the world through Ned’s eyes. He knows Arya is watching, and as he kneels for the executioner, he scans the gathered crowd for his daughter. But he does not find her, and he dies without having seen her face again. It makes his death all the more devastating.
The Red Wedding
The Red Wedding refers to the events that took place around the wedding of Edmure Tully and Roslin Frey. Robb Stark, was meant to marry Roslin, the daughter of the powerful Walder Frey. But Robb married for love (Jeyne Westerling in the books; Talisa Maegyr in the TV series), rather than to cement a political alliance.
Walder, deeply insulted that Robb broke his promise to marry Roslin, broke the ancient custom of “guest right,” where the host does not harm the guests under his roof. In a move that shocked readers and viewers alike, Walder had almost every wedding guest killed.
Both versions of the Red Wedding are spectacular in their own ways. While we get to see and hear the visceral horror of the Red Wedding on TV, the book is terrifying in its own way. (GRRM also writes horror. It shows in scenes like this.)
Catelyn, the scene’s point of view character, mentions some inconsistencies that appear as the set-up for a mass murder only in retrospect. Yet as the mother of the king and the sister of the groom, she manages to explain away what should have been alarm bells (e.g., Roslin’s unabashed fear; the absence of several important guests). By the time Cat begins to piece Walder’s scheme together, it’s too late for her and for her son Robb.
She tugged hard on Aegon [Frey]’s hair and sawed at his neck until the blood grated on bone. Blood ran hot over her fingers. His little bells were ringing, ringing, ringing, and the drum went BOOM, DOOM, BOOM.
Watching her son slaughtered, Catelyn instantly loses her wits. When she is killed, her last thoughts are of her dead husband. “No, don’t, don’t cut my hair. Ned loves my hair.”
The chapter in the book is brutal. But watching the episode, where a pregnant Talisa is stabbed in the stomach, is equally brutal. Bravo to both.
Those with a strong stomach can watch it here.
Note: For a fabulous breakdown of the book version of the Red Wedding, listen to the Radio Westeros podcast, “Catelyn: A Mother’s Madness.” (Potential TV show spoilers.)
Tyrion's Relationship with Shae
In the TV show, Shae is the lover of Tyrion Lannister and a former campfollower with a heart of gold. As the lady’s maid to Sansa Stark, she becomes concerned for her young charge and tells Tyrion, “I’m worried about Sansa” and “We have to protect her.”
In the book, Shae is a sullen, pouty prostitute — and we get this from Tyrion’s point of view. Tyrion, who loves her. She cajoles, wheedles, and sexes her way to getting what she wants. Even though she sleeps with Tyrion and offers sugar-coated endearments, we never get the feeling she likes him for more than his money. And Tyrion, who is desperate for affection of any kind, blinds himself to who she really is.
Winner: The books
The TV show leaves out my favorite Shae subplot.
Although Shae is hidden from threatening Lannister eyes, she befriends the bard Symon Silver Tongue. Unfortunately, Symon uses his silver tongue to bribe Tyrion: If Tyrion doesn’t assure Symon will perform in King Joffrey’s wedding-day singer’s tourney, Symon will sing a song about Tyrion and his secret lover.
Tyron orders Bronn to do away with Symon, saying he “should never be found.” So Bronn suggests that Symon’s body would make some good meat for a disreputable shop. Tyrion agrees. Egads.
We don’t just see a Shae who is bored and dumb enough to entrust her secrets to a singer who immediately betrays her. We see Tyrion acting very much like the Lannister he is.
The Viper, Oberyn Martell
Oberyn Martell is intelligent, deadly with a sword, and thirsts for bloody justice for the death of his sister Elia. Plus, he and his lover Ellaria have quite a sexual appetite: “We have never shared a beautiful blonde woman before, however, and Ellaria is curious.”
Winner: The TV show
The Oberyn of the books has only a few scenes before he dies in a particularly horrifying way. The Oberyn of the TV series has a meatier role and actor Pedro Pascal runs away with it. In the scene where we first meet Oberyn, he walks into a room and unconsciously swipes his hand over the flame of a candle. It’s a quick move, but we see he’s not afraid of fire. With a knife thrust at just the right moment, he has owned that room, and we see he’s not afraid of very much at all.
Pascal's Oberyn appears as comfortable in brothels as he is at a king’s wedding as he is with a spear in his hand. The casting directors deserve a pat on the back for this one.
Also, he dies awesomely.
Tyrion Flees to Essos
Tyrion Lannister, accused of killing his nephew King Joffrey, is whisked away to Essos by Varys the Spider. Because his sister Cersei has placed a bounty on his head, he travels eastward (with Illyrio in the books; with Varys on the show) in secret. His plan? To meet the rumored queen Daenerys and her rumored dragons.
Winner: The TV show
It’s difficult to declare the TV show the winner here. Tyrion’s journey east is filled with memorable characters (such as Penny, Griff, and importantly, Young Griff) and memorable events (he’s sold into freakin’ slavery). But ultimately Tyrion spends most of his journey eastward wallowing in self-pity.
[T]o mark his manhood, Tyrion was given charge of all the drains and cisterns with Casterly Rock. Perhaps [Tywin] hoped I’d fall into one. But Tywin had been disappointed in that. The drink never drained half so well as when he had charge of them.
I need a cup of wine, to wash the taste of Tywin from my mouth. A skin of wine would serve me even better.
Onscreen, Tyrion’s self pity is mostly confined to a few scenes and he shrugs that off as he meets Daenerys and becomes her Hand. In the books, he and Daenerys have never spoken. Thus far, she has only seen him at a distance. With a pig. (It was awesome.)
The Sand Snakes
The Sand Snakes are the eight daughters of Oberyn Martell; both the book and the TV show have only shown three. They have different mothers and different talents, yet they share Oberyn’s eyes and his passionate nature.
When Oberyn is killed by Gregor Clegane, they want revenge.
Winner: The books
At the time of this writing, the three Sand Snakes (Obara, Nymeria, and Tyene) killed their uncle, Prince Doran, as well as his son, Prince Trystane. Prior to that, Oberyn’s lover Ellaria Sand, killed Myrcella Baratheon, who was betrothed to Trystane.
This is possibly the biggest misstep the TV show has made.
The Sand Snakes of the book disagree with Doran, but they are fiercely loyal to Dorne. Killing their uncle and cousin is completely out of character and makes them seem cruel and stupid (although this scene was all kinds of awesome).
Tyene answered for the three of them. “It is doing nothing that is hard, Uncle. Set a task for us, any task, and you shall find us as leal and obedient as any prince could hope for.
Also, the Sand Snakes are only minor characters. Their cousin, Doran’s daughter Arianne Martell, is a viewpoint character with her own plans (which include seducing Princess Myrcella’s guard and kidnapping the girl). It would have been better for the series to have followed Arianne than any her cousins.
To be fair, it seems that the Sand Snakes will play a greater role in the upcoming seasons. But to leave out Arianne is to leave out the seduction and intrigue of Dorne.
Cersei's Walk of Shame
Cersei is the wife of the late king, Robert Baratheon, and mother to King Tommen. She has always seen Tommen's wife Queen Margaery Tyrell as a threat. In order to rid herself of Margaery, Cersei falsely accuses the young queen of infidelity.
The plan backfires, and Cersei finds herself afoul of Westeros’ primary church, the Faith of the Seven. After an imprisonment, she eventually confesses her sin. But to atone, she has to walk home through the streets of King’s Landing. Completely naked.
Here in the real world, “the walk of shame” refers to the walk you take after a one-night stand while wearing last night’s clothes. In Westeros, the walk of shame refers to being stripped naked, shorn, and paraded through the streets while a sour-faced nun shouts “Shame” with each step.
The actress who plays Cersei, Lena Headey, was given a body double. But the face is hers, one that conveys a woman humiliated and almost broken.
But the chapter, told through Cersei’s point of view, is equally painful. She starts her walk proud and determined to walk through puddles of horse piss like a lioness. Even when a dead cat is flung at her feet (“The carcass hit the cobbles so hard that it burst open, spattering her lower legs with entrails and maggots.”), she remains strong. But as she continues, the words shouted by the crowd chip away her resolve.
The queen began to see familiar faces. A bald man with bush side-whiskers frowned down from a window with her father’s frown, and for an instant looked so much like Lord Tywin that she stumbled… Every child squirming through the crowd became her brother Tyrion, herring at her as he had jeered when Joffrey died. And there was Joff as well, her son, her firstborn, her beautiful bright boy with his golden curls and his sweet smile, he had such lovely lips, he…
That was when she fell the second time.
Her last few steps toward King’s Landing were made on all fours, “like a dog.” With that, GRRM made us feel sorry for one of the more despicable characters in the series.
It Looks Like a Tie, but the Books Are the Real Winners
George R.R. Martin’s sprawling series A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t just a cultural phenomena. It’s also a tour de force of storytelling. Here’s why:
Truth and Fiction
In GRRM’s epic, every chapter is seen through the eyes of different characters, which means they filter details through their own particular perceptions. The details of a story told by a young girl and a hardened knight are similar, but the thrust of the stories are completely different.
Take the outcome of the Tourney of Whent, where Prince Rhaegar Targaryen gave the crown of Love and Beauty to Lyanna Stark, rather than his wife, Elia Martell.
No one knows exactly what happened between the long-dead Rhaegar and Lyanna. Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon hold that Lyanna was kidnapped, raped, and held captive. But other, more neutral tellers of the tale suggest that Lyanna went with Rhaegar of her own accord. The reader thus concludes that Ned and Robert’s version of the story isn’t the “true” one.
Each chapter in ASoIaF is told linearly, and each chapter is another day, another week, or even another month into the future. Importantly, the events of the previous chapter impacts the characters of the next chapter. (For example, the events in Tyrion’s chapters make their way to the characters in Braavos, an entire kingdom away.)
But some of the best information isn’t just who won which battle or who captured an enemy. It’s the little things that make this big, sprawling universe so very real.
For example, in A Storm of Swords, a prostitute tells Arya, “I’m a king’s daughter myself.” Here's Arya's reaction:
The girl did have hair like the old king’s, Arya thought; a great thick mop of it as black as coal. That doesn’t mean anything, though. Gendry has the same kind of hair, too.
What Arya, or even Gendry, doesn’t know is that Gendry is in fact one of King Robert Baratheon’s many bastards. So many lovely details in ASoIaF are never told outright. They are merely implied.
Minor Characters Come to Life
Sadly, the TV series has had to prune several minor characters from the books (Strong Belwas!). But these characters, such as Tom O' Sevens, Pia, and Mya Stone are some of the best reasons to read ASoIaF.
For example, in A Game of Thrones, Mya Stone is a young girl (another one of Robert Baratheon's bastards, although she doesn't know it) in love with a squire. We learn this from her time with Catelyn Stark. In A Feast for Crows, she's become embittered about love, after the squire threw her over when he was knighted--as told from Sansa Stark's point of view. Later, in the upcoming The Winds of Winter, Sansa sees that Mya is visibly annoyed by the presence of the young knight.
Reading about the lives of these characters across the span of several novels is like catching up with old friends.
Rereading and Re-rereading
Every backstory and every history has a very specific place in GRRM's universe. Only after a second read-through does the reader finally see the pieces lock into place like a perfect jigsaw puzzle. Although I knew Arys Oakheart was one of the kingsguard who had beat Sansa in A Clash of Kings, I didn't sympathize with him until A Dance with Dragons. But only after re-reading the novels did I see just how hard he was trying to remain honorable while trying to obey Joffrey's execreble orders.
And it wasn't until a third read-through that I realized why he did what he did.
GRRM's novels are completely satisfying. I can’t recommend them highly enough.
To sum it up, in this smackdown of the Game of Thrones, you read or you die.