As an adaptation, Game of Thrones has a long of history of straying from George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels, in ways both big and small. In season four, we saw these changes becoming more dramatic, with one of the most intriguing characters from the novels missing from the narrative, and a significant shift in the North that may have gone so far as to spoil something from a book Martin hasn't even finished yet.
The show has always been a different animal than the novels, and Martin (himself a TV veteran) has been open about his understanding, and even celebration, of this fact. Season five, though, presents a different set of challenges altogether. While it's still adapting some elements of the ASoIaF novels A Feast for Crows (book four) and A Dance with Dragons (book five), some of the season-four changes, as well as the general pacing of the show, mean that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are heading into uncharted territory for parts of the series. They've had conversations with Martin about the future of many of these characters, so Martin's hand is still very much in shaping the series in some way, but because Martin's sixth novel hasn't yet arrived, the TV series is in a position it's never really been before.
For the first time, Game of Thrones is the sole pop culture representation of the future of some of these characters, at least until Martin finishes his books.
For many fans, that's a scary proposition, and not just because they might not know when to expect a shocking character death any more. Benioff has promised that the show will "meet up at pretty much the same place where George is going," despite deviations, but for now some of season five's territory belongs only to the show. It's an interesting place for season five to start, and it's easy to see why some fans would be worried about what's to come. What if it's just not the same? What if the characters begin to feel less alive without the books to back them up? What if the show completely ruins everyone?
Well, fear not, because if the first four episodes of season five are a sign of things to come, Game of Thrones is going to be just fine, books or no books.
Yes, I've seen the first four hours of the fifth season, and as a longtime reader of Martin's novels I can say that I never felt lost, confused, or betrayed by some of the new directions taken so far, and rest assured that in no way is it all a new direction, or even mostly a new one. This is still the story of A Song of Ice and Fire.
So, what did I see that inspired me to be this confident? Well, I don't want to spoil anything, but I will say that this TV world feels more lived-in than ever before, and that goes a long way toward making me feel at home. Some of that, of course, is due to how long it's been since we were first introduced to Westeros on HBO, but it's more than that. Benioff, Weiss, and the show's cast and crew have gone a long way to making us not just buy into Game of Thrones, but understand it. There's a reason so many spoofs and mash-ups and fan digressions have been inspired by this show. Game of Thrones has a very specific tone, aesthetically and emotionally, and as a creator, maintaining that tone can buy you a lot of chance-taking. If you really dig down deep into the history of the show's deviations from the books, and do an intricate breakdown of everything that's different and everything the books haven't covered yet, the differences may seem glaring. But in this world, the world the TV show has spent years perfecting, nothing feels like a big, continuity-shattering risk. It just feels like Game of Thrones.
Even beyond that, though, there's still a sense that Benioff, Weiss and their fellow writers (who are, for the first time this season, without Martin among them) know who these characters are, even when they've strayed from the events of the novels. Nothing, no matter how different from the books, feels forced or contrived or twisty for the sake of twists. It all feels like it belongs, because these writers understand their characters and their motives. Again, I won't spoil season five here, but given things like Jaime and Cersei's tribulations in season four, Varys and Tyrion's uneasy partnership in season two, and Sansa Stark's transformation in season four, new developments in season five make perfect sense. The plot never feels like a group of TV writers trying to come up with their own half-baked version of a novel that hasn't been written yet. It feels like characters with real motives, real emotions, and real concerns going forward naturally. That's no easy thing to accomplish, especially when you're facing an audience as skeptical as I tend to be. But they did it, and so far Season 5 feels like it could be the most exciting chapter in this TV saga yet.
So, read Martin's novels. Then read them again. Look forward to The Winds of Winter. Pray to The Seven for its arrival, by all means, but don't fret about where the show is going. For the moment, at least, it's in good hands.
Game of Thrones returns Sunday at 9/8 C on HBO.