Game of Thrones season 8 is upon us, dear friends. And with its mostly triumphant arrival, the familiar anxieties return. What if it is not as good as what came before? How are they going to satisfyingly tell this part of the story–the final part, no less–in only a handful of episodes? Will Jon Snow ever learn the truth of his parentage?! And what exactly did showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss get wrong last season?
Aye, even as Game of Thrones becomes a bigger cultural juggernaut with each passing season, literary fans of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” source material also become more vocal in their condemnation of HBO’s adaptation. And they’re of course not often wrong. As a fellow traveler of Sullied book readers, I too cannot help but notice when some changes leave something to be desired on the television series. Or how that after the series surpassed the books’ narrative in season 6, there have been plot twists that are hard to imagine Martin pursuing—such as Uncle Benjen coming out of nowhere to sacrifice himself for Jon Snow as the ultimate Deus Ex Machina in season 7’s penultimate episode.
As nothing is without fault, it is easy to thus fall into the sniping that generally surrounds Game of Thrones amongst book readers, and how every differing decision that Benioff and Weiss makes should be met with scorn and suspicion… except when that’s flat out wrong. For all of Game of Thrones’ many changes, a great number of them from the small (Daenerys’ hair not burning off her head when she walks into Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre) to the enormous (Dark Sansa) have actually shrewdly taken what was already there in Martin’s text and improved upon it. At least as far as television standards are concerned. And in a media feeding frenzy culture driven by so much cynicism and hate, we thought it worth throwing Game of Thrones some kudos and love where appropriate.
So without further ado, here are nine Game of Thrones changes from the books that actually were for the better.
Arya as Tywin Lannister’s Cupbearer
This major change was due to the benefit of the show making a slightly more nuanced upgrade early in the saga. By casting the immeasurable Charles Dance as the paterfamilias of House Lannister, Game of Thrones was able to give some shadings and layers to a character who on the page is primarily just pride incarnate. To be sure, Dance’s Tywin is also a monster, but a quieter one with humanity underneath all that arrogance. It is never clearer than in his interactions with Maisie Williams’ Arya during her best season.
Indeed, Arya’s journeys through the Riverlands, both in the books and on the show, are probably the highlight of the character’s arc thus far. Once a girl who dreamt of being a warrior and brave, she finds out that there is nothing brave about many of the warriors she meets. Likely due to the economy of budget or pacing, some of Arya’s best literary moments—such as her, Gendry, Hot Pie, and Lommy becoming a gang of Dickensian street urchins on a transcendentalist adventure—had to be cut during season 2. This is a shame, but on the flipside, we got to have these treasure trove scenes between Arya and the head of House Lannister, which makes her reluctance to use one of Jaqen H’ghar’s kills on him more understandable.
While Tywin proves to be a tyrant filled with nothing but bitter disappointment in regard to his grownup children, there is the faint suggestion that Arya might be a daughter he’d have been proud to have. Discovering her to be a resourceful and clever girl who is hiding as a boy, he keeps her as his personal cupbearer and assistant. He also quickly deduces she is too educated to be merely a commoner. While it is a bit odd he never quite puts together she is the missing Stark girl, his suspicion and affection for her is only surpassed by Arya’s own mixed emotions.
She wishes nothing more than death to her enemies, but Tywin Lannister was not the one who ordered Ned Stark’s execution, and she cannot bring herself to put him on her list or in her prayer. She even finds in him a bit of a fatherly influence she missed when Tywin’s grandson murdered her own papa.
Those mixed emotions and confluences, as well as the constant suspense of whether he knows or will figure out she is Arya Stark, made for some of the greatest scenes in Game of Thrones history. Scenes that can only be found on the show.
Tyrion and Sansa’s Respectable Sham Marriage
Another instance where Benioff and Weiss contrived of a subplot between the wolf and the lion which did not involve pure hatred is the brief time Tyrion Lannister and Sansa Stark were husband and wife. In terms of plotting, it is more or less the same sequence of events in both A Storm of Swords and on the show: Sansa and Tyrion are forced into a horrific marriage by Tywin Lannister because the father wants his despised spawn to grow Lannister influence in the North while also keeping him far away from Casterly Rock—Tyrion’s birthright now that Jaime has long taken his Kingsguard vows.
But while the marriage is a tragic farce, the presentation of it on Game of Thrones had a little more grace and subtlety. In the novel and series alike, Tyrion Lannister swears off touching Sansa until she welcomes his advances (which will never happen). However, Sansa is never anything less than remote and desperately hiding behind her pleasantries and smiles… and Tyrion comes to despise her for it. Whereas Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion understands she is a child forced into a horrible situation, the literary Tyrion is also aware of this but rather selfishly views her as nothing but a fool who he is forced to endure as his wife, too naïve and hateful of his disfigurement to build any sort of relationship with. And she never plays anything more than a victim in Tyrion’s presence.
On the show, Sansa is forced into a situation where the entire feudal patriarchy of her world drapes her in the attacker’s colors, but she also displays, like Arya with Tywin, a certain cleverness and defiance that hints at her own interior strength, as well as builds a level of mutual respect between Tyrion and her. Instead of viewing his wife’s innocence as a condemnable flaw, Tyrion considers Sansa as a smart and slowly emerging political game player, one who he pities and grows somewhat fond of in a paternal sense.
The two reach an understanding that they’re both victims of Tywin’s tyranny, and as the two black sheep of the Red Keep’s court. Their counsel and humor is something they can share, if nothing else. Sansa does not shut Tyrion out as a monster until she discovers the fate of her brother and mother at the Red Wedding. Her silence then comes from a place of resistance, as opposed to submission. Yet she still has the basic human decency to help Tyrion reach for a cup that Joffrey kicks under the table at his own wedding, proving she is more than just a hapless passenger in this chain of events.
Brienne vs. the Hound
Of all the added pairings imaginable, the most enjoyable might be the short and sweetly glorious duel between Brienne of Tarth and Sandor Clegane of the Westerlands. In the show, the sequence serves as the moment where the Hound and Arya go their separate ways. But it comes wisely later in the narrative than its literary counterpart, because Benioff and Weiss realized Arya playing off a grizzled badass as her latest mentor is just too much fun.
Comparatively, much of Brienne of Tarth’s storyline in the fourth ASOIAF novel, A Feast for Crows, involves her going on a wild goose chase in search of both Arya Stark and Sansa Stark. As the reader has a godseye view, we know that Arya is in Braavos during all of this while Sansa is in the Eyrie. So the fruitlessness of Brienne wandering around green fields and the Fingers until a rather unsatisfying cliffhanger is the stuff of pure frustration. Game of Thrones skips all of that by having Brienne and Podrick competently track down Arya outside a place she might really run toward: the Vale and her nearby aunt.
Thus Brienne and the Hound do beautiful unholy combat in what might be the best sword fight in the series, at least this side of the Mountain and the Viper. It is also where the Hound suffers serious and grievous wounds. In A Storm of Swords, the Hound is badly injured during his swordfight in an inn with Gregor Clegane’s men (the sequence occurs earlier on Game of Thrones where the Hound is much more lightly hurt after seeing a whole lot of men die over some chickens). The show offers a red herring by suggesting that Sandor’s small wound will fester and become infected, rendering him immobile. This is what happens in the novel, and it is why Arya is able to choose to let him die on the side of the road as opposed to offering him the “gift” of mercy.
In Game of Thrones, it comes after Brienne gives the Hound the biggest ass-kicking of his life. This change does several things: It makes the Hound’s sudden brush with death feel less anti-climactic; it forces Arya to make the choice to abandon her latest protector/hostage-taker in the most dramatic and immediate context; and it proves Brienne to be both competent and a proven warrior of truly intimidating respect.
In short, it improved three characters’ storylines all at once.
Clipping A Meereenese Knot
When describing how he fell so behind on the fifth “A Song of Ice and Fire” novel, A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin explained he became trapped by a “Meereenese Knot.” By this he meant, the events in Meereen—where Daenerys was ruling since the end of A Storm of Swords and early season 4—had become so unwieldy that he couldn’t find his way out. And it appears that in the printed product, he and his editors still struggled to reach the finish line as there is a lot of excess and superfluous tangents that go nowhere.
Viewers who only know the TV series might think Meereen was a bit static on HBO, but if you understood what was removed from it, these complaints are but the cries of summer children who know nothing of winter. For example, Dornish Prince Quentyn Martell was a point-of-view character in this city for countless chapters before dying rather pointlessly; Tyrion spent most of his time outside the walls of Meereen as a slaver’s prize forced into the company of a fellow dwarf named Penny, whose entire presence seems derived from Martin enjoying an intoxicated Tyrion always losing his temper; and the various cast of courtiers in Meereen who likewise annoy Daenerys have yet to have any payoff, albeit the way in which Selmy Barristan handles them is a bit more satisfying on the page.
There is even the throwaway drama of Daenerys falling in love with Daario, as opposed to understanding him to be the side-piece that he is. Overall, it’s a lot of padding that can become downright infuriating when we could enjoy…
Tyrion Meeting Daenerys
In A Dance with Dragons, the closest Tyrion Lannister ever comes with meeting the Dragon Queen is during her fateful visit to Daznak’s Fighting Pit. In this sequence, Tyrion and Penny are nothing more than clownish entertainment between killings, forced to joust for the crowd’s amusement and Dany’s boredom. There’s also a chance they’ll be sacrificed to die in another spectacle, but Tyrion is saved when Dany escapes an assassin’s plot on Drogon’s back.
In Game of Thrones, Dany sees Tyrion in a different fighting pit before the big day, and he presents himself as Jorah Mormont’s gift to her. Thus the dramatic tension set-up for most of A Dance with Dragon’s thousand-plus pages—will Tyrion meet Daenerys, and will Jorah redeem himself—is paid off in the season drawing its inspiration from that novel. In season 5, Daenerys meets Tyrion and Jorah, and accepts the former as a potential ally while banishing the latter for a second time.
Consequently, the dramatic stakes promised have varying degrees of catharsis in season 5 before Daenerys’ storyline concludes in the same fashion it does in the book: Drogon whisking her away to grasslands roamed by the Dothraki. Before that moment, however, Tyrion and Daenerys have their first tête-à-tête, which is a monumental moment fans have waited years for in the books… and are still waiting on after the unsatisfying anti-climax that never ends in Meereen.
Margaery Being a Hell of a Game Player
The most tragic thing about the otherwise beautiful splendor of Cersei Lannister blowing up the Great Sept of Baelor is that it cost us Margaery Tyrell. A cunning game player and strategist, she was probably the cleverest woman in King’s Landing at the time, especially since her grandmother had retreated to the Reach. Smarter than Cersei and more pragmatic than the religious fanatics she was forced to partner with, her life was a series of good decisions ruined by the unwise ones pursued by the men in her life, from Renly to the High Sparrow.
This is fairly remarkable when one considers how much of a nonentity Margaery is in “A Song of Ice and Fire.” While somehow being even more of an Anne Boleyn avatar than the television Margaery portrayed by The Tudors’ Natalie Dormer, the literary Margaery is mostly an enigmatic 16-year-old girl who could very well be as much a pawn in her grandmother and Cersei’s games as an equal participant and instigator. This ambiguity is due to the fact that Margaery is not a point-of-view character, nor is she one Martin has much interest in past how she influences Cersei to make irrational choices.
Despite being young of age and having married three kings in the books (Renly, Joffrey, and Tommen), the Margaery on the page carries an air of good-natured manipulation, who Cersei’s overreaction toward is depicted primarily as paranoia.
Natalie Dormer’s Margaery by contrast is a fascinating addition to the political intrigue of King’s Landing. She deliberately is picking a fight with the queen mother and, at least as long as they’re playing by traditional rules, she continues to come out on top. She is able to manipulate Tommen against Cersei, and then is able to turn the High Sparrow trap that Cersei placed for her into an advantage over the Lannisters. Margaery is as ambitious as Cersei, but provides a contrast by introducing a social climber with some limits. She loves her brother Loras out of genuine affection, not creepy perversion, and she also is stronger than him. This is underscored when she tries to protect him from the Sparrows.
Margaery is also able to be a calming influence on Joffrey while he is alive and seems to at least sincerely want to protect Sansa from his depravities, as much out of a genuine kindness as it is a self-serving move to put a Tyrell in Winterfell. In other words, she really is the next generation of Lady Olenna and was a marvelous element in courtier intrigue, as opposed to the charming tool on the page.
Jon Goes to Hardhome
The most visually spectacular upgrade Game of Thrones ever game this saga was when Jon Snow went on a little boat ride Beyond the Wall. To be fair, the events of the “Hardhome” episode are implied to occur in “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Jon sends brothers of the Night’s Watch from Eastwatch-by-the-Sea to save wildlings from that port and receives cryptic ravens suggesting there was a slaughter after a devastating attack by the Others (White Walkers). Jon Snow wants to mount a rescue mission, but even before his death at the hand of mutineers, that plan was falling apart due to wishing to challenge Ramsay Bolton for Winterfell.
In short, Hardhome appears to be a loose thread whose fate is destined to be the result of epistolary accounts. So that Game of Thrones actually places Jon Snow at the event and gives viewers a firsthand perspective of what the Army of the Dead can do made for one of the grimmest and most spectacular moments in television history. Prior to “Hardhome,” the White Walkers were obviously a threat, but one as abstract to the narrative as how many people treat real-world climate change today. But all of a sudden, the levies broke and audiences were all-in after “Hardhome.” The hour had an unexpected air of the Apocalypse, right down to Four Horsemen of White Walkers watching from a cliff. It is the most nightmarish sequence involving zombies ever produced for a television show, and it absolutely floors audiences.
Without this scene, the ice vs. fire promise of Game of Thrones’ climax might not instill the urgency and dread in viewers that “Hardhome” provided.
Cersei and Robert Baratheon’s Marriage
A change on the subtler side of Game of Thrones’ earliest days was the beginning of one of the most important shifts in the adaptation. Cersei and Robert’s marriage is a toxic, ugly thing that held the Seven Kingdoms together through bitter resentment, but it is one also built on a deeper foundation in the show.
In “A Song of Ice and Fire,” Cersei Lannister is already very much the evil queen of fantasy tropes she is supposed to embody upon marrying Robert Baratheon. She had deduced she wanted to forever live in incest and decadence before she ever married Robert—it was Cersei’s idea for Jaime to become a Kingsguard back when she planned to marry Prince Rhaegar, and thus would have her brother always nearby. She likewise celebrated her marriage to Robert by having incest with Jaime the morning after her wedding.
This is not to say that Robert wasn’t a piece of work from the word “go” in ASOIAF, or that Cersei is a victim in Game of Thrones. Both versions are vain, selfish creatures who unreasonably despise their little brother Tyrion for being born. But Lena Headey’s Cersei was given early and telling edges when it was revealed that she wanted to make her marriage to Robert work. She looked forward to marrying the handsome hero of the Trident until he abused her on their wedding night (as he did in the book). She confides to Robert she tried to love him in its early days and resented the ghost of Lyanna Stark as a result; she also grieved her and Robert’s only true child, a stillborn. She cried over his body for days, and Robert’s inability to comfort her obviously shamed him.
These small shifts lead to one of the best scenes in the entire Game of Thrones run: Robert and Cersei evaluating their marriage in its final days during season 1. While Robert doesn’t know she is at this point far along in planning his murder-by-boar, there is a genuine kinship via their mutually assured loathing. The unspoken slights and cruelties have given way to a kind of connection borne from a disdain they both love.
It is also the sequence where Robert lays out what became the Game of Thrones endgame: Dothraki hordes from Essos will invade their land, and smallfolk will turn on an absentee king (or queen). Cersei’s fate is laid out, and their shared laughter and hidden tears remains a highlight in any medium.
Cersei Lannister, Period.
And building from the Robert/Cersei marriage is the slow evolution of turning Cersei into a much stronger character in the television series. On the page, Cersei is the accumulation of all her vices: she drinks too much wine; she is greedy and shortsighted in accumulating all power; and her vanity walks hand-in-hand with her lust. This results in an amusing irony, as by the end of A Feast for Crows, Cersei has become a mirror of her dead husband. She’s gained weight, has become a drunk, and her thinking is clouded after spending too much time in bed with her many paramours and mistresses, man and woman alike.
While it is intriguing to see how far Martin will take Cersei’s decline into debauchery, it builds up to a repellent villain and nothing more. Headey’s Cersei is every bit as cruel and vicious as literary Cersei, but she also is more calculating and has some sane reactions.
Whereas the written Cersei can sneer and take pleasure in Joffrey’s torturing of Sansa, including disrobing her in court while beating her, Headey’s Cersei is in depressed denial about Joff. She actually sees something of her younger self in Sansa (as opposed to the demon spawn Martin created from birth in Cersei), and forces herself to turn a blind eye to Joffrey’s “indulgences.” It goes farther than that, however. She is aware of Joffrey’s weaknesses. She confesses them to Tyrion in season 2 and worries if they’re paying for their family’s sins.
That price is Joffrey. Of course she loves her child too much to abandon him, and becomes fiercely defensive of him whenever there is even a whiff of danger, but she is aware that he is a monster. By contrast in the book, it’s heavily implied his madness and depravity comes not just from being born out of incest, but by being born to Cersei who shares most of his ugliness. She is also like Joffrey in her dismissiveness of Bran Stark’s crippling, as opposed to regretful of it, and sympathetic to Catelyn Stark. This difference can at times become jarring, such as in A Clash of Kings where Cersei orders the City Watch to slaughter all of Robert’s bastard children out of spite.
In Game of Thrones, Cersei is as mortified as Tyrion that her son ordered babies to be disemboweled in the streets. It sickens her, so her choice to not even reprimand or challenge her son’s “eccentricities” makes her complicity in his evil evermore insidious. It also adds dimensions to the evil queen, which has culminated in a Game of Thrones endgame where Cersei is as much a plausible player as Daenerys and Jon Snow. It is hard to imagine her literary counterpart has much of a leg left to stand on, but I suppose we’ll know for sure when The Winds of Winter is published.
So there are more than a few changes made by Benioff and Weiss that improved the television version of the story. Game of Thrones might lack the overall brilliance of “A Song of Ice and Fire,” but blanket statements about the TV show being a purely inferior copy are overstated. Mutton for thought the next time you hear purists deride the show as an absolute failure.