Game of Thrones: The Novels and The Show

A Game of Changes: A look at changes made from George R.R. Martins novels to create the Game of Thrones we all know and love.

Game of Thrones is one of the hottest shows on television at the moment. Equal parts fantasy, historical fiction and soft-core smut, the massive epic is a wonder to behold. As more and more viewers throw themselves into the scourged wilds of Westeros each year, an increasing number are consumed by the complex, layered and rewarding literary leviathan known as A Song of Ice and Fire. Written by George R.R. Martin, these time vampires rarely run under a thousand pages and cost at least a week of sleepless nights a pop. But O, the gruesomely barbaric high fantasy joys that lay within!

Due to their intimidating stature, some dare not enter their pages. It also is likely a turn off that book readers tend to nitpick the show to death for every single spec of minutia changed, including the brand of Dornish wine Tyrion drinks when he sends Ser Janos Slynt off to the Wall (I kid you not!). However, for both readers and viewers alike, it is fun to separate them just to see how they differ. It is a marriage of literary breadth and compulsive television viewing. Poetry and practicality. Experience and innocence (Lord Baelish’s favorite). 

Thus, we at Den of Geek have decided to survey a number of the differences in anticipation of Sunday’s Game of Thrones’ Season 3 premiere. There will be no spoilers from the later books little doves, as a man will pull only from Martin’s first two novels, A Game of Thrones/AGOT (Season 1) and A Clash of Kings/ACOK (Season 2). But it is time to move because it is only a few days to the premiere and winter is coming.

A Change of Cloth

One of the biggest and most readily accepted changes is character appearance. Quite frankly, casting by written description is as mad as every other Targaryen king. Hence, there are many characters adapted from the novels to the HBO series who look extremely different, right down to their ages. Most glaringly, almost every character in the series has been aged up. This is particularly noticeable with the major children of Westeros.

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In many ways the Stark children are the real heroes of A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones. Every reader and viewer has their favorites (or least favorite), but they all must persevere and survive the incredibly bone headed decisions of their parents. These Von Trapps of the North have a pluck that most instantly graft onto. But they are a very different looking brood in the books. 

Firstly, each is to take after the look of a certain parent. Well, actually they all resemble the auburn Southern beauty of Momma Catelyn Stark, especially Robb and Sansa. The only two who take after Lord Eddard are Jon the bastard and Arya the awesome. Jon wears his father’s long dark locks well and Arya is the spitting image of boyish Ned. Literally, she is often mistaken for a boy even before Yoren cuts off her hair.

read more: Game of Thrones Season 8 – Everything We Know

But the most noticeable change is their ages. Robb Stark, King in the North, is played by the strapping 26-year-old Richard Madden on the show. Though it is hard enough to buy he is 18-years-old in the show’s first season, he looks far different from the handsome boy with flowing red locks of only 14 in AGOT and 15 in ACOK. Jon Snow, bastard of Winterfell, is also only old enough to pick up a steering permit for his horse in the books. Sansa is only 11 when the story begins (making her Judy Blume moment in Season 2 far more believable), Arya is 8, Bran turns 6 over the course of AGOT and little Rickon is only 3. Considering almost all of them are either supposed to be teenagers or are clearly played by them in the series, the differences are…stark (sue me).

Lest you think the aging up for talent is odd, it goes beyond the cold winds of Winterfell. While Viserys Targaryen is indeed about 20-something as played with the perfect blend of smug entitlement and narcissism by Harry Lloyd, his baby sister Daenerys does not quite look like Emilia Clarke. It should not be that surprising considering she is only 13 when her brother fondles her breasts and sells her to Khal Drogo. Showrunners wisely decided that incestuous undertones and potential rape are fine, but perhaps with someone who can at least pass for a 19-year-old. To HBO’s credit, they did give Clarke and Lloyd the iconic violet eyes Martin describes in great detail in the books. However, the contacts used to allow the actors Liz Taylor eyes became a burden that blinded them from their key work.

Perhaps the biggest change in child appearance is Westeros’ fair king, Joffrey Baratheon. Only 12-years-old when he becomes a bloodthirsty tyrant, Joffrey is actually quite tall and heroic looking. By casting the young and fantastic Jack Gleeson, the show openly chose to ignore one of Martin’s biggest parallels in the book: Joffrey and Robb. Even before one’s uncle-daddy pushes the other’s brother out a window, the two of similar height and build did not like each other. As they both become kings by the end of AGOT, they seem destined to do battle with the shadowy reflection the other casts. However, Gleeson and Madden do not cast any similarity whatsoever.

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Casting older for children is one thing, but series creators David Benioff and DB Weiss did this for nearly all involved. The regal and fatherly/motherly charms of Sean Bean and Michelle Fairley cannot be understated in the show. They bring true poise and warmth to the Lord and Lady of Winterfell. At 52 and 47 respectively when the pilot aired, Bean and Fairley are not quite the youthful beauties Martin describes in the books. When AGOT begins, Ned and Cat are respectively 33 and 32, with the latter frequently being flattered for her youthful beauty. But we will have more on that later.


Indeed, if one goes through the entire cast, it would be more an aged up focus on talent and perhaps believability in looks. The three I still want to mention specifically though are the grown children of Tywin Lannister. Only 30 when their story begins, Cersei and Jaime Lannister are identical twins of unmatched beauty. When they were children, their parents could not tell them apart when they changed clothes. As Tyrion thought to himself in ACOK, the reason they became incestuous lovers may only have been so they could fuck their own reflections. In contrast, Tyrion is the only adult character where the show creators played up his looks. Described repeatedly in the novels as a demon monkey due to his stubby legs and mismatched eyes (one is green and the other is black), Tyrion Lannister bares little in common with the charming demeanor of Peter Dinklage. This will be even further highlighted in Season 3, as Dinklage will sport a fashionable facial scar from the climactic Blackwater Battle of Season 2. Pretty nifty trick for the Casterly Rock Imp, considering in the book he lost ¾ of his nose. But when Dinklage becomes the face of your show, why would you want to change that? 

Ultimately, there is not a single character whose age or appearance is not greatly changed from the books in the series. These cosmetic differences display more of an interest in fidelity to story than description, but perhaps it also just means that for HBO, this game is 13 and up.

A Change of Sex (Gender, you dirty-minded Imp!)

Something far more interesting than facial body art is how the writers have attempted to soften, reimagine and deepen the roles of women in this saga. I am by no means saying Martin does not have a slew of strong female characters or does not care for the fairer sex. He does. However, it seems every other woman in Westeros is young and fetching, slightly older and fetching or doomed by a horse face. They also tend to give off an air of innocence or Machiavellian levels of manipulation. HBO’s show has chosen to change a number of female characters’ stories in subtle or profound ways over the first two seasons.

One primary example is the rehabilitation of Catelyn Stark’s image. In the books, Cat is not exactly the most endearing of familial matriarchs. The show briefly touches on Cat’s hatred for Jon Snow, such as when she tells him to leave a comatose Bran’s bedside. However, that is downright motherly compared to the same scene in AGOT when she tells Jon that she wishes it was he who fell from the tower instead of Bran. Beyond that transgression which has still gone unforgiven by some fans, Cat is often seen playing at war in the novels. Some fans hold this against the character, yet I would counter that it is done intentionally to subvert reader expectation. 

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In a traditional fantasy novel, a boy king on a quest to avenge his father at the ripe age of 15 is your heroic lead. However, there is not a single chapter in the five published A Song of Ice and Fire books written from Robb’s perspective. Rather, Martin chooses to subvert the teenage hero’s perspective from that of a worrying mother. Plus, she tends to give Robb as much good advice as bad that he ignores (cough-don’t trust Theon-cough). The show takes it further by having Robb order her to stay in his encampment and entreat a potential peace with Renly Baratheon in Season 2. Likewise, it is not her dreams of honor and glory that send Ned to King’s Landing despite his fatherly concerns, but his own sense of duty.

In the show she pleads with Ned to stay in Winterfell, particularly after the raven from her sister and Bran’s fall. In the novels, she is ready to marry Sansa off to the whole pack of Lannisters if it means more nobility for Ned. And when she chooses to arrest Tyrion in the book, she more or less starts the entire war single-handedly. By passing some of the blame to Robb and Ned, as well as to her, Benioff and Weiss seem determined to salvage Cat’s reputation. 

Also given a bit of a makeover amongst the Starks is Sansa. Poor girl, the perpetually abused victim of Season 2, is one of the more sympathetic and age-appropriate characters in the series. Yet, even though older Robb and Jon have made (and will continue to make) grievous errors in judgment, Sansa too remains despised by a number of male readers for one major cardinal sin. When she learns in the first book that her father plans to take her away from her then-beloved Joffrey, Sansa runs to tell Queen Cersei of Ned’s plans. To this day, for that reason, there are readers who disturbingly enjoy Joffrey’s abusive cruelties inflicted upon a 13-year-old girl who made a bad decision. Seven Hells. Thus, it may be for the best that HBO removed this betrayal. I mean it is not hard to guess how Cersei or Jaime could find out about Tyrion’s capture without Sansa’s help.

Speaking of Cersei, there is no denying that she is one of the most deplorable characters in Martin’s series. Vain, arrogant and ignorant, she is a dangerous brew of stupidity. Yet, her best scenes in the show are the ones that at least suggest some humanity underneath. It is revealed early on in Season 1 that she had a baby with Robert who died in childbirth. It is the one redeeming quality that allows her to sympathize with Cat after her brother/lover tossed the Stark mother’s son out a window. It also gives Cersei her best scene in the series when she uses that loss for a drink of anguished reminiscing with Robert. It is a powerful backstory that is wholly invented by the show’s writers to give Cersei depth.

It is likewise elaborated on in Season 2 when even the Queen Mother is appalled by Joffrey’s crimes. That is something when it was Cersei, not Joffrey, who ordered the slaying of all of Robert’s bastards in King’s Landing in ACOK. Cersei is still an evil woman who has no concept of grace or subtlety on the show. This is even best displayed in a TV-only scene where she threatens Littlefinger in Season 2 (it’s made all the richer as it is Littlefinger’s machinations that saves Cersei’s bacon eight episodes later on the Blackwater). However, it is nice to know there was once a caring person who tried to make it work with Robert 18 years ago in the series. That is more than one can say about the harpy Cersei of the books.

Then there are characters who are more fully developed in the show because in the novels, they do not exist. As Robb is never a POV character in Martin’s books, we know little of the girl he gave up an oath to Walder Frey for. Indeed, readers did not even know he married Jeyne Westerling until the third book, A Storm of Swords/ASOS (the basis for Seasons 3 and 4).

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read more: Game of Thrones Season 8 – Predictions and Theories

Jeyne, Queen in the North, is a simple beauty who comforted Robb after he took her father’s castle in the West. Upset that his brothers were apparently murdered by Theon Greyjoy (a fact left unbeknownst by him in the show), he seeks comfort in a comely daughter of the South. This is sweetly different from his romcom romance with Talisa of Volantis in Season 2. A dark beauty from another continent, Talisa plays hard to get when she disrespects Robb’s crown. Faster than you can say opposites attract, the independent anti-war activist and the entrenched king are making love on the cold ground and wed the next day. A totally different character who gives a perspective other than innocence and awe for her King? Thank the Father for that.

Another lover given a total rewrite is Tyrion’s purchased company, Shae. Not much is known about Shae in Martin’s text other than she claims to love her mighty Lannister lion and nose or not, she will continue to love him. However, Shae has her very own mysterious backstory on TV that the writers are still unraveling. It is also nice to see she can define herself beyond begging for Tyrion’s attention. Where will this go? No book reader can be entirely certain.

Also, I do not know if this counts as a rewrite of Dany’s character or not, but it is nice to see that being sold to marry a barbarian like Khal Drogo is not immediately a bed of roses. In the book, Drogo’s masculine, goodtime loving wins the Targaryen princess over instantly. In the show’s contrast, it turns out she was in for a bit of a rape. Eventually, Drogo and Dany’s love becomes every bit as sentimental and oddly sweet on the show as it is in the book, but it is earned when Dany proves herself Drogo’s equal both in the bedroom and in the torture chamber when she watches Viserys burn. In the books, 13-year-old Dany’s quick swooning for a grown man still seems a little too Polanski for this writer.


A Change of Closets and Implications

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One of the most brilliant aspects of Martin’s writing is how he assumes dozens of different POVs throughout the texts. One can find a chapter as uniquely Cersei as they can find another that captures Arya’s voice. However, this intentionally restricts the reader’s knowledge of the non-POV characters. Many of the non-readable characters are left to be characterized from the passing thoughts of POV heroes and the rumors from the locals that they meet. Benioff and Weiss have none of that crap. With only 10 episodes a season and thousands of pages to adapt, it’s all about showing and not telling.

The least controversial example of this is Renly Baratheon. Any reader with an ounce of Gay radar can tell that the monarch with a Rainbow King’s Guard is about as straight as a circle. However, it is never explicitly said that Renly is Gay. He just likes to spend long walks with Loras Tyrell, the Knight of Flowers, who goes apeshit when Renly dies. There is also the raised eyebrow every character has about his sweet wife, angelic Margaery Tyrell. Married for two weeks and still considered a virgin by Cat when she first comes upon Renly’s encampment in ACOK, it is all there for those who read between the lines. Yet, some readers were still surprised, but accepting, when there is a scene of Loras shaving and pleasuring Renly in Season 1.

A more questionable change is of Margaery herself. Sixteen in the book and played by the stunning Natalie Dormer of age 30, she too has experienced a change in appearance. However, an even bigger change is how Margaery is presented. Throughout all the published books, Margaery is only hinted to be rather cunning and devious. The real sneaky political jockeying by the Tyrells is performed by her grandmother Olenna, the Queen of Thrones (coming in Season 3). Still, the way she handles Cersei in later books and so easily transitions from Renly to Joffrey, even in ACOK, hints at a political player who may be just too savvy for the Lannisters whose eyes often judge her for readers.

Then there are Stannis and Melisandre. This “couple” has a relationship entirely open to interpretation. Having read throughout ACOK and later ASOS about how Stannis would seem quite drained from his “sessions” with Melisandre, I always considered their relationship more than just spiritual. After all, Melisandre’s Renly-smiting smoke baby did not just conceive itself (especially when it looks like Stannis). Let’s just say some readers love moral and severe Stannis so much that the thought of him breaking his marriage vows for a taste of fire from a priestess half his age does not raise their temperatures. However, a man who is willing to murder his own brother is not exactly the purest of saints in my book. This one is open to interpretation.

A Change of Limitations

One of the most obvious compromises that come with adaptation, particularly for television, is scope. While Game of Thrones is the most cinematically wondrous show on TV, it still is not going to make an Iron Throne that is 12-feet high and more an experiment in the Japanese Gutai art style than a chair. And with only 10 episodes a season, that goes for plotting too.

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The biggest example of this is the Battle for the Blackwater. The ninth episode of Season 2 is one of the most impressive achievements on television, but the battle is clearly scaled down, from the word “go.” In the novel, the apocalyptic event takes place during a late afternoon drifting into evening. When Tyrion sets the river on fire, it is bloody beautiful in the way that twilight glow captures green flames immolating men. Just beautiful. However the show, dealing with CGI necessities, shoots the scene in the black of night. For that same reason, Tyrion’s pigshit gamble is one orgasmic explosion of green energy that would make Michael Bay a very happy man. However, the show quickens the carnage compared to a much more agonizing slow burn in the book. Tyrion, ever the tricky genius, builds a massive chain for a reason that nobody but he and Bronn know the whole book. When the fire not so much explodes as turns the water into flaming death, Stannis’s fleet wisely attempts escape. But once Bronn’s chain goes up, making it impossible for the piling up ships to leave the bay, they’re all toast.

Beyond that awful stunt, Joffrey spends the early part of the battle executing dissidents by having their bodies heaved over the wall via catapult onto Stannis’ forces. With barely a budget for a battering ram, it is safe to say catapults were out. Tyrion’s charge is also not from the sewers, but another gate. He does not crawl into battle; he leads a daring cavalry charge with his hair whipping in the wind battle-axe in hand. Tyrion has an easy time slicing men who finally look up to him. Even his facial wound comes in a sword fight on one of Stannis’s burning ships. It is all epic. So epic, that no TV budget could afford it.

Other similar budgetary changes on smaller scales can be as simple as the fact that almost nobody uses a horse. The Night’s Watch who leave in force for beyond the Wall in Season 2? They’re on horseback. Ned’s injured leg while fighting Jaime? Got it on horseback. Even Arya, Gendry and Hot Pie’s escape from Harrenhal is on horseback.

Speaking of Arya, she may star in half of Season 2’s best scenes (the others belong to the half-man himself), but her story suffers from time constraints. In the book, Yoren dies during a full-fledged battle when the would-be boys of the Night’s Watch defend an abandoned keep from Lannister men. This leads to Arya and company going on an adventure of sorts through the war torn Riverlands. Once she is finally captured, her scheming in Harrenhal with Jaqen H’ghar is far more elaborate. This includes an amazing escape sequence where she has Jaqen help her free captured Northerners in Harrenhal by throwing scalding pea soup in the guard’s face. Yet, if it were not for all these time constraints, the show would not have entirely invented scenes between Arya and Tywin Lannister. Clearly fan favorites, the scenes prove economical time restraints do not always have to be burdens….

Even though they sometimes are. Let’s talk about Jon Snow for a minute. For all you non-readers out there, trust me when I say we have not even scratched the surface of his best moments yet. Still, you have to also believe me that his scenes in ACOK were actually interesting and well developed. When Jon fails to kill Ygritte, she simply gets away as Night’s Watch Ranger vet Qhorin Halfhand intended. It was a test of Jon’s compassion. While watching Ygritte seduce Jon a bit earlier on the boob tube is hilarious stuff, in the novel he is not a total inept screw-up who gets all his brothers in black killed. In the book, it is actually a series of events that build a mounting dread of doom as the four rangers are chased across narrow mountain passes far, far to the North. They are picked off one by one and die horrible deaths that give Jon and Qhorin enough time to hatch a Hail Mary play of Jon killing Qhorin for the Lord of Bones’ trust. I promise there is some interesting story there besides Ygritte stealing her scenes a season early. You will just have to take my word for it.

Ultimately, the show is full of small compromises like these that rarely impact the overall quality. It is just the nature of the beast. These are the kind of changes, big and small, that could fill an entire book. They likely have, on message boards across the Internet. But, if one obsesses over these necessary rewrites and realignments every episode, it will drive them reeking mad. Then again…you could prove me wrong in the comments section below.

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A Change of Sex (Yes, NOW THAT one) and Other Perversities

Still, at the end of the day, there are changes that even a medium pragmatist like myself must shake his head at. To even discuss the sexual content of the show is to open a deep can of worms. Thus, let’s use just the tip.

Sex is a part of life. One of the great strengths of Martin’s writings and the show is that all the oddities of human nature are embraced. While there are a few truly pure hearted people in this world, if only briefly and a few more pure evil scumbags, it is the various shades of gray that make A Song of Ice and Fire so much more rewarding than other fantasy stories, be they in Hogwarts or Narnia. Even explicitly showing invented scenes that build characters, such as Margaery’s failed attempt to seduce husband Renly or Stannis putting the shadow baby in Melisandre, makes perfectly justifiable sense. So why is Ros on this show? Ros, a red headed prostitute invented by the show’s writers, exists solely to put T&A on the screen. Whether it is her repeatedly frolicking with Theon and Tyrion in the North or being schooled in lesbianism by Littlefinger in the South…or in BDSM by Joffrey in his bedroom…or in history by Pycelle when he takes a dump…I GIVE UP. She is there to be naked or convince other characters to be naked when Littlefinger wipes white substance from their mouths. It is not only gratuitous; it’s boring and kills the pacing of the show every time they waste 5-10 minutes on scenes that are usually more mean-spirited than sexy.

Director Neal Marshall of the brilliant Blackwater episode in Season 2 even spilled the beans on how it works when he told of an HBO executive coming over and ordering him to put full frontal nudity in a scene that did not require it, simply to satisfy the “pervs” in the audience. Sigh.

With that out of the way, I will mention the single, arbitrary change that felt awkward and out of character for me. A perversity far greater than anything Joffrey could do with Ros. In short, here is my one fanboy nitpick.  I know, I know, despite just saying that readers must resist the nitpick.

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Why did Jaime kill his cousin in Season 2? Late in the season, Jaime bonds over past glories with a distant relation and fellow prisoner named Ser Alton. At the end of the scene, Jaime murders his kin, with a smile, in a weak attempt to escape the Starks’ camp. Ser Alton is an original TV character, but he plays a similar role as a Lannister cousin from ACOK and ASOS. In the books, this side character goes with Brienne and Jaime to King’s Landing and dies during…an unfortunate event. I have no problem with killing off this minor character a season early, however Jaime murdering his family is drastically out of character. For the non-readers, there is more to him than pushing little boys out of windows. Yes, he is the Kingslayer, but have you been paying attention to what that king did? Jaime is a bratty, vain elitist who upon occasion bangs his sister, but he has limits, dammit! In many ways, he is as damned by his Lannister name as his brother Tyrion and will do everything in his power to protect those who share in it. Even ones he finds repugnant (no spoilers on who that is). This was so out of character that it may hinder major developments for the Kingslayer in later seasons.


What Did We Miss?

Looking back, adaptations are a tricky business. They mean a litany of changes big and small to bring a literary work from one medium to another. It is fun to note the differences, but sometimes it is best to judge the works separately.

Still, there is something that I did not talk about that just grinds your gears, isn’t there? Perhaps, it is the convoluted mess they made in Qarth and the theft of those darn dragons? Maybe you just did not like that Doreah betrayed Dany? Or why are there no Reed siblings accompanying Bran and Hodor on their adventures? Why is Renly made to look more reasonable and likable than Stannis? Didn’t something just reek about the absence of a certain bastard in Theon’s story last year?

Sound off in the comments below about everything I left out or how wrong I am for thinking Stannis and Melisandre did the nasty. And remember to come back here after the Season 3 premiere to hear Den of Geek’s thoughts on a game bloody well played!

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