This article contains major, major spoilers from the Game of Thrones Season 4 finale and a minor spoiler from the books Season 5 will be based on.
Sweet Seven above, Game of Thrones Season 4 was spectacular. In a mere 10 episodes, we witnessed the euphoric death of Joffrey Baratheon (leaving HBO subscribers from coast to cast in a perpetual state of ecstasy), the rise of Sansa Stark the game of thrones player, the Battle for the Wall, and of course Tyrion. The smallest Lion of Lannister made the entire season with the loudest roar, which is a testament to Peter Dinklage since he spent most of it in shackles and hidden away in a dungeon. From his earnest rage for the sycophants of King’s Landing during his trial to his brief camaraderie with the Red Viper to finally his prodigal son return for dear old dad, the season of the Imp was great indeed.
In the end, this might be the best season Game of Thrones has yet enjoyed. I certainly thought so.
However, for book fans, there is a Wall on the horizon that HBO is running headlong into, and it is taller than anything Bran the Builder could ever hope to construct: the requirements that come with adapting, simultaneously, the fourth and fifth volumes in George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire.” And unlike the previous three books in the series that have served for most of the basis of Game of Thrones up to this point, A Feast For Crows and A Dance with Dragons do not necessarily lend themselves to becoming “appointment TV.” Yet since Game of Thrones is now HBO’s most popular show, therein lies a major problem facing the series, creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and every breathless fan impatient for what comes next.
Up until now, despite the purists’ greatest complaints (and one scene that will live in infamy), Game of Thrones has been a very straightforward adaptation of the first three novels in the book series: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords. Each of the first two seasons were adapted from the first two volumes in the series while A Storm of Swords served as the basis for Seasons 3 and 4. The splitting in two of A Storm of Swords was a savvy move on the part of Benioff and Weiss, because Swords is by far the strongest book in the series, and indeed made for the best two seasons of the show. Having already cut out many great sequences from the earlier books—such as Arya, Gendry, Hot Pie, and Lommy’s medieval transcendentalist journey through the Riverlands—there was no way they could afford to lose so many great moments from the third book, which essentially was like watching a long, meticulous line of dominos collapse right on top of itself.
That is why Season 3 finally saw Daenerys rise to real power in the most fan-service moment in the series to date—a glorious feat to savor when Martin’s pen is in control—with the freeing of the slaves beneath a freshly toasted Kranzys mo Nakloz. It is also why we saw the domestication of Jaime Lannister and the most horrifying moment in television history, the Red Wedding. Thus all the pieces were in place for Season 4, an adaptation of about the last third or so of A Storm of Swords and a collapse of many moving pieces, including six major character deaths in the last four episodes.
But now that the bodies have hit the floor, they have left an awful mess in their wake, one that shockingly took George R.R. Martin 11 years to clean up. Conversely, HBO will probably have one.
Unlike previous books in the series, George R.R. Martin unexpectedly spent over a decade and 2,000-plus published pages moving his chess pieces from one side of the board to other. The results have been mixed when you talk amongst the fans, but for myself, I found both volumes to be intermittingly entertaining and interesting, but wholly frustrating in their disappointment to move the story along. Worse still, they are not two separate stories, but more or less the exact same timeline of events set in different geographical locations with different characters (i.e. Arya and Brienne may be in one book, but Tyrion and Daenerys might not be). The book series is surely Martin’s masterpiece, but that does not mean it couldn’t have used a trim on many, many excesses that needlessly turned it into a two volume travelogue of all the not-so-scenic areas in the Riverlands, the North, and of course, Essos.
The HBO series Game of Thrones will not have the indulgence luxury to drop half the storylines for a season and focus only on Brienne aimlessly walking around the small villages or Cersei downing twenty-three glasses of wine a day while ranting about Tyrion with little to nothing happening until the final episode or two. Nor should they.
I fear that we have reached the point where book readers must be braced for actual substantial changes more reminiscent of how HBO has adapted volumes of True Blood’s Charlaine Harris source material than the fiddling in the margins Game of Thrones has enjoyed: They should combine both books into one season.
I am well aware that in doing this, Game of Thrones would all but be guaranteed to catch up with George R.R. Martin’s text by the end of Season 5—meaning that if the eternally forthcoming The Winds of Winter is not published in 2015, then the TV series will overtake the author in 2016 with Season 6. I am fine with this, because it is has already started.
Many events occurred in Season 4 that spectacularly utilized the best portion of Martin’s best book, however there was a lot table setting as well this year, and most of it came from the earliest chapters in A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. Daenerys discovering that her dragon ate a small child, leading to their being locked up? From A Dance with Dragons. Reek pretending he is “Theon Greyjoy” to take Moat Cailin and Ramsay becoming a full-fledged Bolton? Also from the beginning of A Dance with Dragons’ best supblot. And pretty much everything Brienne did after leaving King’s Landing is straight out of A Feast for Crows. Except that it’s not.
In A Feast for Crows, Brienne never gets as close to Arya as she did Sunday night. Nor does Podrick have the smart ability to sense that the Lannister-hating Lysa Arryn would be a good place for a Stark girl to hide as he quickly deduces in Season 4 of the TV show. Instead, Brienne wanders around the Riverlands and eastern coasts and gets to kill Rorge (Arya’s joyful murder in the show) before resuming wandering. On Game of Thrones, we swiftly enter Brienne’s Feast story, and its earliest chapters are given a much needed shot of adrenaline when Benioff and Weiss allow her to be the one who defeats the Hound instead of a simple wound. Likewise, she reaches Arya and proves that she is capable to a point of the task Jaime gave her instead of spending hundreds of pages not doing much. Her storyline is still set for her more interesting narrative responsibilities from A Feast for Crows (which I’m not going to spoil here), but the lead-up to that was not only made much more dynamic on the TV show, it came incredibly early and fast.
As with the show already being deep within Reek’s story with the Boltons, or Bran Stark having already reached the three-eyed raven and the Children of the Forest, Game of Thrones is now achieving major steps into the meat of the next two books with the groundwork already laid out. So, just as Tyrion’s story gears up for new directions as influenced by A Dance with Dragons, Benioff and Weiss will not be encumbered with adapting weeks of filler in other parts of the story as well. The result will be a stronger, more streamlined show that can and should be able to conceivably hit the major plot points from Dance and Feast by this time next year when Season 5 closes. Trust me, with all the walking through woods and sailing down rivers these characters do while internally brooding, it won’t be that hard.
Unfortunately, this all leads back to that other problem for Season 5. It will catch up with George R.R. Martin’s book series unless The Winds of Winter is published in 2015. Personally, I think this is why George R.R. Martin has made so many headlines about wondering aloud if there will be Game of Thrones movies, because the books are getting longer. Aye, George, the books are getting longer. But they probably shouldn’t have been, especially when much of the text is about characters observing what appetizers are being served with their meal.
HBO, Benioff, and Weiss know this too, since not only did they shoot down the film idea, but they have reiterated that the show will probably be done in seven seasons, with the off-shoot possibility of an eighth. The series will catch up with Martin’s mercurial writing style sooner or later. I too wish the books would end first, but with pricy actor contracts to renew at the end of seven or eight years (depending on the deals that HBO signed) and the largest cast in TV history all proving integral, it will go no longer than necessary. And in the best case scenario, Martin’s possible 2015 Winds only means that the writers will pass the source material in either Season 7 or 8 instead of Season 6.
For better or worse, it is a foregone conclusion that this will happen. Some changes, like the above Brienne storyline, makes this seem like a boon for the show. Yet, when I consider Season 4’s weakest moments—Yara’s “rescue” of Theon, Jon Snow killing deserters beyond the Wall, and that scene—I also realize that they were construed entirely for the show with mediocre results. Nevertheless, the writers will inevitably be on their own in the very near future with only Martin’s “detailed outlines” to guide them. Better to make Season 5 as good as it can possibly be than to drag out the already excessively stretched story threads from A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons.
So, yes, Game of Thrones is facing a major problem or two with Season 5. However, it seems the answer may already have been given in Sunday’s Season 4 finale.