The best time of the year is approaching – what is Christmas? What is Halloween? The best time of the year is when people all over the world grab their popcorn, their beverages, turn out the lights and sit down in front of the television at 9 PM EST as the HBO screen flickers and the Game of Thrones title soundtrack rumbles from the speakers as a new season begins. Game of Thrones has become a global sensation – it repeatedly breaks its own viewership records in the United States, and it is the most pirated show globally as countries that have viewership restrictions scramble to third-party streaming sites and the dredges of the deep web to find pirating links for the show.
And to think it all started with one man. One good-natured, short man with the beard of Santa Claus sitting behind an outdated computer, typing away on an outdated program, creating from nothing but his infinite creativity and imagination what has now become legendary. Like everything good in the world, Game of Thrones started with a book. And yet, the books have taken a backseat to the infamous show. Why sit through five humongous tomes in a series that puts out a new book at an average speed of once every five years? Why spend two weeks reading one installment when you can binge-watch all the seasons in a couple of weeks? Come on, you say, the show is pretty darn great in and of itself, so why should I read the books? It’s not worth the time and commitment.
Oh, but it is! A Song of Ice & Fire is, as the name asserts, a song. The lyricism of George R. R. Martin’s words is unparalleled, and no TV show, even if it is as fantastic as Game of Thrones, can match the genius of Martin’s words – there’s more to consume, more time to sit and absorb it all, and more to the world-building that you had ever thought possible. Because I was one of those people who didn’t want to read the books because the TV show existed, I have first-hand experience with why the books are formidable to so many. And as someone who had seen two seasons of the show prior to starting the series, I’m here to tell you that the books are worth it, and having seen the show first takes away nothing from them.
So without further ado, here are three reasons why A Song of Ice & Fire is worth it.
1. The show leaves out pivotal plot points and world-building elements to make way for gratuitous content.
This is understandable for many reasons. The show is limited to 10 hours per season, give or take an hour, but there is a tremendous amount of story to be told in very little time. The first and second seasons do a brilliant job of respecting the source material; they’re basically identical to the books in terms of major character arcs. The third book, however, is jam-packed with excitement. So much happens in A Storm of Swords that the showrunners had to divide it into two separate seasons… and the fourth and fifth books were mushed into one season, which is why Season 5 was many people’s least favorite.
The world that George R. R. Martin constructed was always meant to be complex, and this complexity simply could not be achieved on-screen. Each chapter is bursting with fantastical history – from fables to songs to legends and myths. From unhinged rulers dethroned by rebels to a war that wiped out dragons. Religions, magic, customs, languages and cultures. Peoples with their distinctive dress and values, different governing and political systems within the world, food, weaponry… there is so much and the sky is the limit, and the show only portrays a tiny fraction of this content.
For one (and this is something I’m still bitter about), the books explore Dorne properly; the Sand Snakes in their infinite bad-assery are given full arcs. They serve purpose, while the show left their stories hanging. From complicated personalities with rich histories, their feminist existence in a patriarchal structure was reduced to three aggressive women who have cringe-worthy dialogue being bossed around, while none of their talent in the battlefield or their political strategizing is showcased. The Iron Islands were given proper exposure; you fully understand their system of governance and the way the Iron-born go about doing things. Again, these peoples were largely reduced to dull old men who do little past babbling about the sea.
And, of course, the most unforgivable thing the show could have done was entirely eradicate Lady Stoneheart’s storyline. From here on until I say so, there will be spoilers, so be careful. Lady Stoneheart is the undead reincarnation of Catelyn Stark – zombified and terrifying with rotten skin and a scar marking where her throat was slit, Lady Stark is undead and has come back with a vengeance. She’s like the specter of death in the Riverlands, killing Freys left and right – killing anyone who has done her, or her family, wrong. Her plotline is so fascinating, and it opens up the magic system and the world to infinite potential, yet it was removed totally from the show. /end spoilers.
Now, I acknowledged that the show can’t possibly include all the complexities of the series, but do we really need hours of screen-time for gratuitous sex? The scene with Jaime Lannister and Cersei Lannister in the crypt (without giving anything away) was unnecessary. Putting Sansa through that one scene that caused outrage was unnecessary. Having multiple sex scenes in an episode is unnecessary, and though they couldn’t have included all these plotlines, they could have done the ones that they had included (and butchered) more justice, like Dorne, for example.
2. Martin doesn’t believe in dichotomies, and it’s much more difficult to root for any single character in the books, a case study in Tyrion Lannister.
George R. R. Martin once said that though he draws inspiration from J. R. R. Tolkien’s work, there is a flaw in the idea that good and evil are such definitive concepts. All the good-looking people are the good guys, while all the unattractive archetypes are the evil ones. The elves with smooth skin and pretty features are the ones you root for, while orcs with their bulbous, discolored skin, razor-sharp teeth and dirt-speckled faces are clearly the bad guys. While the show clearly honors this non-dichotomous concept, what it fails to do is present the moral complexities of these characters within themselves.
Perhaps the best example that comes to mind here is Tyrion Lannister, who might be one of my favorite characters of all-time, simply because he’s brilliantly constructed. For show-watchers exclusively, this makes sense – he’s my favorite from the show too, but Peter Dinklage’s acting chops have more to do with that than the character himself. Tyrion Lannister in the show is a saint – it’s clear that you’re meant to be rooting for him. He’s the underdog in a family full of rotten people. He’s the good person who is fair even to those who are meant to be his family’s enemies. He’s just, he’s smart, and he’s immediately likable.
But, oh boy, the Tyrion Lannister in the books is… someone different. He’s intelligent, sharp-witted and hilarious, much like he is on the show. He’s a lot like show!Tyrion in the first two books, but somewhere along the way, something happens and he becomes shrewd and twisted. His inner turmoil begins to squash out his good side and manifests into something horrible, and villain-like. He thinks vile thoughts, and he is very far from the saint Tyrion- but in a good way. He’s still my favorite character – not because I like him as a person, but because he’s so complicated and nuanced. It’s tremendously difficult to root for someone like that- someone who’s an anti-villain at this point, not even an anti-hero, but for some reason, you still want him to redeem himself. Because he was an underdog, and we hate good underdogs losing their way… but at this point, we don’t know what’s going to happen. And the uncertainty of human nature, the uncertainty of Martin’s characters is what makes his impossible fantasy series more realistic than the show.
3. Speaking of characters: what the hell did the show do to Jaime Lannister’s story arc?!
Perhaps it’s because the show simply doesn’t give you the amount of introspection and character development that a book can, but Jaime Lannister as he exists in the books as of now, and as he exists on the show, are completely different people. This isn’t about moral complexities like in the case of Tyrion, and it’s definitely not about one-dimensional characters because Jaime (even in the show) is far from that. It’s about his actual storyline with regards to Cersei. In the books, Jaime becomes aware of his relationship with Cersei and how manipulative she is. He makes an effort to, and succeeds in distancing himself from her fully. He undergoes a tremendous amount of development in more ways than one after he loses his hand. Jaime Lannister, in the books, has the best redemption arc I have ever read. Ever. Period.
If you asked me back while I was watching Season 1 whether I would ever root for, or even come to like, the arrogant piece of crap who pushed a kid out of a window, I would laugh. But here we are. From this despicable, obnoxious human being, Martin transforms Jaime into someone you see learn from his past as he struggles with his duties and oaths, someone who’s determined to do right and change his ways, someone who you can sympathize with. The juxtaposition of Tyrion turning near-evil, and Jaime turning good is something that’s almost unthinkable considering how polar-opposite they both were, but it’s done incredibly well in the books. You may be asking me: what are you talking about? I’m rooting for show!Jaime too! Well, sure, but why?
Spoilers for the show, be careful! Why are you rooting for a dude who rapes his sister while his son’s dead body lies behind them? /end spoiler. Why are you rooting for someone who’s existence doesn’t extend past the whims of his sister? Why are you rooting for someone who is given worthless arc after worthless arc? You’re rooting for him because in the snap of two fingers, the showrunners tried to do in a few episodes what George has done over the course of five books – the end result is jarring, confusing and has little to no substance. You don’t have a reason why you’re rooting for show!Jaime… you just are because you’re supposed to. That’s a major, major flaw.
The show becomes prey to tired clichés – spoilers for season 4 ahead. The most readily available example that comes to mind here is Ygritte’s death. In the show, her death is sensationalized – Jon sees her die, she dies in his arms, it’s all very sad because our hero lost the love of his life and she passed away in front of him. In the books, the grit and horrors of war are placed at the forefront, past the couple. He finds her dead on the battlefield… she might have died at his command, she might not have. But that’s that. That’s what happens in wars. You don’t get clichés, and that’s the poetry of it. /end spoilers.
Let me clarify here that I am, in no way, ragging on the show. I love the show, which is why I call this time of the year the best time of the year. I love watching the actors perform with their stellar talent and hard-work. I love watching the costumes and the magic come to life on the screen. But if you were to ask me what I prefer? It would be the books. It would be the life work of an incredible mind whose work reflects human nature far better than the show ever will. The books are worth reading. They’re worth the commitment, and if you’re a big show fan and don’t want the show to end, maybe give the books a go when Season 8 ends. Because there’s a lot more to them that the show can’t, and will never, tell. Ultimately: