Not many would have predicted that George RR Martin’s ‘unfilmable’ fantasy epic, A Song of Ice and Fire, would become a pop culture phenomenon when HBO released the first season of Game of Thrones in 2011. However, seven seasons, six major battles and three dragons later, season 8 premiered with over 12 million viewers, with a spin-off series planned by HBO in the near future. Unfortunately for the producers of this TV fantasy epic, the series has seen a decline in critics’ ratings from season 6 onwards.
Coincidentally, it was after season 5 that the show had mostly surpassed the events of the source books, with Martin taking a substantial amount of time to write the sixth A Song of Ice and Fire instalment, The Winds of Winter. Despite its exceptional viewing numbers and ever-growing fanbase, there is little doubt that the show has had its problems, especially in recent seasons.
The most poignant events in the book are delivered with equal emotional resonance on screen, especially the infamous Red Wedding and the execution of honourable hero Ned Stark
Before I delve into the issues that show-runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have experienced with adapting beyond the books, it is worth noting that when the source material has been at their disposal, they have done justice to the books. Seasons 1-4, where the show mostly sticks to the source material, are some of the strongest in television. Alongside some of the most impressive battle episodes in television, such as the ‘Battle of the Blackwater’ and ‘Watchers on the Wall’, the show-runners have delivered near perfect casting of each character. Rory McCann’s performance of Sandor “The Hound” Clegane has not only conveyed the conflict of loyalty his character experiences to the screen, but has made the character even more compelling than Martin’s original.
Furthermore, the most poignant events in the book are delivered with equal emotional resonance on screen, especially the infamous Red Wedding and the execution of honourable hero Ned Stark. The latter event was crucial in absorbing the audience into the show and its ethos of punishing characters for mistakes, regardless of their status as a protagonist.
Unfortunately, season 4 spelled the end of the show’s strong allegiance to the source material. The politics displayed from season 5 onwards have lacked subtlety, with many of the subplots portrayed in A Dance With Dragons and A Feast For Crows either abandoned completely or assigned to other characters, such as Tyrion’s adventures with Penny or Jorah Mormont’s assumption of the role of Jon Connington.
Though this approach has continued, or potentially even improved, the show’s dominance in the realm of popular culture, the nuance of the books – that the show was once so loyal to – has been largely abandoned
The failed political writing of season 5, caused by the continued absence of published source material, have forced the showrunners to move Game of Thrones away from the political thriller both fans and readers adored, instead towards a more mainstream, action-orientated show with more sword fights than wordplay. Though this approach has continued, or potentially even improved, the show’s dominance in the realm of popular culture, the nuance of the books – that the show was once so loyal to – has been largely abandoned.
The main background political plotters have suffered. Petyr Baelish, the central orchestrator of the deaths of Ned Stark and Joffrey Baratheon, was killed off in season 7 after an unconvincingly written political ploy to tear apart Arya and Sansa Stark. Lord Varys and Tyrion Lannister, once two of the most sophisticated, intelligent characters in the canon, have been relegated to quip bots scripted to sell their quotes on mugs and t-shirts. Season 8 has so far returned to the more original dialogue-based format, but the writing, on a technical level, has lost its poetic brilliance without Martin’s source texts.
I will continue watching Game of Thrones as I feel it is still one of the best shows on television, even in its simplified format. However, it does feel like I’m killing time until a copy of The Winds of Winter finds its way into my hands.