“The books are better!” It's one of the biggest platitudes in entertainment, but it’s not untrue. Books are the gateway to the imagination, and if your name is George R. R. Martin, they are the ideal way to bring Game of Thrones to life.
When D.B. Weiss and David Benioff took the reins to A Song of Ice and Fire, they declared that GRRM’s Westeros would forever after be a shared vision (at least on HBO). Though major changes were present in the first season, they became more frequent once the source material ran dry and the showrunners were forced to continue without The Winds of Winter. On the whole, Weiss and Benioff have proven to be quite adept at translating Martin’s fantasy to the world of serialized television. It would have hardly lasted seven seasons and enthralled millions of viewers if they weren’t on the money the majority of the time.
Alas, for every victory, there are a handful of losses. From book to screen, Game of Thrones has left behind some of the best characters and the most moving scenes in favor of frequent plot filler and multiple unjust deaths. Here are The 15 Worst Changes from The Game of Thrones Books to the Show:
With the seventh season of Game of Thrones underway, it’s hard not to think about missed opportunities in the Iron Islands. In largely ignoring the massive Ironborn arc in ASoIaF, the show hastily distilled one of George R. R. Martin’s best plotlines into a series finale wildcard.
Sure, Euron Greyjoy’s baptism and claim to The Salt Throne made for an epic scene, but it’s hardly representative of the depth of his character in the books. It’s a travesty that Victarion Greyjoy (and his magically enhanced hand) is missing from the show, let alone wiped clean from the family tree. Euron will undoubtedly continue to play a major role in the remaining episodes, but without including his sordid background (and that of his warped family, for that matter), his presence in the series lacks context. It appears we’ll just have to wait for Martin to finish what he started in the books.
With the rushed death of Mance Rayder, Game of Thrones commits two major sins. For starters, it unnecessarily diverges from the books and wipes out a character who’s still alive and kicking in ASoIaF. The King Beyond the Wall could have been a vital player in the final seasons, but alas, the show goes on without him. Second, it absolutely squanders Ciaran Hinds’ talent. As it happens, the Irish actor is well-aware of Mance’s arc in the books and was none too pleased to hear about his premature fate:
“I got my [filming] dates from my agent, and I thought, 'that doesn’t tally.' Because there was no way if they were sticking to the books, I should be in it that number of weeks. It seemed to me they must be writing me out.” It's our loss, Mr. Hinds.
In Game of Thrones, Oberyn Martell is the only good thing to come out of Dorne. Despite GRRM’s fascinating history and beautifully-written characters in the southern continent, Dorne quickly became the butt of jokes for most GoT fans. It’s so hated upon that any time the show transitioned from Jon Snow or Arya Stark to The Sand Snakes, the collective Thrones audience took a bathroom break.
Doran Martell’s character was misrepresented, Quentyn (who seeks to marry Daenerys Targaryen) and Arianne (the politically-minded princess) are entirely absent, and the Sand Snakes are dissolved from complex and savvy women into simplistic, vindictive tyrants. And to think that the same Dornish storyline that dominated A Feast for Crows somehow became the least compelling part of the show.
If HBO’s Game of Thrones were gospel, you’d think Robb Stark betrayed Walder Frey in the name of love alone. Indeed, Robb’s random obsession with Talisa plays out more like The Princess Bride than anything George R. R. Martin had ever devised. Rather than do what he promised (and take one of Frey’s daughters for a wife), the elder Stark son follows the language of his loins and is justly punished for his breach of the treaty.
In the books, Robb meets the beautiful Jeyne Westerling after she nurses his wounds from a well-placed arrow. She not only tends to him but also comforts him when he learns that Bran and Rickon were killed. These are the ties that bind, and when Jeyne gets pregnant with the Young Wolf’s child, Robb marries her to preserve her honor. Compared to the flimsy fling with Talisa, it's a far more substantial relationship that makes the Red Wedding even more severe. With the HBO show’s strange plotting, however, Robb’s character was but a shadow of his true virtue in the book.
Since season one, Tyrion Lannister has been a fan favorite. He has proven himself to be an indispensable character whose wits and wile outsmart even the fiercest fighters. The man certainly got to strut his stuff in the Battle of the Blackwater, where he saved the day and almost burned Stannis Baratheon alive.
Nevertheless, that massive land and naval battle lacked a major element from the books: Tyrion’s underwater mega-chain. While the show’s depiction of the fight seemed more improvised, the Tyrion in the books had laid a trap for Stannis long before he arrived. Like the massive scythe stored in The Wall, this chain means absolute doom to any ships that sail above it. When Tyrion brings it into play in the books, he traps Stannis’ fleet and locks them in place for the wildfire to wreak havoc. Though it seems like a minor touch, it’s emblematic of Tyrion’s capacity for strategy and the absolute beatdown he served Stannis.
There's a tinfoil theory going around that claims Varys is a mermaid. Though it’s the kind of hypothesis that draws more attention to the theorist than the theory, it still speaks to a larger truth. The Varys of the HBO show is far softer than what GRRM imagined. Cunning though he may be, the eunuch is one of the least detestable characters in the series. While he makes it clear that he “lives to serve the Realm,” he has enough moments of thoughtfulness to make him empathetic.
This is a total candy-coating of the Spider we know in the books, whose personal ambitions drive him to Machiavellian measures. To maximize his powers, the Varys GRRM first wrote became a master of disguise. From donning fake beards to wearing foreign clothing and deliberately altering his gait, Varys is far more manipulative and clever than the blank canvas we see in the show. He authorized the killing of Kevan Lannister, after all. In softening his motivations, the series also strips Varys of his rumored allegiance to House Blackfyre (and Aegon Targaryen). Speaking of whom...
The Tower of Joy reveal in season six certainly muddied the Targaryen waters, but in the books, Daenerys isn’t the only fair-haired descendant making a claim to the Iron Throne. GRRM included another Targaryen named Aegon, the alleged son of Rhaegar and Elia Martell. Though her brother, Oberyn, rightfully accused Gregor Clegane of murdering his own wife and children, he never knew that Varys secretly swapped Aegon with a peasant child and saved the boy's life.
It’s now far too late for Young Griff to make an appearance on the show, and Game of Thrones has clearly tapped Dany as the designated Targaryen representative. While Aegon may yet be revealed to be an impostor in the books, his exclusion from the series softens Varys’ political motivations and makes Dany’s crusade less contested than GRRM seems to intend.
As GRRM himself confirmed, all of the Stark children are wargs and skin-changers, though their “amount of control varies widely.” While no one doubts Bran’s magnificent powers, the likes of Jon Snow and the others have been given short shrift with their abilities.
Though the show amplified the importance of the direwolves in the first season, it curiously neglected to continue their arc as described in the books. While Sansa is deprived of her feral companion and Robb’s warging abilities are immaterial, Arya’s Nimeria is alive and well. In the book, she subconsciously wargs on multiple occasions (even seeing through the eyes of a cat), as does Jon, who seems very well aware of his skin-changing strengths. While the show has consolidated the warging potential down to Bran alone (now the show’s designated leader for all things mystical), it has deprived Arya and Jon of some of their best moments in the books.
Wyman Manderly briefly appears in Game of Thrones, but he’s not the silent killer we know from ASoIaF. Though he bears the name, Lord Too-Fat-to-Sit-a-Horse, Manderly’s corpulence belies his cruelty. While the Red Wedding’s most famous victim remains Robb Stark, Walder Frey’s dinnertime massacre also claimed Lord Manderly’s second son, Wendel.
Though all around him longed for revenge, Wyman remained stoic in the face of his loss. Keeping his thoughts to himself, the lardy Lord retained allegiance to House Stark and plotted a payback that only GRRM could dream up. After presumably killing Rhaegar, Symond, and Jared Frey, Wyman brings three massive wedding pies before Roose Bolton, his wife, and Walder Frey’s sons. The portly father then summons music about the famed Rat Cook, who once fed a visiting King pie made out of the King’s own son. At this point in the story, it becomes quite clear what sort of protein Wyman used to make the pies.
Finally, the series is the worse for wear without Lord Manderly’s unforgettable speech to Lord Davos. GRRM loyalists consider it the best dialogue the author has ever written. “The North Remembers,” as do those who regret not seeing Manderly’s mettle play out in the series.
Book Jaime and show Jaime are like distant relatives. While GRRM crafted an ingenious arc that turned the once-detested Lannister into a sympathetic hero, the show restrains his redeemable traits. In the books, he embraces his role as Kingsguard, renews his duty to protect the realm, and most importantly, he graduates from his schoolboy obsession and weakness for Cersei.
Game of Thrones jettisons all of this development in Jaime's impassioned monologue to Edmure Tully: “I love Cersei. You can laugh at that if you want; you can sneer, it doesn’t matter. She needs me…and if I have to slaughter every Tully who ever lived to get back to her, that’s what I’ll do.”
It’s a simplistic sin that's reminiscent of Robb Stark’s impulsive love for Talisa Maegyr. To be fair, the show has built a compelling arc of its own for Jaime, but it threatens to abandon it at every turn. Though GRRM freed him from bondage long ago, the Jaime in the series is still bound by his affection for Cersei.
Though all accounts suggest that the showrunners did not intend for the scene to be viewed as rape, the reunion of Jaime and Cersei in the sept raises a number of questions. In the books, the scene is consensual between the siblings (although because that chapter is written from Jaime’s point-of-view, the narrator is unreliable). As Jaime remembers it, Cersei encouraged his advances saying, “Yes, this is where you belong. You’re home, you’re home.” Never mind that their freshly-dead son lay just inches from their copulation.
There’s no debating that in both the book and the show, the entire event and the location in which it happens is perverse. To many viewers, however, the way the scene played out in Game of Thrones made Jaime out to be purely villainous and unrestrained in his approach. In the show, Cersei protests his advances and says “no” repeatedly. However you assess the event, it’s a low moment for Jaime that again reverses the course of his character development.
From the mouth of George R. R. Martin himself, “TARGARYENS ARE NOT IMMUNE TO FIRE!” The caps were his artistic choice, and he turns to the molten death of Viserys to underscore his point. Though the books provide relatively no support for Dany's immunity to flame, the HBO series has turned her into a fireproof diablo. While it’s true that GRRM’s magic often operates without rules, Game of Thrones has taken The Unburnt and evolved her into a full-blown goddess.
After GRRM laid down the law with his all-caps post, fans expected Dany to revert to more human means of survival. Not so. In the fourth episode of season six, she emerges like a phoenix from a cauldron of flame entirely unscathed. Deux Ex Machina, thy name is Dany. As the final seasons commence, expect more fireproof Targaryen moments in her quest for the Iron Throne.
In the Westerosi world, Ser Barristan Selmy is a legend. To the show’s credit, Game of Thrones never underplayed that fact and gave the member of the Kingsguard his time in the sun. Jaime Lannister called him “a painter who only used red,” while Jorah Mormont assured Dany that Barristan is one of “the greatest fighters the Seven Kingdoms has ever seen.” When he indignantly stripped himself of his armor before Cersei and Joffrey, the showrunners gave Barristan the most epic send-off: “Even now I could cut through the five of you like carving a cake!”
It’s absolutely tragic, then, that Game of Thrones dispatched with the legendary swordsman in such shameful fashion. Considering the showrunners themselves propped up Barristan only to let him get ambushed in a back alley of Mereen is disrespectful not only to GRRM’s character but to the arc they had built for him in their own series.
In the books, Stannis Baratheon is as much of a religious fanatic as Christopher Hitchens. He’s a warlord and a military strategist that has no time for spirituality. The show does Stannis a great disservice by degrading him into a vulnerable and insecure man who eagerly follows the witching whims of Melisandre. When he burns his own daughter (in what is arguably the most dreadful scene in the show), he does it like he’s checking a religious box to make sure he’s in good standing with the Lord of Light. It’s a move that GRRM did not author, and one that the Stannis of the books would almost certainly not allow. When he has burned his own victims at the stake, it’s been exclusively to punish cannibals and turncoats, not make a burnt offering to a dubious god.
Stannis Baratheon is an archetypal GRRM character, and one who lives firmly in the morally gray. Though he has his flaws in the books, he strives to remain as just and fair as he knows how. In Game of Thrones, he suffers a character assassination that makes him a combination of the worst qualities men can bear.
Sand Snakes playing hand games in prison. Half-naked Ramsay Bolton fighting Ironborn soldiers. A full-blown arc for Ros. The siege of Riverrun. Tyrion’s wine-fueled stand-up comedy.
These are but a taste of the countless filler scenes and missed opportunities in Game of Thrones. As the series winds down with just a handful of episodes left on the table, it’s hard not to think about what might have been. Hats off to the showrunners for streamlining this Brobdingnagian story into a compelling show, but hindsight is twenty-twenty, and the worst parts of the show seem terribly out of place with the very best. When the source material ran out, it must have been daunting to advance GRRM’s vision without treading on it. It’s just a shame that so much of the show (particularly seasons 5 and 6) coasted on unsubstantial scenes that did little to advance the plot and explore the mythology of Westeros.
While legions of fans complained that Lady Stoneheart was absent from the show, many considered her exclusion to be a wise choice. Given her relatively new presence in the books, it’s far too early to know how GRRM wanted the undead-Catelyn to affect the events of Westeros. On the other hand, the series has been quite comfortable resurrecting dead and allegedly characters, from The Hound to Jon Snow himself. While including the zombified Catelyn might have been a fascinating (if not horrifying) addition, it would have changed the tenor of the show completely.
To be sure, whatever revenge Lady Stoneheart sought from the Freys, her daughter inherited on her own terms. Arya Stark’s exploits in recent episodes are a satisfying payoff that would have made her mother proud.
What else got lost in translation from the books to the series? Tell us in the comments!