Warning: SPOILERS ahead for both Game of Thrones & A Song of Ice and Fire.
Game of Thrones season 8 is the conclusion for the television show, but the books on which the HBO series is based, A Song of Ice and Fire, are still unfinished. So how different will the ending of A Song of Ice and Fire be from what audiences watched on Game of Thrones?
The final season of Game of Thrones has been the source of much debate, with some disgruntled fans going so far as to demand it be remade. HBO, however, appears more than satisfied with the conclusion seeing as the season 8 finale became the most-watched broadcast of any HBO series. Already, HBO has multiple spinoff series in development, with one, The Long Night, filming a pilot later this year. Yet, there are no plans to revisit this era of Westeros as HBO has also announced that Game of Thrones will never receive a direct sequel series. But fans can look forward to more adventures with their favorite characters because there are two more novels yet to come in A Song of Ice and Fire.
Author George R.R. Martin still has two more books to come in his A Song of Ice and Fire series - The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. Predicting exactly when to expect these novels is a foolhardy endeavor given that Martin has repeatedly missed deadlines in the past, but he recently hinting at The Winds of Winter possibly arriving in 2020. Martin remains adamant that he will finish the books, but now that Game of Thrones has already wrapped up, we're left to wonder how similar the two will be. Game of Thrones made several, notable changes in their adaptation, and it stands to reason that these changes mean the two endings cannot be exactly the same.
Up To Final Season
The differences between the HBO show and Martin’s books began long before reaching the final season of Game of Thrones. Martin refers to it as a “butterfly effect”, noting that the changes or omissions made by the television series may at first seem minor, but they could have a major impact on the story later on. These kinds of choices may have made sense for the series as an adaptation, but they do change Game of Thrones in ways that create some notable differences from the story Martin is telling in A Song of Ice and Fire.
With respect to how Game of Thrones arrives at its final season, there’s quite a lot which simply won’t happen the same way in the books as it has on television. For instance, there are characters who have died on the show but still live in the books. Ser Barristan Selmy, for instance, is still alive and oversees Meereen in Daenerys’ absence, not Tyrion, while Melisandre doesn’t burn Mance Rayder, and instead, he's sent to infiltrate the Bolton-controlled Winterfell. These are characters who, while minor, have outlasted their TV-counterparts, and though it’s possible and even likely they will still die in the books, their continued presence in the narrative affects the story even if it doesn’t change its eventual outcome.
There are entire plots from A Song of Ice and Fire which have been excised completely or condensed in order to streamline the narrative for Game of Thrones. Most notably is that involving Dorne. On the show, it all boils down to personal vendettas between the Sand Snakes and Cersei, but in the books, the Dornish plot involves alliances with not one but two Targaryen invaders. There are also elements missing from the show, like both Arya and Jon demonstrating the ability to warg, while others have been added, like Grey Worm and Missandei’s relationship. Additionally, some plot points are lifted from one character and given to another, like that of Jorah contracting greyscale, while other characters are combined, as is the case with having Coldhands be an undead Benjen Stark.
As already mentioned, there are also many characters from Martin’s novels that are not in Game of Thrones - Quentyn Martell, Victarion Greyjoy, Willas Tyrell, Patchface the fool, Edric Storm, Penny the dwarf, just to name a few. In most cases, these cuts work fine for the adaptation, but others have and will create large disparities between what happens on the television series and what happens in A Song of Ice and Fire. Remove a character like Strong Belwas, a hulking pit-fighter who accompanies Barristan Selmy, and the story loses a bit of flavor. But remove a character like Arianne Martell - a leading force in the Dorne plot who at first defies her father by hatching a plot to crown Myrcella queen, then is later let in on his schemes - and the story fundamentally changes.
These are only a few examples of how vastly different Game of Thrones and A Song Ice and Fire are when it comes down to the details, but it’s these details that, in time, will grow and shape the story. Deleting or changing certain elements creates a ripple effect in the story that extends all the way to its resolution. And though the exact ending of A Song of Ice and Fire is unknown, the very fact that so many of the details are different from Game of Thrones means that the ending in the books must reflect this.
The White Walker Threat
Game of Thrones takes many liberties when it comes to adapting the threat of the White Walkers, or Others as they’re known in A Song of Ice and Fire. For starters, there is no Night King like there is on the show. The Others don’t appear to have any sort of leader, and if they do, they have yet to be introduced. There’s also no indication that the Others were created by the Children of the Forest, so unlike Game of Thrones’ White Walkers, their origins remain a complete mystery. And dragonglass, while lethal to the Others, has no effect on their wights (the dead men they raise for their armies). Already, just these differences alone mean that the battle against the Others will not happen in the same way as it did against the White Walkers in season 8, “The Long Night.”
The Others’ attack on The Wall is going to have to be different as well. First off, it seems highly unlikely that the Others will take control of one of Daenerys’ dragons. Instead, it’s more likely that A Song of Ice and Fire will see Euron Greyjoy - who himself is a wildly different character in the books, steeped in mysticism and dark magic - steal a dragon by using Dragonbinder, an ancient Valyrian horn said to be capable of controlling dragons. In fact, it seems quite plausible that Game of Thrones pulls elements from book-Euron in order to create their Night King character.
Though, all of this isn’t to say the Others won’t have their own dragon. There are legends which speak of ice dragons existing far north, possibly in the Lands of Always Winter where the Others hail from. Some even believe a great ice dragon is enclosed within The Wall. Not that the Others will necessarily need a dragon to destroy The Wall. Were they to have the Horn of Winter, another ancient horn of legend that is said to be able to bring down The Wall, then they could both bring down The Wall and unearth a mighty ice dragon in one blow.
Still, with how much mystery still surrounds the Others, it’s hard to say if what Game of Thrones has done with their White Walkers is at all accurate to the novels. Judging by these differences, though, how the Others attack and how they are defeated simply cannot happen in the same manner.
Daenerys Becoming The Mad Queen
One of the more controversial parts of Game of Thrones season 8 is the downfall of Daenerys Targaryen. It’s a transformation that most viewers felt happened too quickly and without enough buildup to feel properly earned. Some are even hoping this tragic turn for Daenerys doesn’t happen in the books, but sadly, there’s even more evidence of Daenerys breaking bad in A Song of Ice and Fire. This transition, though, is sure to happen more smoothly thanks to readers being aware of Daenerys’ inner thoughts. It’s a case of the books being a more intimate medium than television, allowing readers to know a character’s mind before they act.
As for Daenerys using Drogon to burn King’s Landing, while this is likely to happen in Martin’s novels, it will almost certainly happen because of different circumstances. As previously mentioned, there is another Targaryen invading Westeros who hopes to reclaim the Iron Throne - Aegon Targaryen, the supposed son of Rhaegar and Elia Martell. And where on Game of Thrones, it’s Daenerys who Varys is secretly supporting, in the books it’s this Aegon, or Young Griff as he’s called before his “true” identity is revealed. It’s widely believed that Aegon was killed during the Sack of King’s Landing, but others claim the infant was smuggled out of the city and raised in Essos. Aegon later arrives in Westeros with the Golden Company well before Daenerys even leaves Meereen, invading the Reach and soon taking Storm’s End.
By the time Daenerys does arrive in Westeros, it’s quite possible that Aegon will have already taken King’s Landing. If that’s the case, then that may be why she attacks the city, proving herself to be the only true dragon in the process. And while she may still indiscriminately burn the city in her anger, if Drogon ignites the wildfire caches hidden around the city (of which there are many more in the books), the massive destruction in King’s Landing may wind up being more accidental than homicidal. Either way, the city will burn and Daenerys will be queen of its ashes.
Assuming Daenerys deals with Aegon first, then the destruction of King’s Landing may come before the battle against the Others. Daenerys may even already be queen when it’s revealed that Jon - whose name will surely not also be Aegon Targaryen since that’s just too many Aegons - has the stronger claim to the Iron Throne. Having just defeated one rival, it’s easy to see how discovering another might make Daenerys all the more paranoid, sending her quickly descending into tyranny just to keep a hold of the throne she fought so hard to win. In the end, it will likely still fall to Jon to end her reign before it can even really begin. An ending this poetic and tragic is just too heart-wrenching for Martin to pass up.
King Bran the Broken
Perhaps, one of the biggest surprises on Game of Thrones season 8 is that it ends with Bran as king. In fact, the reveal was such a shock to some (including actor Isaac Hempstead-Wright), that they thought it must be a joke. But, upon closer examination, ending with Bran as king makes a good amount of sense, and it's very likely how things will end in A Song of Ice as Fire as well. After all, in the novels, Bran is the very first point-of-view chapter (minus the prologue), beginning the story as being told from his perspective.
Shortly thereafter, though, Bran is thrown from the tower window and the trajectory of his entire arc is thrown in to question, as well. Bran’s journey then becomes one of not just self discovery, but of the rediscovery of knowledge. Through his time with the Three-Eyed Crow (as he’s called in the books), Bran has his eyes opened to many truths of the world which most men choose to ignore. On Game of Thrones, Tyrion argues that Bran should be king because of his great story, but really, the argument should be that Bran is able to learn lessons from the world’s memory. This is why it makes sense for Bran to become king - being the Three-Eyed Raven makes him wise, while being “broken” makes him fair-minded, and together, it allows Bran to become a just king.
Of course, becoming king can't be the only reason Bran is now the Three-Eyed Raven. Since the greatest threat to humanity is the Others, there is little doubt that Bran’s vast knowledge will be key to their defeat in A Song of Ice and Fire. Exactly how is still unclear, as stated above, but as one of the story’s most supernatural characters, Bran is sure to be important in defeating the story’s most supernatural threat. Game of Thrones has always struggled with portraying Bran’s visions on screen, but in the books, readers are there inside Bran’s mind as he begins unraveling the different mysteries of the world. These visions are vividly described in Martin’s text, and it’s easy to see how some encounter between Bran and the Others could take place on this astral plane.
If Bran has a more substantial role in defeating the Others, then him being crowned king is an even more deserved. Like a character from Arthurian legends, Bran wished to become a knight and go on adventures protecting the realm. As the Three-Eyed Raven, there's the potential for him to do just that, defeating a great evil and being rewarded with the greatest prize in the kingdom - ruling it.
As an adaptation, Game of Thrones was always expected to end similarly to A Song of Ice and Fire, though the path to that ending would be different. With Game of Thrones now over and its characters all delivered to their endpoints, that similarity seems very clear. Many of the characters on Game of Thrones receive endings which fit both their arcs on the TV show and the novels, though others may be better earned in the novels than they are by the show.
Still, for the most part, the endpoints for the various characters are almost certainly where Martin intends for them to end, with one exception - Bronn. On Game of Thrones, Bronn rises from being a sellsword to Lord of Highgarden with a seat on the Small Council. In the novels, however, Bronn stays married to Lollys Stokeworth and through a serious of unfortunate events (read: murders), ensures that Lollys becomes Lady Stokeworth and he her lord. It's a similarly impressive rise for an upstart sellsword, but it's not nearly as impressive as the life Bronn secures for himself on Game of Thrones.
Otherwise, most of the major characters do wind up in positions that feel wholly appropriate. Sansa becoming Queen in the North is likely, though she may in fact rise to rule both the North and the Vale. In A Song of Ice and Fire, Littlefinger's scheme is to marry her to Robyn Arryn's heir, Harry Hardyng, not Ramsey Bolton. Arya sailing west across the Sunset Sea also seems very likely given her intrepid spirit. Once peace is won in Westeros and her family's future safe and secure, it'd make sense for Arya to seek out new adventures elsewhere.
Jon being banished to the Night's Watch is a perfectly apt ending for his character on Game of Thrones, but in A Song of Ice and Fire, there may be no more Wall at all if the Horn of Winter is indeed used to bring it all down. In which case, if there's no Night's Watch, it may simply be that Jon chooses to leave and live among the free folk. And instead of traveling north of The Wall, he may instead settle in the Gift - a stretch of land originally gifted to the Night's Watch which Jon allowed the free folk to begin settling after they came south of The Wall.
Down in King's Landing, Tyrion becomes Bran's Hand in another near-perfect end for the character (he is Martin's favorite, after all). However, Tyrion's path there in A Song of Ice and Fire will be much darker because he himself grows into a much darker character. For example, the tragedy of his first wife, Tysha, is further explored in the novels and is actually the impetus for him murdering his father. Tyrion then becomes a crueler character while off in Essos, carrying immense guilt. In exactly what form his redemption will come in the novels isn't really clear, but having fallen so far, this sort of ending would be even all the more cathartic.
Rounding out King Bran's Small Council is Sam as Grand Maester and Davos as Master of Ships and there's no reason to believe this isn't where the characters end up in the books. Both are the nearest A Song of Ice and Fire has to fundamentally good characters and their positions on the Small Council are very deserving. Similarly, Brienne becoming Lord Commander of the Kingsguard makes a certain amount of sense, especially if she is indeed knighted as she is on Game of Thrones. In fact, her ancestor, Duncan the Tall was a Lord Commander under Aegon V, so such honorable service runs in her family.
Finally, the fates of Cersei and Jaime are two which have been endlessly debated since they died together under the rubble of the Red Keep. Much has been made of the valonqar prophecy, and while that particular prophecy never appears on Game of Thrones, it is regularly referenced in A Song of Ice and Fire. In a way, their deaths on Game of Thrones appear to fulfill that prophecy, with Jaime, her younger brother, being who technically leads Cersei to her death. In the novels, however, it seems far more likely that Jaime will have a more proactive role in his sister's death. The two sibling-lovers don't reconcile as they do on the show, and instead, their relationship remains fraught, making it all the more likely he will be the valonqar who kills her.
Game of Thrones has given fans one ending, and now it's up to Martin to deliver the same for A Song of Ice and Fire. Though it may still be years before Martin finishes his novels, it's sure to be an exciting moment for fans once it actually happens. Not only will A Song of Ice and Fire give book readers the ending they've been longing for, but it'll provide more insight on the ending seen on HBO's Game of Thrones.