With the dawn of Game of Thrones' fifth season, there's been more attention paid to how the show is departing from George R. R. Martin's books than ever before.
HBO "throws out" the books "and saves the show," says Salon. The show "explores uncharted territory," says Time. It "gracefully side-steps the novels' confused fourth and fifth installments," says the Atlantic.
As a fan of the books myself, I find this to be somewhat overstated. All of the major plot elements in the season premiere are drawn from the beginnings of books four and five, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons.
Cersei and Jaime Lannister have to deal with the fallout from their father's murder — while the culprit, their brother Tyrion, heads to the eastern continent, drunk and depressed. Daenerys Targaryen grapples with a growing insurgency in the city she rules, but fears that using her dragons would cost innocent life. And Jon Snow attempts to navigate the demands of his new guest Stannis Baratheon, as the two discuss what to do with the captured wildlings. The broad strokes are the same in both versions.
There are changes, though, and there will be more in the weeks to come. Some plotlines and events have been condensed or cut entirely, and some motivations and character bits have been modified.
So here's a roundup of the biggest differences from the books in this week's episode.
1) Cersei’s fortune-teller says one more thing in the books, and it's important
Season five opens with Game of Thrones’ first proper flashback, as a young Cersei Lannister hears a Weird Sisters–style prophecy that tragedy lies in her future. (In the book, Cersei has this memory as part of a dream, rather than a straight-up flashback.)
Yet the book version of "Maggy" the witch makes one more ominous remark — that someone called the "valonqar," or little brother, would one day "choke the life" from Cersei. So it looks like a key driver of Cersei’s actions in the books — her intense and increasing paranoia that her brother Tyrion is fated to murder her — has been omitted from the show.
2) Tensions rise between Cersei and Jaime for different reasons
In the premiere, Cersei pretty quickly sniffs out that Jaime released Tyrion from his cell last season. (Tyrion was sentenced to death after being wrongfully convicted of King Joffrey's murder.) As the siblings stand over their father's corpse — which is not horrifically rotting and stinking, as in the books — she lays a guilt trip on him for his role in it and makes him feel like a disappointment.
But in the books, the possibility of Jaime being involved doesn't even cross her mind. Rather, it's Jaime who ends up pushing Cersei away — because he'd heard, from Tyrion, that she'd been cheating on him with several men, including his cousin Lancel Lannister (who reappears this episode as a religious convert). Remember, Jaime has never slept with anyone but his sister. That's Game of Thrones for you.
3) Show Varys goes east with Tyrion, unlike his book counterpart
In the books, after the eunuch Varys helps Jaime free Tyrion from his cell, he vanishes. His whereabouts are a mystery throughout most of the fourth and fifth books, with his eventual reappearance serving as a surprising twist. Instead, Tyrion spends the beginning of book five with Varys's friend and ally Illyrio Mopatis — the man who arranged the wedding between Dany and Khal Drogo all the way back at the beginning of the story.
The show, however, seems to have wanted to keep the tremendously entertaining Conleth Hill onscreen as Varys and to maximize the number of scenes he has with Peter Dinklage. So it's Varys and Tyrion who make plans to go east and meet the mother of dragons. Illyrio is name-dropped as the owner of the eastern mansion they arrive at, but the character has been MIA from the show since season one, and remains so.
4) Book Sansa Stark is still hanging out in the Vale
In the premiere, Sansa Stark and her creepy sorta-mentor Littlefinger leave her spoiled, unweaned cousin Robin Arryn, the Lord of the Vale, behind, and head off ... somewhere. Wherever they're going is "so far from here, even Cersei Lannister can't get her hands on you," Littlefinger says.
In the books, however, Sansa remains in the Vale, learning the political game from Littlefinger as he consolidates support from the kingdom's recalcitrant lords. Indeed, in a new sample chapter released just last week from The Winds of Winter, the unfinished sixth book in the series, Sansa is still there and going by the name "Alayne," with her Stark heritage remaining a secret. Her journey in the show, then, is something entirely new to book readers.
5) In the books, there's more to Mance Rayder's burning than meets the eye
The premiere concludes with a dramatic setpiece, as the captive Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall, refuses to swear fealty to King Stannis Baratheon and is sentenced to die by burning. Jon Snow brings the execution to a premature conclusion by shooting him with an arrow.
There's an important twist to this event in the books, however, that looks like it has been dropped from the show. (Don't read ahead if you don't want to know it.)
In the books, the man being burned screams in protest and denies that he's the king, rather than giving a dignified speech, as Mance does in the show.
That's because on the page, it isn't Mance who burns at all. Instead, the sorceress Melisandre uses her magic to make another wildling captive appear to be Mance. She later reveals his secret survival to Jon Snow, and Mance goes on to take a prominent role in another plotline. The change in Mance's behavior at the burning strongly suggests, though, that the show has decided to turn this fake-out death into a real one, to simplify events.
Additionally, the show has never really known what to do with the wildling king. In the books, Mance is just a whole lot cooler. He sings, he goes on secret trips south of the wall, and he's crafty and resourceful. Though Ciarán Hinds is a formidable actor, the show went for a more remote and regal take on the character, and as a result he's far less memorable — and less worth keeping around.