The absolute best thing that could have happened to HBO's monster hit Game of Thrones was George R. R. Martin continuing to delay publication of the sixth book in his Song of Ice and Fire series, which the TV show is based on.
In 2014's fourth season, Game of Thrones, which debuts its fifth season on HBO Sunday, April 12, at 9 p.m. Eastern, sometimes seemed hesitant about how far it could push its adaptation. The show had left the books behind a little more with every season, and by season four, many of its stories were surprisingly close to their endpoints as seen on the page. (Books four and five in Martin's series run concurrently and thus are being compressed together for the TV series.)
This led to a season where plot momentum stalled, characters got stuck in holding patterns, and things seemed grim just for the sake of seeming grim. It was still reliably entertaining television — and packed some great moments and episodes — but it felt more centerless than ever before. And Game of Thrones, with its cast of dozens and filming locations in multiple countries, needs a center.
Season five is different. In its first four episodes, which HBO made available to critics, it's bloodier and more brutal, but it's also suffused with a perverse sort of hope, as storylines begin to collapse into each other. The endless expansion is over. Winter might be coming, but so is salvation.
And all it took was starting to make stuff up.
Season five leaves the books behind almost completely
One of the biggest shifts from page to screen has been a natural one — characters who were less important in the books have risen in stature on the show, either because the audience came to enjoy them, or the actors were so good.
One needs only compare Queen Regent Cersei Lannister in the books with the one in the TV show to see this effect. On the page, her chief adversary, soon-to-be Queen Margaery Tyrell, is a figure readers get only a few specks of insight into, due to Martin's choice to structure every chapter in the third person limited point of view. Readers only get insights into the head of one character at a time — and many fascinating figures are left largely understood via the viewpoints of others.
On TV, however, Cersei is played by Lena Headey, who makes the woman's dark desperation all the more palpable, while Margaery (Natalie Dormer) gets scenes and motivations of her own. Cersei even gets a proper flashback at one point. It's close to a scene from the books, but Martin doesn't portray it in quite such a fashion.
This is not to suggest that the TV show is somehow better than the books, or vice versa. It's to suggest that the necessities of one medium have pushed the story into a different place than the other medium did. Adaptations of other works ultimately have to live or die on their own. Game of Thrones has seemed aware of this from roughly the midpoint of its first season on.
But it's never been more faithless to its source material than it is now, as the show simply moves past books four and five and starts inventing story for many characters. People still alive on the page die on TV. Characters who've never met in the books become fast friends on the screen. And even in cases where the show is still adapting Martin's work, it's taking much greater liberties than ever before.
Even the storylines that are still adaptations are much less faithful
Take, for instance, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), the dwarf who's the closest thing the series has to a main character. Forced to flee the Seven Kingdoms after a horrific crime that throws the country's existent power structure into ruin, Tyrion winds up across the Narrow Sea, where readers have been waiting for him to start hanging out with young queen Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) for what seems like ages now.
Martin has referred to this as a major part of the foremost problem in plotting out these books. He — and readers — know Tyrion and Dany (among others) will eventually meet. He just can't figure out a way to get the two characters into the same room in his increasingly complicated chronology, which has led to lots of sidebar adventures for both of them, stories with greatly diminishing returns. (One of them gets adapted for TV as Daenerys's storyline, to less than stellar effect.)
Now, the TV series doesn't immediately place Tyrion and Dany in each other's orbit, but it's also much better at streamlining everything. One of the biggest problems with books four and five in the series is the huge numbers of new characters Martin introduces in the wake of book three's bloodbath (which was more or less faithfully adapted onscreen). It can be difficult for readers to shift sympathies that late in a series, and though Martin did his best to alleviate this, not every new figure was immediately compelling.
The TV show gets around this mostly by pulling from its incredibly strong bench. Tyrion ends up traveling with master spy Varys (Conleth Hill), who spirited him across the seas. The Varys of the books is on an entirely different continent from the Varys of the series, but just giving Tyrion someone to bounce off of makes his travels, which could have been interminable, into something worth relishing.
Even Jon Snow (Kit Harington), long the most boring character on both page and screen, seems to be coming into his own with season five. His story might be the one most faithful to the books, but series showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss are careful to play up the moments when he makes choices and takes action — thus solving much of what has plagued the character all these years.
In short, Game of Thrones has completely and fully bought into the key differences between what makes a great book and what makes a great TV show. This isn't the same story anymore, but it's in the right spirit.
The series' themes are richer than ever
Everything that was always good about Game of Thrones is still good. The ensemble cast remains one of TV's richest, from top to bottom, and even actors who seemed weak in the past (like Sophie Turner, who plays increasingly embittered Sansa Stark) continue to rise to the level of much better material. The directors' cameras still find the earthy richness of the series' world, taking time to let viewers drink in the detail of one of TV's most expensive shows. Even the visual effects are a touch better — though Dany's dragons continue to look unconvincing.
But what shines through most clearly here is something that remains deeply true to Martin's books. This is still a story about how we gain and lose power, about how humans organize themselves into societies, and about how we form governments that we can believe in. It's a story about a decaying social order being replaced by a new one — both through the natural passage of time and through bloody revolution.
In one scene in the premiere episode, Varys and Tyrion talk about what the Seven Kingdoms will need to attain peace, and after Varys lists an incredible laundry list of things the perfect ruler would need, Tyrion scoffs, "Good luck finding him." "Who said anything about 'him'?" Varys asks, and the series immediately cuts — half a continent away — to Dany.
The implication is clear. Sometimes the system is no good, and sometimes it needs to be replaced, even if not completely. On a macro level, Martin's series has always been about the problems of feudalism and monarchies and the ways democracy improved upon them, while not solving all of humanity's problems. The TV series has taken this to new places, turning seemingly every character on the show but the king (who is a teenage boy) into someone who would prove a better ruler.
Whether that ruler is eventually Dany or Tyrion or Cersei or Jon or even wayward teenager Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), one thing will unite them: they're not someone who could have been ruler before. Systems crumble. New worlds are built out of the rubble. And the only thing certain is that decay will set in eventually. Until then, though, better to hold out hope.
Game of Thrones returns Sunday, April 12, on HBO at 9 pm Eastern. Previous seasons can be watched on HBO Go or HBO Now.