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Game of Thrones may have surpassed the books it's based on

At last, Tyrion and Dany can meet, something book fans have been waiting for for ages.
At last, Tyrion and Dany can meet, something book fans have been waiting for for ages.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every week, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, we'll be hearing from culture editor Todd VanDerWerff, politics writer Andrew Prokop, executive editor Matthew Yglesias, foreign policy writer Zack Beauchamp, and deputy culture editor Jen Trolio. Come back throughout the week for entries.

Todd VanDerWerff: At the end of the massively satisfying "Hardhome," I found myself wondering one simple thing: has this TV series surpassed the books it's based on?

In most cases of adaptation, the better version of the story is pretty clear-cut. Mario Puzo's Godfather is fine, but it's no patch on the film made out of it. Similarly, there's never been a Great Gatsby movie that offered the same pathos as the book.

But there's no clear-cut winner between the book and TV versions of Game of Thrones. Both takes on the tale have different strengths and weaknesses. We've spent a lot of time this season talking about how the TV show, for instance, struggles to depict the emotional aftermath of trauma. The books, rooted as they are in the points of view of the characters who are often traumatized, have less of an issue with that (though they do struggle with it from time to time). The books are also far better at depicting the ways war has ravaged the land of the Seven Kingdoms than the TV show has been (at least so far).

But I'd say the TV series now has one huge advantage over the books: it's the better overall story.

Though I enjoy, to varying degrees, A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, the fourth and fifth books in George R. R. Martin's series, I find it hard to escape the feeling that he's left the path a bit and started muddling about. There's nothing wrong with this — gigantic fantasy series have a tendency to do so, for whatever reason — but there were points in both books where I found myself wishing the author would just get on with it already.

What makes things even worse is the fact that a lot of major elements of Martin's endgame are pretty easy to predict. Dany and Tyrion finally meeting always seemed like it would happen, and on the TV show, it has. In the books, however, Tyrion is still winding his way toward her. Similarly, the White Walkers (there known as the Others) have mostly been off-page in the books, where they seem like a huge tease to readers who will wait thousands of pages to find out what their deal is.

In its fifth season (and portions of its fourth), Game of Thrones has brutally compressed the action of both books, swapping characters around, inventing plot lines, and removing entire tangents. It almost feels as if the writers, emboldened by smaller changes they made in the second and third seasons, have decided to start improvising around the general themes of Martin's tale. If you squint, you can tell it's the same story, but things have been greatly streamlined.

To a degree, this is necessary, because the show's lack of point-of-view structure has heightened certain characters and settings above their book statuses. (Even King's Landing, while important in the books, has been elevated by the TV show, where it's by far the most prominent setting.) But it also seems as if the show surveyed those fourth and fifth books and decided lots of stuff that happened in them would simply feel too extraneous if adapted for TV.

The overall feeling I get in the fourth and fifth books is one of Martin expanding his world, further and further, until it feels like nothing is tethering anything together. On TV, however, we're already contracting, moving toward the end. Dany and Tyrion can meet. Jon can face off with (and kill!) a White Walker. It's thrilling to watch the show so confidently vault past its source material.

Maybe I will change my tune once all seven books and the entire run of the show are finished. I think both versions of this story are hugely entertaining, with different points in their favor (and against them). But for right now, if someone came to me and asked only which of these two versions of the story they should take in, I would recommend the TV series first, and the book series only if they were superfans. The show has become the better version of this particular story.

Am I wrong? Don't the scenes not adapted from the books have a charge to them that the scenes more closely adapted lack?

Read the recap. Come back throughout the week for more entries.

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