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The Game of Thrones books are still much better than the TV show

Tyrion and Dany have a little heart to heart.
Tyrion and Dany have a little heart to heart.
HBO

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.

Andrew Prokop: Todd, I don’t agree at all that Game of Thrones has surpassed George R. R. Martin’s books in quality. While I like the show a lot, I don’t think it’s even come close.

Let’s recap the popular criticisms of the book series, which are focused almost entirely on volumes four and five, A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons. Many fans believe the series sprawled in an attempt to cover too many characters and locations, some of which weren’t particularly compelling. And perhaps most importantly, many readers are frustrated that as of the end of book five, the novels haven’t yet delivered on several promised dramatic payoffs — like Dany meeting Tyrion, or the White Walkers attacking, both of which we watched happen on the TV show this week.

When it comes to the plot, there’s been a divide between people who are convinced that Martin doesn’t know what he’s doing and thus is spinning his wheels, and those who are convinced he’s building to something epic. Call me naive, but I’m in the latter camp. So many dominos are painstakingly set up during the last two books, and they finally start falling at the end of A Dance With Dragons. Like winter, the payoffs are coming.

But beyond plotting and pacing, I’d argue that with respect to many of the other elements that make a story great — theme, characterization, mood, world-building, and nuance — the show doesn’t hold a candle to the books. And it probably never will.

The inherent limitations of the television medium are a primary reason for this. When you’re only allotted a certain number of hours each year, you have to condense the number of characters onscreen, and cut down on the level of detail. You also have to stay within a budget. Martin faces no similar limitations, so he can let his imagination run wild, detailing complex troop movements, fleshing out minor characters, and delving into his world’s history. As a result, the books are richer overall.

Indeed, when the show diverges on major narrative developments, the results are occasionally more entertaining than the books’ versions of the same events — but the books' versions are usually more interesting.

Sure, we don’t get to see Jon fight the White Walkers in A Dance With Dragons — but we don’t need to. His storyline's drama instead focuses on his political decision-making, as he struggles to make peace with the wildlings, to retain the support of his own men, to navigate the politics of the warring North, and to appropriately prepare for the coming attack from the army of the dead. Jon must show off his strategic chops rather than just doing brave deeds, making stirring speeches, and winning fights.

Or take Tyrion Lannister. In A Dance With Dragons, he's sidelined from the main action, spends most of the book quite depressed, and doesn’t get to meet Dany. Yet, embittered and scheming, he is far more interesting than the show’s Tyrion, who is too often played as simply a straightforward good guy who wants to help people. This makes him a "relatable" protagonist, but a less complex and compelling character. I wanted to see Dany meet book Tyrion, not the show's defanged version.

As for Dany herself, I had high expectations for her storyline based on the first few episodes of season five. Showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss seemed to be expertly dramatizing the awful dilemma Martin has crafted for Dany in the books — does she try to make peace with her enemies for the good of her people, or does she unleash her dragons and try to kill them even though innocents will die in the crossfire?

But things took a turn around episode five. The mistake the showrunners made, I think, was making it Dany's idea that she should marry a Meereenese noble to pacify the city. In the books, she only agrees to this proposal reluctantly, and it makes her more and more miserable as the wedding approaches. It's very clear that she's making a serious sacrifice — giving up her own body and happiness, and even ending her affair with Daario — to make peace, and to prevent further loss of innocent life.

On the show, though, there's no drama or conflict to this decision at all. Dany casually explained to Daario last week that it's merely a political marriage, and it doesn't feel like she's giving anything up. And this week, in what seemed to be the last episode before the scheduled nuptials, Dany spent the entire hour chatting with Tyrion about their various relatives. Benioff and Weiss are giving the viewers what they want to see, rather than actually developing the themes of the plot line they set up earlier this year.

I haven't even addressed the show's worst screw-ups — that time when Theon was tortured onscreen for a full season, the apparently unintentional filming of a scene where Jaime raped Cersei, and this year's messy detour into Dorne. But overall, I'm confident that, unlike with Todd's example of The Godfather, the completed book series will stand the test of time much better than the show.

Matt, you've also read the books. What do you think?

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

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