Major spoilers follow for the ninth episode of the fifth season of Game of Thrones.
When the most shocking (and fatal) twist of this week's episode, "The Dance of Dragons," appeared on screen, readers of George R. R. Martin's series probably screamed at their televisions worldwide — because it wasn't from the published books.
But was the brutal burning entirely an invention of showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss? Or is it a twist Martin has long planned, in one form or another, for a future volume?
That question will recur again and again as Game of Thrones gets closer to the end of Martin's published material — a point we've already reached in several storylines. Readers who used to lord their superior knowledge over their show-viewing friends will become increasingly befuddled.
And no one except Martin, Benioff, and Weiss will know whether the show is spoiling future books, or going its own way entirely.
Shireen Baratheon remains alive and well in the books ... so far
Stannis's ruthless decision to burn his daughter Shireen to death, as a sacrifice to the Lord of Light, is a point of no return for his character — and seemingly a major change from the books, where Shireen remains alive and well at the end of the most recent volume, A Dance With Dragons.
The prospect of sacrificing Shireen to the Lord of Light has never been explicitly broached in the books. Indeed, on the page, Shireen, Selyse, and Melisandre don't march south with Stannis at all. They remain at the Wall for that entire book while Stannis leaves to fight the Boltons.
Yet some readers have long suspected that this sacrifice has been foreshadowed by Martin. Melisandre has been talking about "king's blood" and the power of sacrifice for so long that it seems all this talk must have some payoff. Jon Snow observes at one point in A Dance With Dragons that Selyse is such a zealot that with "a word from Melisandre," she would "walk into the fire willingly." And in Shireen's very first line in the books, she says that she had a bad dream, that the stone dragons of Dragonstone were coming to eat her. (In the books, Melisandre is obsessed with magically awakening those stone dragons, and wants to burn one of Robert Baratheon's bastards to do so.)
Yet if something like this does happen in a future book, many people doubt that Stannis will be involved. While there's no attack by Ramsay Bolton that devastates Stannis's supplies in the books, his military situation does grow increasingly dire because of the weather. And even then, he insists on burning only people guilty of crimes — and is reluctant even to do that, because he needs to win the support of the Northmen, who don't believe in the Lord of Light.
In a preview chapter from The Winds of Winter, Stannis's dedication to his daughter appears unshaken — he mentions that if he should die in the forthcoming battle, his men should fight to seat Shireen on the Iron Throne. So the decision to sacrifice her here seems to be a dramatic departure for his character. But showrunner David Benioff discusses this scene in the "Inside the Episode" segment that focuses on "The Dance of Dragons," and he mentions his reaction "when George first told us about this" — suggesting that it, or something like it, is Martin's plan after all.
Dany doesn't get attacked at the fighting pit in the books
The final sequence of this week's episode, in which Drogon the dragon saves Dany from an attack by the Sons of the Harpy, is based on a memorable scene in A Dance With Dragons — but the scene has been dramatically rewritten. In the books, the conflict was primarily between Dany and her dragon; on the show, it has been changed into a conflict between Dany and the Meereenese insurgents.
The setting is the same — the biggest fighting pit in Meereen, where Dany is meant to cement her marriage alliance with Hizdahr zo Loraq by reinstating the city's tradition of gladiatorial combat. But on the page, there's no big attack against Dany and her forces. The fights instead proceed as planned, though Dany becomes increasingly unsettled — especially when a female fighter is put up against a wild boar, and is killed.
That's when Drogon suddenly flies in, torches the boar and the already-dead fighter, and starts eating them. Pandemonium erupts, and when some of the Meereenese try to kill Drogon, Dany jumps into the pit to defend him. Drogon continues to rage, and looks like he might kill Dany too — but finally, Dany tames him, jumps on his back, and is flown away.
Now, while all this is going on, there does appear to be a subtler attempt on Dany's life. Among the food brought to Dany in her box is a plate of honeyed locusts. Dany doesn't eat any, but one of her advisers chows down on them, and soon becomes quite sick. The question of whether the Sons of the Harpy poisoned the locusts becomes a plot point later, but it's not a focus of this particular scene.
Jorah and Tyrion's roles are also drastically different. On the show, Jorah competes in the games, killing several opponents, and eventually he and Tyrion both try to help Dany fend off the Harpy attack. But in the books, Jorah and Tyrion are still slaves at this point, and Jorah doesn't fight in the pit at all. It's Tyrion who does — he's sent out by his master to playfully joust with the book-only character Penny as comic relief. But he doesn't talk to Dany, whom he hasn't yet met on the page; instead, he's ushered out of the pit before Drogon returns, and plays no further role in the scene.
Arya encounters a different old acquaintance
In this episode, Arya is tasked with carrying out her first assassination for the Faceless Men, through poisoning, but she doesn't go through with it. That's because she encounters someone who's been on her death list for a while — Ser Meryn Trant, the Kingsguard who killed her swordfighting instructor Syrio Forel back in season one. (Meryn is in Braavos guarding Mace Tyrell, whom Cersei sent to meet with the Iron Bank several episodes ago.)
This development is based on a scene from a preview chapter for The Winds of Winter, involving a different person on Arya's list. There, a separate group of people is sent from King's Landing to Braavos, including a guard named Raff the Sweetling, who's not part of the show. Raff formerly served Gregor Clegane, helped capture Arya and her friends in A Clash of Kings, and killed Arya’s friend Lommy, so he's been on her death list since then.
Doran sends some different relatives to King's Landing
Game of Thrones' Dorne plotline has featured some of the biggest changes this year — at least until Stannis burning his daughter made everything else look minor. As I've mentioned, Jaime Lannister and Bronn don't even visit the country in the books. Additionally, Prince Doran Martell seems to have just one child on the show, rather than three — and this week, he sends that child, Trystane, back to King's Landing with Cersei's daughter Myrcella, to serve on the Small Council.
Trystane is several years younger in the books, and when Cersei wants Myrcella back in A Dance With Dragons, Doran decides not to send Trystane with her. Instead, he sends two of the Sand Snakes, Nym and Tyene, to be his eyes and ears in the capital, after they swear allegiance to him. The oldest Sand Snake, Obara, is tasked with a different mission. And there's another important element to the Dorne plot in the books that I'm being vague about, but the show might introduce some version of it next week, so I won't mention it here.
In the books, it's Jon who lets the wildlings pass
We don't spend too much time at the Wall this week, but we do get a staredown, in which it looks unclear whether Ser Alliser Thorne will let Jon Snow and the wildlings pass through the Wall — until he does.
The crossing of the wildlings through the Wall is a major event in A Dance With Dragons, but on the page Jon is in control. (He never leaves the Wall to go to Hardhome, as I mentioned last week.) He negotiates a deal with Tormund Giantsbane, ensuring many of the wildlings' children will be handed over as hostages to ensure good behavior.
The supporting characters involved are somewhat different. Alliser Thorne is actually out of the picture by this point in A Dance With Dragons; midway through the book, Jon sends him out on a ranging mission, from which he hasn't returned. The young boy Olly, who looks on as the wildlings arrive, is a character invented solely for the show. On the page, there's instead an array of subordinate Night's Watch characters who maintain varying levels of skepticism about the wildlings that Jon has to deal with.
But these are mainly cosmetic changes. The larger point — that there are a lot of wildlings being allowed south of the Wall, and that this is very controversial among the men of the Watch — is the same.