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Why Game of Thrones still needs George R.R. Martin's books

One of the Sand Snakes stabs Doran in the chest.
See you later, Prince Doran. Sorry Game of Thrones has bungled your plot line.
HBO

Every week throughout season six, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Before you dig in, check out our recap of the season premiere, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. This week, we'll be hearing from culture editor Todd VanDerWerff, culture writer Caroline Framke, foreign policy writer Zack Beauchamp, and politics writer Andrew Prokop. Come back throughout the week for more entries.

Game of Thrones is moving beyond George R.R. Martin's books, and for an avid fan of the books like myself, that prospect is both tantalizing and concerning.

It's tantalizing, of course, because many of the secrets and plot developments that readers have been in suspense about for years may finally be depicted on screen. Jon Snow's fate! Jon Snow's parentage! And … the rest!

But it's concerning because, well, the TV series no longer has Martin's books to draw on. And I don't think it's a coincidence that season five both marked the biggest departure from Martin's books yet, and was the most uneven season overall.

Yes, Martin has told showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss about various future plot points he is planning and about the story's ultimate ending. But it's one thing to know in the abstract that certain twists are going to happen, and quite another to read how it plays out on the page with Martin's unique voice, style, and setup. Shireen Baratheon is likely headed to a fiery end in the books, too, but the circumstances surrounding that twist and the execution of it could well be very different.

So while I thought Sunday's season six premiere, "The Red Woman," was entertaining overall, two sequences rang particularly false to me.

First, there was the action sequence in which Brienne and Podrick rescue Theon and Sansa from their Bolton pursuers. It's the latest example of a bad habit that Benioff and Weiss have: When they're creating action sequences from scratch, they use Hollywood action tropes as their main reference point rather than Martin's trope-subverting books.

Brienne's arrival was perfectly timed, coming at the moment of maximum peril. The previously incompetent Podrick exhibited a newfound ability to hold his own against some of Ramsay's "best men." And there was the complete lack of suspense in how the fight, which pitted main characters against disposable ones, would turn out.

As Kaitlyn Tiffany observed in a great piece at the Verge, Martin consistently emphasizes the cost, ugliness, and darkness of violence — even well-intentioned violence. Brienne's plot line in A Feast for Crows is rife with these themes. But they were nowhere to be found during this fight scene; instead, viewers got precisely what they wanted, just as they would in any ordinary Hollywood movie.

The second sequence of the premiere that rang false was the continuing disaster of the Dorne plot line. Now, I was glad that — in contrast to what we saw of Dorne in season five — something actually happened. But it was difficult to feel much about the Sand Snakes' murders of Prince Doran and Trystane Martell, because Game of Thrones' Dorne has so utterly failed in both character development and world-building.

The Dorne plot line in the books hasn't reached its payoff yet, but its characters are far more compelling. Arianne Martell, omitted from the show, is actually conflicted and driven by understandable motivations, unlike the show's cartoonish Sand Snakes. And the books' Doran is far more cunning than he appears — he's been plotting the overthrow of the Lannisters and the restoration of the Targaryens for years.

So when Dorne does rise up against King's Landing — as I expect will happen in The Winds of Winter, should it ever be completed — I'll have a lot more reason to care about those characters and their fates. On the show, I merely reacted with bemusement. "Oh, what'll those wacky Dornish do next!"

I'll probably still be on the edge of my seat in season six, desperate to see what happens next. But I hope that, going forward, Game of Thrones' showrunners will rely less on Hollywood clichés and do a better job of channeling the tone and themes of Martin's books.

Read the recap. Come back soon for more discussion.

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