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Game of Thrones' big advantage over the books: correcting George R.R. Martin's mistakes

Yes, Brienne, I *did* say the show is now better than the books, what of it?
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 Sunday's episode, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. Last up for this week is foreign policy writer Zack Beauchamp.

Zack Beauchamp: We learned this week that Hodor's death is one of the three biggest remaining twists in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series of novels. Knowing that Game of Thrones is spilling the books' beans is making some readers, like my colleague Andrew, feel a bit strange about seeing everything play out before reading it.

I've also read the books, but my feelings are far less mixed. I'm unambiguously thrilled that the TV show is barreling past their source material and developing its own identity in the process.

Throughout Game of Thrones' first five seasons, the show and the books had basically the same virtues — and vices. Both were beautifully unpredictable and trope-busting, full of richly drawn characters and a deeply involved and intriguing mythos. Both, too, could be far too deliberately paced and tended to get bogged down in their own obsession with depicting cruelty and darkness.

In both mediums, those problems grew more pronounced over time. The first three seasons of the show were stronger than four and five; the same was true in the books. Both were turgidly paced, with a few plot lines that seemed to be veering away from any satisfying resolution rather than toward one. Dany and Dorne, I'm looking at you.

This problem was worse in the books. A Feast for Crows, the fourth book, sidelines key characters entirely and does little to advance the plot. Both it and the fifth book, A Dance With Dragons, are fundamentally boring in a way the show never has been. It's notable that the most memorable part of season five was Jon's battle with the White Walkers at Hardhome — an event the show's writers made up out of whole cloth.

In season six, the show has been freed from the book's shackles entirely — and the results have been spectacular.

The early episodes killed off a slew of characters who were getting in the way of an endgame. "The Door" revealed two absolutely crucial parts of the show's mythology, the White Walkers' origins and Bran's time travel powers, which all of a sudden gave Bran's side quest in the North real urgency. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have seemingly cut one of Martin's most unnecessary additions to the fifth book, a lost Targaryen who appears out of nowhere and serves mostly to distract from the characters we actually care about.

The overall sense is one of actual movement, of confirmation that five years of patient viewership are finally being paid off. That's really exciting!

I don't mean to be overly harsh to Martin, whose original genius plotted out nearly the entirety of the show's earliest (and strongest) seasons. But after reading the two most recent books, I can't help but feel that the plot has gotten away from him. Some have suggested that the reason the sixth book, The Winds of Winter, is taking so long is that he can't figure out how to write himself out of the plot cul-de-sacs he's gotten himself into. Game of Thrones has solved this problem by simply writing over some of Martin's worst decisions and taking the story in a different direction.

In her most recent contribution to this symposium, Emily Crockett wrote that the show "felt more like extremely well-written Game of Thrones fanfiction than the series we're used to." I'd tweak that slightly: It felt like Martin's story has been taken over by another author, one who wants to cut the side quests and start moving toward the conclusion already. (For any fantasy nerds reading this, I'm thinking specifically of Brandon Sanderson taking over Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series — only Martin, unlike Jordan, isn't dead).

So three cheers for Game of Thrones surpassing A Song of Ice and Fire. At this point, the more the showrunners edit Martin's story, the better it seems to get.

Read the recap. Come back on Sunday to discuss the new episode.

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