The Do’s and Don’ts of Adapting Books to TV: Lessons from ‘Game of Thrones’

Game of ThronesHBO

Adapting a best-selling book series into a television show is always an ambitious undertaking, but re-working George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire might be the most ambitious of them all. Between condensing thousands and thousands of pages into hour-long episodes, placating the die-hard fans, and attempting to attract new viewers to a complicated medieval political fantasy, it wasn’t easy for David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to turn the novels into the juggernaut that is Game of Thrones. But the road from book to television isn’t always a smooth one, and for every change that improves the stories or helps translate them well to a different medium, there are plenty of adjustments that upset fans.

The most recent episode, “Breaker of Chains,” featured one such change when a sex scene between Jaime and Cersei was turned into a rape scene, one which the episode abruptly cut away from and didn’t address any further. Both fans who have and have yet to read the books were shocked and upset by the change, which brought to light all of the significant changes that Benioff and Weiss have made to the source material in the process of making it HBO’s tentpole series. We’ve taken a look at the best and worst changes that Game of Thrones has made so that show runners and writers everywhere can pick up a few tricks while learning from their worst mistakes. 

DO: Streamline Exposition
When it comes to establishing important characterization and world-building elements, books have it easy. But television doesn’t afford the luxury of an internal monologue or switching points of view, and instead has to convey chapters of background information without boring the audience to tears. Game of Thrones has found that the best way to do this is to strip the story down to its essential points, and jump back and forth between characters throughout the episode so that the audience gets what they need to understand what’s going on without the scenes dragging too long. Whenever you think there’s too much politicking in dark rooms, just remember those scenes are five times longer and more convoluted in the novels. Be thankful. 

DON’T: Rely on “Sexposition” Instead
Yes, Littlefinger’s monologues about how he plans to undermine everyone in the kingdom and seize power for himself are pretty boring. But the way to jazz them up isn’t to set the whole scene in a brothel and have naked women cavort behind him. And even if that does work for a particular scene, don’t continue to repeat this trope over and over again until the women are basically set dressing for the male characters’ existential crisis. It’s a lazy, pandering way to express information that the writers themselves find boring, but can’t leave out because it serves a purpose later on in the episode. Television is a creative medium – why not try coming up with a  creative way of explaining things instead?

DO: Add or Conflate Characters…
Do you have a tricky bit of backstory that you need to express to the audience without subjecting them to another rambling speech? Add a character to act out that information or pass it along to someone else. Do you have six different characters that all serve similar purposes but only room for one of them? Combine them into one person. Do you want to flesh out a character so they better express a theme or help set certain events into motion? Combine them, add a new one, or just give a larger character some of the qualities of a minor one. Why else do you think Podrick, Shae, Gendry and Talisa got so much screen time?

DON’T: Do It Just to Kill Them Off
Oh Ros, they did you so wrong. The red-headed prostitute who appeared everywhere was an original character who got to travel from Winterfell to King’s Landing and spied for every side. Unfortunately, just as she was getting a legitimate storyline and becoming an interesting character, she was murdered by Joffrey, presumably as an example of how horrible he was. You know, because nothing else he ever did expressed that. Or what about Talisa, who was invented for the show and made into a major character so that we could learn more about the war from Robb’s perspective, only for her and her unborn child to be brutally stabbed through the stomach. You know, because the Red Wedding wasn’t graphic or violent enough.

DO: Embrace Your Twisted Source Material
Game of Thrones wouldn’t be the insane show that we know and love without embracing all of the weird, crazy things that happen in the book: a priestess giving birth to a shadow demon and ordering it to kill the king, two gruesome and deadly weddings, a small child being tossed out the window after catching the queen and her brother in a compromising situation. And those are just the ones we can name off the top of our heads. Embrace the strange, bloody things that everyone loves about the books. Keeping in the craziest, most iconic moments allow Game of Thrones to stay true to its source material while simultaneously pleasing new and old fans.  

DON’T: Value Shock Over Plot 
Game of Thrones is the bloodiest, most violent show on television, but it’s when the show decides to make things unnecessarily graphic that fans usually get upset. The long-winded descriptions of feasts that fill Martin’s writing are replaced with one sex scene after another. Characters who made it out of traumatic events alive – or were hinted at escaping – are killed in an elaborate, graphic fashion. Consensual sex scenes or ones where consent is somewhat ambiguous are re-worked into explicit rape scenes for the screen, and then never touched on again. The novels are plenty twisted and dark; if you don’t have a better reason to make things worse than “It’ll get people’s attention,” you should probably leave it as is.

DO: Feature Multiple Characters and Plots 
A Song of Ice and Fire gives many characters the opportunity to explain things from their perspective, which allows Martin to explore their inner lives and how they react to different events while also incorporating as many plots and characters as possible. It’s a great way to learn more about these characters, but it also means the reader needs to suffer through the same information from seven different points of view. The show is able to get around that by jumping back and forth between characters at crucial moments, so that instead of making the audience endure a long conversation about someone’s death, we can jump straight into them plotting what to do about it, effectively cutting out fifty pages of narration every time.

DON’T: Feel Obligated to Check In With Them 
Not every storyline moves at the same pace. We don’t need to spend ten minutes every week with a group if they’re just going to be plodding along, discussing the same vague warnings about trouble coming. The whole point of the show is that we don’t have to slog through all of this talking and walking and can instead jump straight to the good stuff. Just save the check in for when something’s going on. There’s more than enough material to fill in. Come on, have you seen the size of those books?