It's time for Game of Thrones to abandon the books

Four seasons in, the HBO drama has the rare opportunity to forge its own path

Game of Thrones
(Image credit: (Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO))

When the credits rolled on Game of Thrones' fourth season finale earlier this month — after an episode that saw everything from the defeat of the wildling army to the death of Tywin Lannister — I breathed a small sigh of relief at the big plot twist that didn't happen. If you've read the books, you know exactly what I'm talking about; if you haven't, but want to be spoiled, you can read about it here. In a recent interview, the actor at the heart of that would-be storyline explains why it won't be happening in the series:

They can't stick to the books 100 percent. It's impossible — they only have 10 hours per season. They have got to keep it dramatic and exciting, and extraneous stuff along the way gets lost in order to maintain the quality of the brilliant show. [Entertainment Weekly]

The epilogue that closes out A Storm of Swords, the third book in the series, is a genuine shocker — one of the most memorable moments in a book that's absolutely full of memorable moments. It's also a digression that feels totally out of step with the tone of the TV show, and a story that draws in several of the series' most interesting characters. And now that HBO is suddenly free of it, I can't wait to see what Game of Thrones has in store for them instead.

I understand why Game of Thrones purists were upset about the choice, but I take it as a very promising sign for the future of the TV series. It has finally reached the point when it should cast off George R.R. Martin's original narrative and go confidently in its own direction.

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That's not to say Game of Thrones should disregard everything that happens in the remaining two novels that have been published, A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons. Assuming that the casting notice leaked to fan site is accurate, we already know that Game of Thrones' fifth season will introduce at least a few elements of those books, including an increased focus on the Martells of Dorne and a greater emphasis on the Faith of the Seven. So far, so good — but that still leaves plenty of stories from the books that are unaccounted for, from the extended political disputes of the Iron Islands to the introduction of disparate characters like Young Griff and Quentyn Martell.

The truth is that the sprawling nature of Martin's later novels is totally unworkable on the screen. Martin's best moments — the death of Ned Stark, the Red Wedding, the trial of Tyrion Lannister — have already passed, and there's nothing that's quite as strong on the horizon. And even if there was, is there room for it? So far, Game of Thrones has just barely managed to juggle one of biggest casts and broadest stories on television without becoming too unwieldy. But for all its success, the show can't possibly afford to introduce so many new elements in the seasons to come; even with smart streamlining and near-constant character deaths, we barely have time for the characters Game of Thrones has introduced.

But there's an even bigger problem looming than Martin's published novels — Martin's unpublished novels. He's currently plugging away on the next installment, The Winds of Winter, but the HBO series is hot on his heels; one major character is already close to the end of his storyline in A Dance With Dragons. Martin published the first novel of the series in 1996, and HBO premiered the first episode of the TV show in 2011 — but the network is already dangerously close to overtaking the books. Martin himself has conceded that the problem is "alarming," and has suggested everything from a Game of Thrones feature film to a prequel series to keep viewers occupied while he finishes writing.

But there's a much simpler option that retains the integrity of both the books and the TV series: Branch away altogether and use the TV show to tell a wholly original story. Audiences are sophisticated enough to enjoy two different versions of the same story — and is anyone really going to complain about the opportunity to get more unique stories set in the Game of Thrones universe? Take the pressure off. Martin created the series, and he should be given all the time he needs to make the books exactly what he wants them to be. Just don't let that hold the TV show back.

Worried that the creative team behind Game of Thrones won't be able to replicate Martin's voice? Let's take a look at several brilliant scenes from Game of Thrones. Here, in season one, Cersei and Robert Baratheon discuss the pivotal role their marriage plays in keeping Westeros from descending into chaos:

Here, in season three, Catelyn Stark reveals her secret shame to her daughter-in-law Talisa:

And here's the ferocious duel between Brienne and the Hound that served as the high point of season four's finale:

What do all those scenes have in common? They're completely original to the TV show.

There's a final benefit to divorcing from the novels: For the first time in Game of Thrones history, readers and viewers would be on the same page. From the very beginning, Game of Thrones has played to a divided audience: Those who know exactly what's coming, and those who desperately avoid spoilers coming from those who've read the books. For all its strengths, the arc of the TV series is so predictable to book readers that they even know when to set up cameras so they can film the reactions of unspoiled viewers.

By forging its own trail, Game of Thrones would have the rare opportunity to shock book readers even more than those who haven't picked up one of Martin's doorstops. Can you imagine the Twitter explosion if a major character — still alive in the books — was suddenly killed off in the TV series? For the first time in years, those who think they know every beat of Martin's story would get to experience it with fresh eyes, unencumbered by their own expectations.

When David Benioff and D.B. Weiss approached George R.R. Martin about adapting his books for HBO, he famously tested them on their knowledge of his books. They passed, but they've spent the past four years proving themselves in the real test: Their ability to adapt and streamline Martin's original stories for the small screen without diminishing (and often enhancing) their power. The next step is telling their own stories.

Game of Thrones' fourth season didn't end on the image A Storm of Swords' readers thought it would. Instead, it concluded with Arya Stark sailing away. If you've read the books, you think you know where the story is going — but there's no reason it needs to go there. It's a wide-open sea, and there's never been a better time for Game of Thrones to chart a new course.

For a different perspective on whether Game of Thrones should adhere to the novels, read Chris Mandle's take here.

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Scott Meslow

Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for He has written about film and television at publications including The Atlantic, POLITICO Magazine, and Vulture.