There are countless differences between HBO’s television show Game Of Thrones and its source material, George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. The world of Westeros is massive and richly detailed, and famously, even Martin himself can’t keep all of his characters straight. TV is a wholly different medium from the printed page, and as the show matures, the differences between the books and the show become more pronounced. Here’s a list of the biggest ones we could think of—ones that show the relative strengths and weaknesses of each series. Consider it a primer if you haven’t read the books—or shameless pedantry, if you have.
1. Losing, and gaining, points of view
The books of A Song Of Ice And Fire are told from the perspective of an array of characters; in the first book, that’s almost exclusively the Stark family (Ned, Catelyn, Arya, Sansa, Bran, and Jon Snow) and two other notables: Daenerys Targaryen and Tyrion Lannister. Each chapter is simply titled with the character’s name, and the story advances through their eyes. So, in the first book, A Game Of Thrones, the reader experiences Ned Stark’s imprisonment from his perspective—but his daughter Arya provides a window to his execution. As the world of Westeros rapidly expands, so do the points of view: A Storm Of Swords introduces Jaime’s perspective; A Clash Of Kings introduces Davos Seaworth’s. Later books include chapters from even more characters who had previously been seen only through the eyes of others, including Cersei Lannister and Brienne of Tarth.
Though Game Of Thrones, the show, leans on monologuing more than many dramas, it can’t use chapters of perspective to build a multidimensional whole in the same way the books can—so those characters are inevitably less nuanced than their textual counterparts. Because characters have to be quickly established, key moments of decision-making and motivation are sometimes changed. In order to establish Catelyn as maternal and Ned as duty-bound, the pilot has Ned decide to go to King’s Landing, while Catelyn tries to make him stay. In the books, this is reversed: Catelyn shows more ruthlessness, and Ned more shades of a family man. Inevitably, something is lost in translation. But the show can offer depth to characters who are otherwise marginalized by the books; Cersei Lannister, who doesn’t get a point-of-view chapter until the fourth book, has many private scenes in the first seasons of Game Of Thrones. Similarly, the show has built compelling characters out of Robb Stark, Tywin Lannister, and Ser Jorah Mormont.
2. Original characters
Although there are already hundreds of characters to draw from in A Song Of Ice And Fire, the television series has nonetheless several original characters. Such characters have often confounded book readers, who fervently speculate on what function a new character will have within the broader narrative. In some cases, they serve the purpose of more efficient storytelling for peripheral characters in the books, as was the case with Ros and her tragic time in King’s Landing. In others, they’re necessary given the absence of a different character, as demonstrated with the introduction of Locke (who cut off Jaime’s hand after Vargo Hoat was cut from the series). In the case of Talisa, however, the writers simply chose to craft an entirely different romantic story for Robb leading up to the Red Wedding, confounding fans and leading to elaborate conspiracy theories as to why the change had been made. The simple answer, it would appear, is that the writers simply wanted to tell their own story—a trend that will likely continue, as the series moves forward and more original characters are introduced for these and other reasons.
3. Aging the Stark children and Daenerys Targaryen
Of all the changes Game Of Thrones has made in adapting its source material, adding a few years to the ages of the series’ youngest protagonists makes the most sense. In the novel A Game Of Thrones, the children are introduced as following: Robb Stark and Jon Snow are 14; Sansa Stark is 11; Arya Stark is is 9; Bran Stark is 7; and Daenerys Targaryen is 13. On the page, the characters’ youth serves to make them more vulnerable, and establish a setting in which the innocence of childhood offers no special protection for anyone. The ages are also easy to forget, which comes in handy during the book series’ more violent or sexually explicit scenes. Adaptation for a visual medium required certain adjustments, however, with each major child role gaining a few years in the translation from page to screen. While the actors playing Robb, Jon, Sansa, and the others are still young, they’re all visibly older than their literary counterparts, which keeps that sense of vulnerability and despair while softening the potential for horror or unintended comedy.
4. Strong Belwas
At the macro scale, Game Of Thrones seems like a parade of grim violence and depressing outcomes, but the show makes sure that it’s damn funny as well. Almost every storyline has consistent sources of humor: the wickedly smart courtiers of King’s Landing trading barbs, Arya’s ninja badassery out in the Riverlands, Sam Tarly’s enthusiastic naïveté at the Wall, or that big guy with the funny name who carries Bran. The exception? Dany’s over-serious adventures across the Narrow Sea. In the books, that all-important fun factor is often provided by a gladiator named Strong Belwas who joins Dany’s party at the end of the second book. Belwas is large, direct, and ruled by his appetites—a sort of medieval Homer Simpson-type—but he doesn’t have very many important things to do in the story that can’t be done by others. His non-presence on the show isn’t a surprise, but it is a disappointment.
5. Dany’s visions in the House Of The Undying
Many of the changes between book and screen stem from the fact that what can be ambiguous on the page would be incredibly literal when depicted onscreen—to the point of potentially giving away future plot points. Daenerys’ vision in the House Of The Undying in A Clash Of Kings is a sequence that has been hotly debated by fans, who wonder just how much of the future of the series it predicts. (Arguably, there are moments within the vision that point to significant events in that book’s immediate sequel—and even beyond.) But to truly depict the House Of The Undying as it is on the page would likely have been prohibitively expensive and, worse, could have spoiled some of the surprises coming for those who’ve never read the books. Instead, Game Of Thrones opted for some haunting but ambiguous imagery—like a burned-out throne room suggesting a huge battle to come—then had Dany’s dead husband, Khal Drogo, tempt her with an offer to stay forever.
6. “Give me back my dragons!”
Although she is one of the books’ most memorable characters, Daenerys’ storyline is also one of the most erratically paced, creating somewhat thin storylines in season two when compared to season one. As a result, the writers tried to inject stakes and cliffhangers into an interesting, but less-structured plot focused on issues of choice and prophecy. The result was a dead handmaiden (who survived in the books), some overwrought dialogue, and a set of (different) prophecies Daenerys gains not through a conscious choice but rather inadvertently while rescuing her dragons from the House Of The Undying. The storyline has the same basic Point A and Point B as the books, but the space in between—and the memorable line, “Give me back my dragons!”—was a case of the series struggling with how to bring Martin’s languid storytelling to life on-screen. One of the unexpected results is that Dany’s khalasar has been largely backgrounded—her bloodriders are nowhere to be found, in part because of the logistics of casting and production, but also because they’re just not that important anymore. The show has course-corrected from season two, but it’s a problem the writers will likely face again before the series concludes.
7. Mysteries and histories
One of the most exciting elements of reading A Song Of Ice And Fire is trying to piece together the books’ lore—a vast and complex web of unexplained mysteries, historical details, and religious prophecy. Season one of the show offered only one mystery, and then worked toward resolving it: unraveling the lineage of Joffrey, Tommen, and Myrcella Baratheon—and by extension the death of Jon Arryn. But it can’t compete, on that front, with the dozens of unexplained stories in the books. The series has done a good job of introducing character backstory and Westerosi history in anecdotes and asides—but Martin has huge chunks of text at his disposal. It’s unlikely the show will find a way to create an aura of mystery around dropped tidbits from the books—Jenny of Oldstones, Summerhall, “Tansy,” and “Promise me, Ned” will probably remain book-only delights. But Game Of Thrones has worked hard to plant the seeds for other mysteries, and has already succeeded at pulling out the rug from under the audience more than once. Some exposition is necessarily lost, but given that, it’s impressive how much the show has managed to convey to viewers.
In both A Song Of Ice And Fire and Game Of Thrones, Arya Stark’s time in Harrenhal is meant to be formative; as every possible avenue of protection and support is stripped away from her, she learns some hard lessons on how to stay alive and the cost (and value) of vengeance. But those lessons come from very different hands in the book and TV show. In A Clash Of Kings, Arya spends her time in the shadows of the enemy-held castle, using the “three deaths” Jaqen H’ghar owes her to bump off nearby foes. When she realizes she’s been wasting her revenge on men of little importance, she manipulates Jaqen into helping her free Northern men from the dungeons. The men take back Harrenhal, making way for the arrival of Lord Roose Bolton. Arya becomes one of Bolton’s cupbearers, and though he treats her well enough, the two form no meaningful relationship. Contrast that with TV-Arya in the second season of Game Of Thrones: Tywin Lannister arrives at Harrenhal soon after Arya is taken there, and, recognizing her intelligence, he makes her his cupbearer. Over the course of a handful of scenes, Tywin offers Arya a different kind of father figure, one who substitutes the cold logic of battle and power for anything resembling human emotion. It’s unexpectedly brilliant character development for both characters. By replacing Roose with Tywin, the show both helps to make Tywin more of a presence in the series, and streamlines Arya’s arc, transforming what had been a largely internal journey into something more openly dramatic, if not quite as brutal.
The show shifts the timing of certain events for a variety of creative reasons. Game Of Thrones futzes with the introductions of characters, moving them to earlier or later in the story in order to best maximize their impact. This is particularly clear in the case of Jojen and Meera Reed, two characters book fans feared were not going to be a part of the series at all when they didn’t appear in the show’s second season. (The brother and sister were major supporting characters in the story of young Bran Stark in the analogous book.) Yet as Bran and friends headed north to The Wall in season three, they suddenly happened upon Jojen and Meera, and much of what the Reeds taught Bran about his powers was suddenly transposed to the new season.
Similarly, there’s Theon Greyjoy’s ongoing story with Ramsay Snow. In A Clash Of Kings, Snow joins forces with Theon Greyjoy, only to betray him when Bolton forces free Winterfell. In season two of the series, Ramsay is at the head of the army attacking Theon’s siege, and his torture of Greyjoy (which is largely kept off-page in the series until later books) takes up an entire arc in season three. The outcomes are similar—Theon becomes the tortured, sniveling wreck called Reek either way—but the TV show version removes much of the suspense and surprise, exchanging that for the brutality of Ramsay and Theon’s role-reversal. Changing the chronology of the story helps to keep even faithful readers of George R.R. Martin’s novels from ever feeling entirely comfortable about whatever happens next.
10. The Freys
The most memorable scene of Game Of Thrones is arguably the Red Wedding, but viewers could easily be forgiven if they’d forgotten exactly who the Freys were and why they were so untrustworthy. In the show, they were last seen at the end of the first season, when the marriage alliance was negotiated. In the novels, however, the alliance included the integration of the Freys in all the Northern possessions—ensuring that they and their unclear motives could not be forgotten. Two younger Freys, Big Walder and Little Walder, go to Winterfell, where they bully Bran and Rickon Stark. Another Frey squires with Roose Bolton, and he provides the first clue of the Bolton-Frey alliance when he cries, “We are betrayed!” to the disguised Arya Stark. Finally, Ser Stevron Frey, Lord Walder’s heir, is an integral and trustworthy ally for Robb Stark until his death from an infected wound. Catelyn believes that had Stevron lived, he could have salvaged the Stark-Frey relationship, but the new Frey faction leaders are much less trustworthy.
Other families, like the Tullys, are also shortchanged by the show. But in storytelling terms, losing sight of the Freys affects the tone of the Red Wedding. On the show, the lack of Frey nastiness means that the Red Wedding is a real shock, where largely unfamiliar people crush the dreams of the nominal good guys. In the books, the Frey betrayal is slow yet inevitable, and its success is the surprise.
11. Combined characters
While many of the changes from book to screen are either understandable disappointments or just disappointing, the show’s success in integrating two similar characters into one has been remarkable. At best, these combinations serve two purposes: They simplify an overly complex story, and they give strong cast members more to do. The best example came in season two, when Tyrion Lannister made his sellsword Bronn captain of the City Watch. In the books, this position was given to a new character, an honorable knight named Jacelyn Bywater, who served as Tyrion’s ally before dying at the Battle Of Blackwater. Giving the position to Bronn gave that character more to do in the second season, and allowed for more buddy-comedy interplay between Peter Dinklage and Jerome Flynn.
Another example takes place in the third season, when Melisandre captures King Robert’s bastard son Gendry to prove the power of a king’s blood. In the novels, Gendry remains quietly in the Riverlands, while a different bastard, Edric Storm, is Melisandre’s pawn. In combining the two characters, the show strengthens its story by allowing Melisandre to interact with Thoros of Myr and Arya Stark—thereby humanizing a difficult character. And by putting the likable Gendry in danger of being sacrificed, the scenes where she attempts to use him and Davos works to free him are given much more emotional heft.
12. The Hound, Sansa, and Arya
The relationship between the Hound and Sansa has long been a fan favorite among book readers, complete with its own nickname—SanSan—and Tumblr tag. However, while that relationship remains present in the series, the removal of a few key sequences—including the one where the Hound tells his backstory to Sansa, along with a season two deleted scene—marginalized the relationship when compared to its textual counterpart. The series has spent more time exploring the dynamic between the Hound and Arya, which has added more shading to the Hound than did their companionship in the books. The result is two similar sequences of events in which two different relationships emerge as the most formative for Sandor as a character, and it will be interesting to see if the character’s future trajectory is altered by these subtle shifts.
13. Racial politics
An easily overlooked complexity of Westeros, even in the books, is the complicated racial politics that accompany the multiple religious practices and regional loyalties of the story. Though the books are overwhelmingly populated with white people, it’s revealed in bits and pieces that the Starks, in the north, descend from the same race as the wildlings—the First Men—while Catelyn and the rest of the kingdoms south of the Neck are “southron” people, populated by a race Martin calls the Andals. Much of the current political strife of Westeros is built off of centuries-old racial strife. It gets more complicated, too: Daenerys and the rest of the Targaryens are neither Andal nor northmen—they’re Valyrian and have the distinctive white-blond hair as a result. And Dorne, in the south, has three different races. Then, outside of Westeros, there are dozens other nationalities and races. Martin is canny with his reckoning of factionalism and ethnic self-ordering—but it makes the story a monster to cast.
As with so many of these entries, the show’s response has been largely impressive. Game Of Thrones has had to take shortcuts with some characters, but the show’s attention to production design and the overall “look” of Westeros means that even if an individual character doesn’t look exactly Rhoynar, the background characters beyond the Wall and in Essos look like the races they represent. It’s very tricky, though. Game Of Thrones has already run into optics issues, particularly with the last scene of the third-season finale, “Mhysa.” But at the same time, it’s also attempted to introduce more actors of color to the show. Salladhor Saan, the pirate from season two, is from Lys in the books—a region that is traditionally complected quite pale. In the show, he was recast as a black man, played by Lucian Msamati. The details of the books offer enough context to interpret A Song Of Ice And Fire as a complicated story about racial identity. The show has less room for those details, so it doesn’t work as well as a story about race.
14. Changing consensual sex to rape
This has already been much discussed here, but in two instances, Game Of Thrones has turned what was consensual sex in the Song Of Ice And Fire series into rape onscreen. In the first instance, in the show’s pilot, Daenerys no longer seduces her new husband Khal Drogo and is, instead, forced to have sex with him against her will. It’s worth pointing out that this is probably more realistic than the book’s 14-year-old cunning seductress act, but it definitely makes the ensuing grand love affair that develops between the two seem all the stranger. More problematic still is season four’s rape of Cersei by her brother Jaime. The two lovers are reunited after months apart in the season premiere, but Cersei says she’s moved on because Jaime took too long to come home. Then, in the third episode, he forces her to have sex with him beside the corpse of their dead son, unlike in the book A Storm Of Swords, where the scene is portrayed as far more tender. According to director Alex Graves’ interview with Alan Sepinwall, the scene was going for something more ambiguous than rape, but it certainly doesn’t play that way. (What’s more, Graves later said the scene was rape to The Hollywood Reporter.) Cersei resists, but Jaime has his way. And it hurts one of the show’s most complicated characters, possibly irreparably.
15. “The butterfly effect”
As an adaptation in progress, this list cannot be exhaustive—in fact, it was nearly out of date before it was even published. In “Oathkeeper,” the fourth episode of season four, an entirely new story thread emerges: Bran, the Reeds, and Hodor are kidnapped by mutineer Karl just as Jon Snow is about to march on Craster’s Keep, which is a new development made specifically for the television show. Add to that one of the show’s original characters, Locke—posing as a new Night’s Watch recruit—tags along with Jon, eager to end the Stark line. Plus, in the episode’s final sequence, the series gives viewers a far more detailed glimpse of the inner workings of the culture of the White Walkers—who are called the Others in the books—than anything Martin offered in the novels.
These changes highlight what Martin himself has called “the butterfly effect”—changes that build off of previous changes to create new and altogether different storylines. It’s part of the territory with any televisual adaptation: Few changes exist in isolation, so one change is likely to create two or three more as that storyline progresses. While it’s true the show is nearing a stage where it will “catch up” to where Martin is in A Song Of Ice And Fire, it seems possible the butterfly effect will have them on very different pages well before that actually happens.