Is HBO Winning the Game of Thrones?

No life of writer bits or anecdotes today.

It’s time for full on fandom madness and a chance to throw my own gauntlet down in this proverbial game of thrones.  And if my live studio audience has not completely caught up on either the books series or the television series, there be spoilers ahead.  Spoilers I say!

If you’ve not yet witnessed either the book or program, it’s not too late to jump into a dark, unpleasant fictional place where no one is safe.  Yes, this includes one of my all time favorite characters, the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Jon Snow.

As Cersei Lannister once proclaimed, “You either win or die at the game of thrones. There is no middle ground.”

Ever since Cersei’s caveat to the late, great Eddard Stark, the game appears to have far fewer pieces on the board in HBO’s Game of Thrones, their ambitious adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.  We’re five seasons in with two to go and the Internet is again in flames as angry fans combat one another in virtual reality regarding the television show, controversial cliffhangers and whether or not anyone will survive the series.

Since HBO set both network records and series records with 8.1 million viewers at the end of season five, it appears the pay channel is indeed winning the game of thrones.  I’m not so sure.  Despite the record numbers, I think there is a middle ground here as the producers of the program continue to drift from elements that made the books into best sellers.

HBO has won already for their specific mission to get eyes on the network, I just wonder if the series will stand the test of time as a quality representation of the source material.

Sure, choosing book over screen is a layup, an easy score for anyone who has read the stories and then watched the show.  I’m generally not one of those observers who always takes the side of the book.  I think both formats can uniquely add to our world of entertainment in their own way.  And of course, it is impossible to cover over 1.7 million words in five books — already nearly four times longer than Lord of the Rings, in fifty hours of television programming.

Ultimately, it is the scenes and characters the show has chosen to add or change in a world where they are unable to cover all the existing bases.

But let’s first join together for a moment.  For the first time, the viewers of the series are in essence caught up with the readers.  Sort of.  There are still some substantive elements the show may yet use that they skipped in the last couple of books.  That aside, several key moments were close enough to the books that offered drama to conclude season five.

Cersei’s horrifying walk of shame is pretty much an exact take from Martin’s series. And for as many evil things as she has done, she’s still human, and it was a tough scene to watch.   Daenerys Targaryen’s final bit was different, but close to where her situation is on the other side of the world and well, of course, there was Jon’s last scene.  Or will it be Jon’s last scene?

For the most part, George R.R. Martin’s dead characters stay dead, but we have a few  clues we can use to hold on to some hope.  Hope is in short supply in either incarnation of the story.  In the book, Jon calls for Ghost, his dire wolf.  And as Bran Stark has shown, some of the family has the ability to morph or merge consciousness with animals and other beings.  That and Melisandre, the red priestess favors Jon Snow quite a bit, if he still has breath in him, she may be able to save him.  Maybe.

That is if Eddard Stark is truly Jon’s father.  There are many hints in the books that suggest otherwise. Which brings me back to the critique phase.

The television program insists on multiple additional sex scenes, relationships and completely stapled on story elements, leaving history and dramatic build up in the dust.  So little of the back story has been introduced, television fans don’t even know some of the background mysteries yet to be solved.  The dire wolves, the ravens, the effects of the war on common folk are all key parts of the story often left out of the show.

Unless viewers have a series reader like me whining about it all the time.  I probably drive my wife crazy with all the extra details and differences. Luckily she hasn’t thrown the television remote at me.  Yet.

My biggest gripe is that the television show is flat out more misogynistic than the books.  Yes, absolutely horrible things happen to women and men in the books, it is plenty dark.  The Red Wedding is far more brutal in the books to me. However, there is no need to add rape scenes at Craster’s cottage beyond the Wall and dead naked prostitutes in King Geoffrey’s suite where they didn’t occur in the pages.  I understand it’s cable TV and naked women are a part of the HBO legacy, but there are enough existing story elements to reference versus feeling a bizarre need to add more.  A record number of added, extended brothel scenes to the screen as another example.  I’m a big fan of the female form, but if it doesn’t add value to the story, don’t constantly overdo it.

Horrible things may await Lady Sansa, but none of that stuff happened to her at all in the books at this point.  I’ve heard apologists argue these bad things and happen to her dear friend Jeyne in the books, but it was more telling than showing.

As to shock for the sake of shock value, it does look that what when you take shortcuts to get to the bigger scenes.  Tyrion’s journey after killing Tywin is much longer, and more difficult.  And some of those scenes from the book may ironically be ignored for political correctness.  Tyrion serves as Medieval entertainment along the way due to his physical stature, but the television audience will never understand how much he endured on his journey.

There, I have added my two copper pieces to the mix. As a fan of the Stark family, I should realize things rarely go my way. At least all of this controversy appears to be pushing book six of the series toward a possible release next spring.

Criticism aside, the program also provides some really cool and positive things to the world built by George.  One, they are generating curiosity about the books.  More readers is always a win.  Epic fantasy is entertaining millions of viewers, which is awesome.  The dragons look great, the sets are all incredible and the cast is near flawless.  The actors are the reason I will be back for more.

Brienne of Tarth is one such perfect casting and her role has been greatly enhanced with many big scenes, and almost all of it positive and interesting.  The episode Hardhome, the big zombie battle with the wildlings,  is vastly different than the books, but was extremely well done as it reminded viewers and readers alike what the real stakes are in this epic.

In the grand scheme of things, HBO has offered a wildly successful program to the world.  Because George R.R. Martin is a deliberate writer, they are going to win the race to the end of the story, and it may be completely unique to the end of the books.  HBO will win the race, but perhaps lose the battle of storytelling in this game of thrones.