With its sixth season now underway, Game of Thrones has done the seemingly unthinkable and outpaced its own source material. As many frustrated readers are acutely aware, author George R.R. Martin has repeatedly delayed his next novel, The Winds of Winter, to the point where its own TV adaptation has managed to pull ahead of it. While we’re now in the weird, not very ideal situation where the overarching plot of Martin’s remaining novels will be spoiled by the show, up until this point, the opposite has largely been true. Although Game of Thrones can reasonably be declared one of the best cinematic adaptations of literary fiction of all time, it’s had to make a number of significant concessions and changes along the way that make it quite a bit different from Martin’s source material. Many of these changes have not necessarily been for the better, but there are some ways in which the show actually improved on the books, with the following being the most prominent examples.
10. Aging The Characters Up
Game of Thrones is a drama for adult viewers, which makes it surprising that so many of its most important characters are quite young at the beginning of the series. That being said, if you look at Martin’s source material, these characters are significantly younger than their on screen counterparts, so much so that the show’s producers really had no choice but to age all the younger characters up. For reference, these are the ages that the following characters begin the series at in Martin’s text: Robb, 15, Jon, 14, Daenerys 13, Sansa, 11, Arya, 9, and Bran, 7. All of these characters were aged up at least a few years in the show, primarily to avoid some extremely awkward situations down the road.
Witnessing a 13-year-old Daenerys getting raped on her wedding night would have been unnerving even by HBO standards, not to mention how jarring it would have been to see a 14-year-old Jon Snow pull of the heroics that Kit Harington has accomplished. Of course, there are exceptions in all of this: Margaery’s age in the books is listed as 16 and though it’s never explicitly stated on the show, it was still more than a little unsettling to see a 33-year-old Natalie Dormer take young Tommen to bed for some wedding night intercourse.
9. Margaery Is More Complex
Margaery Tyrell isn’t all that interesting in the books. She’s characterized as little more than a cipher who is used as a plot device, particularly when it comes to anything Lannister-related. Fortunately, the Margaery of Game of Thrones is much more dynamic, thanks in large part to actress Natalie Dormer’s strong performance and an increase in the character’s role. Played with a seductive, but oddly innocent charm by Dormer, Margaery is presented as a pragmatic social climber who knows how to attain power, while somehow still remaining one of the more virtuous characters on the show.
There’s also an expansion of Margaery’s relationship with her mother-in-law Cersei, with the two slyly playing off the other in their own particular way (no one brings out Cersei’s bad side quite like Margaery). Although Margaery is outclassed by her even more ambitious grandmother Lady Olenna Tyrell, it’s a bit unfair to compare the two when the latter is being played by the likes of Diana Rigg. Still, Game of Thrones took the unimaginative Margaery of the source material and turned her into one of the show’s best female characters, which is definitely an accomplishment worth making note of.
8. Making Robb Stark A “Point of View” Character
Game of Thrones viewers who haven’t read any of Martin’s novels may be surprised to learn that Robb Stark — a very important character in the early seasons of the show — is essentially a minor character in the books. Martin writes each chapter of his novels from the point of view of a different character, which not only indicates which ones are the most important, but also reveals their inner thoughts and feeling. Robb was never a point of view character and any information readers were given about him came from other characters (mostly his mother Catelyn Stark). Game of Thrones made the right decision in depicting Robb as a “P.O.V” character, as this made him a more nuanced, interesting character overall, and helped make his eventual assassination at the infamous Red Wedding more impactful as a result.
7. Daenerys’s Rise To Power
Daenerys’s storyline may be one of the most frustrating in both the books and show, as it often feels like a waste of so much potential. Dany’s arc in the first book (and season) is absolutely captivating; starting out as timid and controlled by the men around her, Dany is eventually metaphorically and literally reborn in fire by the end. Unfortunately, the new, more confident Daenerys Targaryen quickly finds herself in one mediocre storyline after another, punctuated by moments of greatness that are too few and far between.
Fortunately, Game of Thrones makes an attempt to streamline some of these issues by making the plot flow better overall. In particular, season two made adjustments to ensure that her storyline from A Clash of Kings was more engaging, as it easily stands as one of the worst individual sections of Martin’s text. Plus, watching Emilia Clarke regularly tear down her enemies’ resolve with her fiery stare (and actual fire) never really gets old.
6. Theon Is Much More Sympathetic
Although Theon Greyjoy endures much the same level of torture at the hands of Ramsey Bolton on the show as he does in the books, Game of Thrones has made him out to be a much more sympathetic character overall. A lot of this has to do with little changes to Theon’s characterization throughout each season. His betrayal of Robb Stark is depicted as a much heavier burden for Theon than it was in the books and overall, Theon is less smug and more unsure of himself in the show, which makes his actions more thematically-engaging.
His execution of two northern farm boys in place of Bran and Rickon Stark is treated as a constant source of regret for Theon and even though it’s implied in A Dance With Dragons that Ramsey castrates him, Game of Thrones explicitly depicts this event taking place, which only enhances the character’s sympathetic qualities. Simply put, it takes a lot longer for Theon to become a character worth rooting for in the books, which makes his story more difficult to get on board with. In contrast, Theon is given added complexities on the show, and is a more engaging character overall (although the torture stuff really did go on for far too long).
5. The Brienne and Hound Fight
Despite being a very likable character, Brienne of Tarth spends most of Martin’s novels engaged in tedious plot lines that take forever to get to the point. While the show has also stumbled with how to use Brienne from time-to-time, it’s done a much better job of integrating her into the larger plot and even has her meet multiple characters she never did in the books. Case in point: the epic sword fight she has with Sandor “The Hound” Clegane at the end of the fourth season.
This event never happened in the books, as the Hound was instead wounded at an inn during a fight with some of his brother’s men. In addition to being one of the best duels in all of Game of Thrones, this fight also brought Brienne into contact with Arya Stark, whom she swore an oath to find and protect. Having Arya refuse Brienne’s services added some much-needed character development for Brienne that just wasn’t present in the books and made her oath seem all the more depressingly unattainable (further reinforced by Sansa Stark’s spurning in the fifth season).
4. Sansa In Winterfell
While Sansa Stark has always been one of the most sympathetic characters in both Martin’s novels and Game of Thrones, she hasn’t always been a very likable one. Thankfully, things have been trending up for Sansa in the past few seasons of the show thanks to a combination of the writers giving her more to do and actress Sophie Turner becoming increasingly confident in the role as she’s gotten older. The novels and TV show maintain a very similar arc for Sansa right up until the death of her Aunt Lysa. In Martin’s story, Sansa pretty much hangs around the Eyrie putting up with the sickly Lord Robin and the machinations of Littlefinger. Things take a wide left turn in the show, with Sansa returning to her childhood home of Winterfell to become Ramsey Bolton’s wife, a storyline that was actually given to Jeyne Poole in the books (this character doesn’t exist on the show).
Although the show has stumbled with this plot occasionally (particularly with that controversial rape scene), it’s also made Sansa seem much more pragmatic and determined than her book counterpart and helped involve her more in one of the show’s main storylines. Of course, The Winds of Winter could very well tell its own fantastic Sansa story when it is eventually released, but as of this moment, the Sansa Stark of Game of Thrones is the superior version of the character.
3. Having Tyrion Meet Daenerys
While overall a good novel, A Dance With Dragons suffers from too many instances of bloated storytelling, particularly when it comes to the continued misadventures of Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion has the same goal of reaching Daenerys in both the books and the show, but the latter handles this storyline much more efficiently. Tyrion not only has a much better paced journey to get to the city of Meereen, with the show stripping away the whole Young Griff plot entirely, he actually makes it to Meereen AND gets to meet Dany.
In contrast, by the end of A Dance With Dragons, Tyrion has yet to achieve either of these goals, which was one of the more frustrating aspects of Martin’s novel. Game of Thrones clearly recognized that these two characters needed to be on screen together sooner rather than later and found time to get them in the same room without it feeling cheap or rushed. It’s just unfortunate that we really only got about two episodes out of this development before Dany made her dragon-assisted escape from the city. Hopefully, this won’t be the last time we see the pair sharing the same frame.
2. Arya Serving As Tywin’s Cupbearer
Oh Charles Dance, how we miss you. Despite being a cold, uncompromising jerk who holds his own children in contempt, Tywin Lannister remains one of the most captivating characters in Game of Thrones history and one of the best decisions the show’s writers made was expanding his role in their adaptation. Not only do we get more Tywin in the show, we also get to see him interact with Arya Stark for a time in season two; an inspired creative choice that arguably improved upon Martin’s material.
Having two of the show’s best characters on screen together was great enough, but it also made Arya’s arc even more intriguing by having her forge a relationship with a man who is her sworn enemy and not even realize it. In comparison, this story arc wasn’t as satisfying in the books, as Arya was the cupbearer for Roose Bolton — at the time still a Stark ally — instead of Tywin, the man whose grandson lobbed off her father’s head. Looking back, we’re a bit surprised that Arya didn’t break her disguise and kill Tywin on the spot.
1. The White Walkers
Both A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones establish the White Walkers as the ultimate threat to the Seven Kingdoms, but for whatever reason, Martin’s text shoves them to the side for long stretches of time, to the point where it’s easy to forget about them altogether. While Game of Throne is guilty of doing this as well, the show has done a better job of doling out scenes featuring the White Walkers, culminating in an epic payoff in the season five episode “Hardhome,” where the White Walkers are finally shown in all their terrifying glory.
No such event has yet to take place in Martin’s books, with the author seemingly determined to keep readers and the inhabitants of Westeros as in the dark about these creatures as possible before unleashing them at a later time. This strategy may very well have a payoff, but it’s hard not to be a little frustrated with Martin’s text for doing so little with the White Walkers over the course of five novels. Truth be told, we’re much more satisfied with the show’s handling of them, keeping them at bay while revealing new and interesting bits of information about them so that viewers will always have the White Walkers in the back of their mind as a terrifying threat.