Another season of Game of Thrones has come and gone. As usual fans will be talking about the finale until the next season begins. Season 4 in particular has felt more action packed than previous seasons, having stuffed the purple wedding, Tyrion’s trial by combat, the Wildling attack on the Wall and Tyrion’s exit strategy into ten episodes. Red Wedding not withstanding, season three felt lacklustre and underwhelming, a sentiment I expressed in my review of the season premiere. Thankfully, season four came across much stronger and was far more entertaining and I do believe it was because there were new, interesting characters and more events that engaged the audience.
However, if any viewer had read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, they would have known all of the key points and shocking reveals. For some they might feel that knowing what is to come ruins the surprise and makes the series less entertaining but for my part I’ve never experienced adaptations that way. Reading about something and actually seeing it happen with actors and sets and effects are two separate experiences for me. Take, for instance, the battle between Oberyn Martell and ‘The Mountain’ Gregor Clegane. That was a special scene even in the novels and it really highlighted Oberyn’s martial skill. It was also interesting because in the novels there seems to be some debate about the advantages of armour. Both Bronn and Oberyn make use of their superior speed against armoured foes whereas Ser Jorah Mormont proves the effectiveness of armour against the Dothraki in the first A Song of Ice and Fire novel.
The Mountain seems less armour-clad in the television show so Oberyn’s tactics aren’t emphasised as much. He moves around quickly and with flourishes in what might be some kind of parallel to Arya’s water dancing techniques but those are just a couple of aspects where the visual representation doesn’t quite match the reader’s imagination. And then there’s the end. You know the bit I’m talking about. The bit where Gregor Clegane confesses his crimes to Oberyn while he crushes the other man’s head. As vividly as Martin depicts that scene in A Storm of Swords, it doesn’t quite match the visceral sight of it playing out in front of you. Hearing Oberyn scream as The Mountain admits to killing and raping his sister moments before his head explodes sends a shiver up your spine in a way that the literature just doesn’t.
So it all comes down to the age old question; which is better the book or the series that it is based on? J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels came under the same scrutiny when they were adapted for screen. Some people prefer the books because the characters are given more development whereas the films are basically just setting up action pieces. Others love the films because they bring the world they had only imagined to life and they cut out a lot of unnecessary padding, such as Harry’s constant angsting. Generally it is a matter of taste and both have their pros and cons.
Personally, I prefer the books because it seems that as the longer the books get the weaker the films become because they have to hit a number of big plot points so some critical character development usually gets hurried through or brushed under the rug. That and the Ginny/Harry romance makes more sense in the books. I don’t think the pairing works either way but with the film series it is clear that the studio realised too late that Ginny was an important character outside of The Chamber of Secrets and they had to hurry to salvage something. In many ways, Harry Potter might have benefited from being made into a television series like Game of Thrones. There would have been far less pressure to fit everything from one book into a single film in that regard.
Then you have a writer like Stephen King who has a tumultuous relationship with adaptations of his novels. King has stated outright that he doesn’t like Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. Misery as a film is also strangely tamer than the novel. But King’s novels, much like Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, draw much from their main character’s mind set. Much can be understood of their world from their thoughts and introspection and that is a rather difficult thing to depict on screen. That’s not to say that The Shining or Misery aren’t good films, they are just coming from different angles. You could read one and watch the other and come to two separate and no less valid conclusions based on the content within.
As a writer it is my instinct to always say that the books are better but that’s clearly biased. I want to say that because if books aren’t worth reading if television is better then no one would read my work. Yet, I can also understand why one might choose television and film over literature. While novels utilise all the senses, TV and movies rely on one or two at most. Although, it is no longer true to say that television is a simpler distraction. The golden age of television; The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, has made it clear that television is not just for those who want a quick fix. It is emotive and potent and sometimes seeing something just makes it feel all the more real.
The truth is that the question of whether books or television and film are better will likely never be answered. It is a matter of taste more than anything. Some people can’t watch television because they get so caught up on the little details and mistakes that is annoys them. Others don’t have the time or attention to sit down and read, so they would rather watch television while they do chores. Yet so long as creativity and imagination are free those that seek either one will never be starved of entertainment.