The fast-approaching 6th season of Game of Thrones represents an unprecedented scenario: an adaptation of a literary work has outpaced its source material. Game of Thrones’ fifth season finished with its characters approximately where they are at the conclusion of the most recently finished book of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Dance with Dragons. There is no literature left to adapt. While the writers of Game of Thrones have not been overly strict in maintaining fidelity to the source material, omitting certain plot details, adding others, shifting characters from one storyline to another, and while it has been reported that Martin has given showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss an outline of his next two novels, this is the season in which the TV series and the novels will truly diverge. Like all TV series and films based upon literature, Game of Thrones will be different from A Song of Ice and Fire but for the first time in, perhaps, the entire history of adaptation, the adaptation will be available before its source material. Fans will not know how they are different, just that they are. If the 6th Season of Game of Thrones is as good as previous seasons, and there is no reason to think it will not be, it will stand as evidence of a much debated truth: a literary adaptation’s fidelity to its source material is irrelevant.
Go to any movie based upon a popular novel, especially one adapted from a popular fantasy or science-fiction series, and when the credits roll you will invariably hear someone complain “That sucked, it was nothing like the book,” or “The book is way better,” or “they ruined the book”. While, of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion, these complaints are not valid. Books and film are drastically different storytelling media; all books are different from all films. Books are an internal art form, films are external, the writer of novels may explicitly state their characters thoughts and feelings, in film the inner-life of characters is, and should be, left to interpretation by the audience. That is, unless the filmmakers have decided to explicitly state a character’s feelings aloud through voiceover, the epitome of hack screenwriting.
When a filmgoer registers the “it was nothing like the book” complaint they are referring to characterization or, more often, plot points appearing in a book that were changed or omitted in the film adaptation. To judge a film as good or bad based upon its plot’s similarity to that of the book on which it is based is naturally a flawed critical approach as it does not address the quality of the filmmaking on display, simply the fidelity of the adaptation. A film should be judged upon its own merits. If Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, differs in numerous ways from J.K. Rowling’s novel Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, one cannot, or can but should not, say that this makes the film “bad” as a great many wonderful films share no story or plot elements at all with the novel Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban.
An obviously fictional situation: In 1996, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson sets out to adapt Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of The Speckled Band”. When the photography and editing of this adaption is completed, the film produced is Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997). While fans expecting a Sherlock Holmes mystery would most certainly be surprised and likely disappointed to be presented with a comedy/drama about an ersatz family of pornographers in late ‘70s California, would Boogie Nights be any lesser a film were it advertised as an adaptation of “The Speckled Band”? The question really is “Would Boogie Nights be a lesser film if its title were “The Adventure of The Speckled Band?” Of course it would not. A good movie is a good movie.
The requirement that a film mimic its source material further breaks down in that it would require the viewer to have read the source material prior to viewing the film to be able to think critically about it, to determine its quality. It is a preposterous notion that two people could go to a theater to see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), only one of whom has read Suzanne Collins Catching Fire, and only that viewer is able to render a decision about the quality of the film. It is similarly preposterous that a person could watch No Country for Old Men (2007), love it (as most people who see No Country for Old Men do), and decide to read Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name only to find out that in adapting the book the Coen Brothers made some significant alterations to the plot and decide that the film is not “good” after all. This is the situation that fans of A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones find themselves in now; if the metric by which you judge the program is its fidelity to Martin’s books, they will not know if the show is “good” until Martin’s The Winds of Winter is published on a date yet to be determined. For a critic to think critically about text, they need only to have viewed the text itself, be it film, literature, music, etc. While the source material will, in almost all cases, inform the adaptation, the adaptation is, and should, not be defined by parameters of the source material.
The statement about any relationship between source material and adaptation “the book is better” or “the movie is better” must be answered with the question “a better what?”. Books and films do different things; the consumer interacts with them in different ways. A book is consumed at the pace of the reader, and while a film or television program can be viewed in fits and starts, pausing when desired, the filmmakers determine its pace. So while the writer of the novel can, ostensibly, use as many pages as they deem necessary to tell their story, the filmmaker, or showrunner must work within timeframes that have been deemed allowable for filmed media: approximately 90 to 180 minutes for a feature, 21 to 50 minutes for an episode of television. Due to the dictates of studio demands and the human attention span, a filmmaker must tell the story they want to tell within a limited timeframe. For adaptations this usually means that filmmakers must make changes to the source material in order to streamline the narrative and to communicate the ideas they want to communicate, and to stick to those elements of the narrative that are cinematic, excising those that are not.
The bottom line is that a filmmaker’s responsibility is simply to make a good film. If these means making changes to the story because, as is the case with all adaptations, some elements of the source material will translate better to the screen than others, then the changes should be made. While it is certainly going to be in a film’s best interest financially to retain those ideas in the source material that will translate cinematically, fidelity for fidelity’s sake is not in a film’s best artistic interests. The good news for book lovers is that no matter how different a film adaptation of a book may be, the movie can never “ruin the book”. No matter how good or bad an adaptation may be, the book remains just as it was before the film was made. Nobody can expect a film to replicate the experience of reading a book; this is not possible. If you want to repeat the experience of reading a book, read the book again; it has not changed.