June 19, 2015
Is George R.R. Martin going to adapt himself?
by Josh Cohen
“How many children did Scarlett O’Hara have?” George R.R. Martin asks of the Gone With the Wind protagonist. “Three, in the novel. One, in the movie. None, in real life: she was a fictional character, she never existed. The show is the show, the books are the books; two different tellings of the same story.”
The show is Game of Thrones, of course, and he books are the first (and thus far only) five novels of Martin’s ongoing A Song of Ice and Fire series, which David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been adapting for television for five seasons now.
[Spoilers for both Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire to follow. If you consider knowing how many children Scarlett O’Hara has a spoiler, sorry about that, I guess, but both the novel and the movie are over 75 years old. Really this is on you for not getting to them by now.]
Martin posed the Scarlett analogy on his blog following “Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken,” the season 5 GoT episode which ended in the rape of Sansa Stark by her new husband Ramsey Bolton, an event many fans felt to be gratuitously violent. That didn’t happen in Martin’s telling of the story of Westeros, in which Sansa and Ramsey have never met at all. Putting Sansa, a character who has been a regular target for abuse, in an unprecedented circumstance of brutality was Benioff’s and Weiss’ intentional shift of the plot.
That raised discussion on whether Sansa’s assault was really necessary to the showrunners’ storytelling. As Aaron Bady argues at The New Inquiry, of course it’s not, because Game of Thrones and the violence within it are not necessary. The story of Westeros does not need to be told. In Martin’s terms, there is no Sansa Stark and no Ramsey Bolton; the horror he inflicts upon her was brought into existence solely to entertain and compel.
Martin took umbrage with fans desiring his comment on something entirely of the show’s creation, part of what he regards as an independent storytelling entity from his own. But as Game of Thrones’ fifth season progressed, the show began to surpass the books, and that fine line of independence may be fading from existence.
A young woman’s rape wasn’t the only questionably “necessary” atrocity added to season five from beyond the ASOIAF canon. A man also burned his young daughter alive. Stannis Baratheon had Shireen, his bright-eyed daughter with whom he had one of the few touching relationships in all of sprawling Westeros, burned at the stake in sacrifice to the Lord of Light. In HBO’s Inside the Episode on “The Dance of Dragons,” Benioff revealed the showrunners were “shocked” when Martin told them Shireen would eventually die this way in the books, of which he is still writing the final two of the series, and in which Shireen Baratheon is alive and well.
There are two questions of ethics here. The first is easy: should Benioff and Weiss have revealed an unreleased plot point of Martin’s books? Of course not. So much from the books could have been spoiled over the years, from Ned Stark’s shocking death to the shocking deaths of the Red Wedding to Jon Snow’s shocking death (???); Benioff and Weiss ought to treat Martin’s unseen material with the same respect he treated theirs.
And here it gets trickier: Martin laid out events to come, up to and including the endgame of A Song of Ice and Fire, because Game of Thrones is about to blow by the books. Season six, due out next April, will focus mostly on the events of The Winds of Winter, Martin’s perpetually forthcoming sixth entry, which still has no release date. Unless Martin gives fans some long-awaited good news soon, it’s unlikely he gets book six to shelves before season six hits screens. And even if HBO gives Benioff and Weiss eight seasons to finish their story, there’s no way you can expect Martin, who has released just two new ASOIAF books since 2000, to get two more out by 2018.
So the immolation of Shireen Baratheon will certainly not be the last twist the show will depict before the books do. Which begs the question: will Martin be adapting the show adapted from his writing?
In one sense, Martin can stand by whatever authorial choices he makes, regardless of their origin. And that’s valid. But until he actually submits a finished draft of The Winds of Winter, he could conceivably change his mind, and that’s also valid. Maybe Benioff and Weiss have a good idea that he decides to incorporate. Maybe Benioff and Weiss burn a little girl alive because Martin told them to, and after a negative reception, he decides not to include that detail anymore.
In any adaptation, the relationship of the story to the source is inevitably a complicated one. Whether you’re talking about the nonfictional biography of one man or the fictional history of an entire fantasy world, the given circumstances that provide the foundation of the story become changed through the new lens applied to its telling.
The relationship between Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire is now without precedent. J.K. Rowling was only through four Harry Potter books when Sorcerer’s Stone was released, but Deathly Hallows came out while Order of the Phoenix was still in theaters. We have no frame of reference for what happens when a filmed series surpasses its written source material.
Because of its violence, its politics, its ambition, Game of Thrones has always received a greater level of scrutiny than your average adaptation. Because A Song of Ice and Fire, like Game of Thrones, is an ongoing story, Martin’s work has been scrutinized alongside Benioff’s and Weiss’. Expect that link the link between them to become even more inextricable over the years to come.
How many children does Stannis Baratheon have, and how many husbands does Sansa Stark have? In the books it’s one and none, on the show none and one. Two different tellings of the same story, and that’s the key here: despite the differences, Martin is telling the same story as Benioff and Weiss are at the same time. No matter how Martin wants their works to be treated, A Song of Ice and Fire will not truly stand independent as long as people are watching Game of Thrones.
Josh Cohen is a contributing editor for MobyLives.