Game of Thrones Season 5 Marks the Point When the Adaptation Debate Consumed the Show

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Repeat after me: This didn't happen in the books! Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

George R.R. Martin wants you to stop emailing him. The Game of Thrones author has been so overwhelmed by fans asking him about the HBO series' changes from his books that this week he posted a missive on his LiveJournal asking everyone to not include him in those discussions. "Wars are breaking out [over the changes]," Martin wrote. "It is not my intention to get involved in those, nor to allow them to take over my blog and website, so please stop emailing me about them, or posting off-topic comments here ... I cannot control what anyone else says or does." 

It was an echo of comments he'd made weeks before when he begged fans to stop talking to him about the way showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were adapting his story. It's hard to blame Martin for feeling exhausted by the topic — from the onset, the fifth season of Game of Thrones has been dominated by meta-discussions over what Benioff and Weiss kept from the books, what they changed, and why. This year, how the writers were adapting the story became the story.

In the early days of Game of Thrones, it was easy to treat HBO's show and Martin's books as one narrative with two separate audiences: Show-watchers, who were just happy to have a great fantasy series on TV, and book-readers, who tracked changes to the narrative with the diligence of a Talmudic scholar. Controversies over adaptation were limited to the latter audience, and ranged in importance from minor (replacing Jeyne Westerling with Talisa Maegyr) to silly (Theon's sister's new name) to incredibly silly (the absence of Renly Baratheon's iconic peach). But with each new season, the series diverged further and further from Martin's template as the show's popularity grew. More show-watchers (myself among them) picked up the books and absorbed Martin's lore, creating a third group of fans. This new cohort inherited the book-readers' devotion to the source material, while still maintaining the show-watchers' obsessive need for Game of Thrones #content.

With two scenes in the fourth season, the issue of Benioff and Weiss's narrative choices was suddenly thrust to the forefront. The first was the Jaime-Cersei sex scene in "Breaker of Chains," which had been consensual in the books, but for most show viewers was clearly not. (Only by analyzing the scene with a Zapruder-level intensity was it possible to make sense of what the creators intended.) It was impossible to discuss the controversy without mentioning this discrepancy — indeed, for the first time, the discrepancy was the controversy. Then, in the season finale, fans raged after the long-awaited Lady Stoneheart failed to materialize. Wait, who's Lady Stoneheart?, show-watchers asked, and book-readers dutifully answered them. For the first time, book events not seen in the show were on the table for discussion.

Now it seems like the changes have become the only discussion. As Martin promised, the fifth season has been the biggest departure from the book yet, which makes the question of how Benioff and Weiss are adapting the story as interesting as the show itself. Some changes had book-readers scrambling for hints about Martin's plans for the rest of the "Song of Ice and Fire" saga. Mance Rayder and Barristan Selmy were killed off: What did that mean for their fates in The Winds of Winter? The entire Young Griff plotline was excised entirely: Is it nothing but a red herring in the books? Elsewhere, the show briefly touched on concepts so complicated only a book-reader could explain it in full. What the heck was greyscale and why did Jorah get it? Who was the Night's King, and where did he come from? Show-watchers wanted answers, dammit, and readers were only too happy to provide.

Then came the show's largest change from the book yet: Instead of being married off to some random knight in the Vale, Sansa took the place of her old friend Jeyne Poole and went north to marry Ramsay Bolton. In the season's most harrowing scene, he raped her on their wedding night. Why did Benioff and Weiss make such a change? Fandom nearly tore itself apart on the issue. Some argued the writers were brutalizing Sansa for the hell of it, while others saw a desperate attempt to match the shock value of the Red Wedding. Defenders of the scene pointed out that it was even more graphic in the books, or argued that consolidating the characters was just effective storytelling. Others turned the morality debate back at the outraged parties — if some readers thought Benioff and Weiss having Ramsay rape Sansa was over the line, why were they okay with Martin having him rape Jeyne? (In fairness, many people weren't, and Martin soon after issued a statement on his use of sexual violence as a storytelling tool.)

Sunday night's episode brought a different-flavored version of the same debate. Shireen Baratheon was safe and sound at Castle Black at the end of A Dance With Dragons, but Benioff and Weiss had her father burn her to death anyway. Were they "destroying" Stannis's character, injecting a touch of Greek myth to the proceedings? Or had they just run out of young women to terrorize? The controversy raged on until, in an appropriately Thrones-style twist, Benioff and Weiss revealed that the burning of Shireen came to them straight from Martin's unpublished novels. "When George first told us about [Shireen's death], it was one of those moments where I remember looking at Dan," Benioff explained. "It was just like, 'Oh, that's just so horrible, and so good in a story sense.'" Now that the scene wasn't a show invention, the debate took a turn — sure, it was fine for Benioff and Weiss to spoil Martin's books in their TV show, but was it morally right for them to do it in an interview?

Of all the possible things to talk about, why is this conversation the one that dominates? One factor is that a large number of these changes involve violence against women, a subject guaranteed to explode like wildfire into a series of hot takes. But in a larger sense, it goes back to the way we think about TV. Television is a writer's medium, everyone says, and the all-knowing showrunner has auteur cred typically reserved for celebrated film directors. With Mad Men and Breaking Bad, we fawned over Matthew Weiner and Vince Gilligan, and eagerly anticipated the delicious endings they had in store for us. Benioff and Weiss, though, are working off someone else's script; the traditional showrunner's spotlight, then, has to focus on the choices they do make — the changes. Martin's massive tomes have given him a creative stature of his own, which makes Game of Thrones the rare prestige drama with two authors. (Yes, Benioff and Weiss are separate people, but they're often treated as one unit — "D&D" — by the fandom.) This is conflict that needs resolution, and whatever their true relationship, it's easy to think of Benioff and Weiss locked in battle with Martin over who deserves the Iron Throne of authorship. By obsessively scrutinizing their changes, we're monitoring their progress in this trial by combat. When they're writing those wonderful two-person dialogue scenes between characters who never met in the books, they're Bronn wearing down Ser Vardis Egan. When they're inventing a meandering, pointless plotline in Dorne, they're getting their head squished in.

If that all sounds a little too violent of a metaphor for dudes who look like this, take solace in the fact that season five is probably the last time we'll be having these particular debates. This weekend's finale should get Game of Thrones right up to the end of Martin's published material, and in the likely event that The Winds of Winter isn't out by next spring, book-readers and show-watchers will be flying equally blind in season six. There will be no way of knowing what comes from the books and what's a show-only invention. You have to think the creators will welcome the shift — it'll be a lot less scrutiny for Benioff and Weiss, and, hopefully, a lot less email for George R.R. Martin.