George R. R. Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire has become an iconic piece of high fantasy literature, almost on par with such works as The Lord of the Rings or the Chronicles of Narnia. This has been further cemented by HBO’s wildly successful TV adaptation A Game of Thrones, now in its second season, and the slew of Game of Thrones related products that have been produced as a result. One of the items being sold is a Game of Thrones card deck, which has many of the main characters of the show as different cards in the deck. Each of these renditions of the story tells the narrative created in the Song of Ice and Fire books in slightly different ways; the novel is very complex and brutal, the tv show is very visual, gritty, and sensual, and the card deck turns the story into an actual game of thrones (or suits).
Before we begin discussing the relationship between the different adaptations, however, the overarching narrative needs to be introduced. The Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire series is a high fantasy story, with magic and dragons. However, unlike many other works in the high fantasy genre, the Song of Ice and Fire series is much less about magic and more about political intrigue. While the setting is a medieval world as is common in high fantasy, there is little else that is similar. Much of the story takes place in a land known as the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros which descends into civil war. There are many different competitors for what is known as the Iron Throne of Westeros; several aristocratic houses which different claims to the throne or the land, and the last known survivor of a dynasty that ruled the Seven Kingdoms for nearly 300 years. Magic is all but unheard of and most do not believe in its existence at all. This is a relatively scientific world, where Maesters (essentially a combination scientist/historian/advisor) serve as advisors to every major family in the Kingdoms. Moreover, no one is safe – even main characters can (and do) die. In his article, “Epic Win” James Poniewozik quotes George R.R. Martin as saying, “A good man is not always a good King, and a bad man is not always a bad King. Probably the best man to serve as President in my lifetime was Jimmy Carter – the best human being, but he was not a good President. General goodness did not automatically make flowers bloom.” As a result, the story is much harsher than the average high fantasy novel. In fact, in the book Game of Thrones and Philosophy: Logic Cuts Deeper than Swords, Elio M. Garcia and Linda Atonsson say that the moral complexity of the novels is what makes them so enjoyable and different from other high fantasy works; the “characters are painted in ‘shades of grey’” (Game of Thrones and Philosophy, x). This is not a story where good will necessarily triumph over evil.
HBO’s TV show does a very good job of maintaining the overall feel of the novels. Elio M. Garcia and Linda Atonsson say, “the producers largely stayed faithful on all levels, weaving together a drama that combined the elements of a heroic epic with a moral scale that covered the range from the saintly to the monstrous,” (Game of Thrones and Philosophy, x). They also visually interpret this harshness, in a way the novel doesn’t. Unlike most other shows or movies set in something like the Middle Ages, everyone in the show is accurately dirty. This lack of modern hygiene is not just a problem for the men, either; even the women have dirty hair and less than perfect skin. Certainly, the vast majority of the women are uncommonly pretty, but the period-realistic hygiene makes them much more relatable than they otherwise would be. There are some things HBO has to change, though, to make the transition from novel to television show. For example, they create a definitive, inescapable look for the various characters of the show, which fans don’t always agree with. This is always an issue for works adapted into a visual medium. There are other things that get changed as well. Much of the narrative has to be compressed; each season is one novel, but the first novel is about 700 pages, and the novels increase in size as the books progress. Moreover, depending on how the numbers are crunched, there are approximately thirty main characters. That is a lot of people to fit into a television show. So far, while some plot points have been changed, it seems that no characters have been cut.
There are also some things which are changed in the television show simply to make the story more appealing to a wider audience, though. The main thing is the amount of sex in the show. HBO is famous for being a channel featuring rather racy television, and Game of Thrones is no exception. Jennifer Armstrong says that the show is an, “intoxicating combination of sex, political intrigue, soapy melodrama, fantasy, and adventure, all set against the biggest of big-budget production values” (Sex Secrets Swords). This obsession with graphic sexuality is not something that is really present in the novel. While characters certainly have sex in the novel, and sexuality plays a large role for many of the female characters, it is rarely explicitly shown. In the HBO show, however, the camera returns again and again to scenes of lovemaking – in whore houses, in royal bedchambers, in army camps. Moreover, many characters whose sexuality was only hinted at in the novel are displayed in the midst of lovemaking. This focus on making a work ‘sexy’ is a common flaw of many adaptations. However, despite these changes, the TV show has been extremely successful. According to Dave Itzkoff, HBO’s Game of Thrones has been purchased for another season (Game of Thrones, Act 3). The fans are still happy with how the show has been handled, and many people who have never read the book are now watching the show. Moreover, simplifying the storyline and including more explicit sexual encounters broadens the appeal of the narrative. This is something that is beneficial to HBO, because a broader audience means a larger number of viewers.
Finally, there is the adaptation from television show to a deck of cards. While this is probably the least complex adaptation, I nevertheless think that the relationship between the two versions warrants exploration. There is of course the problem that taking a harshly realistic and complex story and turning it into a card game grossly trivializes the subject matter, but it also showcases one of the overarching themes of the narrative. In Game of Thrones, there is a large cast of characters competing for a throne. By converting these relationships into a deck of cards, the narrative literally becomes a game. Each character is assigned a rank and a suit, which categorizes them based on importance. For example, Cersei Lannister, the Queen of Westeros, is the Queen of Spades in the Game of Thrones deck. Tyrion Lannister, Cersei’s brilliant younger brother commonly referred to as “the Imp”, is the Ace of Diamonds. Robert Baratheon, King of Westeros at the beginning of the novels, is the King of Spades. Each character is assigned a role based on the role they play in the narrative. Now, this cannot be perfect – there are many important characters who will undoubtedly be given a low rank that play an integral part in the storyline. A deck of cards has a very rigid structure, which isn’t something that would cater well to the complexity of the story. However, the deck of cards creates its own narrative. By assigning a rigid rank structure to such complex and flawed individuals, the relationships between the characters is exposed in new ways. In some cases, the relationships are changed entirely. For example, a character who dies in the novel or television show cannot be replaced by another who is vying for that position. This imposes a sort of class structure, and the character relationships are changed as a result. For example, when Ned Stark is beheaded at the end of the first book/season one, he ceases to be the head of the Stark family, the owner of Winterfell (the family castle), and the Hand of the King. His son, Robert Stark, takes over as the head of the family and Winterfell, and Tywin Lannister becomes the Hand of the King. But this change in the relationships between characters cannot be accurately represented within the structure of a deck of cards. Instead, every character’s relationship, status, and rank is static.
A Song of Ice and Fire is a complex narrative, one that is difficult to adapt due to the scale of the world. Despite this, HBO has successfully created a world of equal grandeur if not complexity. Much of what they lose as a result of the time constraints they gain through the visual representation of the world George R. R. Martin created. The Game of Thrones cards completely ignore the narrative of both the novel and the television show, but nevertheless create a different narrative focusing on the power relations between the main characters in the story. Each of these renditions is different from the other, but each modifies the narrative in unusual ways.
Armstrong, Jennifer. “Sex Secrets Swords.” Entertainment Weekly 1149 (2011): 36. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 2 May 2012.
Irwin, William, and Henry Jacoby, eds. Game of Thrones and Philosophy: Logic Cuts Deeper Than Swords. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2012. Print.
Itzkoff, Dave. “‘Game of Thrones,’ Act 3.” New York Times 11 Apr. 2012: 3. OmniFile Full Text Mega (H.W. Wilson). Web. 2 May 2012.
Poniewozik, James. “Epic Win.” Time 177.16 (2011): 60-62. OmniFile Full Text Mega (H.W. Wilson). Web. 2 May 2012.