Game of Thrones: To Read or Not to Read? [Think Tank]

Should you dive into "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels now that you love the "Game of Thrones" HBO series?

[Last week, with all the Game of Thrones posts on Overthinking It, I asked our internal email list whether I should declare “GoT Week.” This is part of the email thread that ensued. (Spoiler alert for the first novel and the first season of the HBO series.) —MW]

Sounds great! But for the posts specifically about the TV show, we should ask commenters not to bring in spoilers from the books fair warning. I’m trying to avoid spoilers myself, which is stressful. (The Onion TV Club has an elegant solution of printing two reviews each week, one for “newbies” and one for fans of the book, where they can discuss what they know about the big picture. Interesting situation.)

Are you not going to read the books?

I’m enjoying the show too much to read the books! I’ll read them in eight years, when the show is done.

The books are better. Richer, more complicated, more fully developed. Less satisfying in terms of T&A — breasts are kind of a let-down when described, as opposed to viewed, and HBO has made them the unique value proposition of its whole network — but more satisfying in nearly every other respect.

But that’s fine, you just keep doing the dumb thing you’re doing.

But I feel like I wouldn’t have loved the series as much if I had read the books first. I totally didn’t expect Sean Bean to die! Seems a shame to know what’s coming in Season 2.

First of all, congratulations on not knowing that they kill Ned. I agree, that was shocking when I read it (back in 1996)—actually literally: my heart started racing and my jaw dropped—and seemed to signal that this series would be a game-changer for epic fantasy. Still, it does seem like the stock example of a GoT plot twist—like the time in book 4 where Tyrion invents a time machine—so I’m surprised that it wasn’t quoted to you out of context.

Kidding, by the way. Tyrion doesn’t invent a time machine.

But let’s think through the implications. I propose that your argument boils down to this: “I take pleasure in the series, part of which is not knowing what happens. If I read the books, knowing the story would ruin the pleasure I take in the TV show. Enjoyment: Net loss.”

(The relationship of “spoilers” and surprise to narrative pleasure is a subject for another OTI article or ten, but let’s just assume that spoilers would ruin your enjoyment.)

What I’m saying is that you’d gain more than you’d lose. There are a (very) few things that the series does better than the books, but many, many more things the books do better than the series—just because there’s more time, and because you have access to unmediated information from a character’s own thoughts. Peter Dinklage does a great job (bad English dialect aside) on the show, but Tyrion is a lot more interesting in the books where you can actually follow his reasoning and understand his complicated relationships to his family.

This is not to deny the series its due. I hate to be all, “A picture is worth a thousand words” (especially since before I was all, “Don’t Believe Your Eyes“), but the hilarious, pitiful, oh-so-human sight of old Grand Maester Pycelle doing deep knee bends after the prostitute leaves him in s1e10 is definitely worth a couple pages of novel.

Also, at the end of the first season, the sight of the cute little dragon head poking up over Dany’s shoulder is pretty awesome, and managed to surprise and delight even me who have read the books a couple times. Martin himself has said on his livejournal (!) that he enjoyed being able to do things on TV that his narrative technique doesn’t allow him in prose, like the private confrontations between Varys and Littlefinger, which can’t be in the book because there’s no POV character to witness them.

Film presents a sensory world and approximates the internal world. Novels present an internal world and approximate the sensory world. I’m saying that in this case, it’s worth it to take the latter.

I also think you’re kind of participating in puritanical self-denial. We all agree that one of the things about GRRM is that he’s a good storyteller. (Not necessarily a great prose stylist… if I read about one more ruby “glistening redly”, I think I’m going to throw my valuable first edition hardcover across the room. And it’s kind of interesting that one skill — telling compelling stories — doesn’t necessarily map onto the other skill — writing prose of literary interest.) The story grabs hold and doesn’t let go. (OK, it wanders a little bit in the first half of book 4.) I’ll grant you that finding out what happens is one of the great pleasures of GoT.

Here’s what I’m saying: You can find out NOW! Today! One click on the Kindle, and you can learn the fate of The King In the North, what happens to Dany and the dragons, how things fare for Sansa and Joffrey, and Tyrion’s adventures in space. (Kidding about that last one.) If you enjoy the thing as much as you claim to, why wait?

I am absolutely looking forward to reading the novels, and I’m sure they’re all that and a bag of chips. But here’s something to consider: a great TV show is a rarer commodity than a great book.

There are literally dozens of books on my shelf right now I’m dying to read, but not that many TV shows that leave me counting the days until the next episode. Here’s something else to consider: reading the books before the TV show may very well take away from my enjoyment of said show (I’ve read many blog posts on this site and others testifying to that), but watching the TV show and then reading the books will probably only deepen my appreciation of how much better the books are.

If I read the books first, I’m inevitably going to be disappointed with what the show leaves out. But if I watch the show first, I’ll be dying to read all the cool stuff I missed.

And it’s not as if I’m vowing never to read a page until the series wraps for good and Peter Dinklage takes home his seventh Emmy. If the show is really covering one novel per season, then I can look forward to enjoying the show every spring, and the tackling another novel every summer. I’m a Utilitarian, and I think this way I get maximum enjoyment of both show and book. But hey, I was the kind of kid who would ration his Halloween candy to try and make it last to the NEXT Halloween. I get the sense that November 1 found you facedown in a puddle of chocolatey drool.

It is true that your enjoyment of the series will probably decrease slightly if you read the books, because you will no longer be able to be surprised by plot twists. But your enjoyment of the books, when you get around to reading them, will also be reduced if you’ve watched the series, because you will no longer be able to be surprised by plot twists.

The question then becomes: to which medium is the pleasure of being surprised by plot twists a more important component?

And actually, I really don’t know. I planned to enter this argument on Wrather’s side—staying away from the books because you want to preserve the experience of the TV show seems like not eating any cake because you want to leave room for more icing. It’s like not reading Batman because you don’t want to spoil the plot twists from a crossover with Nightwing. Why privilege the subsidiary work over the backbone of the franchise? But I think TV might benefit more from plot twists than the books do. Which would suggest that you’re going about it the right way.

On the other hand. Let me ask you a question: Why was Sansa Stark unwilling to confirm Arya’s side of the story about Nymeria biting Joffrey?

If your answer is “I don’t really know,” you can probably go ahead and read the books in 2020. If you feel like you understand her motivations clearly, though, you’d better read them now. Because they did explain it in the books, but they didn’t explain it on the show, which means that if you’ve come to a conclusion about her motivations it’s based only on your own internal completion of the text, and when you eventually do read that passage (or any passage about the characters’ internal lives), you’re going to be thinking “Hey, wait a minute, it wasn’t like that at all!” Which will damage your experience of the books a lot more than knowing the plot twists in advance would damage your experience of the show.

Something similar happens with the introduction of characters. You know Tyrion’s mercenary buddy Bronn, right? Not the most important character in the world, but he’s been in a bunch of episodes now. In the books, he’s introduced alongside, like, twenty other characters who all get killed or wander off or become unimportant for some reason over the course of a few chapters. The fact that Bronn turns out to be an important supporting character is legitimately surprising in the book—it’s not a sudden twist, but it is… well, interesting, for want of a better word. In the series, they can’t do that: because they’re condensing, only the most important characters get to show up on screen. So if you wait to read the books until the end of the series, all of the other characters are going to seem like wasted paper. “Why in the hell am I supposed to care about Brynden and Edmure Tully?” you will wonder, as you read about them for page after page. And sometimes, these little disposable character moments build up to something much more important over time. (I’d name names but that would be spoiling…) In the series, they’re either going to have to leave those characters out entirely, or be much more straightforward about telling their stories, essentially elevating them to the principle cast.

Finally, the world of the series is still ethically flattened. You know Danaerys’ knight, Jorah Mormont, right? He’s been exiled from the seven kingdoms for slave trading. Boo, hiss! Makes him a bad guy. But maybe he can redeem himself by serving her, yeah? Okay, in the books his specific crime is selling the poachers to slave traders rather than either a) killing them, or b) sending them off to the wall, where they would have had to serve as soldiers for the rest of their lives. Not without pay, presumably, since we know that some of the watchmen hire prostitutes, but certainly without much pay, and certainly without being allowed to quit or leave. The Night’s Watch isn’t slavery, but it’s definitely in the same ballpark as slavery. Doesn’t make Jorah a great guy, but it makes his backstory a lot more complex than simply “Boo, hiss! Slavery!” And I would wager that I get more out of the scenes with Jorah, knowing what I know about him, than you do, knowing what you know. Even if I’m not going to be surprised when, in season 2, he and Tyrion join forces to fight a Klingon invasion force.

Okay, how about this for a compromise: I will start playing the Game
of Thrones card game

I assume it’s just like Magic: The Gathering, except with no magic.

What do you think? Dive into the novels? Or wait a decade? Sound off in the comments.