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

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?

37 Comments on “Game of Thrones: To Read or Not to Read? [Think Tank]”

  1. babybiceps #

    After first hearing about the tv show, I got hold of the novels through a friend who apparently was a longtime fan (something he never chose to tell me). So I read GoT the novel simultaneously with the show: after having watched an episode, I spent the following nights “catching up” in the book, not peeking even once. Character = me.
    But now, I’m sitting here in camp Belinkie with Clash of Kings (and the two Storm of Swords volumes) and I’m – sort of – dreading to go read on (4 chapters on in CoK).
    I understand Belinkie’s reasoning: Us newbies learned to enjoy the adventures of Westeros’ finest through the screen, it’s how we got to know and love them. We feel we should continue experiencing the story in this manner, because it certainly earned it.

    On the other hand, I might just unexpectedly and surprisingly die or turn blind, so if I wanna see the end, I better move on. It’s at my disposal, why wait?


  2. Brian #

    Pure cowardice, that’s why I’m not reading, delay the realization the show sux, another for camp Belinkie. Not a flippant choice, it’s a 180 for me, the Watchmen movie was a hairy deal I bible thumped on how/why it didn’t work with what made the book great. Plot twists I can lose but when good character stuff is missing that blows. Stokes argues the book provides supplement to tv show motivations, I want to believe but I didn’t feel that with Watchmen.

    “The Flattening of Westros” article is what really enlisted me into camp Belinkie because it said basically “if you read the books you’ll know why the show sux and why Daenerys character is lame,” I didn’t buy that tv Daenerys was lame until the last episode because after seeing the kid who plays Bran Stark being so engaging I realized how insanely tv shatteringly makes “Roots” look like “Jersey Shore” awesome Daenerys arc would have been had it been played by a kid. So given how awesome Daenerys was in the show and how much better that and everyone and everything else is in the books, I’ll start reading and risk losing the show, sayonara camp Belinkie! If it decimates the show so be it “Breaking Bad” season 4 is coming up or LOTR on bluray or rewatch “Roots” maybe watch LOTR bluray with the audio from “Roots.”


    • Genevieve #

      The age thing really ticked me off more with Jon than Dany, partly I guess b/c she could kinda pass for younger if you squint a bit. All of them really seem too old, and I get that you minimize the T&A potential with a bunch of underage kids on the cast, but damnit, that’s part of why the books are so awesome, for sure. I didn’t think Dany was “lame,” but she was definitely a bit blander than she could’ve been.


    • Kimsie #

      sadly, they have laws against 13yrolds having sex with anyone on camera… I don’t think reading the book will ruin the series — but I STRONGLY URGE people to only read the first book. The series is better to be surprised, because teh book, overall, is a better thing.


  3. Covington Jim #

    The two-fold cliffhanger is (spoilers!)… will Martin finish it, and will HBO finish it before cancelling?

    It really matters in this particular work. Unlike JJ Abrams, for example, or Robert Jordan, Martin clearly really does have the largest scale arc worked out from the beginning, and the genuinely surprising character paths are as fundamentally true to the characters as they are utterly surprising in the narrative. There are still critical mysteries to be revealed. Hopefully a reliable(ish) history of the Wall will be part of it!


  4. Jamas Enright #

    Here’s a related question then: given I was bored with the pilot of the show, are the books something I should consider? Or is it “you want both or neither!”?


    • fenzel OTI Staff #

      That depends on why it bored you. The books don’t feel all that similar to the show a lot of the time. And the third book is the best one so far. What sort of stuff do you tend to actually enjoy?


    • Kimsie #

      I’d give it more time than THAT! Watch the show up to episode 5, and if you haven’t fallen in love with ANY of the characters (Addy does a remarkable job with what he’s given, so too does Dinklage, and Bean makes a dull, flat character shine with intensity).

      [If you like long and complicated, with political and emotional machinations, read teh book, it’s worth it. If you like stories where people conquer because “they are destined to”, or can’t stand “The Red Pony” or “Old Yeller” — this ain’t your tea.]


  5. Leigh #

    I think I’m going postpone reading the books indefinitely. I generally don’t like fantasy writing at all, and the mention of rubies that glisten redly isn’t really motivating me to start. However, I do like well-done fantasy film/tv, which this definitely is. The camera can show rubies glistening and breasts swaying without the attendant clunky language, which makes fantasy much more palatable. I’ve got so many books in my queue that I probably wouldn’t get around to them before the series finale anyway.


  6. Rosalynn #

    Definitely reading the books after the show is done. The book will ALWAYS be better than the show/movie version. It’s a fact. I know myself and if I read the books, I won’t find watching the show enjoyable. The thrill of not knowing what is going to happen is a huge part as to why I watch the show. If I know I’ll stop watching.

    But I’ve heard such wonderful things about the books that I have to read them once the show is done.


      • Jon #

        Also, dare I say, The Shining?


        • Gab #

          Practical Magic.


          • Nat #

            The Godfather. The books just drags on and on.

          • Nat #

            I too was trying to make the call on whether to read the books or not. This is a conundrum I often face with movies, as they are so often based on novels. And while yes, the novels can explain so much more of the characters motivations and back stories, seeing them visually interpreted adds a richness that generally books lack. I usually try to read the book before I see the movie, just because books take so much longer, but becuase the film will usually differ in a number of ways, I do find that it enhances the experience, even if I do end up being the person every hates for saying “The bookwas much better.” However, as was pointed out, it’s different in the case of something that’s ongoing and may not be finished. I found parallels in this to the Millennium trilogy. I watched ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ a while back, and enjoyed it so much that I went and read the novels straight away, before watching the other movies. And yes, while knowing all the twists and turns of the plot can ruin some of the tension, it also makes me excited to see how certain events will be portayed, if other people envision them in the same way that I do. Thinking back even further, the same thing happened to me with Lord of the Rings, which is obviously more comparable to Game of Thrones. However, both franchises I think benefitted from the streamlining that film allows, which I’m sure will the case with this as well.

            So, to summarise a rather convoluted train of thought, I’m still undecided on whether to read the books. I’m sure I’ll enjoy them, 5 page spiels about types of sword aside, but I kind of don’t want to know what I’m missing in the tv show.

            On a side note, I think an addition to the OTI drinking game should be mentioning The Wire. I don’t know if I’m the only one, but I get a bit sick of hearing about it all the time, as I tried to watch it, managed about 2 episodes and then gave up.

          • Kimsie #

            Nat, on the wire — talk to someone who loves the show. They’ll tell you where to pick up again. Because that show morphs and changes like a silverfish slipping through your clumsy paws.

  7. Breda #

    I’m in a…well, probably not unique camp, but not many of us are talking about it. I read the series, yes, but about 4-5 years ago. I haven’t read it since (until now, of course), because there are just so many great books to read, and this series requires about a month of undivided attention. So I knew the major plot twists: that Bran would fall, that Ned would die, etc. But I’d forgotten the details.

    In my case, I think that rereading the book is definitely better than watching the show. Partly this is because all the actors look alike to me so I find it hard to remember who’s who (and I’m a pale-skinned brunette who finds pale-skinned brunets attractive, so it’s especially perplexing), and partly it’s because, as you said, the character motivations are so much clearer in the book. As I watch the show, I find myself constantly searching for the meaning that I KNOW is there, but since I can’t recall it, I’m also unable to interpret the acting to figure it out. It handicaps my emotional response.

    My own stupidity aside, I like the idea of watching an episode and then reading the corresponding material in the book. I do think the book is a richer experience, but because of that, I think that the show is more enriched by the plot shocks.


  8. Mark #

    Kind of a tangent question: is this a dynamic that Martin and/or HBO can or will try to use to their benefit? For example, could HBO throw a real twist (a major departure from the books’ plot) into the second season in order to make sure the die-hard book fans stay tuned in, or would that risk alienating them too much? Is Martin’s primary motivation to stay as true to the books as possible, maybe even intentonally leaving stuff out, to try to drive book sales (there’s no doubt the books have sold like crazy already since the series started)?

    I guess my question boils down to is there any chance the series will make a major departure from the books, and what would be the reasons for doing that and its effects?


    • fenzel OTI Staff #

      The book plots are really well-suited for TV, the producers seem committed to keeping things faithful enough, and Martin is a huge curmudgeon who doesn’t mess around with his work or tolerate other people messing around with his work. So, the biggest reasons for changes would be:

      – Simplicity and ease of comprehension. Cutting characters, changing characters names, paring down the sheer amount of stuff that happens. They’ve shown they can do this and still have the show feel faithful and authentic.

      – Character development. To do character development more quickly than the book does, especially on characters who aren’t major POV characters in the books, the show adds scenes that are not in the books, but very well may have happened (like the Varys/Littlefinger scenes). They also created Ros to do more of this. These are the biggest changes, but they seem fine as long as they aren’t botched (like the Littlefinger/Ros scene, which is dumb).

      – Straight-up exploitative titillation. We’ve seen a bit of this (like the Littlefinger/Ros scene, which is still dumb.).

      – Budget – They didn’t show the Battle of Green Fork because of budget, and they changed the story a bit so they didn’t have to show the battle. There are other things they might not show because of budget, which would probably also result in changes.

      – Bowdlerization – HBO likes showing graphic violence and sex, no doubt. And they did The Wire, so they’re comfortable showing us a lot of bleak stuff and human cruelty. But it’s possible that they will soften some of the bleaker, brutal and more depraved things that happen. TV networks and movies tend to fall under pressure to do that from time to time.

      – The Fourth Book. I can see them skipping most of the fourth book and condensing it heavily with the events in the fifth book. The fourth and fifth book overlap a lot in the time period they portray, they just portray it for different characters, and a lot of the characters in the fourth book are new. If the show lasts that long, it seems likely they’ll gloss over a lot of the fourth book.

      – People problems. If there is a big shakeup in who is writing and producing the show, that could change stuff. If there is a big dispute or problem with one of the major actors, that could change stuff. If, God forbid, George R.R. Martin never finishes the books, and the show wants to keep running past where the books have gone, that could change stuff.

      – Cancellation. If the show gets cancelled at an awkward time in its production, they may rush through stuff so they can end it somewhere natural. This could cause them to make major changes to the plot and production style. Rome on HBO had to do this. Babylon 5 had to do this to an extent. Gene Roddenbury’s Andromeda did it almost every season since the show was on the chopping block so often. Game of Thrones is a pricey show and it needs to keep hitting it out of the park to justify its continued production. Plus, it will take a long, long time to make the whole story, and maybe not enough people will want to stick around for all that.

      The effects of any of this, I hope, would be to make us grateful for what we’ve got. It’s remarkable they’ve gotten as far as they have.

      But yeah, I don’t think they will make any changes just to mess around with people for shits and giggles.


      • Mark #

        I win Longest Fenzel Response of the Thread! Jamas and Tom, eat my dust!


      • Kimsie #

        one more: actors are expensive, and nobody wants to just disappear for an entire season, only to be wanted back in the next one. So storylines are likely to be moved up.

        A bloody lot of things happen in the books — some important, some less so.


  9. Tom #

    Honestly, I didn’t miss anything from the books while watching the series. I understand people enjoy Martin’s 3 page descriptions of what people are eating at a feast… I just don’t need them.

    Aside from some liberties taken with the characters (like the Catelyn Stark stuff you’d mentioned previously), I thought it was as good a translation on a finite budget as possible.

    I look forward to the middle of season 4 when everyone realizes that there’s no source material for season 6.


    • fenzel OTI Staff #

      In that event, I recommend they consult the Naruto Filler Plot Generator.

      (For explanation, there are about 90 episodes of Naruto where almost nothing important happens to buy time for the author to finish more of the comic books and advance the story.)


      • Gab #

        Sailor Moon did that- the anime went as the manga was being released, which led to “filler” episodes and major plot differentiation.


        • Kimsie #

          Marmalade boy is the canonical example of “Writer Madness” induced by lack of source material.


  10. Rob #

    Personally I found the books (or what I read of them) really irritating but am more or less enjoying the TV series. It’s not just that bad prose is replaced with good cinematography, but also that the series has less of Martin’s fixations on his pet characters and the children’s boring subplots. Abigail Nussbaum states it better than I could.


    • Tom P #

      He definitely has the unfortunate habit of killing off the most interesting characters and leaving us with the senseless Sansa plot that has really gone nowhere in 6000 pages.


      • Kimsie #

        people plot AROUND Sansa. Still, we’d all rather have a Littlefinger POV, woudln’t we?


  11. Gab #

    My general method is to consider the two forms of media both as separate entities and together/ in comparison, regardless of which I encounter first. So I may like a movie as a movie, but I may also think it sucks as a representation of the book it’s based on- or the exact opposite can happen, too. Books and film/television have different limitations and capabilities, but how those are pushed and utilized (respectively) depends on those making them, too. That’s why sometimes I genuinely like the movie more, even if I read the book first, and I don’t buy into the notion that books are always automatically better than their screen adaptations.

    So then you get a situation like this where the adaptation is ongoing and not a one-shot deal. In this case, I haven’t read the books or seen the series (hence why I’m making more general statements, muahaha). At this point, simply because of time constraints and the fact that my brain can’t handle reading much beyond what I’m assigned for grad school atm, I’m probably more likely to do the watch-first-read-later method. I think there’s a lot of merit to Belinkie’s argument about how looking for what was missed could enhance the book experience, too, and I think that is something I’ve done sub-consciously before in the past; so doing it knowingly in the future will probably be rather exciting.


  12. Count Spatula #

    I don’t think being spoiled in regards to plot twists or character development is that big a deal, unless it’s the turning point of the book/show, and even then if something’s excellent, it’s still going to be worth seeing/reading even if you know what’s going to happen. Not to mention that it’s impossible to know which version is better to view the major twists in, and even then the act of reading/watching something first is going to have repercussions on how you view the adaptation afterwards. Although sometimes one version is so obivously superior that the other is completely redundant.

    In regards to the original question though, I feel that adaptations are an extension of the original work, and generally find that if I watch the show first, I’ll only read the book if I REALLY like it, or if I can’t wait to find out what happens – and if I read the book, I’ll be much more likely to watch the show. I guess, like Gab above, time is the main deciding factor for me.

    On less general terms though, in regards to Game of Thrones… I really didn’t like it. *deepbreathstartrant* I watched one episode of the TV show and decided to read the books first because I’d heard good things about them from friends. I read through the first book and got a few chapters through the second before I started feeling like it was a waste of precious, precious life. I found it was a bit predictable, I thought all the characters besides Tyrion were pretty dull and unlikeable and for an 800 page book surprisingly little happened to make it worth my while.

    Ned’s death was obviously going to happen from the moment they found the wolves in the snow and while the manner in which it happened might have been what shocked most people, I just… never really cared about him enough to be upset or feel much about it at all.

    And please tell me that someone else dislikes Daenaery’s (Mary Sue) Targaryen as much as I do. Maybe I’m being unfairly cynical, but her character is far too good (as in not evil) to be true in such a dark book. I think Stokes’ fascism overthink kind of highlighted the way I feel about her storyline. I thought Viserys was at least a better, more honest character – he was desperately clinging onto the one last hope he had left of ever reclaiming his rightful place on the throne because he knew how far he had fallen, and while he was cruel and relatively evil, I could see his reasoning. Meanwhile, Daenaerys has… an almost-memory of a big red door. Big whoop.

    I just don’t know.. A Song of Ice & Fire may be the father of low fantasy, but I’ve read far better nihilistic, realistic, gritty and dark fantasy books than Game of Thrones, with much better characters, and a more rounded plot line. And could someone tell GRRM that his books needs a dash of humour to balance out the bleak seriousness of it all? I’m not saying the books are too dark, I’m just saying real people would still find ways to enjoy themselves, or crack a smile on occasion, in those situations. Even the sex is dull and seems to be done because it needs to be done rather than for enjoyment. These books needs some VIBRANCY! I think that’s why Tyrion’s character works so well – because his humanising sarcasm is very refreshing in wake of all the glum faces. Everyone else is so characterless compared to him.

    I can think of many more problems but I’m running out of oxygen so… *deepbreathendrant.*

    Hmm.. I think I’m going to go and watch the series now, and see how I feel about that. I imagine it to be a little more exciting and tangible than the book version, but we’ll see. :D


    • Kimsie #

      I LOATHE Dany too. Join da club! Believe it or not, the books do get better — both in terms of unpredictability, and Tyrion’s Moments of Sheer Awesome.
      Also, you get Brienne, who is awesome (and a clod like Perrin).

      You don’t like Arya, or Sansa, or Jon? wowsa.


  13. Genevieve #

    I think one aspect of the debate is the company you keep. I am part of a group of friends all of whom have read the books, and one of the most fun things for us is sitting around discussing the differences in the TV show, what we wish we could’ve seen, how it affects us differently, etc (for example, Sansa is nowhere *near* unlikeable enough on the show; we often discuss how unfortunate it is that people who are only watching the show don’t know to loathe her.)

    Being part of this site makes a difference, I suppose, but if the people with whom you are watching the show on a regular basis haven’t read the books, then I imagine it will be more enjoyable for you not to have read them, either, and vice versa. I don’t think it would be as much fun watching the show in “mixed company” so to speak.

    I do *not* think that the issue of spoilers should make a difference here. I can enjoy the series just as well, knowing what is coming up. In fact, anticipating certain scenes has served me well, as it gives the show a bit of dramatic tension that is otherwise lost in the flurry of T&A. On the flip side, I don’t think that knowing major plot points will dampen anyone’s enjoyment of the books, either, because they’re a lot less focused on plot and a lot more focused on character development and minor machinations. I always get the sensation, when reading his books, that they’re more historical fiction than fantasy – just, imaginary history. When reading a regular historical fiction novel, say, I dunno, Gone With the Wind, I don’t think it would matter much if you know how the Civil War turns out. (I don’t really read historical fiction, so I could be way off on this supposition…)


  14. RachelT #

    Well, it’s not much of a debate for me personally — I read the books long before I knew there would be a TV show.

    In general, I’m the kind of person who saves my Halloween candy until Christmas, when I get new candy. :) In my family, the person who saved his candy longest got it stolen by the sibling most interested in instant gratification.

    Speaking of instant gratification — reading is one of the few things in my life in which I experience instant gratification. So I guess I’m addicted. I watched the first Harry Potter movie and then read all of the books (those already written) and kept up as they were composed. This pattern did affect my reading — instead of making up the characters’ faces and forms in my head, I borrowed from the movie’s imagery. (Although you would love, love how I imagine the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom.)

    For GoT, in which the characters are fully-formed in my imagination, watching the TV show is fun because I get to experience someone else’s imagination, and I get to have fun snarkily criticizing everything with which I disagree. The Dothraki language has thrown me (kind of a cool effect but distracting compared to the speed of my reading). Seeing young actors and actresses portray the children has been somewhat jarring, because in the books the POV of the children is very mature, especially for Jon and Bran, in my opinion. Martin does a great job with Arya, I think, but Jon and Bran have opinions that are far too sophisticated for their life experiences.

    I agree with posters who have criticized the prose and called the stories predictable. Both of these criticisms have merit. However, I keep reading because *I want to find out what happens.* It’s a good story. I can overlook some sins of purple prose for the larger goal of finding out what the eventual conflict between ice and fire will be. Will Jon ride out of the North to meet Danaerys at King’s Landing? Will Martin invert this expectation in some way I haven’t imagined? Will there ever be a battle with the Others? Will a deity reveal him/herself or will we get to keep seeing believers struggle with each other with limited magic and lots of intrigue?

    And I’ll let you in on a little secret — sometimes I *skip ahead.* Gasp!


    • Covington Jim #

      For me, too, it’s been a long time since I read the books, so it’s a matter of whether I REread them before watching the series when the dvds come out. So your point about the casting is right on. While I have my own image of the chars now, I know that’ll be swapped for the cast of the show, for good or ill.

      I had been picturing Cersie and Jaime as the young Helen Mirren and Mordred from Excaliber, and Jon Snow as Orlando Bloom.


  15. Jasin #

    I vote for reading the books

    1. Value of ‘plot surprise’ will be equal regardless of medium.
    2. Value of looking forward to how it looks in the show > value of looking forward to learning more details
    3. Going through a story for the second time is more fun when the second time is faster
    4. Value of reading it today > value of reading it later because I’m excited about it today and I could be into other stuff next year
    5. To me, when things are different in the movie/TV version i find it to be a welcome surprise rather than something annoying(for example Walking Dead, big departure from the comic, but that kept me interested because it was new)


  16. winstunsmith #

    Faulkner said, “Read everything,” but I would have to disagree with him when it comes to Martin’s books. They are plodding, wordy, soapy, and unimaginative. However, he is a world creator on the level of most 13 year old dungeon masters.


Add a Comment