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Twenty years ago this year, George R.R. Martin released A Game of Thrones, the first novel in a sprawling series chronicling the trials and tribulations of the Starks in the North, the Lannisters in the South, and all of the noble and small folk in between.
Two years later, in 1998, Martin released A Clash of Kings, the birthplace of Melisandre and her shadow baby. In 2000, he unveiled A Storm of Swords, home of the Red and Purple Weddings. Then the steady pace of one book every two years ended; the next two installments, A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons — viewed by many as two halves of a whole — came out in 2005 and 2011, respectively, the latter release arriving during the very first off-season for HBO’s Game of Thrones.
Throughout its run, Thrones has mined material from all of these great tales, exhausting the major (and many of the minor) milestone moments from the books as they stand. At least two more novels are still in the offing — The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, according to Martin — but remain unpublished. This year, for the first time ever, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ television adaptation of Martin’s saga will move forward without published source material, leaving veteran readers of the books in the exact same boat as the show-only crowd.
It’s essentially the same boat as Gendry (Joe Dempsie), for that matter. Like the brawny blacksmith and secret Baratheon bastard, viewers are adrift on the proverbial Narrow Sea without any clear direction, except to let the tide of the show move them forward. For some books-first viewers, it’s a daunting prospect, if not an outright unpleasant one. For others, it’s liberating, freeing the show to fully become its own beast — as Eugene Simon (Lancel Lannister) told The Hollywood Reporter when asked about the show and the books’ diverging roads in season six.
“It’s liberating that we can create, as writers and as actors, our own decisions and characters based on what we really want to explore in this universe,” said the actor, who continues the Faith Militants’ warpath through King’s Landing in season six. “We already have characters set in the books; we know who they are according to George. But let’s see who they are according to people who love the stories just as much, with an ability to create something great. I think it’s wonderful. I think we’re very lucky that we now have a chance to deviate.”
Added Maisie Williams, who plays Arya Stark: “The books are incredible. Our previous seasons have been incredible because of the books. It’s not that this is going to be better because we can make new content — that’s not what I mean when I say this — but I think we can now shape the series as we want. David and Dan can shape the series as a series. They don’t have to conform to previously written plot points. They don’t have to fire through certain amounts of story in certain places. They can now shape the series as a whole. If they want this character to have a climax in episode four, they can. If they want this character to have a climax in episode eight, they can. I love that.”
“The way it’s written now suits television better,” she continued.
For his part, Kristofer Hivju says the lack of printed source material for season six impacted his work as wildling tough guy Tormund Giantsbane in a noticeable way.
“When I got the gig, I read the books,” he said. “It helped a lot, because I knew that one day, [Kit Harington’s Jon Snow] and I are going to be friends. If I hadn’t known that, I would take the end of every season as a [fixed] perspective. In season four, I knew I would try to take Jon down, and when he ends up hitting me with the crossbow, I knew that something would grow in season five, and you can put that into your performance, so it’s not just hatred — it’s hatred because of love.”
But now that the show is past the books, Hivju doesn’t have the ability to read the tea leaves. “And that’s how life is as well,” he said with a big smile. “You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
Many cast members arrived at this approach years ago, including actor Alfie Allen, who stopped reading the books well before his character Theon Greyjoy’s tumultuous arc truly began.
“I decided to read the first two and a half books, and then I stopped, because I started seeing preemptive decisions,” he said. “In the books, when Theon sets off to Pyke, he’s more of an outright traitor. He knows what he’s going to do before he sets off. In the TV show, it’s more empathetic, where you can relate to it more. I definitely don’t use the books as the source material. I actually shied away from it, because I didn’t want it to impact my work.”
Then there are cast members who view the books and the show as entirely different beings. John Bradley (Samwell Tarly), for instance, pauses at the notion that the show is even past the books at all.
“I think the show and the books have become so much their own entity,” he said. “I think season one was the most faithful the show has been to a single book, but since then, things have been conflated and changed around, just because the books are so huge and we only have ten hours [per season] to tell the stories. Some things have to be lost, and other things have to be changed around, just because of mathematical time constraints.”
As a result, according to Bradley, Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire are separate entities “worthy of being consumed in isolation.”
“What you’re going to see [this season] is something inspired by the books, and maybe not necessarily what you’re going to see in the next book,” he said. “We’re not ahead of the books — we’re just diverging from the books.”
However, most agree that however Benioff and Weiss choose to end Thrones, it won’t be far from Martin’s own planned ending.
“David and Dan have obviously been talking to George for years, and they know his endgame,” said Michael McElhatton, who plays Roose Bolton. “I’m sure they’re going to be loyal to that.”
Martin’s involvement in the show also ensures a satisfying conclusion.
“He’s an executive producer, he writes the odd episode, and [Benioff and Weiss] run everything by him. Anything the show decides to do has George’s blessing,” Bradley said. “It’s not like we’re betraying his wishes and wrestling [the story] out of his hands and doing whatever we want with it. George is very much part of the process. Everything that’s going to happen will be faithful to George, if not faithful to George’s books.”
Viewers will see if their faith is rewarded when Game of Thrones returns on April 24. Until then, keep checking THR for more coverage of the show.
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