When a Television Series Forges Ahead Of Its Literary Inspiration

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As Game of Thrones approaches the finale of its fifth season, the show faces an interesting dilemma. It has caught up with its inspiration, George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, and is set to outpace it in the upcoming sixth season, venturing into territory that the books have not yet explored. While Martin stated in an April 2015 interview that he hoped the sixth book in the series, The Winds of Winter, would be published before the series premiered in 2016, the likelihood that the seventh book, A Dream of Spring, will be written before the series exhausts the material of The Winds of Winter is close to impossible.

Already, Martin has begun feeding show runners spoilers, both to serve the narrative of the show and to guarantee the show reaches its intended conclusion should Martin pass away before he completes A Dream of Spring. The former has caused some controversy among loyal readers of the books, particularly when a character still alive in the books was brutally killed on last Sunday’s episode, and even more so when Martin clarified that this was not a deviation from the book’s original material as much as an issue of anachronism. The character was meant to die in an upcoming book, as it turns out, and it just made sense to kill her now on television. Naturally, the books and the television series have handled–and will continue to handle–narrative in different ways. Certain plotlines have been given more weight, entirely new events have been invented to accommodate the structure of the hour-long television program, and there have been several cases of multiple characters being compressed into one individual. And while I have come to understand Game of Thrones the television series to be more inspired by A Song of Ice and Fire than a straight adaptation, I cannot help but wonder what will become of these books, particularly the final installment. What is the purpose of writing The Winds of Winter if the events have already been shown on television? What’s more, what is the purpose of reading it?

It all seems to tie into the question of why we read books at all. Books are, after all, a practice in delayed gratification. In a society that places more and more value on the instantaneous, what purpose is there for a pastime that requires a totality of attention, engagement, and patience? With both the consumption and production of books being significantly more time-consuming than that of television, Game of Thrones runs the risk of devouring its literary inspiration, stopping the original endeavor entirely in its tracks. Fans and critics alike have already grown impatient with Martin’s pace of publishing, though putting out books of roughly 700 to 1,000 pages every five or so years is nothing to sneeze at. Some have predicted A Dream of Spring will never find its way to bookshelves, while others have stated that with the answers already spelled out on television, there is simply no point to trudge through a thousand-page tome.

But I cannot help but cling to the idea that there must be a space in which The Winds of Winter, and books themselves, are still relevant and necessary. After all, great literature has always been more dependent on the journey than the results. We know the fate of the star-crossed lovers from the very beginning of Romeo and Juliet, but it’s the details of how it plays out along with the language that carries us through that keeps us reading the rest of the play. And with Martin saying particular actors’ performances have inspired him to give their characters more prominent roles in upcoming books, it’s possible that the relationship between the books and the television show is not actually parasitic, but rather symbiotic.

After all, books and television tend to accomplish the same things over radically different media. Both are immersive at their best, alienating at their worst. At their finest, they allow us to escape from the world around us while still interrogating it in meaningful and new ways. (Of course, the same could be said of music or of visual art.) But this doesn’t seem to me to be a case of the hip, new technology–if we can even consider television to be that anymore–rendering the older model obsolete. Instead, it seems that Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire have established a new relationship of give-and-take, working across genre and medium in really exciting ways.

It’s certainly not a project that will appease any of the purists out there, but it’s one that is covering new ground in the interplay between television and literature, acknowledging that each medium has something it can lend to the other. Provided that Martin gets his final two installments of A Song of Ice and Fire finished.


Image: Glore Psychiatric Museum, Missouri, Detour Art Travels.

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