Playing with Ice and Fire: Adapting “A Game of Thrones”

Adaptation is a form of creation often fraught with danger. Taking something loved and moving it from one medium to another has never been simple – the history of adaptation is long, complicated, and illustrated by a battle between “high” and “low” culture – but when the material you want to adapt is roughly 5000 pages (unfinished) the task becomes just that bit harder. With the development process beginning in 2007, HBO’s adaptation of fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire was long anticipated – high fantasy in particular has a reputation for avid fans with high standards, often unforgiving, and George R. R. Martin’s epic is so complicated that the margin for error had the potential to be huge and devastating.

Adaptations often suffer from arguments concerning “fidelity” to the adapted text, particularly when the transformation is from literature to film. Literature has long been regarded as the “higher” form of storytelling and so any changes between page and screen are automatically considered to dilute and diminish the original. Fans don’t often consider that differences in medium necessitate change, and as culture and society evolve so do the purposes of adaptation – period dramas from the 1980s and 90s, for example, differ greatly from those in the 21st century as the task of adapting moves from one generation to the next. The new generation are often fans themselves, bringing their own reading of the text to the process and reflecting the current (and ever-changing) zeitgeist. It’s rarer in the post-modernism of the 21st century to find adaptations that strives towards “fidelity”, but Game of Thrones - and fans/executive producers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss - seems to be trying for something similar.

Although a television serial allows more room to adapt than the big screen, where time limits itself, the sheer scale of A Song of Ice and Fire would seem impossible to adapt without removing large chunks of the story. But, along with high production values, a stellar cast, and incredible world-building, a majority of the praise heaped onto Game of Thrones focused on its “fidelity” to the book. All major events have been represented, and although some detail was by necessity lost the world of Westeros is brought fully to life. Some characters – like Brynden Tully and Lord Hostor – were left out, but the cast remained huge and yet stayed on the right side of confusing. The matching (not replication) of events and characters seems unparalleled in its scale and detail, and perhaps it’s this which makes Game of Thrones feel so much like the text it has been adapted from. Rather than “fidelity” or replication, Game of Thrones has used high production values, creativity and dedication to produce a new entity that matches the creative standards – depth and detail – of the books.

However it has been achieved, Game of Thrones has brought high fantasy to the small screen, grabbing the attention of the public, critics, and awards bodies along the way. With at least six more books to go, Game of Thrones is (blessedly) here to stay.