I had serious doubts about HBO’s ability to translate George R.R. Martin’s sprawling series A Song of Ice and Fire to television. The books are so complex and eventful that a mere ten episodes did not seem like enough time to capture each volume. And frankly Season One of the show — renamed Game of Thrones, after the first book — did little to allay my concerns. Although the acting was surprisingly good (the kids in particular were fantastic), I thought that the show felt more like a synopsis of the books, rather than a freestanding creative work.
Season Two of the television series is very different — and much, much better. The deviations from the books have gotten greater, but almost invariably the changes are improvements. In particular, the scenes between Arya and Tywin Lannister, the two best actors in the show, are a delight. The characters never meet in the books. But in the show Arya becomes Tywin’s servant at Harrenhal, giving her access to his war councils, but more importantly giving us access to Tywin’s more human side. It is clear that Tywin becomes very fond of Arya, to the point of divulging more and more about his most private thoughts. And it is equally clear that every word Tywin speaks, however kindly, is poison to Arya’s ears. In one scene Tywin speaks longingly of his children and of the burdens and joys of being a father — and the camera flashes to Arya, who remembers very well her own father’s treatment at the hands of the Lannisters.
In other areas the show improves by subtracting from, not adding to, the books. The Night Watch’s expedition beyond the Wall, for instance, is treated in far more summary fashion, at the expense of Sam’s development, but to the benefit of accelerating Jon’s relationship with Ygritte. Theon’s storming of Winterfell, and the Stark boys’ escape, is told surprisingly well despite occupying only a few scenes. And the tense relationship between Tyrion and his sister while they await Stannis’s siege of King’s Landing takes only a few minutes but loses almost nothing in the translation.
There’s no question that the television show lacks the books’ rich texture, including much of the mythology that makes the Night Watch sections such a pleasure to read. But overall Season Two’s condensing of the second book is so successful that it makes me wonder whether Martin could have edited his own story a bit better. I am aware that Martin is scripting many of the television episodes. Hopefully he will take back from that experience an impulse to prune away at some of the books’ growing excesses.