The Caesar-like assassination of Jon Snow on the show throws in a few extra characters, but the executive producers did their best to point out young Olly again and again (and again) as being central to the event. The character was invented by the show last season, at the suggestion of then-assistant Dave Hill, to give the peasant victims of the wildlings an identifiable face and voice. So far, so good. However, this season the character has been far and away overrepresented, containing more screen time and lines than the much more formidable Ser Alliser Thorne. It’s not as if Olly’s insights have been particularly deep, revolving entirely around his personal experience. In fact, his arguments with Jon and Sam were almost identical!
On the other hand, the shocking moment in the novels is really about a revolutionary (Jon Snow) attempting to unilaterally drag the Watch into a radical new position (alliance with the wildlings) against thousands of years of institutional tradition. Jon’s urgency as Lord Commander is highlighted, but his high-handed ways with his officers, his refusal to compromise on a very complicated issue, and (finally, and fatally) his attempt to “defend” the Watch by leading an army of wildlings against the Boltons created a perfect storm in which Night’s Watch hardliners could see no way forward but to violently rid themselves of a misguided tyrant.
Even on a budget that is exceptional for TV, there is no way that HBO can truly capture the vastness of the world of ice and fire, nor is there time to supply all the fascinating places that add so much color to the story. Thought the TV show’s Valyria was amazing? It has nothing on what George R. R. Martin hints at in the novels, explaining something of the Doom of Valyria and just why the Smoking Sea earned its name.
The enormity of the Rhoyne, the hulking mass of Storm’s End, the triple-walls of Qarth, the black Valyrian roads crisscrossing Essos, the ruins of Oldstones—the list goes on and on. And even some of the great castles featured in the TV show, such as Winterfell and Harrenhal, are shadows of the far grander buildings described in the books.
The medium of TV tends to emphasize action and explanatory dialogue. The novels are not short on either of those, but a third aspect—introspection—is almost wholly lost on the TV series. The points of view not only provide a series of interwoven stories to read, but they also give deep insight into the characters by both revealing their innermost thoughts and shading their interactions and observations with their personalities. It is this contrast between the external and the internal that is one of the strengths of the novels.
In a somewhat similar vein, not only do the novels allow for richer understanding of characters, but the characters themselves are depicted in more complicated ways. Peter Dinklage makes a fantastic Tyrion Lannister, but many readers of the novels have observed that his character has been simplified and been made less of a “gray” character on the show. This whitewashing of Tyrion and certain other characters may fit the requirements of a ten-hour episodic television season, but it loses something in the translation from book to screen.
When someone is plotting something on the show, the specifics of what they are plotting is generally revealed very quickly. Consider Littlefinger: On the TV show he outright stated his desire to control the Iron Throne two seasons ago, while even now fans of the books aren’t entirely sure what he’s up to. The same can be said of another mysterious player in the game, Varys, who revealed his agenda on the show this season whereas there are some major questions about his true motives in the novels.
The books have managed to successfully keep fans debating these and other mysterious agendas for years, something that the TV show has deliberately avoided to its loss.
Prophecies, dreams, and visions play a more central role in the novels than they have been allowed to play on the show. That is not to say that the whole future of the novels is laid out in prophecy—Martin is quick to point out they’re a double-edged sword, leading characters to cause their own downfalls as they misinterpret them—but over the years the potential hints of the future have been some of the most hotly debated, entertaining elements of the books.
In particular, the show left out a significant number of glimpses of the past as well as the future when they radically altered Daenerys’s experience in the House of the Undying and kept virtually no material from the books for this sequence. Although the image of Daenerys in a ruined, snow-covered throne room was beautiful, as was her reunion with Drogo, it doesn’t match the eerie visions of past, present, and future that tie her to the song of ice and fire.
Want to see more of characters like Pyp, Grenn, Jojen Reed, Barristan Selmy, or Shireen Baratheon? Or how about Stannis Baratheon?
In the novels you can, as none of these characters have met their demise yet. The TV show has pared away characters very quickly, and in the case of Barristan the Bold they did so despite the character having some truly heroic, noteworthy scenes yet to come. Of course, there’s no guarantee that these characters will survive in the long run, but by the end of A Dance with Dragons they are still around.
So far, we’ve met Oberyn, Doran, and Trystane from the Martell family, but the TV show has left out Doran’s other two children, Arianne and Quentyn. Arianne, the eldest, is in fact the heir in the novels as Dorne practices gender-blind primogeniture, but she fears for her position and plots to keep it. Quentyn, the middle brother (Trystane is a good deal younger than he is on the show), is sent on a dangerous quest to the east. Both of these characters, each in their way, help to highlight the tragedy that has fallen on House Martell ever since the Sack of King’s Landing at the end of Robert’s Rebellion. Their story appears to be rapidly heading toward a major role in the fight for the Iron Throne, but they’ve been reduced to a plot-hole-filled mess that few viewers or critics have appreciated.
The storyline in the North has been radically altered for the TV show and is currently lacking a number of key characters, including such fan favorites as Wyman Manderly, the obese lord of White Harbor, ridiculed for his gluttony but a true Northman at heart. In A Dance with Dragons, readers start seeing a glimmer of hope for the future of the North thanks to rulers like Manderly, who reveal that their allegiance remains to the Starks even if Winterfell stands empty.
It’s not just Martell characters who are missing.
The list of missing characters from the novels likely outnumbers the list of all characters who have appeared, and some of them are among the most popular secondary figures in the show. The Tyrells lost two sons in Willas and Ser Garlan; Daenerys has lost the stalwart eunuch warrior Strong Belwas (“Strong Belwas needs liver and onions.”) as well as important Meereenese figures the Green Grace, Skahaz the Shavepate, and Reznak; the North has lost not just Wyman Manderly but memorable figures such as Barbrey Ryswell, Jeyne Poole, and Greatjon Umber’s uncles Mors Crowfood and Hother Whoresbane; the Iron Islands don’t seem likely to show us Victarion and his younger brother, Aeron Damphair; Stannis’s camp has lost the creepy fool Patchface; the wildlings don’t count Val among their number, and many, many more besides.
Time and budget certainly explains all of this, but it goes without saying that the books have an unlimited budget, and you can take as much time as you like to read them if it helps you keep track of the one thousand plus characters.
(Let's not even get into Lady Stoneheart. . . .)
One of the most important scenes in the entire series has yet to appear in the TV show, and is not likely to ever do so. Eddard Stark’s fever dream of the tower of joy where he and six other men faced three knights of the Mad King’s Kingsguard takes us into the final days of Robert’s war for the throne. It contains a poetic exchange between the young Lord Eddard and the three knights, and lays bare the bitter memory of the place where only two men walked away alive.
One of the strongest themes of the novels is the way the past, especially the events surrounding Robert’s Rebellion, is a constant presence for those characters who experienced it. A strong sense of loss permeates the view of the past, and the events of the past clearly have relevance to the ultimate destination of the story. This season has started awkwardly working in references to these past events, but it flows much more richly in the novels.
George R. R. Martin famously set out to write an unfilmable series, and though time and the power of modern visual effects, production design, and substantial triple-A budgets have proved him broadly wrong, when you come down to specifics the show is an extremely pared down vision of the novels, constrained by the realities of those same budgets, those same visual effects, those same production concerns. His imagination—and yours—has an unlimited budget, and every castle, every feast, every battle, every character interaction will be the richer for it when you read it in the books.