Adapting a book is tricky, and film and TV writers and producers generally take one of two attitudes: they either attempt to be as faithful as possible to the subject matter, or they make changes and then spend the rest of their lives defensively whining about their "vision" in interviews conducted by hostile purist nerds. The team behind the Harry Potter movies exemplifies the former; they did their best to stay true both to the letter and the spirit of the books (with one major failure in the eighth movie*). Peter Jackson's a good example of the latter. His Lord of the Rings movies failed so signally to capture either the letter or the spirit of the books** that he and his filthy, vile Vichy Hollywood collaborators have spent the years since trying to justify their wholesale slaughter of most of the books' good points.
I would review the movies, but I won't, for two reasons. 1) Most of my readers have already heard this rant, and I do have a small grain of pity left in my cold, black heart; 2) the perfect review of these movies already exists. NSFW.
But back to adaptations. I'm slightly in love with HBO, mainly because they've chosen a third and wonderful path***: they change whatever they want, they say to hell with anyone who objects, and they're actually good enough to get away with it. The fifth season of True Blood, HBO's adaptation of Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire Mysteries series, premiered a few weeks ago. The first few seasons irritated me; they stayed just close enough to the plotlines and characters in the books that I noticed every little divergence. Now the show has finally gone so far off the rails that, even having read and reread each of the books published so far, I couldn't spoil the show's plot for its viewers even if I wanted to.
In the case of True Blood, paradoxically, the drastic changes work well because the source material is excellent, for what it is. My review of the most recent book makes most of the points I'd want to raise about the series, but in brief, they're sexy, funny, and violent, the perfect light entertainment. Since the books are just right as is, small changes could only lessen them -- and hence my reaction to the first seasons of the show. Big changes, on the other hand, when made by writers as talented as HBO's, just leave the fun setting and let fans of the books enjoy the over-the-top blood-soaked boobiness of it all without having to critique every little moment of unfaithfulness to the text.****
In the case of HBO's other hit adaptation, Game of Thrones, the major changes were made necessary by the source material's irritatingly amateurish structure. Not so coincidentally, the changes have been awesome.
Yes, the gauntlet has been thrown, and I fully expect to meet several of my friends and relatives at dawn in the near future: the HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is unbelievably better than the books. So there.
Allow me to make my case before the stones and battleaxes start flying. If you were a screenwriter, what in the world would you do with a series of books that's organized into chapters that are from many different characters' points of view? There are far too many viewpoint characters for the screen, for one thing. Each book would have to be adapted into five hundred episodes to do it faithfully. And in many chapters, the same plot is also rehashed, given to the reader through a different pair of eyes. That's not even limited to chapters: in books four and five (see my review of book five), the same chronology is rehashed and given to the reader through a different credit card transaction, ka-ching!! -- I mean, excuse me, through another whole set of pairs of eyes. That's just not going to fly on the screen.
So, what's a hardworking HBO writer to do? Well, what Martin and/or his "editor" should have done in the first place: condense the living crap out of the series, changing the story so that more main characters are on stage together at any given time and deleting or combining a few characters for good measure. And in the process, since the same people are no longer in the same places, the writers have had to generate new dialogue for many of the scenes.
If I were Martin, honestly, I'd be pretty damn embarrassed by how happy the results are. Every time I laughed aloud while watching, or thought a line was particularly clever or intelligent, I'd turn to the person I'm watching the series with. "Was that in the books?" I'd ask. Invariably, it was not. The second to last episode of the second season, "Blackwater," was turgid and slow, with the scenes lingering far too long on tertiary character-building and dull exposition. Martin wrote that episode. I felt bad about how hard I laughed.
I will willingly give Martin credit where credit is due, however. Writing that many words ain't easy, even if they're "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." And there are a few characters I liked before Martin ruined them in the fifth book. So there you go.
I can't wait for the third season of Game of Thrones in 2013. As a book reviewer, I wish I didn't have to say this, but the further they stray from both the letter and the spirit of the source, the happier I'll be.
* This digression will be interesting only to Harry Potter fans; everyone else, as you were. Okay, so remember the bit at the end of book seven, when Harry's heading into the Forbidden Forest to confront Voldemort? He takes out the golden snitch and says, "I am about to die." Now remember that same scene in the eighth movie, when he takes out the golden snitch and says, "I am ready to die"? Way to turn a poignant scene of a terrified teenager sacrificing himself for the good of all despite his reluctance into lame, pompous, self-righteous martyrdom, guys.
** Hi, my name is E., and I'm a hostile purist nerd.
*** The incredible production values, good casting, witty scripts, and lots and lots of very attractive people wearing almost no clothes really don't hurt, either.
**** Yes, I am just that much fun to watch film adaptations with.