When gospel is dispelled

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Here’s a classical book which has spun off into a film adaptation. This series blows up and goes on to appropriate the narrative. Is this a bit like parents feel when their children reach a certain age, become independent, and suddenly want nothing to do with them?

Literature and cinema have always been like the symbiotic twins who fight over who is their mother's favourite. Books paint word pictures, while films paint — well — motion-picture pictures. In best cases, both these forms supplement one another. But, by the same token, both birth equally partisan fans — the book-readers will lament the over-dramatised film version which dilutes a complex story into a sequence of fleeting shots and cutaways; and film-viewers will lament the indigestibility of reams of paper that need to be laboured through to consume a story that can be infused with vivid visual life. Quite the chicken-egg conundrum. The only way to resolve the impasse might be through a timely game of Rock-Paper-Scissors — or, rather, Reel-Paper-Scissors?

One such story battling it out between its formats is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) and HBO’s Game of Thrones (GoT). GoT cultivated many readers for ASOIAF. And the book, in its turn, supplied invaluable subtext to watchers on the wall — erm, watchers of the series. But now, the show has gone ahead of the books. Where does that leave the fans? What happens when fans argue over the adaptations of some of their favourite books? Does this change the way canon is defined? Here's eavesdropping on two fans...

There are two ways of adapting a book, or a series into the visual medium . One is to slavishly follow everything set forth by the book and add some background details that are mostly unnecessary like armours having back-stories, Peter Jackson-style.

The other is to take the essence of the book and translate it into pure beauty on screen, as Alfonso Cuarón did with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

And then there is a third. That category is what D.B. Weiss and David Benioff fall under. The showrunners of Game of Thrones have decided to go ahead and make the sixth season as a complete departure from the books . My issues with GoT are manifold, beginning with the fact that many characters were simply dropped from the show.

This isn’t the first time that the creators of a show spun off from a book have gone above and beyond the established canon material. Maybe not on this scale, but it has happened before.

The hugely popular Fullmetal Alchemist manga series was not even halfway through when studios Bones and Aniplex decided to produce the anime version — resulting in the series veering wildly off the author’s material. But it still met with critical acclaim and the two universes of Fullmetal Alchemist co-exist till this day.

Why shouldn’t that be the case for GoT?

When you take up established canon that has already been unravelled completely, like — say — Sherlock Holmes, it may be acceptable to take liberties . And this has been done. But you don’t go messing around with key aspects of the story and killing off characters, who may well have been earmarked for fundamental roles in the original material, without the author’s sanction.

The Godfather is canon too, and if it were produced as a TV show today, I don’t think anyone would take too kindly to something like Apollonia and Kay being merged into the same person. ASOIAF is incomplete as of now. It may not be as established as the others, but it still counts.

I think the best example of using canon for its strengths is Disney’s > The Jungle Book. The latest one. Instead of relying on the earlier film, their version is closer to Kipling’s book.

Sherlock Holmes is a special case, considering just how many adaptations of the books we've seen so far . At this point, it is essentially just fan fiction — except that they have the backing to see their version of Holmes up on the big screen.

Take Mycroft's character for example. He’s only ever appeared in four stories in Doyle’s version of Holmes. Yet, in the BBC series, he's a central character. He's become a fine addition to the story and it makes no sense to keep him a minor character as the books do just for the sake of canon.

Timothy Long, the curator of the exhibition

I think there is a fine line between staying true to the characters and the story, and wanting to bring the story to life in the best possible way for a particular medium . That’s what happened to Harry Potter, in my opinion — be it in the Burrow scene in The Half Blood Prince that wasn’t in the books, or the truth about Dumbledore that was completely cut off. And that’s what happening in Game of Thrones as well.

But isn’t the whole point of canon that you can’t play around with some basic things?

I can understand dropping characters in GoT, since George R.R. Martin’s universe is filled with dozens of named characters, all of whom can’t make it on TV. But it irks me whenever the show kills off a person who is still alive in the books. By pre-empting the lifespan of characters you did not create, you risk delegitimising the very integrity of the narrative that has unravelled thus far .

If a character has died in the show, and the show has gone ahead of the books, does it then mean that the same person should be killed off in the books too? Ser Barristan Selmy is dead in the show, but he is alive and well in the books, and even a Point-of-View character.

There’s a particular scene in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers — the Battle of Helm’s Deep. As you would recall, a sizeable Elvish army from Lothlorien arrives to pad up the humans’ army. In the book though, there was no such army. Whatever army did exist, ended up fighting forces from Dol Guldur. It made fans mad, sure, yes.

But the cinematic impact of that scene — especially one that was instrumental in highlighting just how far the reclusive Elves would go to bring down Saruman, and by extension, Sauron — cannot be debated.

This is a clear case of playing around with canon, but it still served a larger purpose in the interest of the cinematic medium.

Since you’re speaking about missing/dead characters, I’d like to bring up Sansa Stark from GoT. According to the book, she’s still stuck in Lysa Arryn’s castle, playing the role of Littlefinger’s illegitimate daughter. But in the show, she’s married off to Ramsay Bolton, a character more cruel than even the monstrous Joffrey Baratheon. Ramsay was originally married to Jeyne Poole, a childhood friend of the Stark children.

To introduce a minor character like Poole just to stick with the original material when the show is already full to bursting is just adding to the mayhem. Sansa is someone who fans are already invested in and it just makes more sense to use her instead. It’s now a matter of logistical feasibility .

It is not just playing around with canon, but the treatment of characters too that’s an issue . For instance, it was interesting how Elementary made Watson a woman and a minority. The treatment of the character, though, thankfully, hasn’t changed much from the original. Fandom has always insisted on a homoerotic relationship between Holmes and Watson, but would you have that take centre stage?

Where is Arianne Martell in GoT? In the books, she is a part of what is the series’ most feminist plotline — and that’s saying a lot in a fictional universe where progressiveness is only a relative term.

Is Lady Stoneheart ever going to make an appearance? Did Sansa really need to be raped by Ramsay Bolton? Let’s not even go near the Jaime-Cersei rape scene. Actually, let’s go there. Putting in a gratuitous rape scene seems unsettling at best.

I don’t think the treatment of characters in GoT has deviated all that much from the books, actually . There might be some things lost in translation — like the Jaime-Cersei scene — but on the whole, the tone has been pretty much the same.

The meeting point of Jaime and Cersei in the books is different from the show. Joffrey’s funeral is when they meet for the first time after their separation. As such, what came across as unstoppable — if depraved — passion in the book, came across as rape in the series. Was it tone-deaf? Yes. But the actions of the duo are still in character.

Currently, the plotlines from the book and the show have seemingly coalesced, but there is still tons of material from the book for the showrunners to use — like the Greyjoy arc or even Littlefinger and the political havoc he’s currently wreaking at the Vale.

The showrunners have to work inside the world that they have created within GRRM’s vast saga and I believe they are doing a spectacular job of it , even if some of it may not be agreeable to book fans — including me.

The other interesting thing about fandoms for an ongoing and dynamic series such as this one is that fan theories change and evolve . If you take all the other works that we have referenced, fandoms haven’t changed much in the way they perceive either the original sources or the adaptations. But with ASOIAF, because of its incompleteness, there is a change happening to perception as we see it now. So, in a way, the cinematic version here is not so much supplementing the books, as it should, but risking a distortion of the original in the readers’ minds. So, all I'm saying is: let the books wind to a close and allow its precious world to coalesce for the reader before you unleash the different cinema version.

As the series progresses (hopefully), the reader becomes and stays a part of the conversation. It is one of the most exciting things about a fandom.

When this happens, there are theories formed about characters. Theories which stick with an existing fan-base.

Say, what about Griff and young Griff? Especially when reading about young Griff — an overarching theory about the Targaryens, one for each dragon — forms in the reader’s mind. It is an “Aha!” moment, and the show’s decision to completely cut them out seems unjustifiable.

While I agree that it isn’t easy to translate ASOIAF into a TV-friendly format, I think we should remember that one of the reasons the show was originally greenlighted was the existence of a readymade fan-base. A fan-base that has have lived with the books for about as long as they have been in print.

The whole point of reading an unputdownable book is just that. But if one were to already have a good idea of what might happen on the next page, or have that dictated by another medium, the excitement in opening a brand new book is lost.

But you don’t know, do you? You don’t know if Young Griff is in the offing or not. We never thought the Greyjoy storyline would ever take off, but there it is. The show has reached a point where Balon Greyjoy is now dead and Euron is scheming for the throne.

So what if the role of Griff looks like it’s going to be taken over by Jorah Mormont? Or that Jaime’s story arc was completely altered? He was doing nothing of interest in the Riverlands anyway, save for beating Edmure Tully into submission.

I know LoTR is a masterpiece, but reading long stretches of Frodo and Sam’s adventures with just Gollum for company bored the heck out of me. Quite similar to Jaime’s chapters in the book. Adapting a series as complex as ASOIAF or LoTR takes some ruthless editing skills and it just brings me back to my previous point. If it is in the interest of the show, then go ahead. The larger picture is what really matters.

My point is — you’ll never know. The show may go the fanboy route and confirm every single theory out there (I’m looking at you, Jon Snow’s parents), while Martin might pull a fast one over us and put Littlefinger on the throne.

Or vice versa. That’s what makes it deviations like this so much more exciting!

Perhaps the answer to this whole disagreement is to accept the logistical difficulties of putting the show’s development off till the books are finished. In the case of GoT, waiting the completion of the books out might be the fair thing to do, but remember that cinematic projects are massive undertakings that involve the lives and labour of hundreds and thousands of skilled professionals. And they are doing a heck of a job co-creating a story.

Ultimately, the problem is that we are unable to accept the coexistence of a fabricated version of our book gospel. It all boils down not to whether the facsimile is true to the original, but whether the facsimile is as coherent and comprehensive an artistic masterpiece in its own right.

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