How the ‘Game of Thrones’ TV show helps us understand the books (and a prediction about Season 4)

April 5

With Season 4 of the much-acclaimed “Game of Thrones” series on HBO beginning Sunday, I wanted to offer two thoughts about the show so far. (It is the weekend, which seems to me the most appropriate time for a post that is mostly not about law. Also, Point 2 contains a very vague spoiler for those who have not read the third book.)


Natalie Dormer, left, and Diana Rigg walk together in a scene from HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” The fourth season premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern time. (Macall B. Polay/ HBO via AP)

1. I have been watching “Game of Thrones” after having read and enjoyed all of the books. Although the show is quite long and involved, it is still almost an order of magnitude less complicated than the books are; most minor and off-screen characters are omitted, and other characters are compressed into one (such as Gendry and Eddric Storm). There are tons of Web pages devoted to chronicling the differences between the books and the show, and also blog posts arguing about which differences are improvements and which are not.

In general, this kind of adaptation of a book to a performance is often seen as a separate but related work on the same subject. The differences are often seen as infidelities or improvements.

But in fact, I think the “Game of Thrones” TV show has a more interesting relationship to the books. In many respects, it ends up serving as an interpretive guide. The decision about what subplots or events are sufficiently important to merit treatment in the show is a guide to what parts of the books really are crucial to the overall story. Similarly, the show is often forced to make explicit things that were more subtly implied in the books (such as Prince Renly’s same-sex relations with one of his men, or the specific ways that Theon is tortured).

And for those who care about authorial intent, the fact that George R.R. Martin advises the writing of the show may give added weight to the show’s interpretation of the books. That’s not to say that every change in the show reflects an interpretation of the book. (The character substituted as Robb Stark’s wife, for example, seems designed to have made the show more fun to watch but also resulted in making his character far less interesting.) But I think it’s interesting to have such a good example of the way in which rendering a book in another medium helps us to understand the book itself.

2. One more personal example of this is that I finally understand the emotional appeal of Daenerys’s character. In the book, to be honest, I found her sort of boring and vapid. Her story is disjointed (because it is broken up by the densely written in-fighting on Westeros), and I did not understand her basic appeal or why we are supposed to think she should rule the seven kingdoms.

After watching the show, I now see the moral appeal she is supposed to have. John McGinnis argues that she is “the most liberty loving” of the noble characters:

She gathers forces by declaring her interest in freeing slaves and leading them as free men. It is not a surprise that her relative liberality is born from the need to recruit and inspire soldiers because Daenerys cannot rely, as other Houses can, on her vassals to provide troops. While Game of Thrones is generally brutally realistic about the exercise of power, this storyline demonstrates that “soft power”—disseminating attractive ideas—is nevertheless real.

Of course I do not know how Season 4 will interpret the remainder of the book, “A Storm of Swords.” But having read ahead, let me hazard the general prediction that this point will not seem nearly as accurate by the end of the season. In particular, I predict that McGinnis will retract the last sentence. He will no longer be writing that the show demonstrates the power of Daenerys’s ideas, but instead he will be writing about the importance of institutions to the rule of law.

Will Baude is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School, where he teaches constitutional law and federal courts. His recent articles include Rethinking the Federal Eminent Domain Power, (Yale Law Journal, 2013), and Beyond DOMA: State Choice of Law in Federal Statutes, (Stanford Law Review, 2012).
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