Warning: Spoilers and speculation for Game of Thrones below
Back when HBO announced that Game of Thrones would overtake its source material in its sixth season, fans of George R.R. Martin’s novels were understandably anxious. Some had been waiting decades — Game of Thrones was first published in 1996 — to see where the saga was leading. It was disappointing to realize major plot points would be revealed in the adaptations instead of on the page. Even Martin expressed sadness that HBO would beat him to the punch revealing the meaning behind “Hodor.” When Game of Thrones first aired on April 17, 2011 everyone thought Martin would surely keep ahead of the adaptation. A Dance With Dragons dropped on July 12, 2011. At the time it seemed inconceivable that Martin wouldn’t release The Winds of Winter before 2016.
That was not the case, however, leaving Game of Thrones to fill in the narrative blanks using only an outline provided by Martin as to what the major story beats will be. As the seventh season of the show unfolded this year, that became painfully clear. Characters and plot moved with almost “Yakety Sax” quickness. After years of conditioning its audience to care about the minutia of medieval governing and petty lord position-jockeying, the show took an abrupt turn this season as suddenly entire kingdoms were written off without a care for how changes to them would affect the socio-political climate of Westeros.
While the quickened pace can be maddening for those who preferred the slow burn of past seasons, the sprint towards the finish line is actually a boon for novel readers. Suddenly, whatever reveals happen on Game of Thrones seem like an alternate universe. As the show diverges from Martin’s saga out of necessity, it becomes more clear that showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss weren’t kidding over the years when they’ve said both stories will end the same way but get there differently. From Variety, circa 2015:
We’ve had a lot of conversations with George, and he makes a lot of stuff up as he’s writing it. Even while we talk to him about the ending, it doesn’t mean that that ending that he has currently conceived is going to be the ending when he eventually writes it.
Over the years, Martin has also mused that his saga will end differently than the HBO adaptation, most recently reminding everyone that Game of Thrones killed dozens of characters in the Sept of Baelor that are still very much alive in his novels. In fact, a quick rundown of where major characters are at the beginning of The Winds of Winter showcase exactly how far the gulf is now between the source material and the adaptation.
- Jon Snow – Still dead due to treachery in the Night’s Watch.
- Daenerys Targaryen – Lost in the great grasslands of Essos after fleeing Meereen on Drogon, she’s just been found by the Dothraki.
- Sansa Stark – Still in the Vale, Sansa is an unwitting pawn by Littlefinger’s attempts to marry her to the heir to the Vale should Sweetrobin die.
- Arya Stark – She has just completed her first successful assassination mission for the Faceless Men and remains in Braavos.
- Bran Stark – Along with a very much alive Jojen Reed, Hodor, and Summer, the Stark heir has reached the Three-Eyed Raven and is learning magical skills.
- Rickon Stark – Last seen living on the cannibal island of Skagos with Osha.
- Cersei Lannister – Just finished her ‘Walk of Shame’ and is awaiting trial.
- Jaime Lannister – Leaving the siege of Riverrun after Brienne appears, but not before burning Cersei’s letters to him unopened.
- Tyrion Lannister – Currently in the employ of the Second Sons and preparing for battle as the Iron Fleet enters Slaver’s Bay.
- Myrcella Baratheon – Recovering from her injuries in secret in Dorne after a failed assassination attempt.
- Tommen Baratheon – Still King in name, the child is not even ten years old, and is caught between duty to his mother and a growing love of his permissive (and manipulative) wife.
- Stannis Baratheon – Very much alive and marching to Winterfell with his army to take it back from the Boltons, though Ramsay claims in a letter to Castle Black that Stannis has been defeated.
- Melisandre – Hanging out at Castle Black, giving advice and basically being a mysterious witch.
- Davos Seaworth – Sent to White Harbor by Stannis, he is now embroiled in a plot to retrieve Rickon Stark from Skagos.
- Jorah Mormont – In the company of the Second Sons mercenary group and Tyrion, preparing for battle with the Greyjoys as they enter Meereen.
- Brienne of Tarth – Last seen luring Jaime from Riverrun at the behest of Lady Stoneheart, the living corpse that was once Lady Catelyn Stark.
- Littlefinger – Still in the Vale, consolidating his power base and maneuvering pieces in the game.
- Yara/Asha Greyjoy – Captured by Stannis Baratheon and awaiting his judgment.
- Theon Greyjoy – Captured by Stannis Baratheon and awaiting execution.
- Euron Greyjoy – Hanging out in the Iron Islands, doing whatever it is petty kings do.
- Margaery Tyrell – Alive and well and awaiting trial by the Faith Militant while her family’s army surrounds King’s Landing.
- Loras Tyrell – Never arrested by the Faith Militant. Instead, he laid siege to Dragonstone and recaptured it from the Ironborn. He may or may not be gravely injured.
- Olenna Tyrell – She’s still in King’s Landing, manipulating the game in favor of her granddaughter, Queen Margaery.
- Sam Tarly – Sworn to secrecy by the Grand Maester, he is learning the trade while keeping knowledge of living dragons and ice zombies to himself.
- Gilly – With Sam in Oldtown, raising Mance Rayder’s baby as her own.
- Varys – Still in King’s Landing, he has just completed a successful coup to murder most of the Small Council and throw the government into chaos ahead of helping Aegon Targaryen make his claim to the throne.
- Sand Snakes – Recently given missions by their very much alive uncle Doran Martell, each one will infiltrate King’s Landing in her own way to spy on the enemy.
That’s just some of the major players. The books are littered with characters and storylines that were cut from the HBO adaptation. Characters like Young Griff (perhaps the true Aegon Targaryen), Arianne Martell (heir to Dorne), Lady Stoneheart (Catelyn Stark’s resurrected corpse), Victarian Greyjoy (Euron’s other brother), Jeyne Westerling (Robb Stark’s alive and allegedly pregnant widow), and a veritable legion of petty Westerosi lords and Essos denizens all affect the tale George R.R. Martin is telling. Each one is a tiny ripple in the narrative, changing the direction the story goes. If Game of Thrones is a raging river, A Song of Ice and Fire is a meandering stream. Both will end up at the ocean, but the former will arrive in a much quicker and straight forward manner.
Fans of the novels can take heart in this. Whenever The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring make it to print, certain momentous plot twists may remain but refracted through a different lens. Knowing Jon Snow’s true parentage doesn’t change the fact he still has a long road ahead of him in the books. Armed with the information that Daenerys will eventually land in Westeros doesn’t explain how her book counterpart will get there or how the tentative alliance with Dorne could affect the outcome. Will Littlefinger even die at the hands of the Stark sisters? Beric Dondarrion is at the Wall with Tormund on the show, but dead in the books, so how does The Hound’s character arc play out? Would Jon ever even suggest a plan as stupid at the “wight heist” in the books? Can Cersei maintain her grip on power with the Tyrell army at her back, Jaime abandoning her, and most of her Small Council dead? And these are just questions I came up with on top of my head.
So instead of seeing the final season of Game of Thrones as one massive spoiler, perhaps it’s better to look it another way: as a very long trailer or book jacket cover. Whatever HBO has in store to wrap up this song of Ice and Fire, Martin’s version of the tale will likely be far more satisfying.