With Game of Thrones set to begin its sixth season in April, the show will, for the first time, be completely without its source material. Author George R.R. Martin missed the latest deadline for his sixth book, The Winds of Winter, and now the show will pass the books' plot almost entirely. Yet before this upcoming season, Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had already made selective changes from the books to help simplify the show's narrative and its numerous characters. Some worked better than others, to say the least.
(Editor's note: There are spoilers for both the book and TV series from here on out.)
Generally, everyone's older. The younger characters are older in the show, and for good reason. Most notably,
The fact that the show upped her age, particularly with how frequently the character is sexualized, was a no-brainer. Similarly, it's easier to picture Jon Snow heading to The Wall, killing White Walkers and falling in love when he isn't 14.
Robb's wife wasn't at the Red Wedding. The TV adaptation of the Red Wedding is faithful, in terms of its sheer brutality. However, one noticeable difference is the presence of Robb Stark's wife. In the books, she stays at Riverrun during the wedding to avoid upsetting Walder Frey, since she's the reason Robb broke his agreement to marry one of his daughters (sadly, he still wasn't pleased).
She's also a completely different character in the show. In the books, she's introduced as a northerner, Jeyne Westerling, and after the events of the wedding she is pardoned by the Iron Throne. In Thrones, she's Talisa Maegyr (from Volantis, in Essos). She's also not pregnant in the books — though she and Robb have tried — which adds another element of cruelty to the show's depiction of the massacre, when she's stabbed in the stomach.
Lady Stoneheart never makes an appearance. Of course, at the end of the Red Wedding, Catelyn Stark has her throat slit, and that's the last we see of her. However, in the epilogue of the third book, A Storm of Swords, it's revealed that Catelyn is (somewhat) alive. She's revived by Beric Dondarrion, in the same vein as Melisandre — though as he notes in both the show and the books, whenever somebody is brought back to life, they don't come back entirely the same.
In Catelyn's case, she becomes Lady Stoneheart, a woman consumed with hatred and revenge who cannot speak thanks to the cut in her throat. While it would be an interesting take in the show, it's highly unlikely that she'll make an appearance. "To bring back Michelle Fairley, one of the greatest actresses around, to be a zombie for a little while — and just kill people?" Game of Thrones director Alex Graves said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly Radio. "It is really sort of, what are we doing with that?"
Sansa isn't married off to Ramsay. To keep the Game of Thrones plot straightforward, while not adding even more characters to an enormous cast, Sansa Stark is married off to Ramsay Bolton in season five. In the books, it's a little more elaborate. In her place is Jeyne Poole — a friend of Sansa's from Winterfell — though the Lannisters pretend she is Arya Stark to secure an alliance with the Boltons, who are now ruling the North.
She is, like Sansa, tortured, raped and wholly abused by Ramsay, a character who is easily one of the worst villains in modern television.
Brienne never fights the Hound. In both the novels and the show, the Hound is left for dead by Arya Stark. However, what leads him to his state of decay is vastly different in the TV series. In A Song of Ice and Fire, the Hound — traveling with Arya — is injured during a fight with Lannister soldiers, and the wound he suffers becomes infected. It's certainly realistic — but Thrones' way is far more exciting.
At the end of season four, the Hound encounters Brienne of Tarth. Brienne hopes to take Arya with her, as she promised Catelyn she'd protect her children. The Hound is in her way, of course, and an epic battle ensues — one where she emerges victorious and leaves him to his deadly fate.
Ser Barristan doesn't die. It's still a point of contention for fans, but the legendary knight Ser Barristan Selmy is killed in season five. In the books, he's still alive and well, in charge of Meereen after Dany leaves the city. What's more, he's killed in Thrones by the Sons of the Harpy, who are, essentially, a bunch of unruly Meereenese. In other words, one of the greatest knights in Westeros is killed off by a bunch of locals in a street alley — not exactly a classy ending for a powerful and respected character.
Similarly, Jojen Reed is killed off. In season four, after Bran Stark successfully journeys to the cave of the three-eyed raven, Jojen Reed is mortally wounded by wights at the entrance of the cave. In the books, he is saved by his sister, Meera. It's still unclear how that will affect Bran's storyline in season six; there isn't enough source material from the books to make that conclusion yet.
Arya never meets Tywin Lannister at Harrenhal. Yes, as in the show, Arya does make her way to Harrenhal in the second book, A Clash of Kings, and she does disguise herself as a commoner. However, instead of serving as a cupbearer to Tywin Lannister, she's the cupbearer for Roose Bolton. It's a tense situation, and she feels highly uncomfortable in his presence, even though she's aware he is a Stark bannerman. Case in point: He takes leech baths.
The interactions do arise suspicions over Bolton's character, and it's likely they avoided this in the HBO series to downplay his creepier qualities. (He doesn't have much screen time up until the Red Wedding, when he betrays Robb.)
Furthermore, it provides an interesting relationship for Arya with Tywin in Thrones. It gives the head of House Lannister more screen time and, as one could expect, humanizes him more from the audience's perspective. In his own way, he's respectful to her — much more than Bolton ever was in the books.
Ultimately, Benioff and Weiss' changes in Thrones were the inevitable result of adapting such an immersive work. While some might seem questionable at the time, fans won't know the full effect of these decisions until season six and beyond. Perhaps, in the end, it's for the good of the realm.