Long ago, I composed the philosophy that the primary duty of the adaptor is to make a great film (or depending on the outlet, a great television series or comic book). That philosophy is at odds with many fans who would hold up faithfulness to the text as the primary virtue. Yet a good director recognizes that each medium is a unique platform with its own strengths and weaknesses.
Most of the time, an adaptor has to decide what to leave out. A novel is typically longer than a movie script so the adaptor has to trim it down. For The Hunger Games movie, that meant compressing the early chapters before Katniss is taken to the games. That decision disappointed some fans who were sad to see a supporting character, Madge Undersee, eliminated from the story. For the Game of Thrones television series that meant curtailing the presence of many tertiary characters. Old Nan, for example, is only given two scenes and Jon’s friends in the Watch, like Pyp and Grenn, are mostly relegated to the background.
Yet those two recent adaptations also made the interesting and intentional decision to add scenes. I think they did so for the same reason. In each case, the book is the beginning of a longer series: The Hunger Games is the first book in a trilogy and A Game of Thrones launches a series that is five novels long and counting. The additional scenes set up characters, situations and themes that will grow in importance in the later volumes. The adaptors were subtly laying the groundwork for their future stories. In addition, they were able to do this because of the differences in medium.
The Hunger Games novel follows Katniss Everdeen as its primary character. Author Suzanne Collins doesn’t use a first person perspective yet her third person narrator follows Katniss exclusively. Everything we see as a reader, we see through her eyes. The movie also follows Katniss as the primary character. In most cases, supporting characters are reduced in order to keep the focus on Katniss. We see less of Haymitch, Peeta and Cinna in the movie than we do in the book. And, tertiary characters, like Cinna’s team of stylists, are practically eliminated.
However, The Hunger Games movie takes advantage of its art form to occasionally depart from Katniss. Unlike the book, we actually witness a few scenes in which Katniss doesn’t appear. First of all, we’re shown a number of scenes behind the scenes of the Hunger Games. We watch Seneca Crane and his crew direct the games. Plus, we witness confrontations between Seneca Crane and President Snow concerning the direction of the games. These scenes build up Seneca and Snow as villains. I think we gain a greater understanding that the real threat is not the other tributes fighting in the games, but the people like Seneca and Snow who run the games. Furthermore, these scenes establish Snow as a villain, giving the audience a reason to come back for the second and third movies. In a way, the movie does a better job of this than the book itself, as the last shot in the movie is of Snow coldly watching Katniss on TV.
The other additional scenes in The Hunger Games are comprised of the reactions of people watching the games. The novel follows Katniss exclusively, and we don’t really know how she’s being regarded until later. The movie is able to break away from Katniss’ story for quick reactions in a way that would have been cumbersome in a book. In this way, we are able to keep better tabs on Gale, Katniss’ hunting partner and love interest back home. We also see the start of the uprisings that will become the focus of the later books. By jumping back and forth, the movie builds up the romantic triangle and the rebellion against tyranny.
That isn’t to say that the movie does everything better than the book. They are different media, with different strengths and weaknesses. This is no slight to the quality of the performances, but a movie will never be able to get into the mind of a character as well as a book. As one reviewer remarked about The Hunger Games movie: “The movie can show you how it happened; the book can tell you why.”
The Game of Thrones television series similarly invents a number of new scenes. In this case, I attribute the additions to the natural progression of the novels themselves, collectively known as A Song of Ice and Fire. Author George R.R. Martin rotates his point of view character from chapter to chapter. The first novel, A Game of Thrones, predominantly follows one family, the Starks of Winterfell, and they account for 6 of the 8 viewpoint characters. However, as the series progresses, Martin slowly adds other viewpoint characters and the Starks are outnumbered by the fourth novel. In this way, A Song of Ice and Fire evolves from the story of one family to the story of a nation whose intrigues encompass the entire globe.
The producers of the television know about this progression and I think they wanted to prepare their audience for it. The Lannisters, the Starks’ main rivals, are given equal billing from the beginning. We watch a scene featuring the twins, Cersei and Jamie, before they travel north to meet with the Starks. They are more than foils for the family Stark; they are compelling characters in their own right.
The producers also prepare us by giving additional scenes to characters who will increase in importance in later books. Theon Greyjoy doesn’t become a point of view character until the second novel yet he’s given a number of independent scenes in the first season of the television show. Varys and Littlefinger, members of the king’s council and masters of intrigue, are given
additional scenes including a few short stand-offs between them. Finally, the king’s brother Renly, who rises to prominence in the second novel, is given several scenes of his own including one with his lover. In this way, the television series creates interest in these characters before they step into the spotlight.
I think it’s a good choice for the television series, smoothing the transition in the novels from the story of one family to the story of a nation. That choice will help sustain audience interest despite changing focus, the loss of some characters and the introduction of others.
It’s not a question of right or wrong. It’s a question of what works for each medium. For me at least, it’s interesting to contemplate the differences and why they were made. John Howe, an artist who worked on The Lord of the Rings movies, shared a wonderful insight: “We now have two ways to enter this world, the book and the movie.”