Digital Stories and Adaptation: A Case Study with Game of Thrones

by Jen Lennon

An age-old tale, filled with lessons, caution, and morals. Intrigue, mixed with backstabbing, romance, mystery, treachery, and brutal violence. Historical references mixed with complete fantasy and imagination. When it comes to consuming a story that encompasses all of these qualities, does it matter which way a person consumes it? As new technology and media continue to build off of what was built earlier and offers new ways for consumption, what does it mean to consume a story in a new or different fashion? Does linearity matter? Does it matter what the original creator intended? What about remakes or remixes? And maybe most importantly, does the meaning change depending on how it is consumed?

The short answer, is yes. Probably. There are many theories that contest that medium makes a difference, as does even the interface or the specific software or the device itself. The consumption is a full experience, and that can’t really be ignored. But the specific case of the story above, which is Game of Thrones and the focus of this study, is actually an adaptation. The television show itself is based on a series of novels by George R.R. Martin entitled A Song of Fire and Ice. The story is an epic fantasy, firmly rooted in the fantasy genre, but also has the feel of historical fiction. Martin drew from inspiration from the English War of Roses time period in the 15th century as well as fantasy stalwarts like Tolkien. There’s a lot to unpack within Game of Thrones. Between all of the different genres and symbol systems, the dialogic implications of the series are extensive. It’s been a series of books, a television series, but there’s also a wiki devoted to the fans and online community, some novellas, and tons of references in other cultural materials. How a viewer would understand Game of Thrones encompasses a lot of media theories. But another important component is how it is physically consumed. The story is on multiple mediums now, and those mediums are available through different kinds of devices. Looking at Game of Thrones from a mediology perspective arises many questions.

The Medium and Transparency

When it comes to the idea of the medium, Marshall McLuhan has a lot of opinions. His overarching point is that the medium is the message, something that can be tough to grasp at face value. He also talks a lot about hot mediums versus cold mediums. Hot mediums are those that invite little audience participation: reading, film, radio. Cool mediums require the audience to become more involved. McLuhan considers television to be a cool medium. In the case of Game of Thrones, he’s actually not that far off. The viewers have become part of the universe; there is an enormous legion of fans that devote time to interacting with the story online or in person. His conception of medium also lends itself to adaptations like this one. “The effect of the medium is made strong and intense just because it is given another medium as ‘content’. The content of a movie is a novel or a play or an opera. The effect of the movie form is not related to its program content. The ‘content’ of writing or print is speech, but the reader is almost entirely unaware either of print or of speech” (McLuhan). If this is the case, then the television medium is sort of overtaking the original novels during mediation. Though the original ‘content’ for the show literally does come from a novel, the viewer is unaware of that fact while he watches. That is, unless someone told him.

Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin talked a lot about transparency and mediation in ways that echoed this idea. In mediation, transparency is the ultimate goal. We don’t want to feel the effects of the medium that we’re consuming; we just want to experience the story. They talk about how a lot of Jane Austen’s novels have been adapted for the screen, and while most are historically accurate and very faithful to the original novels, “they do not contain any overt reference to the novels on which they are based; they certainly do not acknowledge that they are adaptations. Acknowledging the novel in the film would disrupt the continuity and the illusion of immediacy that Austen’s readers expect, for they want to view the film in the same seamless way in which they read the novels. The content has been borrowed, but the medium has not been appropriated or quoted” (Bolter and Grusin). This idea is even assuming that the viewer is aware of the original iteration of the story. In some cases, people come to adaptations without any knowledge of the previous plot. I actually recently watched the new Les Miserables movie and embarrassingly enough had no real knowledge of the plot except that it was vaguely French revolutionary. I have no idea how accurate that adaptation was, or if the characters were being played well. All I know is that it was extremely depressing. But so many people were so excited about it that I assumed I was missing something from the original source that made it so beloved. Though, how many people have actually read the original book? Published in 1862 by Victor Hugo, it’s a classic novel. But I never had to read it for school and never felt the urge to pick it up otherwise. It would have been more likely for me to have seen it on Broadway – a place where many people most likely interacted with the story line for the first time. The movie is actually much more a remake of the Broadway interpretation as it incorporates the singing and dancing. Bolter and Grusin sum it up this way, “with reuse comes a necessary redefinition, but there may be no conscious interplay between media. The interplay happens, if at all, only for the reader or viewer who happens to know both version and can compare them” (45). The idea of different audiences is significant when it comes to adaptation and remakes. In the case of Game of Thrones, there are legions of fans who are book readers and television watchers, who incessantly compare the two online. But there are also those new to the stories that are learning it all from just the television show. If you go to any recap or article about the show, there is almost always a disclaimer just before the comments asking for book readers to not spoil it for those who are new. A popular entertainment website, The AV Club has an entire section called the TV Club which features essays and recaps of certain television shows. For Game of Thrones, they write two pieces each week: one for “experts” and one for “newbies”. Even still, as I read the “newbies” posts, commenters who have read the books love to come to our posts when something really big happens. They want to see our reaction. They’re reliving those big, shocking moments through the audience that is experiencing it for the first time.

(Wired’s recaps allow readers to choose the redacted versions if they haven’t read the books.)

Utilizing the Advantages of Digital Mediums

For those big moments, it’s curious whether one medium is more effective than other for certain stories. As digital technology has become more prevalent, older mediums are trying to utilize some of those new capabilities. With CGI, green screens, and computer editing, film and television can make things happen that couldn’t have worked 50 years ago. And as the technology continues to get better, those scenes just look more and more real. This has especially been useful to action-adventure types of film. In Game of Thrones, there is plenty of room for digital interaction. For one, there are dragons. There is also a mythically large wall in the far North (filmed in Iceland) that could only be created on a computer. There are white walkers, which are creepy zombie-like creatures, which I think we’re all hoping don’t exist in real life and were created with CGI. But this is something that can be uniquely capitalized within the structure of television. When reading a fantasy novel, the imagination is left to conjure all of these grand images by itself. The medium of television allows for that imagery to come to life. Bolter and Grusin say, “In the logic of hypermediacy, the artist (or multimedia programmer or web designer) strives to make the viewer acknowledge the medium as a medium and to delight in that acknowledgement” (41-42). There are a couple of scenes that actually inspired the creators of the television show to want to take on this story for this medium. A giant battle scene in the second season takes up an entire episode and shows their feeling that certain aspects of this story would be perfect for this specific medium and could come to life in a way that wasn’t possible otherwise. Film would have been too limited of scope where multiple story lines would have had to be cut out. A series where all of the characters could continue to be explored was the best way to do justice to the story.

In the sense that a certain medium may be particularly well-suited for a certain story, there are also things that tend to be changed to match that new medium. So since television was a natural fit for the Game of Thrones story, the visual nature of the show was helpful. As was the ability to be able to see characters over and over again, helping to reinforce who’s who – a difficult task at times with Game of Thrones. But of course, compromises have to be made. The novels are extremely long and not everything can fit into the constraints of the 10 one-hour episodes. Also, the books feature point of view (POV) characters, where certain characters will narrate certain chapters. This allows readers to get some of the internal monologue that isn’t available in the television format. The creators of the television show have decided to treat the entire story as source material, and while they stay pretty close to utilizing a book per season format, all of that is ending in the current third season because the third book, A Storm of Swords is much longer than the first two novels. The creators have talked about how certain smaller plot lines from books maybe be shuffled around to fit in where it best suits the story for the TV show. They are also working with George R.R. Martin to know what’s coming in the next two books so they don’t do anything that would inhibit that from making sense in the future when they’re published and will need to be adapted. Creator D.B. Weiss has said about one of the characters, Robb Stark, “Well, it’s interesting. It’s one of the places where novels diverge pretty drastically from television. Robb is absent from the second book, but he’s not absent. He’s not a point-of-view character [in the novels, Martin rotates around a series of “point-of-view” characters; in the second book, Robb is not one of those POV characters]. He’s basically not “on-screen” in the book, but in a way, he is on-screen because in the novel, Robb is mentioned as are stories about something that Robb did. [So Robb and his deeds are present and important, but] a story that is being told about a person is words coming out of somebody’s mouth for three, four, five minutes in a way that’s just not tenable on television” (Ryan). He goes on to explain that the actor who plays Robb Stark, Richard Madden, has also become one of the fan favorites and is magnetic on screen so they wanted to be sure to include in him the action because it was better for the television show. There are other examples of entire scenes taking place where there isn’t a POV character from the novels present, which means that it didn’t happen in the books. These scenes were added to give some background to some of larger characters on the television show, and typically are regarded pretty highly by fans of the book, as well, as they see it as sort of a “deleted” scene from the book.  Another part of the books that needed to be adjusted for the television medium were some of the issues surrounding sex. Martin has said on multiple occasions that he wanted it to be realistic of the “historical” time period that’s portrayed in the novels where class structures were harsh and women weren’t treated fairly. Sex is used as a form of power often in the story, but that’s not necessarily something people would want to see on TV – or would be considered by any of the top networks. HBO is known for being edgier and for allowing sexual situations to be grittier on their shows, but age was an issue. Martin said, “So, everyone is aged up I think. It was probably most crucial with Dany, who begins as a 13-year-old in the books. But, you have the whole issue of sexual activity on behalf of a 13-year-old, which was accepted in the Middle Ages, which I was using as my model. Many high born women, particularly noble women, were married at 13 or even younger. But it’s not so accepted in today’s society and we didn’t want to get into that whole bag of worms” (Poniewozik). He also mentioned that in any sort of screen adaptation that certain characters would need to be prioritized as having “arcs” where other smaller plot lines might fall by the wayside due to basic time constraints. He continued, “I mean, I’ve been a screenwriter myself. You have to go into a big book like this and you have to say, well, what’s the arc? Who’s the major character? Well focus on him and/or her and we’ll follow that major character through and we’ll pare away all these secondary characters and secondary stories and then we’ll get a movie out of it. Not only didn’t I want that done, but I didn’t think it could be done because in the early books, I’m deliberately disguising who the major characters are. I thought, well, it might work better as a TV series, but we’d run up to huge problems with the network censors with all the sex and the violence and that is much more graphic than anything is on television” (Poniewozik).

Genre, Dialogism and the Cultural Encyclopedia of GoT

The idea of the historical fiction aspect of Game of Thrones is interesting because it’s mostly marketed as a fantasy series. As with any major story or franchise today there is a major marketing engine behind it, which will ultimately have an effect on the expectations of consumers. Game of Thrones is a series that mixes up a lot of different symbol making systems and structures, and plays with genre in a way that’s definitely been done before, but probably not this realistically. Martin was intrigued with the idea of historical fiction, but not in the fact that the ending is already known. As with television shows like The Americans, which is set in the 1980s Cold War, the viewers are aware that within 10 years, all of the issues this show is centralized on will have been solved. When one watches Titanic, hopefully he isn’t expecting the boat to make it to New York. In the case of a mixed genre of history with fantasy, some of those models can be tweaked to allow for more suspense. Martin explains, “And then you’d read the historical fiction which was much grittier and more realistic and really give you a sense of what it was like to live in castles or to be in a battle with swords and things like that. And I said what I want to do is combine some of the realism of historical fiction with some of the appeal of fantasy, the magic and the wonder that the best fantasy has. As much as I love historical fiction, my problem with historical fiction is that you always know what’s going to happen. You know, if you’re reading about the War of the Roses, say, you know that the little princes are not going to come out of that tower. Fantasy, of course, doesn’t have that constraint. You can still have that driving force, which I think is one of the things that people read books for, what’s gonna happen next? I love this character, but god, is he gonna live, is he gonna die? I wanted that kind of suspense” (Poniewozik).

With so many different story lines going on in the plot – they have a constantly updated map in the opening theme song to help keep the audience up to date – there are plenty of examples of things being pulled from Eco’s idea of the cultural encyclopedia. The mixing of two well-known genres immediately culls assumed notions from the audience. Right from the beginning, the audience needs to understand these two genres to see how they might work with each other. As Bahktin talked about a cultural artifact having a past, present, and future, Game of Thrones looks toward the past within the show itself while instilling modern ideas. The audience is pulling from knowledge of the time period, while also utilizing the ideas of these genres. As Bahktin explains, any sort of communication has each person’s past associated with it. Everything presupposes previous iterations and anticipates a future; everything is part of a working model. Shows like this that rely so heavily on genres that have already been established and are nodding toward common TV tropes and devices, require this kind of dialogism. The audience needs to be on board. And the more they can pull from their own cultural encyclopedia, the more meaningful the show will be.

Technical Capabilities

For Martin, one of the hardest parts of the adaptation was not what one might expect. He explained, “And I was anxious that I would even remember how to write a teleplay. I mean, it’s been more than a decade since I’ve done one. But it turned out to be fine. I wasn’t changing much, I was just moving it from one medium to another medium and making cuts and trims, which I did plenty of in my Hollywood days. Actually, the hardest adjustment was me getting used to the new computer software” (Poniewozik).

Moving from the story itself to the means with which it is viewed adds another layer to the viewing experience of an adaptation like Game of Thrones. Bolter and Grusin said, “Filmmakers routinely spend tens of millions of dollars to film on location or to recreate period costumes and places in order to make their viewers fell as if they were ‘really’ there”. Remediation begs for transparency. The viewer doesn’t want to feel that the story is being consumed in any specific way, they just want the story. Yet behind the scenes, the technology is working to try to make that experience real. The experience of watching television is itself a blackboxed activity where people might not be considering what’s going on behind the scenes to mediate that experience. Bolter and Grusin say, “Digital visual media can best be understood through the ways in which they honor, rival, and revise linear-perspective painting, photography, film, television, and print. No medium today, and certainly no single media event, seems to do its cultural work in isolation from other media, any more than it works in isolation from other social and economic forces”. Watching a television show means interacting with various mediums that came before it. The story itself comes from a written novel, which according to McLuhan is originally conceived of from thoughts through speech through to the written word. “The movie, by sheer speeding up the mechanical, carried us from the world of sequence and connections into the world of creative configuration and structure. The message of the movie medium is that of transition from lineal connections to configurations.” (McLuhan). And going even further behind the scenes, television works with the ideas of photography, but has the human agency of a director or editor who is deciding how a viewer interprets or sees things from a certain perspective. “The production of computer animation seems to be automatic, yet the viewing can be interactive, although the interaction may be as simple as the capacity to change one’s point of view. In painting and photography, the user’s point of view was fixed. In film and television, the point of view was set in motion, but it was the director or editor who controlled the movement” (Bolter and Grusin). The effects of moving imagery go all the way back to elementary mathematics, much in the same way that photography does. “Digital graphics extends the tradition of the Albertian window. It creates images in perspective, but it applies to perspective the rigor of contemporary linear algebra and projective geometry. Computer-generated projective images are mathematically perfect…Renaissance perspective was never perfect in this sense, not only because of hand methods, but also because the artists often manipulated the perspective for dramatic or allegorical effect (of course, digital graphic perspective can be distorted too, but even these distortions are generated mathematically.)” (Bolter and Grouisn). The immediacy of television depends on hypermediacy in this school of thinking. In order to create the live-action motion that we see on television, the physical work of actors and live action is combined with computer graphics and editing to make it look seamless. The story is mediated through multiple lenses: the physical, with light and mathematics, through computer graphics and interfaces. “Digital graphic images are the work of humans, whose agency, however, is often deferred so far from the act of drawing that it seems to disappear” (Bolter and Grusin). Film theorist Tom Gunning argued that the logic of transparency works for filmgoers, or you could argue television watchers, because they obviously know that they are watching something on screen. They chose to watch it that way. But though the audience knows that what they are watching isn’t technically “real”, they “marvel at the discrepancy between what they knew and what their eyes told them” (Bolter and Grusin). It is such an interesting concept to imagine that an audience can choose how it consumes a story, but in certain ways feels those effects in a much more viscerally “real” way than in other forms. Does reading become less real because it’s “viewed” within our own imaginations?

The Digital Experience and the Blackbox

“Computer graphics experts, computer users and the vast audiences for popular film and television continue to assume that unmediated presentation is the ultimate goal of visual representation and to believe that technological progress toward that goal is being made. When interactivity is combined with automaticity and the five-hundred-year-old perspective method, the result is one account of mediation that millions of viewers today find compelling” (Bolter and Grusin). The audience knows what it is doing. There’s a physical interaction with television much in the same way that there is with a book. In order to access the story, one has to find a remote control and press a button to turn the television on. From that point, there are multiple experiences to go through before getting to the story itself – and all of these things factor into the experience and the way the story is perceived. There are television networks and the choice of which to watch; in the case of Game of Thrones it’s the heady HBO experience. Commercials are fewer on HBO, but there are trailers for their other shows while you wait for the one you want to start. This all takes away from the transparency of the experience. “The digital medium wants to erase itself, so that the viewer stands in the same relationship to the content as she would if she were confronting the original medium. Ideally, there should be no difference between the experience of seeing a painting in person and on the computer screen, but this is never so. The computer always intervenes and makes it presence felt in some way” (Bolter and Grusin).

The idea of interacting with a medium is especially evident in the different devices that television shows can now utilize for viewing. In the case of a story like Game of Thrones where there are so many different methods for consumption for any aspect of the story, as well, the computer has offered many options. At any given time, one can pull up the show online, via Netflix for older seasons or from HBO Go for the current season. In a separate tab could be the Kindle application with one of the books. In yet another tab could be the Game of Thrones wiki with a wealth of information on all of the characters, seasons, books, symbols, or even fake languages featured on the show. In another tab could be a Tumblr devoted to Justin Bieber as King Joffrey. Finally, the AV Club’s recaps or Grantland’s podcasts could round out a full browser experience full of Game of Thrones. This amount of mediation makes a couple of things apparent. This windowed viewing of a piece of culture shows the medium in a way that most things don’t do to this extent. Within one of the recaps, one could click on a link that then literally erases the online written material and replaces it with a video of the show. This is impossible in any other format besides the web. By toggling between all of these different forms of media, it becomes clear that the story is being mediated. This is what Bolter and Grusin would call the “hyperconscious recognition or acknowledgment of the medium” (38). There is very little transparency in this kind of experience, and makes it clearer why McLuhan would consider the medium to be the message in and of itself. HBO GO has a ton of information for each of HBO’s show; it’s basically a portal to whatever show one could want. For Game of Thrones, there are full episodes, along with biographies of each character, recaps, clips for upcoming episodes, and interviews with actors and the writers. This has the idea of “confronting the user with the problem of multiple representation and challenging her to consider why one medium might offer a more appropriate representation than another” (Bolter and Grusin) Even if one is just choosing to watch the current episode, by pressing the necessary menu buttons to get to that point, the medium has become a part of the experience.

Cultural History: What Happens to the Books?

So with all of this talk about how television might have been a useful medium for this particular story to utilize, what about the original source? What happens to the original medium when stories start to get adapted for current technology? Bourdieu talked about the idea of “high culture” and television tends to not fall into that category in the same way that literature does. As pop art was snubbed in the beginning for being too appealing for the masses and less highbrow, television seems to fall into that category compared to literature and film. But times are changing on that front. With the advent of cable networks and beloved television shows that delved into harder hitting topics like The Wire, The Sopranos, or Mad Men does, television is becoming more respected. But in the case of adaptations with Game of Thrones, does it mean people will read the books? Do the books just become source material for the show the longer that time moves on and technology continues to improve?

One of the most interesting parts of adaptations to me is to see if the original meaning was effectively mediated through a new medium. Film as described by E.H. Gombrich is “the most radical attempt to stamp out ambiguity and to enforce one reading of the picture – that of a man-made construction, a colored canvas.” This is such an interesting concept. By adapting a series of novels to television, the end result is a specific vision of the world the story created. I would guess that everyone has experienced watching an adaptation of a book they really loved only to have a character look completely different from what they had in their head. It’s disjointing. D.B. Weiss explained, “It’s much easier to flip back in a book than it is to flip back in a television show. It’s easier now than it used to be, but it’s still not a natural way of experiencing a TV show [to constantly go back and re-orient yourself in the story], whereas that is a natural way of experiencing a book.” That is definitely the case, especially with Game of Thrones. There are a ton of reasons why a television show can almost help viewers understand the story better – even if those viewers had already read the book. But is the same story being transmitted? George R.R. Martin sums it up:

“People ask me, is it what you imagined, and my answer is, no, not really. I have very strong visual pictures in my head about what they look like. And unless you’ve read my mind, that would be very hard for someone to get that.

But what they’ve done is good.”





Works Cited and References

Eco, Umberto. “Metaphor, Dictionary, and Encyclopedia.” New Literary History: 15:2 (1984): 255-71.

Hudson, Laura, and Erik Henriksen. “Recap: The Ultimate Burn on This Week’s Game of Thrones.” Wired. N.p., 22 Apr 2013. Web. 1 May. 2013. <>.

Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.

Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message,” (Excerpts from Understanding Media, The Extensions of Man, Part I, 2nd Edition; originally published, 1964).

Miller, Laura. “TV and the novel: A match made in heaven.”Salon. N.p., 11 Dec 2011. Web. 1 May. 2013. <>.

Poniewozik, James . “George R. R. Martin Interview, Part 1: Game of Thrones, from Book to TV.” Time. N.p., 15 Apr 2011. Web. 1 May. 2013. <>.

Ryan, Maureen. “‘Game of Thrones’ Producer On Season 2 Book Differences, Fan Feedback And What’s To Come.” Huffington Post. N.p., 08 Apr 2012. Web. 1 May. 2013.