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Fans upset by 'Game' changers didn't read the book

| Friday, June 14, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

(Spoiler alert: Fans of HBO's “Game of Thrones” who have not caught up with the current season should avoid reading.)

“The book was better.”

That's the typical war cry of literary-minded people who insist that the big-screen movie versions of their favorite stories usually fail to live up to those penned by the original authors.

In recent years, these comparisons also have become applicable in television as producers increasingly rely on popular tomes for source material. And perhaps no show has illustrated the tug-of-war between book and screen as vividly as “Game of Thrones.”

HBO's fantasy masterpiece just wrapped up an exceptional third season last Sunday. I suspect, though, that fans will be buzzing about it long into the summer, particularly the show's gut-wrenching Red Wedding sequence that occurred in the penultimate episode.

Social media exploded with shock, outrage and disbelief over the plot twist that had would-be king Robb Stark, his mother, Catelyn, and his pregnant wife, Talisa, getting brutally slaughtered in a coldblooded act of vengeance.

Of course, faithful devotees of George R.R. Martin's book series knew it was coming and, thus, processed the episode quite differently than nonreaders who had no preconceived notions and spent the night plucking their jaws off the floor.

In the days that followed, it was great fun to observe the reactions from both camps. But it also was irritating to witness the barrage of nitpicking from readers who dissected all the disparities between book and screen and slammed the show for not paying “proper respect” to the source material.

Don't get me wrong: I appreciate these rabid readers. Without them, “Game of Thrones” would never have made it to television. Same goes for devotees of “The Walking Dead” graphic novels by Robert Kirkman, and “Dexter” by Jeff Lindsay, or the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris that inspired “True Blood.”

But it's important to remember that books and TV shows are two very different beasts and that a show absolutely needs to be free to live and breathe on its own. As “Thrones” executive producer David Benioff explained in a magazine interview, “the great thing about George's books is that the skeleton is so strong. Even if we sometimes strip away some of the muscles and the flesh, we know we're still remaining true to the underlying story, because we know the major character arcs.”

Of course, you can't blame readers for finding fault with a TV series — and they often make good arguments. Long before the story hits the screen, they've already produced their own show in their heads. They've visualized the settings. They've fleshed out the characters. They've set the pace. They are locked and loaded.

So when a TV show deviates from the one they have in mind, it can be jarring — and highly disappointing.

But television producers are dealing with a full-blooded work in progress and therefore have the right to gauge things as they go and make adjustments. And let's be honest: Some of the creative liberties they deploy are actually improvements.

AMC's “The Walking Dead” regularly deviates from Kirkman's source material. One example: The show gave us a standout character — Daryl (Norman Reedus) — who didn't even exist in the comic books. “

As Kirkman, also an executive producer on the TV series, has often said, he strives to maintain a healthy balance between sticking to the events in the books and adding different wrinkles to the mix. The deviations are done, he says, to not only make compelling television, but to shake things up and keep readers of the comic books “on their toes.”

At least that's his story — and he's sticking to it.

Chuck Barney is a staff writer for the Contra Costa Times.

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