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Five Reasons the Book Behind ‘House of the Dragon’ Is Even Harder to Adapt Than the Books Behind ‘Game of Thrones’

‘Game of Thrones’ provided a blueprint for a successful series set in Westeros, but ‘Fire & Blood,’ the book HBO’s ‘House of the Dragon’ is based on, is even more daunting to adapt than ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’

HBO/Ringer illustration

A Game of Thrones was supposed to be unfilmable. And it almost was. As a fantasy story with a sprawling cast, inhuman magic, and incredible violence, the first book in George R.R. Martin’s epic saga took 15 years to reach the screen, survived a failed pilot, and only then blossomed into the juggernaut that won more Emmys than any other drama series in TV history.

Now the foundation has been laid for a successful show in the Thrones universe. As prequel series House of the Dragon approaches, creators and audiences alike know what King’s Landing looks like and how a Thrones show is supposed to feel—but that doesn’t mean the new show will have it easy.

Actually, House of the Dragon could prove an even trickier adaptation than Thrones. Here are five key reasons:

1. Almost every character’s name sounds the same

The TV Tropes encyclopedia has a “pretty rigid rule” called the One Steve Limit, which it explains as “no two characters in a work of fiction … should share the same first name, or even similar-sounding names.” But George R.R. Martin doesn’t abide by this dictum. He likes to repeat character names in his books—which carries some level of verisimilitude, given how parents (most notably monarchs) name their children in the real world. Fathers name their sons “Jr.,” popular athletes inspire new names, and seemingly every congressman is named Mike or John.

In a television show already suffused with fantastical lore, however, that repetition could prove confusing. The Game of Thrones show occasionally changed characters’ names to alleviate this issue: Asha became Yara because of the similarity to Osha, while Robert Arryn became Robin, even though his character in the book was actually named after King Robert.

But Dragon’s creators seem committed to Martin’s original character names. When co-showrunner Miguel Sapochnik broached the idea of making tweaks, his fellow showrunner, Ryan Condal, responded, “We can’t,” according to a Hollywood Reporter story.

So prepare for a show that contains multiple characters named Viserys; multiple characters named Joffrey; a Daemon and a Daeron; a Laenor and a Laena; a Rhaenys, a Rhaena, and a Rhaenyra; and an old Jaehaerys, a young Jaehaerys, a Jaehaera, and a Jacaerys. There are also too many characters whose names start with “Al” to list here, as well as a young Aegon, not to be confused with the other young Aegon, not to be confused with the legendary Aegon the Conqueror.

And that’s not even counting all the dragons, many of whose names also look similar. “All the dragons have weird names with Xes in them!” actor Emma D’Arcy, who plays the adult version of Rhaenyra, said in the THR story.

Good luck keeping track without a flowchart. Notice I said flowchart and not family tree because, well, the Targaryen family tree is almost too knotty to understand, which brings on reason no. 2.

2. Almost everyone is related

Unlike Thrones, which brought many different Westerosi houses into conflict, Dragon is much more tightly focused. The Starks and Lannisters, Tyrells and Martells, Arryns and Tullys, and Greyjoys and Baratheons are all present in this story—but only as peripheral figures orbiting the central Targaryen star.

Many of the show’s central characters will thus look physically similar, with the classically silver Targaryen hair. They’ll also all be married to each other, because a show about Targaryens is also inherently a show about incest. Dragon will have marriages between siblings. It’ll have marriages between cousins. It’ll have marriages between a niece and her uncle, and a nephew and his aunt.

Incest was so ingrained in Targaryen custom that, before the events of the show, King Jaehaerys even helped develop a new teaching within the Faith of the Seven, Westeros’s dominant religion. The so-called Doctrine of Exceptionalism explained that the Seven’s opprobrium against incest didn’t apply to the Targaryens.

Thrones dabbled in incest with Jaime and Cersei but, like the rest of the non-Targaryens in Westeros, treated it as a taboo. (Actually, marriage between first cousins is practiced throughout the continent. It’s really only the sibling marriages that cause conflict.) Now, Dragon has the dual difficulty of getting the audience to understand, first, that the practice is acceptable among the main characters, and second, how all the characters relate to one another.

3. There’s not as much story to adapt

The Thrones show was adapted from (for now) the first five books of the A Song of Ice and Fire saga, which comprise more than 4,200 pages and span about three years’ worth of events in the timeline of this fictional world. By comparison, House of the Dragon’s story stems from only about 250 pages from the Fire & Blood companion book. And rather than three years, that material spans three decades.

So while Thrones had about 1,400 pages of source material per fictional year, Dragon will have an average of fewer than 10 per year. Granted, those pages are disproportionately devoted to the three-year period of the Dance of the Dragons, but that’s still an extreme disparity.

Dragon is reportedly aiming for only a three- or four-season arc, rather than Thrones’ eight, but will still require much more new material to flesh out its story than Thrones needed (at least before that series advanced past the plot of the still-unfinished books). Martin could help fill in those gaps, given his reportedly heavy involvement with the new show. On the other hand, we’ve already seen the potentially catastrophic downsides when a Thrones show has to invent for itself rather than stick to the known outline of a preexisting tale.

4. The adaptable story doesn’t have much dialogue

Another major difference between the two source texts is their purpose and construction. The ASoIaF series is a narrative set of stories; F&B, conversely, is intended as a historical tome. So while the former allows for a close narration, letting readers see characters’ thoughts and observations and dreams, the latter shows only the “objective” accounting of a history text. (More on that supposed objectivity in a moment.)

That gap is most glaring when analyzing dialogue—or the lack thereof. I flipped to 10 random pages in A Game of Thrones and counted an average of 11 lines of dialogue per page (ranging from a low of three, in a section when Arya is isolated, to a high of 20, when Tyrion banters with Bronn). When I did the same with the show-relevant portions of Fire & Blood, I counted an average of only 1.5 lines of dialogue per page, with only one actual conversation across the sample.

Put simply, Thrones could lift most of its dialogue directly from the source text. Dragon will have to invent almost all of its conversations from scratch.

That’s not to say that Dragon is doomed to stilted speech; not every memorable line from Thrones came out of Martin’s pages. Littlefinger’s “Chaos is a ladder” speech was invented for the show, as we never observe any of his and Varys’s private debates in the books. “Tell Cersei; I want her to know it was me” was also new, as was Tyrion’s “That’s what I do; I drink and I know things.”

But it’s certainly an added layer of difficulty for the new show. This adaptation would already be tricky enough, even without having to craft every conversation out of whole cloth.

5. The source story isn’t actually objective

The F&B book is constructed as a sort of meta joke. Its cover page states that the story is written by a character living inside Westeros, named Archmaester Gyldayn, and is merely “transcribed by George R.R. Martin.” While readers could take everything that happened in the ASoIaF books as sacrosanct, the depictions in F&B technically come from an in-universe character—with his own flaws and biases and interpretations—who could, at some points, be wrong.

In fact, Gyldayn even admits his limitations within the text. As F&B’s fictional writer explains early in his tale of the Dance of the Dragons, much of the story “happened behind closed doors, in the privacy of stairwells, council rooms, and bedchambers, and the full truth of it will likely never be known.” Some first-hand accounts exist—one from a septon, one from a collection of maesters, and one from a court jester named Mushroom—but offer only limited perspectives: If the writer wasn’t in the room, he can’t be sure of what happened inside.

And even these remembrances “do not always agree upon particulars, and at times their accounts are considerably at variance with one another,” Gyldayn continues. The septon will say that Character A seduced Character B, while Mushroom will reverse the order and say B seduced A, or the sources will point to different culprits for a mysterious murder, or they’ll ascribe different motivations to a surprising decision.

As with Martin’s repeated character names, this story detail again parallels the real world. Ancient historians didn’t have the same approach to accuracy as their modern counterparts. As the 19th-century German historian Wilhelm Ihne wrote about Roman annalists like Livy and Dionysius, “Every writer related capriciously, and almost at random, what appeared to him most probable, without having the least foundation for his assertions, and without even pretending to have trustworthy information.”

So how will Dragon translate that uncertainty to the screen? It could have theoretically chosen a sort of Rashomon structure, but Condal told Entertainment Weekly that the show aims to provide “the objective account” of the story.

That approach contains both promise and peril. The good news is that the haziness affords the show’s creators flexibility in their adaptation—they can always tweak details and attribute the differences to a gap in the history book, rather than an actual change in the canon. The bad news is that they may struggle more to advance a cohesive narrative, with strong and sensible character arcs, because every single time that F&B’s sources disagree, the show will need to decide what actually occurred.

We’ll start learning the answers soon enough. House of the Dragon premieres in less than a week, with all manner of incestuous Aegons on the way.