By Chris Wright, aka James Rivers, with Petra
Results of the Game of Thrones survey posted in April here at Watchers on the Wall — and discussed Sunday at Con of Thrones — support the idea that A Song of Ice and Fire readers find the show’s more recent seasons less compelling than do non-book readers
However, respondents overall found book-based storylines more effective than those largely created for the show.
With help from Petra, I’ll look below at opinions on how the show handled 10 plotlines, including Jaime’s trip to Dorne and Sansa’s return to Winterfell. Viewers’ emotional reaction to certain events will be revealed, as well as the show’s most-missed book characters. We also reveal how respondents ranked the seven seasons. Do book readers rank them in the same order as show-only folks? Let’s find out!
The survey was open April 16 to 29 and was mainly promoted via Watchers on the Wall; it was also linked to at Winter is Coming, r/gameofthrones, r/asoiaf and elsewhere. In all, 2,532 people completed at least the minimum required portion of the survey, which was structured so respondents could vary the time they spent on it. The results reflect their opinions alone, as this was not a random sampling (hence the vaguer “support the idea that” above, and not “show that”).
Among other demographic-style questions, respondents were asked which of these statements best described their experience with Game of Thrones:
- I read at least one of the books before watching any of the show
- I’ve read at least one book, but not until after I started watching the show
- I haven’t read any of the books
For the record, Petra and I both fall into the middle category. And so did most others, since this is how things ended up:
- Book First (BF), 23%, or 575 people.
- Show, Then Book (STB), 55%, or 1,376 people.
- Show Only (SO), 22%, or 559 people.
This made for a nicely symmetrical sample. Of the 575 “BFs,” all but 31 said they had read at least three of the five books. Three quarters of “STBs” had read at least three books as well.
Other key demographics included:
- Age: 34 and under, 49%; age 35 to 49, 32%; age 50 and up, 18%; prefer not to say, 1%.
- Gender identity: Female, 53%; male, 43%; nonbinary/other, 1%; prefer not to say, 3%.
- Location: North America, 58%; Europe, 30%; Asia, 4%; Australia, 3%; South America, 2%; Africa, under 1%; prefer not to say, 2%.
Petra: Considering that fantasy and science fiction are generally thought of as male-dominated genres, it’s fascinating that most respondents were women.
Judging Ten Plotlines
The differences among the three viewer groups were stark, as it were, when asked what they thought about 10 specific storylines. Here is the question, as written, from the survey, along with the 10 plots, which were randomly ordered.
“Below are 10 storylines from the show; for each, indicate how effective (i.e. entertaining, compelling, logical, well-executed, etc.) you think they were.”
- Sansa returns to Winterfell and marries Ramsay Bolton, who rapes her; she later plays a significant role in his defeat.
- Jaime and Bronn travel to Dorne, where they spar with the Sand Snakes. They retrieve Myrcella, but she is poisoned by Ellaria Sand as they depart.
- Tyrion is kidnapped by Jorah and taken to Dany, who bonds with him and eventually makes him her hand.
- Jon and others go north of the Wall in hopes of capturing a wight to prove their existence to Cersei; Dany and her dragons fly to their rescue.
- Theon is tortured physically and psychologically by Ramsay, but eventually recovers his identity and aids Sansa in her escape.
- Arya travels to Braavos, where she learns the ways of the Faceless Men, who later try to have her killed.
- Littlefinger tries to play Sansa and Arya against each other, but with assistance from Bran they realize his ruse and kill him.
- Tyrion is falsely accused of poisoning Joffrey, demands a trial by combat and is sentenced to death when his champion, Oberyn, is killed.
- Jon is elected Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, but his charges grow uneasy with his decisions regarding Wildlings and several conspire to kill him.
- A desperate Stannis, with encouragement by Melisandre, burns his daughter alive in hopes of victory at Winterfell, but he is defeated and later slain.
Respondents had five options: Very ineffective; Slightly to somewhat ineffective; Neutral; Slightly to somewhat effective; Very effective. These translated to a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 being “very effective.”
Let’s see how things shook out overall.
The chart probably speaks for itself, but two quick notes:
- The Sansa/Ramsay plot had better marks than I anticipated. But that may be because I chose to mention her eventual role in his defeat.
- The clear flow from book-adapted plots to show-only ones indicates that those rooted more directly in George R.R. Martin’s words were most effective on screen as well.
Petra: It’s interesting that Jon’s mission to capture a Wight and Littlefinger’s manipulation of Sansa and Arya were considered so disappointing when the payoffs to those plots were met with raucous cheering, in my experience. Similarly, I remember the listed Arya and Theon plots not being well-received, when they aired, but perhaps time has improved viewers’ feelings.
Viewer Types and Plots
Things get more interesting looking at these results broken out by viewer group. Half had statistically significant differences according to what’s called a Chi Square test. Here are the three plots with the biggest changes from group to group. Note this chart shows INeffectiveness:
It’s apparent book readers found these often-maligned plots much less effective than show-only respondents. But the picture isn’t quite that simple. A scatterplot gives a more all-encompassing look at this plot-by-plot data.
This chart shows, left to right, how each of the 10 plots was rated by our three groups of respondents. Remember, the scale used was 1 to 5, with 5 being “Very Effective.” Check out how the plots near the top — the more effective ones — show small changes from book-firsts over to show-onlys, while those nearer the bottom swing upward.
Note that the views of the middle group, Show-then-Book, tend to stick more closely to Book-Firsts than to Show-Onlys, and that for all three groups, the plots fell into a similar order, with near-direct adaptations up top and show creations at the bottom.
Emotional Impact of Plots and Events
Respondents were asked:
“Below is a list of major plot developments. For each, think back to when you *first* saw the event (or first read about it, if that occurred first for you). What was your initial *emotional* reaction to each outcome?”
The event were listed in a random order. There was again a five-point scale, ranging from “Very pleased” (5) to “Very displeased (1). Here were the overall results.
Again, kind of speaks for itself. I’m most fascinated by the sept explosion and Blackwater results being smack in the middle with essentially neutral scores.
The two most-pleasing events listed were also the two with the biggest difference among our three viewer types.
Folks were pleased by these results, but show-onlys significantly more so. Interesting that both are from Season 6 — more below on that — and involve Jon.
These ratings and those above, while interesting, are still narrowly focused on the plots Petra and I selected. Looking at how our three viewer groups ranked seasons gives us a broader view.
Ranking the Seasons
Here’s how respondents ranked the seasons from “best to worst” (they could access a brief summary of each season). At left is how everyone did it. At right are the ranks split into our three viewer groups.
So yes, the first was the best, respondents said overall — although interestingly, show-onlys ranked Season 6 in the top spot. Season 5 was in the basement, as may have been expected.
Here’s a scatterplot that reveals added detail, including a photo finish/eclipse for third place.
This exercise again reinforces the idea of Show-Onlys having less of a problem with the most recent three seasons (check out the arcs of Seasons 1-3 vs. Seasons 5-7).
Petra: I’ve gotten the impression anecdotally that book readers prefer Game of Thrones when it focuses on characters and politics and don’t mind slower pacing, while non-readers are willing to forgive inconsistencies for plot advancements and character interactions. The show has gradually shifted its emphasis from the former to the latter. Season 6 in particular is when years of buildup start to pay off, pleasing show-onlys, but with that comes plot holes and a loss of nuance, irking book readers.
The Things We Left Behind
Speaking of later seasons, that’s when it became apparent that certain book elements were definitely left out. Here’s the changes that most made book readers feel like they had hearts of…well, you know.
“Some book-to-show changes have generated criticism. What major changes, if any, most displeased you? Choose up to three below (you may also add your own)”
And the results:
- Lady Stoneheart does not appear – 825 votes
- Arianne does not appear; Doran’s revenge plot is left out; etc. – 780
- Sansa returns to Winterfell and marries Ramsay – 643
- Bran is the only major character shown able to warg – 632
- Mance Rayder’s storyline ends at an earlier point than in the books – 367
- Young Griff and his entourage do not appear – 355
- Victarion Greyjoy does not appear – 182
- Yara/Asha’s storyline is substantially different – 140
- Missandei and Grey Worm fall in love – 130
In addition, 211 respondents added their own omission. Here are the top write-ins (similar ones, for obvious reasons, have been lumped together):
- Varied changes to Stannis’s story/characterization, in particular burning Shireen – 24 votes
- Varied changes to Jaime’s story/characterization, in particular the sept scene in 0403 and the length of time he is loyal to Cersei – 21 votes
- Relative lack of direwolves, and related – 14
- Ser Barristan’s death – 10
- Robb’s wife being changed, and related – 9
- Changes to Arya’s story in Braavos – 7
It’s fair to think any of these would have gotten more votes had I thought to include them in the initial list of nine changes. But not everyone thought this was a worthwhile query, with one person writing, “These are the changes you have to make with a tv show. Get over it. Dumb question.”
That one-two punch of Stoneheart and Arianne repeated when we asked book readers to write in their favorite character who hasn’t been on the show. These characters got at least 10 votes:
- Lady Stoneheart – 338
- Arianne Martell – 281
- Victarion Greyjoy – 74
- Young Griff – 64
- Strong Belwas – 58
- Jon Connington – 49
- Val – 35
- Patchface – 21
- Quentyn Martell – 13
- Garlan Tyrell – 10
An oddity: Wyman Manderly, who HAS been on the show, got 10 votes. Perhaps people used his character as a proxy for his well-known book speech? Yet Septon Meribald, who as a named character has NOT been on the show but also has a famed speech, only got one vote.
Petra: It’s noteworthy that the two characters people are most unhappy about being omitted from the show are two proactive female characters. As big of an impact as their absence has on the plot, I suspect a lot of the outrage stems from the fact that many have come to view LSH and Arianne as symbols of female agency (particularly as a point of comparison when criticizing the show).
That’s all for this installment. Stay tuned, as we’ll release results of other questions in three more parts, in the days ahead!