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Does the tv series follow the storyline of the books or are they quite different? I realize that game of thrones tv series is based on these books but how well do they match up?

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Lysmerry I have watched the series and read the books twice each, and I have some forgotten points, but from what I remember, the first 4 seasons do hit most of the major plot points and character personalities, details aside, which I consider the heart of a true filmed adaptation.
The strength and weakness of the show is condensation. GRRM is a VERY meandering writer, especially in his later books. This makes him an excellent world builder, and you get great insight into the back story of his characters, many of which of tragic and beautiful tales in their own right (HBO is currently considering a prologue). These are only referenced in the show, and do not have the same power. (if you've heard of the R+L=J theory, the passion for this idea comes from the intensity built up in the book) Television also has the misfortune of being a medium where everything must be shown- so intense inner monologues must be translated into expressions and words, which don't always work. There are countless more characters in the book (if you can believe it!) who often exist for no other purpose than to add greater depth to the world (which I, as a patient reader, certainly don't mind.) But the show struggles to even fit in the main ones without seriously abbreviating their stories. The show is a landmark in Television in how many characters is covers and I believe it will see many copy-cats who don't understand the point. I firmly believe the series could successfully be twice as long, and in the later seasons, this would be twice as satisfying, though I do understand the concerns of budget and casting.
But GRRM will also go on and on about things that are essentially pointless in the end, describe what people are eating and drinking, and build long lineages without a purpose. But to be fair, this grows far worse in books 4 and especially 5, in which HBO has meandered far from the books. But if you want a tight story with a more heart racing pace, the TV show will give it to you. I consider it a great success, though I love the books. I consider book three (seasons 3 and 4) the absolute finest, and it does it justice.
The TV show has a world-building of its own, and it DOES NOT disappoint. The production values are out of this world. I have always seriously side-eyed CGI creations, but the dragons have a depth and reality that I never imagined possible. This means we don't see them as often, but it's worthwhile. The locations are stunning and are made into realistic fantasy landscapes through believable computer alteration. Casting is for the most part dead-on, with top British actors. I am especially impressed with the child actors, who are incredibly important to the plot and could easily have destroyed the show without their remarkable talent. The costumes, which in many fantasy adaptations are a Renn-faire disaster, are a careful blend of medieval and outside influences that emphasis the medieval parallels while making it very clear this is an alternate universe.
There are some annoying tendencies, especially the 'sexposition' (where a character gives a monologue, and the showrunners, not expecting us to have the patience to listen, show sexy sex in the background to keep our attention). There are some jarring new characters (I am looking at you, Talisa) but also characters who are improved upon (Oberyn, who I had little interest in in the book, steals the show and my heart in Season 4).
And now Season 5. As 4 and 5 are very difficult books that take place simultaneously in the East and West, the showrunners have decided to part ways with GRRM (who won't finish the story in time for shooting anyway) and go rogue. And some very poor decisions were made. It's still more enjoyable than most things on television, but some aspects (Dorne, oh Dorne! Sansa, oh Sansa!) were slaughtered in the name of brevity. My expectations have been deeply lowered. But I say if you like the books, give the show a chance! I consider it the finest television I have ever seen, and it would be a shame to just not watch it.
Lady Makaveli The tv series is a disgrace to the book if one were to ask me. Too many unneeded sex scenes which could have been replaced by the books information. Too much has changed in the series, I can only watch it pretending it's a separate show from the book as they are that different. Google "differences between Game of Thrones book vs tv series". The show is like fan fiction to me, the books are not only far more interesting and creative but it actually tells a story, not shorten it down for the sake of random sex scenes. The show rarely stays true to the book. I watch the show, but again, only as a separate from of entertainment. The book surpasses the show as books normally do. The main difference is this book vs t.v. show are so different from the other. It honestly makes me mad they've done such a horrible job of putting a great piece of art successfully together on television. Read the book; the show has a mind of its own.
Karin The first book is really well matched with first season, the second and third have too many new characters, so it starts having more adaptations such as having many side characters merged together.
From the third season on, it starts having heavier adaptations. So you will find bits and parts of third, fourth and fifth books in both third and fourth seasons, although third season is mostly concentrated in the first half of third book and 4th season on finishing third book and starting the 4th.
Rustle Teesdale There were differences between the books and TV series from the first episode of the first season. I came to the books through the TV series, having watched the first four seasons before getting around to reading the books.

I thoroughly enjoyed the TV series and found it fascinating to find myself criticising the TV series the more I read of the books. Why should that be so? I was in awe of the TV series before reading the books. Now I feel slightly let down by the TV series. Odd.

The TV becomes more and more divergent as the seasons go on. The latest season (five episode 4); in which George RR Martin was not a co-writer as I understand, is on an epic tangent! Not sure how they can bring it back into line - perhaps that is the aim?

All said, I have thoroughly enjoyed both. If it were not for HBO - I may never have discovered the books and the great writing and imagination of George RR Martin.
Cogent Asparagus The first book is remarkably close to what what eventually portrayed on TV in the first season, many scenes being almost verbatim from the book.
After that however, the TV and the books start to gradually diverge so that by the latest book there are a great many differences. The main characters and themes are retained but a great deal of the rest is just absent - unsurprisingly, given the sheer volume and complexity of the content. Some characters are merged into one, but the absent ones are more notablt - Lady Stoneheart being the most significant absentee.
Of course just quite how they differ eventually is harder to say as now the TV has overtaken the books.
The greatest difference however, is the amount of background detail and information, much of it very significant, that it was not possible to put in the show - personal reflections and thoughts of the major characters, for example, and much revealing detail of the histories of Westeros and of the Houses.
Absent also are the many occasions when Jon, Bran and Arya wargride with their Wolves; both the Wolves and the many varied dreams, visions, wargsights etc have prominence in the books. In particular Jon's recurring nightmares regarding the Winterfell Crypts.

So while everything starts in sync between book and show, they slowly diverge until only the major strokes appear on TV. Things are not significantly altered mind you, just pared down to suit the constrictions of TV.
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