A couple of weeks ago, the showrunners for Game of Thrones confirmed what fans have already suspected for a while: the show is going to overtake the books. While George RR Martin continues to work on The Winds of Winter and then A Dream of Spring, the TV show will plough ahead with the outline he's given them, telling the story before George RR Martin has had chance to do so.
Book readers were understandably upset with this announcement. Many people dislike many of the show's choices in the past, or feel less of an emotional connection with it than with the books. People who've been reading since before the show started might feel like their seemingly endless waiting was for nothing, as they'll never get to read the final book as it was intended.
But as I've considered this disappointing news, one question has repeatedly come to mind: is Game of Thrones actually capable of spoiling the books? The answer, in my opinion, is no. While it can and will change the way that readers experience the books, the show cannot actually spoil the story to come.
The series still has about one and a half books left to adapt, but already, the playing field for season five is notably different from that of A Feast for Crows and Dance with Dragons. Brienne has fought the Hound and knows that Arya is alive. Sansa didn't hide her identity in the Vale. Several characters who should be alive are dead, including Jojen Reed, Robb Stark's wife and some members of the Night's Watch. Others never existed at all, like Arianne Martel, Jeyne Poole, and Robb Stark's wife (again). We've seen additional subplots, like the romance between Missandei and Grey Worm, and many characters are subtly (or not-so-subtly) different from the people we see in the books.
Fans will never agree whether those changes are good or bad. The important thing is that they exist, despite the show having an incredibly detailed map to follow in novel form. Even assuming that George RR Martin gave the show writers similarly detailed outlines of the plots to come (which is beyond unlikely), the show writers would put their own stamp on the plot. And without widely available books suggesting an alternative narrative, they'd feel even more free to tell the story as they want to tell it. In the past, the series has taken some interesting diversions, but then squashed them almost nonsensically to fit with the overarching story arc that the novels lay out. Without those novels, the show will be free to follow its points of difference to their natural conclusions.
George RR Martin won't give them incredibly detailed outlines. He will, at best, give them a skeleton of the key points of the story. It won't include details of every character's journey -- just the few events that matter the most. In that scenario, it's even more likely that the show writers will feel free to tweak things to better suit the story that they see developing in the show. Considering the circumstances, that's not a bad thing. And it means that, no matter what happens in the show's later seasons, viewers will never be certain whether a similar plot point happens in the books.
And George RR Martin has said, again and again, that he isn't much of a planner when it comes to writing. He has goals in mind, but he likes to see where the story grows. He may intend certain plotpoints now, but those could easily change. Even his vision of the series conclusion could change. The show is incapable of spoiling books that haven't been written yet, because even attempts to be faithful are based on shifting sand. I doubt even George RR Martin knows for certain where he will take the story when the time finally comes to write its key moments.
But let's assume, as the show writers suggest, that they don't change a thing when it comes to the series' conclusion. Let's say, for example, that Dany swoops in with her dragons to fight the White Walkers that try to invade Westeros, everyone dies in the process, and forgotten Rickon takes the Iron Throne, in both the books and the TV show. For some people, those spoilers in the TV show would ruin their enjoyment of the book. They want to know the key plot points, who lives and who dies, and the show has provided them. But for other fans, like me, the most enjoyable part isn't how the story ends, but how the characters get there. Their choices, their moral dilemmas, their interactions with one another. All these things will differ vastly between the TV show and the eventual books. They already differ, in both big and small ways. No matter what the TV show does, no matter what "end game" spoilers it reveals, it won't be able to spoil all the details of the story that make that end game happen. And although the existence of any end game spoilers will frustrate some book readers, the world of A Song of Ice and Fire is so vast, with so many plotlines and so many different characters, that there are bound to be many shocking and thrilling moments left uncovered.
Of course, George RR Martin's writing could potentially be influenced by the show's choices. But he could be equally influenced in either direction -- to follow the path the show took, or to purposefully rebel against it. It will be impossible to know until the books are in our hands.
In the end, we're going to have two very different interpretations of the world of A Song of Ice and Fire -- two versions that start out almost identically, in book/season one, gradually grow apart as the stories continue, and end up in vastly different places by the tale's conclusion.
For some, the ambiguity will be understandably frustrating. For others, the story that they see first will be the true version. And the existence of the show will fundamentally change the way readers experience the books, because they'll already have an interpretation in mind. I predict reviews of the show that declare they hope certain things don't happen "for real" in the books -- I would bet good money that I'll feel compelled to say it in seasons to come. If readers constantly try to search for spoilers, and see the book and the TV show as intricately connected, then there will be a lot of confusion and frustration that may drive them away. But if we start to consider the TV show and the books as separate entities, different stories growing out of the same world and idea, then both can still be enjoyed and critiqued on their own merits. Comparisons will be impossible to avoid, but that doesn't mean we have to allow one to spoil our appreciation of the other.
Yes, some events in the show will spoil events in the books. But not as many as people assume, and not in a way that's meaningful, when the characters and narratives around these events will differ so vastly.