The Adaptation Choices Behind ‘Game of Thrones’
Creating Game of Thrones has been a challenge from the onset. Based on the massive multi-tome series A Song of Ice and Fire, written by George R.R. Martin, HBO’s hit series and its staff has been given the difficult task of taking Martin’s thousand page-plus manuscripts and reworking them into 10 episode television seasons. Given the show’s critical and commercial success, the show has done this masterfully so far. That said, there have been some odd missteps as well as some fascinating improvements on the source material. The bulk of these changes can be divided into four categories: structural reworking, simplification, dramatization, and characterization. As the show concludes its third season, what do these changes signal for the show moving forward?
One of the biggest challenge any film or television series faces when working to adapt from a novel is structure. The issue is especially prevalent for Game of Thrones, since the A Song of Ice and Fire series is written in varying point-of-view (POV) chapters. In these chapters, the scope of what we’re witnessing is limited to just one character, but we also are able to hear their thoughts on what is transpiring, as well as their reflections on the past. Game of Thrones isn’t so lucky – it has to find a way to break beyond the individual perspectives of these characters to create a cohesive narrative whole. Additionally, Game of Thrones had to devise a way to reveal pertinent backstory in an engaging fashion.
Being able to break beyond the confines of individual character POVs has ended up being a blessing for the show. It allowed the show to bring characters to the forefront who lack POV chapters in the book, such as Robb Stark or Margaery Tyrell. Game of Thrones has used this narrative freedom well; most book readers will even admit that this ability has given the show an advantage to create more sympathy or appreciation for a character that is more off-page in the books. What the show has struggled with, however, is delivering the massive amounts of backstory that weighs heavily on the events of the present, such as the story of Aegon the Conqueror or the Mad King’s downfall. The show’s initial approach to this was so-called “sexposition” – a plot device used quite frequently in the first season where backstory, or exposition, was revealed during a sex scene, so that the sex and nudity would hopefully distract from the blatant delivery of backstory. Examples of this include a naked prostitute recounting the mythology of dragons and Targaryen ancestry to Viserys in “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things,” and Littlefinger revealing his scheming and past infatuation with Catelyn Stark while two female prostitutes practice their skills on one another in “You Win or You Die.”
Rightfully so, Game of Thrones was heavily criticized for its use of “sexposition” in the first season. Thankfully, the writers listened and have been more tactful with their methods of delivering backstory since. One of the best methods to do this has been the introduction of Ros, a King’s Landing prostitute, who in the show’s second and third season, appears less as nude and as more of a comforting figure to Tyrion and Sansa – she even develops her own political aims and becomes a spy to Varys. Through Ros, who doesn’t exist in the books, we as viewers are able to understand some of the scheming of King’s Landing that happens behind closed doors, and the show’s writers are able to expand beyond the perspectives dictated from Martin’s source material. In a surprise to viewers and book readers as well, Joffrey murdered Ros in the third season, leaving us to wonder how the show will continue to deliver exposition moving forward.
The first season of Game of Thrones stayed stunningly faithful to the first book in Martin’s series. As the show progressed into its second season, tackling the 700-plus second installment, A Clash of Kings, the show began to deviate slightly; the showrunners were tasked with finding a way to streamline the plot in the span of 10 episodes, while still remaining faithful to the novel’s characters and their decisions. Subplots are an easy target for the show to nix, and the writers behind Game of Thrones did exactly that when they removed Stannis Baratheon’s siege of Storm’s End from the show. This event did not carry any major ramifications in the books; in fact, it seemed to solely serve to introduce the character of Edric Storm, another one of King Robert’s bastards. Edric Storm is merely mentioned in A Clash of Kings, but in Martin’s third book, A Storm of Swords, he plays a more important role in the relationship between Stannis, Melisandre, and Davos – Melisandre wishes to sacrifice him, so that his “king’s blood” empowers Stannis.
Edric Storm never appears in the adapted Game of Thrones. Naturally, this would have caused a significant problem for the show in its third season – what would they have Stannis, Melisandre, and Davos do? The show instead kept the outline of the “king’s blood” plot and instead brought in another character from the series that had already been introduced to us – Gendry – to serve in lieu of Edric Storm. Both in the books and the show, Gendry is also a bastard of King Robert, introduced late in the first season, who goes on to accompany Arya during her time in captivity at Harrenhall and with the Brotherhood without Banners. In the midst of A Storm of Swords, however, Gendry joins the Brotherhood and drifts off the page. The television series’ decision to have Melisandre take Gendry to Dragonstone and serve as the sacrifice, in essence, kills two birds with one stone: it keeps a fan-favorite supporting character onscreen while also avoiding the need to introduce a new character as King Robert’s bastard. This is a perfect example of the show’s decision to simplify, or merge, plot lines and characters from Martin’s series to streamline and clarify events onscreen.
Another deviation from the books that serves to simplify events is the removal of any prophecies detailed in the books. The most notable of these prophecies in the books comes from Daenerys’ journey into the House of the Undying in A Clash of Kings. While inside, Daenerys witnesses many bizarre scenes that show the past and also foreshadow events yet to transpire in the series (the most notable of these is the Red Wedding). Daenerys is also explicitly told a prophecy in the House of the Undying:
“Three fires must you light… one for life and one for death and one to love… three mounts must you ride… one to bed and one to dread and one to love… three treasons will you know… once for blood and once for gold and once for love…”
Some of these riddles have already come to fruition in later books, while some are still held as fodder for fan theories on what is yet to come in the last two installments of the series, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring.
So, why did the show choose to omit this prophecy and instead invent their own visions (albeit ones that were incredibly visually stunning) when Daenerys visits the House of the Undying in the season 2 finale “Valar Morghulis”? This is a decision that I personally have struggled with, and that many fans found particularly frustrating. I still maintain that visions Daenerys sees in the book, like the wolf’s head at a feast, would have been fantastic on camera, but I can understand the show’s hesitancy to delve into the prophecies mentioned in the book. The problem with these prophecies is that, by stating them, the show makes a guarantee that they must pay off. Years down the line when the show is adapting A Dance with Dragons, who knows how they may choose to simplify or alter certain relationships. By omitting Daenerys’ prophecy, the show is safeguarding itself from being locked into certain plot events, key or not, that may not be feasible for the production. Two questions remain: 1) will the show ever choose to reveal a portion of this prophecy in the future, and 2) will other prophecies in the books (such as one that haunts Cersei in A Feast for Crows) be removed as well?
Especially with regards to its characters, Game of Thrones began experimenting in its second season with new characters or reinvented story-lines to enhance the drama unfolding. One of the most surprising character changes in the second season was with Robb’s bride, who in the books appears as Jeyne Westerling and in the show is Talisa Maegyr. At the onset, book readers strongly objected to this deviation that appeared to be for no reason. Talisa was an entirely different character from Jeyne; hailing from Volantis, she was bold and exotic in every way that the Jeyne from the novels seemed timid and plain. The show began to justify this change in the third season, making Talisa a far bigger presence than Jeyne in the books. While in the books, it seems that Robb suddenly returns from battle with a bride, in the show we’re able to understand his fascination with Talisa’s exotic qualities and ballsy nature and we watch him fall for her. The show’s rendition of events is far more engaging (although some may argue soapy) and avoids explaining the convoluted political affairs that were tied with Robb’s marriage with Jeyne in the books.
When it was revealed that Talisa was pregnant in the third season, book readers saw this as a possible affirmation of the popular fan theory that a widowed Jeyne was carrying Robb’s heir. Unfortunately for those theorists, the possibility of that was terminated when Talisa was murdered alongside Robb and Catelyn at the Twins during the Red Wedding. In a confusing instance of what one can take to be show canon and what can we construed as book canon, Jeyne does not die in the books, but rather stays at Riverrun rather than attend the wedding at the Twins; Jeyne’s future importance seems limited given Talisa’s death in the series. Regardless, the change from Jeyne to Talisa works twofold in the show: it creates a more dramatic arc for Robb to go through as well as creating a more dynamic and relatable character in Talisa, all while still having her existence function to have Robb break his oath to the Freys and consequently unleash their revenge at the Red Wedding.
Two other examples of heightening the dramatics of a character’s story-line are inherent in Arya and Daenerys’ second season story-lines. In what is one of the show’s best adaptation choices, instead of working in the kitchens at Harrenhall as she does in A Clash of Kings, Arya serves as a cupbearer to Tywin Lannister. While this was a change that did not spring out of necessity, it created fantastic dramatic tension for the show to toy with, all while keeping Tywin an onscreen presence throughout the second season.
Daenerys’ second season story-line, on the other hand, was altered out of necessity. Daenerys has possibly the strongest arc in season one: we see her go from timid bride to the confident Mother of Dragons in ten episodes. However, in season two, her story falters a bit. The main cause of that is the lack of story she carries in A Clash of Kings – while Daenerys had ten POV chapters in the first book, she has just five in the second. As a result, the writers of Game of Thrones invented a dramatic subplot where Daenerys’ dragons are stolen from her to keep the fan-favorite character onscreen throughout the second season. While this certainly wasn’t the best story-line in the show’s history, it was a necessity to keep Daenerys from appearing just a few times as she does in the books.
In addition to reworking certain plot pieces for characters, Game of Thrones has also ever-so-slightly altered some of its characters for the screen. This may due in part to the skilled actors and actresses that play them, but from its very first season, certain non-POV characters have appeared in a more multi-faceted fashion than on the page. The best example of this is with Cersei, who in the series’ first three books, is seen only through the eyes of others and comes off as a cold, calculating manipulator. While she may indeed be that, Lena Headey’s rendition of Cersei gives more nuance to her character; we see her as a woman whose love is her sole weakness, and who desperately just wants to hold control in the way that her father does. Interestingly, this more nuanced rendition of Cersei is quite similar to the one that we’re able to delve into the psyche of in the four installment, A Feast of Crows, where Cersei becomes a POV character. Perhaps reading these chapters and knowing what’s to come for her character, the show’s writers decided to give her these inherent qualities from the onset, rather than revealing them later. This has been a great decision for the show; especially in the show’s second season, the dynamics of Cersei’s character really flourished, providing great conflict and scenes with Tyrion.
Game of Thrones has also used the structural freedom given to it to bring more background characters to the forefront in exciting fashion – Margaery Tyrell is one of these. While a present figure in the machinations and politics from A Clash of Kings onward, book Margaery appears more as a object, rather than a character with her own ambitions. The show has fully fleshed out Margaery, making her a major player in the political game of King’s Landing. This has been one of the best surprises of Game of Thrones‘ third season: a background character has suddenly emerged as one of the most fascinating and likable figures on the show. Like with Cersei, the show writers have pulled elements of her character mentioned in A Feast for Crows – including her core conflict with Cersei – and fleshed them out here. Natalie Dormer has relished in the newfound prominence of Margaery, sculpting a woman who is trusting and likable, yet fiercely ambitious.
Future Effects & Concerns
Note: Thoughts below are delving into events that have yet to transpire in the television series. If you are simply a show watcher, you can move on (spoiler-free) to the final section of the article.
The big question on many book readers’ minds is how the show is going to cope with the geographically split narration of A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, as well as the slower pace of the series moving forward. The show, not being confined to the POV-centered narration, actually has a leg up on Martin for the fourth and fifth books – while Martin split the book geographically because the manuscript became too massive, the show has no such confines; most likely, it will move forward as it has these past three seasons, just with a larger scope. The growth of the show has continued every season and next season appears to be no exception, with casting announcements revealing that the southern land of Dorne will finally be visited next season. Although it occasionally shudders under the weight of its expanding world, Game of Thrones has shown that it is more than capable of carrying a continually sprawling scope.
The bigger issue to face is the slower pace of the series after the end of A Feast for Crows and A Dance of Dragons. Both books are still massive in size, yet there are no ground-shaking events like anything in A Storm of Swords until the last part of A Dance of Dragons. The show will have to adapt its pace to reconcile the change in pace, but with the show’s track-record of upping the ante of certain situations by enhancing characters and their circumstances will perhaps serve to keep the pacing brisk. That said, the show has also excelled when it is allowed to slow down and let scenes simmer – think of the many, brooding scenes shared between Cersei and Tyrion in season two. While Game of Thrones can execute a breathtaking action sequence, it is perhaps at its strongest when it is playing with its core theme: exploring the many facets of power – how it is attained, how it is managed, and how it can all be taken away.
Why Game of Thrones Works
So far in its three season history, Game of Thrones has made it clear that it is an adaptation. It is not trying to perfectly mimic every aspect of George R.R. Martin’s source novels; to do so would be a naïve endeavor. The writers behind Game of Thrones are smarter than that – they know to make their rendition of A Song of Ice and Fire they do have to make changes. The point-of-view structure of the novels would not translate across to the screen without amendments, and so the show has envisioned its own way to tell Martin’s story. With the freedom inherent in that, the show has done great things – Margaery’s courting of Joffrey particularly stands out, as does letting us see the machinations of royalty through the eyes of Ros, the madam of a brothel. Even more of a testament to the show’s skill is how it knows when to stick with a perspective dictated from the books. “The Rains of Castamere” serves as a great example of this – we witness the Red Wedding outside from Arya’s perspective, and inside from Catelyn’s viewpoint; as the events unfold, we see her slow, painful realization of what is about to come (all of which is heightened by certain technical choices as well – many of the shots in the scene are over Catelyn’s shoulder, implying her literal perspective on events).
Ten years ago, to create a television show based on Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire would have been unthinkable. Today, Game of Thrones stands as one of the best shows currently on television, and so much of that is due to its sheer ambition. That same ambition is also what can occasionally undermine the series as well, but by designing the show as its own adaptation of Martin’s series – rather than a literal translation of it – the show has demonstrated that it can handle the rapidly growing world of A Song of Ice and Fire.
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