Change of Thrones
Why in trying to avoid the problems with George R.R. Martin’s text, the writers of HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ have done more harm than good.
It’s obligatory for me to start by saying that while I have read the books, I am not a zealot. The changes made to Game of Thrones season one were, I found, beneficial. As such, these views do not come from someone who believes that the novels are godly masterpieces that should never be altered, but from someone who got hooked on the story and the characters.
Not always for the best.
I went in to Game of Thrones season 2 expecting some changes, but not hoping for many. To me, A Clash of Kings is the last novel in the series that effectively layers the intrigue in such a way that when it comes to a head the reader feels both relieved and astonished. However, where A Clash of Kings escalated the near-perfection that was A Game of Thrones, the second season in the television series flatlined it well before George R.R. Martin did so spectacularly on the page.
The problem is that the alterations, for the most part, don’t improve Martin’s story; they defer from it. While I will be spoiling parts of the show, I will not be spoiling (at least I don’t believe so) any differences between the series and the novel. Instead, we’ll have a look at how the changes the writing team on Game of Thrones have impacted Westeros and beyond.
What’s going to happen in The North?
Winterfell, home of the Starks.
Forget the mythology, the action, the sex and the locations; what makes Game of Thrones is the characters. No matter how (originally) big or small, everyone plays an integral part. Whether character hybrids are formed or more prominent characters are brought in to replace others, Game of Thrones starts laying breadcrumb trails often before you even know it.
What’s happened in The North though is, perhaps for budgetary reasons, characters – some crucial to the future of the tale – have failed to show. Where the writers have taken detours so that these moments no longer play a part in the story, they have also created gaping recesses in the story to come. This isn’t any more obvious than with Lord Manderly and Ramsay Snow, the Bastard of Bolton. Though the former’s presence is not validated until later in the series (more on that when we get to Stannis), Ramsay is critical because he is a character designed to add another crucial twist in the game of thrones.
His absence does not come as a surprise, however, after how Roose Bolton and Rickard Karstark – two lords whose influence determines the fate of the north – are treated. Like most of King Robb’s camp, they are nothing but offsiders to what the writers believe is the most important part of the war: the affair between Robb Stark and the made-for-TV character Talisa.
Here is one of the points that really annoy me. Apparently, the team behind the TV show have thought viewers would reject the values of the war between the north and King’s Landing. As such, much of season two is spent showing Robb complaining about how difficult everything is, but not to Roose or even Catelyn, but to a healer from Volantis he just happens to meet after a battle. Up until now, whether on the page or screen, the idea of war as ‘bad’ is not a moral spread through the series. The issue is more that war is never ending, and so characters rarely lament the battles because they’re too busy fighting them.
The writers are setting up for one of the most famous moments in the entire series while neglecting what shapes the resulting impact. Furthermore, with Robb’s marriage at the close of the season, they have changed the character into a whiny, pompous moron who deserves what he has coming because he makes a purposeful decision that the writers would consider ‘human’ while everyone else calls it ‘pigheaded’. In the novel his wedding is the result of a young boy feeling he has kingly duties to fulfil, and it makes what comes to pass all the more heartfelt and impactful. As it stands I have no care for what happens at all, and I know I’m not alone.
The writers have also made changes in Bran’s storyline. In the novel, Bran and Rickon are separated to give them a better chance of evading the Stark’s enemies. Without spoiling too much, having these events unfold without having Bran leave with two characters that did not make the transition to screen means that some of the mythology and quite a bit of the ‘magic’ in the series is lost. While the explosion in high fantasy elements is what started to turn me off the series originally, they play a key part in staging the future and eventual close of the series, so a big gap has been made with no expectations to fill it.
What’s going to happen to Stannis?
Dragonstone, home of Stannis Baratheon.
Spoiler: in A Clash of Kings, Stannis does not climb the wall of King’s Landing with two of his men, cutting down everyone he sees.
Fact: If they had successfully climbed the walls, I’m pretty sure the rest of the army would have followed instead of waiting for King’s Landing to mount several stages of defence while they sat around outside.
The battle for King’s Landing was something I looked forward to greatly. A lot of changes were made in early episodes that seemed to infer the producers were hoarding their budget until the climactic battle between King’s Landing and Dragonstone.
What we got…well it may have been staged well, if conservatively, but it is ultimately nothing short of perplexing. Think about the formation of Stannis’s ships as they enter the bay. The ship Davos Seaworth commands runs in the first line and is destroyed by the wildfire almost immediately. We cut to a shot showing the fleet burning, and then to Stannis, who calls for his men to “prepare to land”.
Prepare to land? The wildfire can burn on the water, as is shown, and in the previous shot every single ship the can be seen (about three rows deep) were on fire. How many men were left, and how did they manage to get around the wildfire?
The same question can be asked at the end. We never see an army; we see big groups that we’re meant to believe are both the bulk of an army and a contingent of said army (for the sake of scale), but in the end we have no clear picture of how the battle is unfolding for either side. How does Stannis escape anyway? If he’s on the wall then surely he isn’t going to be able to get back to his ship if the forces on the ground can’t. That’s a nitpick though.
Davos seems to be dead…and maybe he should stay that way. Besides an encounter with Manderly later in the series – which is kind of irrelevant now, since there is no Manderly – his role is to be our channel through which we understand Stannis. The problem there is that Stannis is a character who has a lot of screen time, and he’s hardly the same king he is in the novels. On the page he is a ruthless but virtuous man, and his dealings with Melisandre are unknown. On screen he is laid bare before us, and we explicitly see how he is involved with the red woman. As such, Stannis has lost a lot of his value as an enigmatic and proud man, and I feel Davos has lost most of his too.
No doubt this is just the result of the writers trying to structure the radical change that sees Stannis in a completely different environment come season 3, but once again it comes at the stake of the dynamics that make the characters of Dragonstone such a force to be reckoned with in the first place.
What’s going to happen in King’s Landing?
King’s Landing, capital of Westeros.
The story unfolds in King’s Landing much like it would in Days of Our Lives. There are an incredible amount of scenes in which Cersei, Sansa or Tyrion will turn away from the conversations they are having to speak to a wall or open window, and it’s hard not to laugh every time one happens.
For all that happens in King’s Landing though, not much has changed. Some of the best original moments, such as the scene in which Bron and The Hound almost come to blows, take place in King’s Landing, but hold absolutely no weight. The tension builds up to nothing, because The Hound is gone. Enjoyable though the scene is, it’s padding in a show that doesn’t have time for pointless scenes, no matter how enjoyable they are.
I have a lot of issues with how many little aspects were removed from the scenes in King’s Landing. However, I will admit that the prominence of Littlefinger and Varys, two characters whose impact is felt even when their names aren’t on the page, offers some hope. While Littlefinger becomes less insidious and Varys less enigmatic as a result, they have the ability to give some buoyancy to the story later in the series where the books did more harm than good.
What’s going to happen across the Narrow Sea?
Qarth, where Daenerys Targaryen hopes to raise an army.
The story of Daenerys Targaryen plays out much like the story of King’s Landing. A lot is different, but nothing will change.
Before the battle at King’s Landing, the series injected some much needed drama into Qarth with the abduction of the dragons. Here was a chance for Daenerys to prove herself a strong character, something she hadn’t done since the death of Drogo…and it failed spectacularly. The warlock of Qarth attempts to imprison Daenerys in the same room as her dragons to amplify his magic, only to be burned alive. Apparently this wise, near-immortal man completely forgot that dragons are known for spitting fire from their mouths.
Though she punishes Xaro Xhoan Daxos for his lack of support, Daenerys still comes off as a weak, incompetent little girl. Where the ages of the Stark children are raised on screen to justify their abilities and positions to a modern audience that can’t imagine a sixteen year old leading an army, Daenerys has been done just as few favours by the writers of the show as by George R.R. Martin. To continue the trend of adding tension that falls flat is to continue to bore with her scenes, something that can’t happen if her significance in the plot is ever to be revealed.
What’s going to happen on The Wall?
The Wall, where the Night’s Watch protect Westeros from the wildlings…and even more insidious creatures.
…I don’t know. I really don’t know.
Where do I start here? I hope those who haven’t read the book were paying careful attention when Qhorin Halfhand told Jon Snow to “do what needs to be done” in episode 8 and the recap that precedes the final episode, or else Jon killing him gives all the wrong messages. Jon is no traitor, so the sudden murder of a ranger at his hands should have been handled far better than it was.
Again, in having Jon and Ygritte separate from Qhorin and the other rangers means a lot of the ‘magic’ present in the series is lost. I’d be happy if they removed it altogether, but a shot early in the season of Bran looking through Summer’s eyes means they haven’t. There is plenty of opportunity for the writing team to expand the high fantasy elements found within the novel without chewing up much screen time. As long as they make a decision and stick with it, things could turn out. Otherwise they will be wasting huge chunks of episodes down the track.
Finally, we have one of the most bizarre and ridiculous moments in the series so far. The White Walker ‘army’ lines up to attack the Fist of the North Men, the place where the rangers have camped, and Sam is hiding behind a rock while they move around him. The leader sees Sam, stares at him, and then just turns away.
The series started with a scene of three rangers coming across wildlings – men, women and children – who have been slaughtered by walkers. We know these stumbling creatures are voracious killers who seem to lack motive beyond murdering and turning the dead to their side. Yet they leave Sam alone.
For a series about a fantasy world that works within a grounded logic instead of a Hollywood-esque, cinematic logic, this left me mouth agape. This confusingly epic shot (which is pretty poorly directed, if you’re to believe those who say the walker never even saw Sam) is just a reminder of how much the series has warped since we saw that first shot of the rangers and walkers in episode one of season one. It’s a damn shame.
Likely this is all George R.R. Martin’s fault. The guy can set up a story but he can’t deliver on it, and part one of book three shows the first sign of this before the series really loses its footing in book four. Martin has told the producers how the novels will end, and they are shaping their television series accordingly. That’s fine. What isn’t fine is that season two has proved they don’t have a writing staff who can keep that same integrity that was found in season one; a season which followed the novel almost perfectly. They have lost the audience who miss the sex, blood and intrigue of those first ten episodes, and I think soon they’ll start losing those people who watch for the well written characters and tense, tightly executed intrigue that brought them in the first place. I know, for one, that they’ve lost me.
Do you think I’m overreacting? Nitpicking? Do you get my point? Leave a comment below and let me know.