[Author’s Note: Beware of SPOILERS! Post discusses all currently released books of A Song of Ice and Fire up to A Dance with Dragons, and Game of Thrones up to Season 6, Episode 9: Battle of the Bastards]
(Edit Note: 6/11/2016 14:55 – This post previously stated that a particularly egregious line was uttered mid-season to Ramsay Bolton. It has now been edited to note that the line appeared in an Emmy award for Writing winning episode and uttered to Bronn in the clusterfuck Dorne plotline. This has been amended.)
Sigh. I don’t like Game of Thrones. I used to. This fact rears its ugly head whenever the show appears for ten horrible weeks of the year or when someone spots one of the countless pieces of merch that I have of the series. Whenever someone brings up Game of Thrones I tend to get irrationally angry. Nothing makes me sigh louder, except maybe Doctor Who but that’s a similar issue for another day. So finally, I will sort out my beef with the series right here and now in this post.
Before the show I never read the books, I’ll begin with that. I watched the first two seasons enraptured and completely on their own merit. Between seasons two and three I had a lot of transit time. I was commuting to Melbourne for uni back then. During that time, I read all the books in the series released at that point. Going into season three I was armed with knowledge from the books. I must confess that I was rather haughty about having read the books.
I’ve never read a book series faster. I watched seasons three and four having my bugbears with the adaptation but overall content that they were getting where they needed to be in those two seasons. There is one scene in season four that strikes me as one of the worst written scenes in the history of quality television but I’ll get to that. As I watch season five the series began to offend me with not only it’s terrible writing, but also its completely nonsensical storylines (I have some very specific words about how they messed with the Dorne plotline, mostly fuck and you). After finishing season five, episode five I resigned myself to quitting the show following the end of season five. The rest of the season just hardened my resolve. I loved this show for two great seasons and two mostly good seasons but the show took a sharp nosedive in season five.
Firstly, my complaints lay with the writing. Sure, it’s easy for me to trash the writing of two successful dudes while I sit here having found little success from my craft. I will concede one thing about the writing (primarily of showrunners Benioff and Weiss as most episodes I dislike have their names attached, and most story decisions that I disagree with would be coming from them). Benioff and Weiss are skilled at adapting storylines already written for them. Despite the early warning signs their work on early seasons of GoT is rather good. For a series one claimed to be unfilmable they did an initial decent job.
There are a couple (fucking Emmy nominated) scenes that I personally cannot stand the writing of. First cab off the rank is the earlier alluded to scene. I’ve dubbed it ‘the Beetle scene’. SPOILERS! In this scene, Jaime goes to meet his brother, Tyrion, who is in prison for the murder of the king, who is not only their nephew but Jaime’s bastard son. This type of scene never happens in the book to my knowledge but it’s a good set up for a scene and makes sense in a wider story scene. The two talk of happier times and of their cousin Orson (a character created for the show but that’s no major sin here). They describe Orson as intellectually disabled and how he has a penchant for smashing beetles.
Now, I’m not one to talk competently about issues of ableism but their characterisation of Orson makes me a little uncomfortable. Now here’s the thing with that, are they just representing the prejudice of the characters in this world, possible and worthy of praise if handled well or what the rest of the scene leads me to believe that Orson was created for this metanarrative analogy they’ve got going on. Orson smashes the beetles and Tyrion is determined to discover why. One thing that bugs me about the scene which is neither here nor there is the artifice of it all. It seems like the scene was written just to be put in Peter Dinklage’s, who plays Tyrion, Emmy reel. I’ve always hated media that seemed like it was written for awards (your Oscar bait and all that).
One thing is clear to the audience watching. Orson is George RR Martin, writer of the series upon which Game of Thrones is written, and the characters are the beetles. This analogy I think seems to fail the series and GRRM’s larger motives. Tyrion describes Orson’s motives for smashing the beetles as existing but indecipherable. Tyrion, and by wider extension, Benioff and Weiss imply that the series is like life and that there is no grand order to the destruction of the beetles/our much-beloved characters. I fundamentally disagree. A Song of Ice and Fire, the name of the series Game of Thrones is based on, is written by a writer. There is some grand architect behind the scenes whose work is not merely mindless beetle smashing. Every death in the series has a narrative purpose. SPOILERS! The death of the major Starks in the series is all about creating the fear that ‘anyone can die’ because the archetypal heroes have been killed. Following the death of Ned Stark, we begin to see the rise of more atypical heroes for the fantasy genre. Following the death of Robb Stark, our list of heroes diversifies further. There is method in Martin’s madness that given adequate analysis can be deciphered. The idea that anyone can die for Martin stemmed from an idea that he was restricted by his network when he worked in television in the late eighties.
You’re probably thinking that the smashing of the beetles is adequately thematic in this case. ‘Anyone can die’ cries Orson. Not quite. Tyrion talks of smashing endless beetles. I think GRRM is reaching the peak of his kill counter. Discounting countless unnamed masses who will die in the battles and apocalypses to come there are very few characters who will probably be on the chopping block. Chances if the character died in season five who hasn’t died in the book then their death will come. Not because of any metanarrative look at the text but merely because the conclusion of book five put them in the crosshairs. Beyond that, mostly villains will die from here on out. This is because in the gigantic arc of books were at the point slightly before the end of act two. So one last massive cull in the Winds of Winter of all the characters who are likely to die and the few who won’t die before the climax and may even survive including Jon, Dany, Tyrion (these three will probably die saving the world), Bran (will probably become giant tree in Winterfell), Sansa, and Arya (will probably survive series, fingers crossed). Martin is not Orson, the beetle smasher. He is the meticulous accountant of death, weighing the scales so that it all seems impossible, but he has a general idea of who lives and who dies.
I’m not going to go on the same diatribe about this next scene as I did with ‘the Beetle scene’. I’m just particularly sore about that scene. In fact, my next scene isn’t even a scene. It’s the mere fact that the line ‘You want a good girl, but you need a bad pussy’ is uttered in a critically acclaimed and Emmy-nominated episode (The Children – nominated and won for writing). That is the worst line of dialogue I’ve seen in my whole life, and I’ve read excerpts of Fifty Shades of Grey. This line was said to Bronn by one of the Sand Snakes. There are … so many things wrong for a book reader with this line. Much could be interpreted about Bronn’s relationship with Lollys. Anyway, the Sand Snakes characterisation is a whole other can of snakes. Again, this could be blamed on character viewpoint. Hell, I’ve been guilty of representing vs embodying but that was in first and second year writing, not in the fifth season of my critically acclaimed show (though if somebody with the money wants to contact me about writing my own critically acclaimed show please look at my Facebook for contact details). Doesn’t that line make you cringe? It makes me cringe and it should have never been written. That was the line that made me hate this show, along with that whole damn plotline.
Not to be something of a book puritan but in the book the storyline concerned an imposter Arya Stark. One of the smallfolk dressed as royalty and married to Ramsay. Petyr organised this with Sansa. The crown knew that the Boltons were getting a bum deal, and so did Roose, but everyone continued the charade to keep the northern lords from rebelling. In the show, Petyr rebels five minutes after being promoted and reveals the location of Sansa Stark to the world, a woman still wanted for regicide. For some reason, Petyr leaves his prize goose in Sansa, object of his affections, his key to the North in the hands of known sociopath Ramsay Bolton. Petyr’s action in the show make no goddamned sense. Not to mention that arc was used in the book to show that the smallfolk are the ones who lose when everyone’s playing the game of thrones, a theme rarely explored by the show. In the show, it just seems to brutalise Sansa after the last season seemed to be affirming her power and transformation. It undoes Sansa’s previous arc with Joffrey just to show Ramsay as the monster we already know him to be. WHHHHYYYYY?
Ok, that was a lot of angry ranting about the writing of Game of Thrones. Now I’m going to give Benioff and Weiss a little slack before I club them over the head again. Martin’s sensibilities about the series as one being larger in scope than any TV script he could get greenlit and the fact that prior to GoT he turned down every major adaptation says a lot about the idea that Martin thought the series impossible to adapt. Now in the early days, I would’ve disagreed. As long as one is careful an adaptation is possible. Season one and season two are near replicas of their books with some slight variations and broad strokes. I think there are some pitfalls that later seasons could’ve avoided to save themselves but I’ll discuss that later. The main problem of adaptation to a visual medium is a completely different problem. Ian McShane got in hot water with fans of the show when he pronounced that it was simply ‘tits and dragons’ earlier this year. It’s not impossible to see how he came to this conclusion.
The book and the show surely have a similar amount of breasts in an explicit sense. However, when reading the books you’re merely focused on the in focus breasts that the POV character is experiencing. So Tyrion in a brothel may be focused on one woman’s breasts while there are several pairs of breasts in the background that you’re not thinking about because they’re not ‘in focus’. In the show, a lot of the implicit breasts of the book are brought to the forefront. People like boobs, it’s no sin, but the show uses breasts as one of the appeals to tune in each week. Breasts keep some people coming back, boobs focus more into the script.
The same can be said of violence. People like watching violence. Vast generalisation, and one that has been made by cynical twenty somethings many times before. We like watching violence in the same way we like watching boobs. And again, the implicit boob factor rears its ugly head. One of the major themes of A Song of Ice and Fire is the damage that war does to a nation. Every time we see someone die to the wars of Westeros in the books we mourn especially hard because we know that the loss of someone like Ned Stark will hurt much harder when the Others (they’re called the Others in the books; show didn’t call them that because they felt it would be confusing to distinguish Others and others) come a knockin’ at the Wall. All this is undercut by that boob factor: on some level, violence is fun to watch and all the implicit violence of the books is brought to the forefront in a visual medium. So a giant battle that cripples both sides is devastating on one hand but on the other hand, we get a whole episode dedicated to the conflict with all the narrative tension that that brings. The books are not completely faultless here but something about reading something on a page allows a level of separation that the show doesn’t have the advantage of. It’s an unfortunate reality of the medium but ‘tits and dragons’ keep some people coming back so the show has to kowtow to that section of the audience.
Now we get to the problem, it’s all well and good to complain about something but what would I do in their scenario. I’ve pitched my idea to many and it never seems to ignite their passions. You’ll see why soon. My biggest gripe with later seasons of Game of Thrones is that they skip swathes of story in favour of rushing to the big action set pieces. What I would do requires a little faith in the audience and a little trust from the audience. I would slow season five right down. Get right into the weeds of the fallout of the War of the Five Kings, like the book A Feast for Crows (my personal favourite of the books) does. I would introduce Lady Stoneheart (the reanimated corpse of Catelyn Stark, a shade of her former self out for vengeance) at the end of season four and periodically check on her to do some Frey killing. Make the killing of Freys cathartic but make them tragic characters, similar to what was done with Theon in season three.
I would adapt the Dorne plotline as written, with the plot driven by Arianne. Feature Doran Martell very little in the early episodes and bring him out later in the season for the reveal that SPOILERS! the Martells and Targaryens are working together. Going back to King’s Landing we would see the maddening of Queen Mother Cersei and see her fears realised by the court of vipers that is King’s Landing (much like the show did but with less fanatic zealots). Show Cersei having to make concessions to the Tyrells and the Church. Have her turning to find new allies in the wrong places. Essentially show her making the mistakes that Tyrion wasn’t making in season two. Show Tyrion making his way across Essos delivering interesting facts about the continent along the way. Show Jon Snow at the Wall making decisions as Lord Commander. Have him making concessions like Cersei. I’d have to go into minutiae but in essence, slow everything right down as the character expand across the world. Sansa in the Vale. Brienne and Jaime in the Riverlands 2.0. Sam going to Oldtown via Braavos. Dany ruling in Meereen. All in all, it would take between two to three seasons to get through A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons.
While we’re on that topic I want to share one of my bugbears with fan reactions to the show ‘outpacing’ the books. Just because the show reached the endpoint of A Dance with Dragons with its final scene it does not mean that the show is pulling ahead of the books. Ignoring the most obvious fact that the show is now a much different beast to the eventual Winds of Winter there is still the fact that Martin through various sources has released sections of the book through his website, chapters in the end of ADwD, and various public readings of chapters there is still the fact that the show skipped huge sections of text which they backpedalled to and sandwiched in. I’m almost certain that Martin would have never written anything as bizarre as the Battle of the Bastards. Cavalry ending and Jon Snow, King in the North. It seems antithetical to Martin’s ideas. This isn’t Lord of the Rings. The real heroes often go unsung because of societal prejudice while the more typical hero archetypes get the credit. Think the Battle of Blackwater. Tyrion gets diddly squat for his endeavours while Tywin is lauded as saviour of the city. Snow is an outsider because he’s a bastard. You’d never get a majority of lords accepting him. Not to mention the fact that after his resurrection, in the same way, Lady Stoneheart was fixated on her last memories of revenge at the Red Wedding; Jon Snow would be interested in only one singular goal: defeat the White Walkers/Others. Planning to march on Winterfell is why he was killed in the first place.
Now here’s the thing as we near the end of this tome of a tirade of my once favourite show. Some of you may cry that I’m too harsh. That I should expect changes in an adaptation. That as long as the end result is the same who cares. Well, I care and I argue that the end result is not the same because the themes explored aren’t the same. I would be fine with a text that changes much but stay true to the tone and themes of the work is adapting then something like Game of Thrones whose similarities to its parent text are now only surface level. For example, the 1971 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as compared to the 2005 adaptation named Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Now, in terms of plot details, the 2005 adaptation gets closer to the events of the book than the 1971 film does, albeit the 2005 film chucks out all that good will with the thrown in plot about Wonka’s father. Now, what makes the 1971 film work better as an adaptation than the 2005 film despite it differing further in terms of plot is that it keeps the tone and themes, the ‘feel’, of the book closer. Dahl’s original book is a moralistic tale about the dangers of hedonism where only the pure of heart survive. Whereas the 2005 film is more about family and for some reason, being made obsolete by automation (guess Burton wasn’t a fan of the studio system that dominates Hollywood today which can feel a bit automated). The 1971 film captures the whimsy of the Chocolate Factory present in the book. Whereas the 2005 film doesn’t differentiate the two environments enough and all we get is a vague sense of uneasiness throughout via Depp’s odd Willy Wonka via Michael Jackson. Also, weird sidebar but isn’t it odd how Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Family is more about Charlie and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is more about Willy Wonka. Anyway, enough about Willy Wonka.
In the same way that Wonka 2005 fails to capture the spirit of Dahl’s book, so too does Game of Thrones fail to capture the spirit of A Song of Ice and Fire. I think that Game of Thrones sort of blew its load with the Red Wedding. Benioff and Weiss often discuss how the Red Wedding was an initial target for them to get to. It is one of the cultural touchstones of modern pop culture, as pervasive as the first Avengers film. The book avoids by being able to give moving forward with the narrative, almost glancing over the tragedy of killing a litany of major characters. It also deals more deeply with the Red Wedding in a way. For the show, the Red Wedding is a flash in the pan and then it leaves you with a black screen to wait for next week. With the book, you read the next chapter immediately and the tragedy is unfolded through the rest of Book Three and Book Four. In the book, the Red Wedding weighs as heavy on the characters as it does on the reader. We hear about the wedding from every perspective, and everyone who didn’t have a hand in it is shocked, whereas the show has to run to the next set piece, which in my mind is the Purple Wedding.
So, there are a lot of words here. More than most of my uni assignments. It may almost double the word count of my entire WordPress at the moment, but I needed to say it. Every time I try and discuss Game of Thrones I have to stop myself because I know that the above would come spurting from my mouth with more tactile rage and incoherence. I needed to write this. I’m sure I could be writing on much deeper topics but this is important to me. The pratfalls of Game of Thrones are a microcosm of common adaptations. A lack of deep understanding of the source material can lead down the wrong path (*cough* DC *cough*) and may not effect the product in the short term but certainly in the long term. In future, if someone asks me how I feel about Game of Thrones I’ll just hand out a card with this link on it. Will save me some frustration when Season Seven comes back next year. Maybe next time I write on Game on Thrones it’ll be about how it’s nigh impossible to access in Australia without piracy. Suffice to say, Fuck Foxtel and its gatekeeping bullshit.