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A Game of Characterization: Roundtabling Game of Thrones’s Second Season (Thus Far)

Posted by msunyata on Sunday, April 22, 2012

Having been three episodes into a season that is simultaneously more surefooted but also more divergent than its predecessor, Marc N. Kleinhenz decided to call up some of the biggest fans – and critics? – of both HBO’s Game of Thrones and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series to get out the microscope and examine what have already proven to be some of the show’s most controversial elements, changes, and improvisations.  It’s a star-studded lineup to discuss what is turning out to be one of television’s biggest breakout hits.

Dramatis personae:


(Oh, and don’t worry – there are only the mildest of spoilers, if they can even be called that [and certainly nothing that the various official news reports and press releases, not to mention trailers and sneak previews, haven’t established already].)

Marc N. Kleinhenz:

Let me start off by saying that I’m thoroughly enjoying the season thus far (major changes or no).  With that said, however, I’m starting to genuinely grow concerned over the characterizations we’re seeing:  Cersei is substantially softer on the show than in the books, Arya is similarly toned down (she’s a lot less… spunky), and, perhaps most importantly, Tyrion is very much starting to come across as a one-note bird, singing the constant song of frustration (is he really that way in A Clash of Kings?).

So… are you similarly concerned by the turn in character(s)?  Or am I just crazy and seeing things?


Doug Cohen, author:

No, you're not alone with this.  Just today I was thinking to myself that, in season two, Theon seems to be whining too much.  In the book, while his setbacks were constant sources of frustration, most of the time he felt like he was in control of his situation, or would soon turn things around to his advantage.  There are also a number of characters from season one who have displayed subtle differences in both seasons.  Sansa is much ruder whereas she always minds her manners in the books, Renly isn't the dashing figure he was portrayed as in the books (in the books, we're told he's the spitting image of a younger Robert), the Hound isn't nearly as rough around the edges, etc.

This said, I don't get too upset about this sort of thing.  Adapting A Song of Ice and Fire is a monumental task, whether we're talking about the world, the story, or its characters.  And pleasing folks like us – the uber-fans who know the books inside and out – is a monumental task in and of itself.  Changes in the presentation of various characters is something viewers unfamiliar with the books will have no idea about.  Casual readers of the books may not pick up on all these subtleties, either.  We of the "uber" are another breed, though.  Not only do we pick up on the changes, but we scrutinize them.  We question them.  We evaluate them.  We deconstruct them.  Once in a blue moon, we might even approve of them.  But above all else, we always, always, always discuss them.

I think discussing them is great.  But the series isn't just for us.  HBO wants as many viewers as possible to keep this show going, and they'll need as many viewers as possible to make sure the budget keeps growing with the story.  I look at changes in the characters the same way I look at changes to the story itself – HBO's version is never going to be an exact translation.  It can't be, when one is on the printed (or e-) page and the other is on the small screen.  Compromises have to be made, sometimes for the benefit of viewers new to the world, but also because of different storytelling techniques these different mediums demand, and HBO also needs to make sure they fit enough material into a single episode, or a single season overall, and they need to do it within their budget.  If the approach they're taking will keep the series going to its completion, I'm all for it.  There haven't been any changes or deviations to the characters or anything else that is threatening the integrity of the story we remember from the books.  So long as it stays that way, I can deal with the changes I'm seeing in the characters.  Everything I'm saying is pretty obvious when you stop and think about it, and has no doubt occurred to everyone else at some point in time, but because we want the adaptation to be a perfect replica of what's in our imagination and memories, it can be hard not to freak out when something doesn't match up.

This isn't to say I'm Mr. Cool, Calm, and Collected about all of these changes.  In fact, I'm far from it.  More than once, I've experienced the symptoms of nerd rage when differences make themselves known in the HBO series.  So I've developed my own system to combat this.  The first time I watch a new episode, I pick out every little thing that's different, including the behavior of the characters.  Then I watch the episode a second time that same night.  At this point, I turn off my brain.  I've experienced my righteous wrath that anyone would dare meddle with George R.R. Martin’s sacred materials, but now I can brace myself for everything that's different.  And knowing that these changes will take place allows me to enjoy the adaptation for what it is.  Quite often, I end up enjoying my second viewing more than the first.  But I don't stop there.  At some point during the week, I'll put up a blog post where I take a closer look at the bigger changes.  I might complain a little over some changes, but mostly this is a mental exercise that helps me put this episode in perspective of the greater story and the direction it’s taking on HBO.  On occasion, there are some changes that just leave me scratching my head, but I've decided I'm going to trust the creative team heading up this series.

I'm the sort of person that could easily get worked up about these changes, and then I'll never be able to enjoy the HBO series.  I want to avoid that at all costs.  If the changes become bigger down the road, it will become harder to do this, but for now I seem to be managing.

Marc N. Kleinhenz:

Those are all good points, but I'm not certain whether, say, Sansa's shift in character is as potentially damaging to the overall narrative as is Tyrion's or, even, Cersei's…


Doug Cohen, author:

I look at it as a cumulative thing.  For big fans of the books, each change becomes a little harder to swallow.  So, for some, a modification of Sansa's character could be the straw that breaks the camel's back, even if the changes aren't as critical as they are to other characters.


John Jasmin, co-founder of Tower of the Hand:

Doug makes a great point that episodes improve on the second viewing.  I definitely agree with it.  It's not because my expectations have lowered so much as it is because my expectations have disappeared.  I can appreciate the episode for what it is, rather than what I think it should be.

But looking back, I wonder if the show wouldn't have been better served by being different and bolder from the very start.  The first season was about as faithful to the book as fans could have hoped.  Sure, there were a couple of new scenes and some minor changes, but we justified the former as being “between the lines” of the text, and dismissed the latter as being irrelevant.  If the writers had diverged from the book sooner and in a more significant way, we would have cried bloody murder, of course, but don't you think we'd have accepted it by now?


Marko Strbac, webmaster of Game of Thrones Books:

I must fully agree with Doug’s thoughts so far:

There haven't been any changes or deviations to the characters or anything else that is threatening the integrity of the story we remember from the books.  So long as it stays that way, I can deal with the changes I'm seeing in the characters.

Overall, I am quite satisfied with the show so far and look forward to each new episode.  ;)  We have to keep in mind that the show was made for newcomers to the world of Westeros, and that they can still read the books and feel the same excitement as they, of course, get more details and development.  I have a couple of friends/new readers who watched the show first and then read the books and enjoyed them even more.

I assume that Cersei’s will for power and control over the kingdom has yet to be shown.  In the books, we see her inner thoughts, but in the show, we only get to see her as a refined queen...  Her character will probably gradually develop throughout the season.

I would like to point out another character:  Asha [known as Yara in the series], who was shown in the books as being more sexual and beautiful than how they present her in the show – so beautiful that Theon would instantly get a crush on her.  From the first moment they meet, I expected that she would be more (ironically) seductive and flirtatious.  There are a number of added sex scenes in the show, but here, where they should/could do a better job (picking a hotter or more seductive actress), they show us a regular girl, with greasy hair and no sexual attraction.  So I was really disappointed with her interpretation.  Last night I talked with a couple of friends (who had read the books and are watching the series) about Asha, and we all shared the same thoughts.

David Barr Kirtley, Wired writer:

One thing that's troubling me with the characters is what seems to me the general wimpiness of the TV show characters versus the book characters.  In the books, the Hound is a boiling cauldron of rage, whereas in the show, he just seems like an average Joe.  In the books, Renly is a charming, confident knight, whereas on the show, he's a total dweeb.

One thing that makes the books so compelling is that the stakes are so high, and the characters are savvy and merciless, the natural products of the harsh world they've come of age in.  But the characters in the show seem not to understand the downsides of behaving recklessly or showing weakness, whether it's Littlefinger clumsily threatening Cersei in episode one [“The North Remembers”] or Theon whining to his father last week [“What Is Dead May Never Die”].  I think some of this stems from the showrunners having a low opinion of the intelligence of the audience.  Many of the scenes where characters act foolishly, such as the scene in episode two [“The Nightlands”] where Tyrion openly threatens Varys, have been changed from the books to make it much more obvious what's going on.  The problem is that when you remove the nuance and subtlety from a show about political intrigue, you're diluting the very thing that makes it compelling.


John Jasmin, co-founder of Tower of the Hand:

Renly may seem less confident because the show has made Loras and Margaery Tyrell far more proactive, apparently at his expense.  But I don't think this is a change so much as a re-interpretation.  In the books, we rely on Loras, Brienne, and Stannis to define Renly as a character long after we last see him.  Their biases shape our opinions, which means we may be over-glorifying Renly as much as they do.  Now we can see that he's not nearly as perfect a Prince Charming as he's been made out to be.  We should remember this when others later insist otherwise.

Still, I applaud Renly for allowing Brienne to join his Kingsguard without hesitation.  That will always be his finest moment for me, in the show as it was in the books.

Though I agree with Dave that too many characters are tipping their hands at this point of the game.  If they were as clever as they claim to be, they would be keeping their secrets close rather than trading them as punch lines.  To be fair, characters in the books do this all the time.  It just seems more blatant when an actor says them out loud.


Amin Javadi, co-host of A Podcast of Ice and Fire:

First of all, let me explain my personal view on the notion of deviation in general.  Obviously, this is an adaption of the books, and there will be changes of necessity – changes that had to happen due to budget, practicality, etc.  I accept that this will happen, and one angle of heated debate can be whether some changes were necessary or not:  was a particular change forced by necessity, or could they have stayed true to the source material?

But what about changes that are accepted by most people to be unnecessary?  A book purist may have issue with unnecessary changes in and of themselves, but I am not a book purist.  I judge changes based on the results to the overall story.  Some of the results may not be apparent until much further down the road, and I worry about these changes like the rest of you.  But those that have immediate results I can judge directly, at least in relation to their immediate results.  I don't dislike an unnecessary deviation from the books just because it is an unnecessary deviation; I dislike an unnecessary deviation if it damages, cheapens, or otherwise lowers the quality of the story.

Since the source material is (rightly) held in such high regard, unnecessary deviations from it are far more likely to negatively affect the story than to improve upon it.  That explains, I think, why unnecessary deviations are often attacked in and of themselves, and why I'm often on the same side as everyone else here in relation to the changes.

But the source material is not sacrosanct to me, and I believe it can be improved upon at times.  If Martin himself went back to do a “second edition” of the books, I'm sure there are things he would change.  That is what I see the TV series as – not only an alternate universe, but an alternate universe that might improve certain aspects of Martin's story.  Unfortunately – but realistically – Martin can only tackle one episode a season, and others are left to handle this enormous endeavor.

An example where I think an unnecessary change has gone horribly wrong is TV-Shae's character, a character generally disliked by my podcast and the vast majority of our listeners (we had a poll on the change in our forums).  As has been mentioned here and by Martin himself in an interview, Shae in the TV series is not like the Shae in the books.  She is not the character that would remind Tyrion of Tysha and is cruder, angrier, less effective at manipulation, and, in general, is annoying to see on the screen.  No wonder Marc is wondering why Tyrion is “singing the constant song of frustration” this season when he has to deal with Shae.  Ros, the epitome of unnecessary change in being a completely new character (even if an amalgamation of multiple characters), has similarly caused trouble.  She has added some good to the series, but, so far, more often than not, she has been in some of the show’s weakest scenes.

Like you all, I rail against the screen when unnecessary changes are done for the wrong reason, to reach “a lower common denominator” or to treat the audience as simpletons.  When this is the motivation for a change, it is more likely to run aground of our collective nerd rage.  Littlefinger being “dumbed down” and turned into more the Master of Brothels than the Master of Coin is another example of this.  His blatant and open challenge of Cersei, as mentioned earlier, caused a stir with book readers because it was so against his character and something that he is too smart to do, being aware of his lowly background and the need to “fuck them”  rather than “fight them.”  It is a symptom of a larger problem which others have highlighted quite well, the show’s frequent refusal to leave any mysteries for audiences.

An example of change that I think has been done for the better, or, at least, not for the worst, is the portal of Theon and his family relations.  The acting, directing, music, and atmosphere of those scenes was excellent and gave us a more sympathetic outlook into Theon's inner struggle so far.  Some quick comments on some of the other characters mentioned:

I agree that the Hound has been less energetic or rough so far, but part of that problem is that he hasn't gotten enough screen time yet!  He deserves it, even if it was a (sure to be controversial) trip to Littlefinger's brothels, which might actually redeem the excessive brothel scenes.  But I suspect that we will be seeing more of him soon.

I also didn't like the differing portrayal of Renly so far in both seasons.  I joined Ned last season in his questioning of Renly’s ability to be king.  I still am enjoying the Renly story arc, but I think it would have been better if his character was closer to the books.  While we can suspect some of the praising viewpoints on Renly (via Loras or Brienne). we also got some countervailing input from Stannis, Catelyn, Ned, and even Randall Tarly to help portray his character and kingly potential.  Renly of the books is not Renly on-screen, though the ultimate consequences may be limited.

Unlike, I suspect, the rest of you (and half of my podcast crew), I don't mind the more sympathetic portrayal of Cersei that much.  I may disagree with the intentions behind it, but I don't mind the end result and don't think it will make that much difference in the end.  There isn't much room for me to elaborate on this further, so perhaps we can resume the discussion after season two ends or on my podcast sometime.


Maureen Ryan, Huffington Post critic:

I'm coming at this as sort of a weird hybrid (perhaps like some strange creature you'd find beyond the Wall?).  I've read the books, but that was about three-and-a-half years ago, and though I recall certain overall story points and some individual scenes, there are a lot of things that I've frankly forgotten. Far from being unhappy about that, I'm actually glad when I don't know where the story is going next, because that's one of my favorite things about good storytelling – when a well-constructed and emotionally compelling story takes an unexpected turn that is surprising but that makes complete sense.  I like being taken on a journey full of well-earned twists that I didn't see coming, which is why I'm about to say something that might be regarded as heresy:  I can't wait for the show to be more or less done with the first three books in A Song of Ice and Fire.  I purposely stopped reading the books after A Storm of Swords [the third installment] because the HBO show looked like a very strong possibility at that point, and I didn't want to get too far ahead in the tale, if that makes any sense.

So my fond wish at this point is for HBO's Game of Thrones to get beyond where I've read, and, of course, I hope it will go the distance with the full saga.  That way, in a couple of years or so, I won't be making these comparisons in my mind anymore, which I find distracting and, I think, in some ways, prevent me from fully immersing myself in the story.  Full immersion is my preferred mode of experiencing my favorite programs:  I can think of particular scenes in Friday Night Lights, The Shield, and Battlestar Galactica that made me forget to breathe, or forget where and who I was.  And doing the comparison-contrast thing in my head makes the whole experience less immersive and more intellectual for me, and though I love poking around at the thematic and structural underpinnings of really good shows, I'd prefer to just experience them as purely as I can the first time I view an individual episode.  So maybe we'll get to the point where the HBO cast and crew are the ones fully in charge of my Game of Thrones experience, and at that point, maybe I'll be able to judge it more fully and fairly as a piece of televised drama.

Having said that, I'm largely okay with the changes that have been made, and (heresy again?) I think most of the changes that have been made are for the better (with one big caveat, which I'll get to in a minute).  Thanks to the show's fabulous cast, I'm far more interested in some characters than I was when I was reading the books.  Sansa is a great example.  Intellectually, I understood her situation and, theoretically, I felt sorry for her in those first three books, but, if I'm being honest, I just didn't care much about her.  Other characters, even if they were flawed, had compensating traits that made me like them a little bit or at least view them as complex, intriguing people, but Sansa was one of the more one-dimensional characters on the page, for me at least, so I wasn't particularly enthralled by her story.

But Sophie Turner's work has drawn me in to her character's emotional plight.  Even if Sansa is rude at times, I understand why, and I feel far more sympathetic to her, given that I'm seeing Joffrey's horrendous treatment of her, not just reading about it.  Don't get me wrong, I love Martin's writing, but seeing terror and her strength in that situation is somehow more visceral and moving than reading about it.

Then you take someone like Daenerys, who had more layers and complexity than Sansa on the page (in my view), and the show has added even more intensity and heft to her via Emilia Clarke's charismatic performance.  Dany's story always seemed literally and figuratively remote to me, given that she's off in her own story in those early books.  Yet here, she feels like a far more credible threat to the rulers of Westeros, not to mention a believably complex young woman who has carved out a path for herself and her people under unthinkably difficult conditions.  This Dany I love.  And I take her far more seriously as a potential threat to Westeros.

As for Cersei, I think it was wise of the writers to make her a little more sympathetic (though, in my view, she's still plenty unsympathetic at times).  One of the biggest requirements of a TV show is that we have to want to visit these people every week.  We don't have to like them, but we do have to be interested in what happens to them.  In a good book, the narrative itself is often the draw, and the characters are merely part of that narrative.  But in a really great TV drama, we're there for the characters, who are part of the narrative but are more central and key to our experience of the tale.  They are our way in to anything that happens on the screen.  So the fact that there are aspects of Cersei that are more understandable, if not quite relatable – I'm fine with that.  One of the things the show has done well, in my view, is show that women, given that their roles were typically more marginal and limited in these societies, had to be cunning, ruthless, smart, and incredibly tough to get anything done and to simply survive.  The Cersei of the show fits in quite well with that overall theme.

As for some of the things that are made obvious in the narrative, well, that's one of the show's biggest hurdles – externalizing and depicting, through dialogue and visuals, things that are often internalized and explained via the books' third-person omniscient narration.  I don't envy the show's creative team, because turning hundreds of pages of description, context, and dialogue into an episode of television that has a beginning, middle, and end – and simply coheres as part of the overall story – is really, really hard.  And I think the difficulty of that task, plus an overly faithful approach to the adaptation, made season one dry, clunky, and halting at times.

What this show has to do is condense a huge amount of emotional, political, and thematic information in a mere 10 hours per season.  It's an immense challenge, and what's bound to happen some of the time is that the nuances and the subtlety are lost.  I think some of that is inevitable, but I actually think that, in season two especially, the show has gained a lot of confidence when it comes to synthesizing themes and distilling the core of this story in creative and thoughtful ways.  A lot of my favorite scenes have been ones that haven't been in the books, but that capture the novels' explorations of loyalty, evolution, marginalization, power, and the difficulty – and the importance – of love.

Of course, the need for that condensation and distillation means that there isn't a ton of time to flesh out characters like the Hound, Theon, and even Littlefinger as fully as we all might wish they would be (and this is the caveat I mentioned above).  Don't get me wrong, I don't have a problem with the characters as they appear on the show, but what I don't want is for this show to fall short of greatness or even excellence because there were too many shortcuts and too many expedient alterations.  The danger is that when the important things happen, we won't be as gripped by those personal or political developments because we simply didn't spend enough time with certain characters to care what happened to them or to be intrigued when their relationships and lives took big turns.  I'm fine with things as they stand now, but it's something I do worry about in the long term.  For the love of Westeros, why can't seasons of this show be 12 or 13 episodes long?  I feel like a few more hours per season might give us more of the textures, the flavors, the moods, and the subtleties that we've all probably desired at one time or another. 


All in all, though, I'm good with where Game of Thrones is at, and I think it's far more confident and well-paced in season two.  And I really like Amin's idea of the TV show being an alternate-universe version of the books.  What I don't want is a TV show that is ploddingly faithful to the books but which isn't actually a dramatic and emotionally gripping piece of filmed entertainment.  Let's face it – there have been many, many epic sagas about wars and quests for power over the years, on TV, in films, and in books.  What makes this story different is that it takes us deep inside the morally-ambiguous-but-deeply-affecting situations of a range of well-drawn characters.  The success of the show will depend on how much we care about them, in the end.  

So the makers of the TV show need to show us big-picture stuff about fighting and kings and lords and so forth – and nobody's looking forward to the Battle of the Blackwater more than me.  But the truly compelling stuff is what happens under and around and near all that palace intrigue and after all those high-stakes battles.  What I want the show to do is to explore, through indelible characters, the questions that Martin poses so well:  what happens when the powerless, through effort or happenstance, gain some power?  What happens when the old rules and limitations break down in a society, and unexpected players join the game?  What happens when strange bedfellows must ally themselves – and find that they actually like each other?  What happens when those thought irredeemable find themselves in potentially heroic situations, and vice versa?  What happens when good people try hard and still get kicked in the teeth by circumstance?

What I want the show to do is allow me to get to know people in extreme situations who are every bit as flawed and human as I am, but who are morally and intellectually tested in ways that almost (but not quite) defy the imagination.  So far, I think the TV show is functioning well as that alternate version of the tale – one that doesn't just deserve but demands a second viewing every week.


More Game of Thrones coverage on Coming Attractions:


The Lore behind the Iron Throne


It Is Known Installments


[Marc N. Kleinhenz has written for 18 sites, including IGN, Gamasutra, and  If you liked his roundtable discussion, be sure to check out It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones, Vol. I, which contains many of these fine faces as well as some special guests, such as Time magazine’s James Poniewozik.]

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