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Weighing in at just over 800 pages, A Game of Thrones is full of plots and sub-plots, primary and secondary (and tertiary and ancillary) characters, major and minor leitmotifs, and foreshadowing of foreshadowing – to say it is a dense narrative is an understatement in the extreme, particularly considering its status as only the inaugural chapter of a much larger tale. This column (It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones) will act as a companion piece to both series, novel and television, analyzing each installment’s character beats and plot points as well as scrutinizing the transition from page to script. What it will not do is spoil the story; the hope and intent is elucidation, not ruination.
With nine further episodes this season, and a second year already greenlighted (and the much-anticipated and oft-delayed fifth book, A Dance with Dragons, due to release immediately following the season finale), such illumination will be needed.
It is known.
Episode 1: "Winter Is Coming"
Game of Thrones has the strongest opening of any television series throughout the medium’s roughly sixty-year history. Not one word of dialogue is spoken for just over three minutes, instead letting the visuals – arguably the single most important element in a filmic translation – and the performances tell the story. And what visuals they are – the massive spectacle that is the Wall, the quiet eeriness of the Haunted Forest, the gore of the Others and their wildling assimilations and Night’s Watch victims. (Yes, the experience is marred by the exceedingly cheesy sound effects chosen for the White Walkers, just as Christian Bale’s Batman voice does much to undermine the current cycle of Bat-films, but as in Chris Nolan’s work, the mis-stroke can [more or less] easily be overlooked for the craftsmanship of the greater picture.)
The rest of the pilot’s realization of the novel’s first several chapters is not as sure-footed as is the teaser, but it still manages to soar under the great weight of its literary counterpart. King Robert Baratheon’s arrival at Winterfell is faithfully and accurately depicted (if also strongly truncated), the insertion of Lord Jon Arryn’s funeral is an organic addition to the source material, and, more than anything else, despite a few spots that played or looked more like a Hallmark production than a premiere HBO series, the episode felt like it was actually set in a different world that consisted of several different countries, cultures, and peoples. That is no easy feat, and one that deserves accolades for showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, particularly given how few changes were included.
The Differences Between the Novel and the Episode
But, oh, changes there were, and they must needs be addressed.
There are some alterations to Martin’s original work that are understandable or otherwise permissible, such as making all of the children, from the Stark brood to Prince Joffrey Baratheon to Daenerys Targaryen and her sweet brother, two years older (and practically cutting out four-year-old Rickon Stark from the pilot), or adding the sullen confrontation between Ser Jaime Lannister and Lord Eddard Stark during the royal feast. Other deviations, however, deal such damaging blows to the narrative’s integrity that they can be nothing other than blatant and egregious mistakes.
To wit: the night of Khal Drogo’s wedding starts off as a frightening affair for adolescent Daenerys but ends up becoming a tender and endearing experience as the large, hulking king displays a surprising gentleness and compassion. His repeated use of the word “no” is meant as a reiterated “not yet”; he massages, strokes, and entices his young bride until she is bursting at the seams to begin her first sexual encounter. Indeed, she ends up becoming the dominant one that night, providing for a surprising and welcome development and a scene that endears the reader to the otherwise stoic and Klingon-esque Drogo.
As depicted on-screen, however, the loss of Daenerys’s maidenhead is a surprisingly savage affair, identical to instead of contrasting against the barbaric lust displayed at the wedding ceremony. The relationship between the young princess and the imposing khal becomes not only one of the most important in the novel, but also one of the most loving. How can a viewer possibly reconcile its life from its birth – and what must he think of the character of Daenerys as a result?
Similarly, on the page, it is Catelyn Stark who convinces her duty-bound and icily resolute husband to accept King Robert’s offer to become his Hand; clinging to the new gods and reading the discovery – and subsequent adoption by her children – of the direwolf pups as a bad omen, she essentially badgers Ned to accept both the new office and the wedding proposal that would make her first-born daughter a queen. Whatever may come of the decision, Catelyn holds herself responsible and, thus, must accept all consequences, whether good or ill, expected or unforeseen. Such a mindset provides the fuel for much of her character arc, both this season and next – and it also makes a comparatively minor major character the catalyst for the entire series. Taking that away from her does much to strip her character of pathos and bathos both.
An ill omen, indeed.
[Marc N. Kleinhenz is a freelance writer and videographer who will be reviewing HBO’s Game of Thrones for us. His latest literary foray is a short story in the print anthology Eye of the Dagger.]
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