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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 seven 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 3: “Lord Snow”
Although the third installment, “Lord Snow” feels, in many ways, like the premiere all over again: it is the grand introduction to King’s Landing, capitol of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and center stage for the remainder of the season’s (and next year’s, as well) action. Although part of the Red Keep was briefly spied in “Winter Is Coming” (episode 101), the city’s locales are this time fully explored, from the throne room to the Tower of the Hand to, but of course, whore houses. Each is full of detail and vibrancy, the twin essences of the books, and realized on-screen with not a little skill.
But not as skillful or as vibrant as the city’s denizens. The actors chosen to portray the likes of Lord Varys, Renly Baratheon, Petyr Baelish, and Grand Maester Pycelle are all impeccable in their roles, whether close to their printed counterparts (Varys) or more aberrant (Renly). Indeed, seeing the show’s full cast unfurled like one of House Stark’s banners and collected together for the first time is a splendid thing, and it marks yet another distinction for the episode.
Towering above them all, however, is water dancer Syrio Forel. Miltos Yerolemou, the actor behind the expert swordsman, is the translator’s equivalent of Schrodinger’s Cat, simultaneously embodying and contradicting the source material, flawlessly bringing him to life while also giving him an entirely different body to inhabit, both literally and figuratively. The small stature, bald head, and beaked nose of George R.R. Martin’s conceptualization are all replaced with entirely new body parts, so much so that, upon first glance, the reader would not be able to identify the character on the small screen in the slightest.
Once Yerolemou opens his mouth, however, it is all Syrio, from the delivery of dialogue to the fluidity of movement (despite the actor’s obvious inexperience wielding a blade, something which the episode’s editor could only do so much to mask [a problem also marring Jon Snow’s training scenes at Castle Black]). It is enough to make him, arguably, the most perfect flesh-and-blood rendition yet, even more so than Sean Bean’s Eddard Stark or, even, Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister (two actors, incidentally, who also have their fair share of page-to-screen incongruities: Bean is nearly 20 years older than Ned’s 33 years, while Dinklage possesses neither the mis-colored eyes nor the abnormally-shaped head and twisted legs of his alter ego).
The Differences Between the Novel and the Episode
Martin struck upon an ingenious way to structure his books. Each chapter is simply named for the individual whose perspective it is told from, resulting in a constant cycling, in A Game of Thrones’s case, between eight main characters. (It is also a device, incidentally, that makes the novels arranged like the cast of a television series, from the main characters who are listed in the opening credits on down to the recurring actors and, ultimately, to the day players in the background.)
All of which explains why there is such an incredible amount of new – or otherwise repurposed – material in this installment. While most of the Stark brood, from Ned and Cat on down to Arya and even Jon Snow, are so-called POV characters, none of the Lannisters save for Tyrion are. Thus, if showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss wish to show, say, Queen Cersei tending to the wounds of her son or King Robert discussing war stories with his Kingsguard, the scenes must be written from scratch and carefully inserted into a deliberately constructed narrative edifice.
The question, however and of course, must be asked: why include such story beats, particularly if, at least in the case of the latter, they are merely tangential to the series’s overarching throughlines? Television is a medium that, by both craft and tradition, is best suited to spending even slight amounts of time with a large assortment of personalities, allowing audiences to, at the very least, digest small nuggets of characterization and exposition in bite-sized chunks. To quote Star Trek, that most venerable of TV dynasties, it is the way of things.
But there is more. Whereas the character of Yoren, a black brother who shuffles from one dungeon of Westeros to the next in search of hearty recruits for the Wall (and who couldn’t be farther from his “sinister” appearance in the novels), can essentially pop up out of nowhere on the page and be accompanied by a healthy dose of backstory, the visual media offer no such luxury; best include him in a scene sharing mead with Tyrion, then, a move which doubles its utility by allowing his ultimate inclusion in the Imp’s traveling company to be set up (a bit of explanation never proffered in the book). Killing multiple proverbial birds with an equally proverbial stone is the chief consideration in any adaptation, after all.
And Martin does love his little birds.
Previous “It Is Known” Installments:
[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.]