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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 five 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 5: “The Wolf and the Lion”
In some ways, the Song of Ice and Fire series of novels is a lot like Star Wars.
One of the great joys of George Lucas’s double trilogy of films, particularly with the prequels – with all of their lush environments teeming with detail – is visiting strange, new worlds that come with strange, new sights and sounds and peoples, whether they be centered on a desert or an endless city or a giant sinkhole. In very much the same fashion, George R.R. Martin slowly unfurls more and more of the map of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, detailing geographical areas that are replete with new religions and mythologies and histories, new political factions stabbing one another in the back (or the eye), and, of course, new faces to complement and contrast with the already established ones.
And there are few locales in the books that are as unique or as impressive as the Eyrie, the seat of House Arryn, the Wardens of the East. That the television series would render the mountainous castle and its surrounding Vale in a thoroughly believable fashion is a given – the Free City of Pentos truly feels a world away from the cold grounds of Winterfell, which, in turn, feels fundamentally different from the Wall and the Haunted Forest beyond it – but Lady Lysa’s adopted home far outshines any other environ yet tackled by the crew. Indeed, even Martin himself has complemented showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss in numerous recent interviews, citing not only the skill with which they brought the location to life, but also the changes they made in the process, such as removing the Sky Door from its predictable place in one of the walls and placing it in the floor in front of the throne, thereby making it the centerpiece of the long hall. Such a visual interpretation will be hard to top, although the books will certainly offer the production staff many, many opportunities in the season – or three – to come.
The Differences Between the Novel and the Episode
There’s a funny little thing that sometimes happens when translating a printed work to the screen, whether big or small. Take Watchmen, for instance, a story set within a decidedly science-fiction world, replete with an ending that centers upon the staging of a cataclysmic alien invasion in New York City. When director Zack Snyder tackled the filmic version, it was decided that such a set piece was too farfetched (as were some other, far smaller details, such as the hovercraft sleds that Nite Owl and Rorschach ride across the snowy plains to reach Ozymandias’s arctic lair; in the movie, they simply make the trek on foot), and the revised ending of a rogue Dr. Manhattan simultaneously attacking several major cities across the globe was put in its place. The intent, theme, and even the integrity of the original ending were all kept firmly in place; it was only the meat and flesh on the skeleton that changed.
Such it is with Weiss and Benioff. In A Game of Thrones, when Arya stumbles upon an abandoned dungeon in the lowest strata of the Red Keep’s endless depths and overhears the mysterious Lord Varys conspiring with Magister Illyrio Mopatis (not seen since the opening episode, “Winter Is Coming”), she spies the two would-be Sith Lords emerging from an endless circular stairway that becomes hidden away behind a mechanically-operated slab of rock – the ultimate secret passage. For the television adaptation, obviously, this was changed, taking the form of a simple iron gate with an equally straightforward padlock. While matters of cost were more than likely first and foremost in the producers’ minds – the very same reason why the tourney of the Hand was reduced to only a series of jousts on-screen, leaving the archery competition to be implied and the melee omitted completely – there was undoubtedly the question of making all of the more “fanciful” minutiae of Martin’s literary world work with the reality of the series-as-is.
These are little touches, of course, small details that do more to shade the overall picture than help realize it, but they are telling points regarding the translation process – and they add up to bigger elements, such as Lord Eddard Stark’s injury at the hands of the Lannisters. The differences between the two versions, book and episode, amount to night and day, literally: on the page, it is a rain-filled, nighttime attack on Eddard and his dozen or so household guard as they wind their way through the streets back to the castle, capped by the horseback Ned spilling from the saddle and breaking his leg under the weight of his mount. On the screen, the ambush occurs during the day, on foot, against the façade of a building, with the Hand of the King accompanied by only one escort – who is killed in a far more gruesome manner, and directly at the hands of Ser Jaime – and an injury derived from a Lannister guard shoving a spear through his leg.
Oh, and there’s a duel, too. The fight between Jaime and Ned is, all things considered, downright silly. It smacks of a certain Hollywood cliché-ism, a mentality of having to Show Big Things happen on the screen, whether they make a great deal of sense or not. (In Benioff and Weiss’s defense, there is a not-insignificant amount of antagonism between the two characters, particularly on the part of the man who had the gall to sit the Iron Throne after opening the throat of its previous occupant while awaiting the arrival of the Northmen, but it is still nonetheless farfetched, given the depiction and presentation of the characters in the novels.) It also helps explain the small but constant trickle of added scenes between the two men, from Jaime’s provocations at the royal feast in Winterfell (“Winter Is Coming,” episode 101) to Eddard’s jibes in the Red Keep’s throne room (“Lord Snow,” 103), but does little to excuse the obvious lack of compelling choreography – or cinematography, for that matter – or swordsmanship on the part of the actors.
“They’re like two gunfighters in the Wild West,” the exec producers gush in interviews, explaining the “epic” showdown.
It’s a shame that they, in fact, are not, on the page or, most particularly, on the screen.
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. He has also written extensively about George R.R. Martin’s books for other sites.]
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