Game of Thrones and the Thrill of Adaptation

This article is full of major spoilers for George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire and HBO’s Game of Thrones, so if you haven’t read all the novels, be forewarned that you run the risk of finding out twists and turns.

Season four of HBO’s Game of Thrones has come and gone, leaving its hordes of viewers anxiously counting down the time till spring of 2015 when they’ll discover which beloved character will die off next and which new shocker will usurp the title of “Most Shocking TV Scene Ever.” Of course, for those viewers who have read all of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series thus far, upon which Game of Thrones is based, the thrill is not waiting to see what will happen. They already know what will happen from the books they’ve examined and reread over the past decade. For these viewers, the real thrill is seeing how showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will adapt Martin’s storyline. As season four has made clear, Benioff and Weiss are more confident than ever in diverging from the source material and charting their own path towards the unknown endgame of the Seven Kingdoms. Thus, Game of Thrones becomes a fascinating case study of adaptation on a global stage, and how to create surprises in a universe where the chronology is already known.

Game of Thrones has never been a show that lent itself to easy definitions. It’s not strictly a fantasy series, even though it has dragons and wights and magic based off the religion of a fire deity. It owes as much to medieval modernism as it does to high fantasy like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. As well, the show’s seasons have never centred around a major theme the way other television shows do. Benioff and Weiss are often loath to offer summary thoughts on their thematic intentions in interviews because their focus has always been on the characters and how their individual choices (or lack of choice) propel the plot forward, not how their choices make any grand unifying statements about life (although there have been plenty of those too). This has led some critics to criticize the show for its supposedly loose focus.

I disagree with critics who believe the show’s lack of overt thematic obsessions is a fault. I believe their annoyance with the show in this regard is based on the fact that it’s difficult to offer more than plot summary and a recounting of badass moments that happened in each individual episode when writing weekly recaps. Because the show is not spoonfeeding you its themes, critics have to dig deeper to find topics to hinge their writing on, and often that digging cannot be done in the two hours after the episode has aired and before the recap goes live on an entertainment website. Game of Thrones will never be a show as obsessively about something as Mad Men is about the myth of the American Dream or Breaking Bad was about the destructive nature of pride. Season four made this more clear than ever.

So instead of focusing on the thematic interests of Game of Thrones’ fourth season, I’d instead like to focus on three choices of adaptation that made the past season exhilarating for me. As I’ve previously mentioned, much of the thrill of watching Game of Thrones has been seeing how the showrunners adapt the novels to fit their vision of this world. Part of this is the anticipation of witnessing events like the duel between Gregor “The Mountain That Rides” Clegane and Oberyn “The Red Viper” Martell and the Battle of Castle Black play out on screen. But an even bigger part of this is seeing where the showrunners diverge from the source material and create their own scenes for characters that lacked a POV chapter in the novels, or for events that did not occur in the novels at all. There are three particular adaptation choices in season four that I’d like to briefly discuss: the introduction of the Night’s King, the sword fight between Brienne and the Hound, and the lack of Lady Stoneheart.

The Night’s King

Late in “Oathkeeper,” the fourth episode of the season, a white walker picks up a baby from Craster’s Keep and brings him to an icy altar far north of the Wall. The white walker lays the baby on the the altar and backs away as several other white walkers surround it. These figures look different than the white walkers we’ve seen before, but the shot is out of focus so we’re not allowed a detailed view of them. One of the walkers approaches the altar and picks up the baby. We see the walker’s face and its head is shaped like a crown. It touches the baby with its pale finger and the baby’s eyes turn icy blue, like that of a walker. The episode ends.

This scene does not happen in the novels. Right after the episode aired, HBO labeled the white walker who transforms the baby as the Night’s King on HBO Go, before promptly removing the labelling so as not to spoil audiences. The Night’s King is a legendary figure in the Seven Kingdoms. In the novels, Old Nan tells Bran that the Night’s King used to be the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch who fell in love with a white walker woman and became a monstrous king whom the Night’s Watch and the Starks had to defeat. For such a legendary character to make an appearance in the show points to later happenings up north that have yet to be even depicted in Martin’s novels. It also gives a shocking glimpse into how white walkers are made. It was an example of Game of Thrones making a daring choice to illuminate an aspect of the world outside the purview of the novels, as it isn’t focused around any POV character as the novel's narration is, and relies purely on visuals to tell its story.

Brienne vs. The Hound

In the season four finale, “The Children,” Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman) come across Sandor “The Hound” Clegane (Rory McCann) and Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) near the Bloody Gate in the Mountains of the Vale. Podrick recognizes the Hound and Brienne recognizes Arya, while both the Hound and Arya believe Pod and Brienne to be Lannister soldiers. Brienne ends up dueling the Hound and narrowly defeating him by driving him off a cliff ledge. Arya leaves the Hound to die and escapes to Saltpans, while Brienne and Pod are left to continue their task of finding Sansa Stark.

Again this scene does not happen in the novels. In the novels the Hound collapses due to a festering wound on his neck and Brienne and Pod get sidetracked to Maidenpool and Saltpans. The two groups never meet. But in the show, it made sense for the two groups to clash. As the geography of Westeros is much more clear on the show than it is in the novels, it’d be a missed opportunity to have the characters exist in the same geographical terrain without ever meeting. In fact, the show has already twice shown Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) almost meet his half-brother Jon Snow (Kit Harington): first at a tower in the Gift, as depicted in the novels, where Jon ends up battling his Wilding companions, and second at Craster’s Keep in a completely invented scenario where Jon raids the Night’s Watch mutineers. It makes sense that Benioff and Weiss wouldn’t want to continue having characters make near-misses again and again. Instead they created an interesting way to have two of Westeros’ best sword fighters clash.

As well, Brienne and the Hound are arguably more compelling on the show than they are in the novels, due to the actors portraying them and the chemistry they have with their co-stars. Thus, to have two sympathetic characters do battle with each other—with us wanting neither to win and neither to die—is as thrilling and nerve-wracking as a sword fight can hope to be. Also considering that this is likely the last time we see the Hound, it’s a fitting send-off for him to do final battle against a hero like Brienne, instead of generic vermin like the Bloody Mummers.

No Lady Stoneheart

In the epilogue of A Storm of Swords, it is revealed that the Brotherhood Without Banners resurrected Lady Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) after her murder at the Red Wedding. The newly alive Lady Catelyn cannot speak for her throat is still slit, and her skin is rotten and pale for having been dead many days before she was resurrected. She is christened Lady Stoneheart and takes control of the Brotherhood Without Banners, visiting vengeance upon Lannister and Frey forces in the Riverlands. Viewers familiar with the novels expected her to appear at the end of “The Children” as a final cliffhanger that would make people freak out for the next ten months until the show returns. But Benioff and Weiss left her out and it’s unclear whether they intend to introduce her into the show at all.

Leaving her out was a good decision and showed that Benioff and Weiss are more concerned with telling a good story than with satisfying fanboy impulses. That’s not to say Lady Stoneheart shouldn’t appear in the series. I hope she does as she adds an interesting supernatural wrinkle to the Riverlands’ storyline. However, having her appear at the end of season four, a full eleven episodes after Lady Catelyn was murdered at the Red Wedding, would have had no real impact. It would have been a tangent to the action of the finale, which was beautifully focused on the main characters making transitions and looking across the Narrow Sea for a new life. Bringing her into the finale would have done nothing more than make fanboys go “Oh man!” and confuse the casual viewer. Had Benioff and Weiss wished to make a big impact with her introduction to the show, they should have introduced her at the end of season three, shortly after she was murdered, when the pain of her death was still fresh. But they didn’t. Thus, keeping her off of Game of Thrones until the context is right and Brienne’s plot line has advanced to the stage where her addition is necessary is a wise decision.

These three choices make me excited to see how Benioff and Weiss’s Game of Thrones plays out in the coming years, because they demonstrate their commitment to their show as a distinct story that offers thrills that did not exist in the source material. I’m not interested in an adaptation that slavishly devotes itself to replicating the source material. The novels will always exist, regardless of what happens on the show, and they offer their own pleasures. The show needs to chart its own course.

Game of Thrones (HBO)

Created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss; based on A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin; starring Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Aidan Gillen, Charles Dance, Natalie Dormer, Liam Cunningham, Stephen Dillane, Carice van Houten, Jack Gleeson, Alfie Allen, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, John Bradley, Rose Leslie, Kristofer Hivju, Hannah Murray, Rory McCann, Gwendoline Christie, Iwan Rheon, Conleth Hill, Jerome Flynn, Sibel Kekilli, with Iain Glen.