Sunday, June 16, 2013

Game of Thrones: Aspects of the Show That Are Better (and Worse) Than the Novels

The following contains spoilers for both Game of Thrones the TV show and A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series by George RR Martin on which the TV show is based.  If you don't want to be spoiled, TURN BACK!  TURN BACK NOW!

I'M SERIOUS!!!

REALLY!!!!!!!!!

Okay.  Can't say you weren't warned.

I would love to claim that I've been a George RR Martin fan since A Game of Thrones first hit bookshelves in 1996.  But like most people, I became a fan of the novels only after the show premiered.  In fact, A Song of Ice and Fire may be the first series that I wanted to read simply because I was spoiled for the entire thing.  A wonderful overview at Salon.com gave me a taste for what lay in store.  A massive rebellion that overthrows a cruel king?  His daughter frees a "continent" of slaves?  Sibling sex?  What's not to intrigue?  So after two episodes of the TV show, I picked up the first novel, and did not put the series down until I had read all five.

Then, like many series readers who know What Lies Ahead for the characters, I became protective of the novels' vision.  "That scene was SO cool in the book!  They didn't do it justice here!"  Much of it is because George RR Martin does a wonderful job world building and scene setting.  Say what you will about his tendency to develop too many characters and subplots, but Martin fills his world with a misty sadness that the television series has failed to capture.  You get a sense of how much ruin lies in the near past, how many honorable families were extinguished, and not just during the War of Five Kings.

That said, the TV show Game of Thrones has managed to frequently capture good elements of the novels and even improve upon certain aspects.  So after three seasons, which characters have come out better, which have come out worse, and which have come through the transition unchanged?

Better

1.  Catelyn.  Though Book Catelyn is often unfairly maligned, she does seem pettier and more tempestuous than Show Catelyn.  Michelle Fairley brings so much gravitas to the role that even when Catelyn is doing something wrong -- like kidnapping Tyrion Lannister -- her actions still seem wise.  Show Catelyn is also more multilayered and fair than Book Catelyn.  For instance, early in Season Three, she laments her harsh treatment of Jon Snow.  It will be interesting to see what Michelle Fairley does to elevate the Lady Stoneheart role, as you know she will.      

2.  Cersei.  Another character given some much needed gray shading is Show Cersei.  Book Cersei is beautiful, evil, cunning, and drunk on her own sense of grandeur.  Aside from when she is denied something because of her gender, we have little reason to sympathize with her.  Book Cersei never seems to accept that Joffrey is/was horrible.  She is the one who started the campaign to have Robert's bastards killed, not Joffrey.  Whereas Show Cersei is a little bit more self aware, a little more ambivalent.  Oh, she's still evil, but she kind of knows it and hates herself for it.  She is quietly distressed by Joffrey's monstrous actions, but knows that she is powerless to stop them.  It doesn't hurt that Show Cersei has wonderful chemistry with Show Tyrion.            

At least this one sometimes pretends to care...


3.  Robb.  We are sadly deprived of seeing Book Robb's thoughts, so we don't get a sense of what makes him tick.  We don't get much more with Show Robb, but at least we get to see (1) that he has a good, commanding presence and (2) he is mighty easy on the eyes.  You can debate over which Robb's move was more boneheaded -- Book Robb for eloping with Jeyne Westerling after having sex with her during a time of vulnerability, or Show Robb for eloping with Talisa with eyes wide open to the consequences.

4.  Melisandre.  I think the character should look more exotic, but otherwise, I don't have any complaints about Show Melisandre.  I like what she's done with her expanded screen time, and that the series has made an effort to establish her position within the "Lord of Light" universe, such as in the scene with Thoros of Myr.  Book Melisandre was more of a mystery until A Dance With Dragons, but in this case, it doesn't hurt to have the mystery revealed a bit sooner.  Plus, while Book Melisandre comes across as a bit dense, Show Melisandre is just awesome.   

5.  Shae.  One nice thing is that the TV series has significantly improved the roles of numerous minor characters.  Shae has arguably the best upgrade of all.  Book Shae is a self-absorbed whore who only exists to give Tyrion someone to love.  Then she has the nerve to betray him during his trial and reveal that it was all an act -- she was really Tywin's paramour, and Tyrion would later kill her for it.    Whereas Show Shae has a much more interesting journey ahead.  I'll admit, I questioned giving her a backstory and making her more interesting, but it's paid off nicely.  Now we don't really know where Show Shae will turn.  Will she be so disgusted by Tyrion's marriage to Sansa that she turns on him?  Will she take the fall for poisoning Joffrey to protect Tyrion and Sansa?  If Show Shae does end up betraying Tyrion, my money is on her being coerced by Tywin.  

6.  Gendry.  Can I just say how glad I am that the TV showrunners have dispensed with the near-miss nonsense that plagues the novels?  It defies belief that no one has ever told Book Gendry that he is a bastard son of Robert Baratheon.  Thankfully Melisandre dissolves the mystery by Season Three, and the show even gives Gendry his own subplot when he replaces Edric Storm as the "king's blood" sacrifice.  Neither Book nor Show Gendry is a well-defined character, but whereas Book Gendry is surly and antisocial, Show Gendry projects the confident "thin Elvis" qualities that Robert possessed in his prime.

7.  Osha.  Another minor character improved on the show.  Book Osha never registered with me, whereas Show Osha, as played by Natalia Tena, is gritty, complex, and intensely loyal once she is won over.  I wonder if she will simply disappear for a couple of seasons, or if the show will portray her journey to Skaggos.

8.  Daario.  Not that there's much to improve.  And not that I don't dig the multicolored trident beard and the gold tooth, but that doesn't really translate as "attractive" on television.  Right now, Show Daario is an improvement over Book Daario... though that might change once he and Dany start fucking.

9.  Ygritte.  Loathed her in the novels, care about her on the TV show.  She is probably a close second to Shae in terms of her character getting a makeover.


Worse

1.  Stannis.  Book Stannis is a jaw-clenching, teeth-grinding, miserable badass.  You need only read the Theon The Winds of Winter chapter to see how far Book Stannis is from Show Stannis.  Book Stannis knows how to get things done.  He may be unlikeable, but he's also fearless.  You understand why someone like Davos Seaworth would be so devoted to him.  Whereas Show Stannis is too whiny and indecisive.  I could never see him patiently enduring a blizzard for days on end the way Book Stannis does in A Dance With Dragons.  We end up puzzled over Show Davos's loyalty to him.

2.  Renly.  See Stannis for reasons why Show Renly suffers compared to Book Renly.  There is not much to either character, but at least Book Renly is a good-looking "thin Elvis" type who seems confident, easy-going, and likeable.  By contrast, Show Renly is whiny, weak, and not all that attractive.  Why Loras would like him, let alone the Tyrells back him, remains a mystery.

3.  Littlefinger.  In both versions, Littlefinger tends to be a bit too moustache-twirling "aren't I clever?".  But at least you could sort of believe that Book Littlefinger was subtle about his intentions.  Not so with Show Littlefinger, who can't interact with another character without boasting about how clever, shifty, and out for himself he is.

4.  Margaery.  This is controversial, I know.  Natalie Dormer has done an effective job playing Show Margaery as a cunning type who can shift between sweet and cold blooded in an eye blink.  But isn't it a little too soon for us to be seeing Margaery's true colors?  One nice thing about A Storm of Swords is that we really don't know what to make of Book Margaery or the Tyrells.  Are they a decent, well-meaning family like the Starks, or are they like the Lannisters, but more subtle?  Because Book Margaery seems like just a nice girl in A Storm of Swords, we don't immediately suspect her of taking part in Joffrey's death.  Whereas we wouldn't suspect Show Margaery of anything less than pouring the poison into Joffrey's cup herself.  If the showrunners are already adding A Feast for Crows material to the TV series, I wonder what will be left by the time Season Five hits.    
She's not thinking of ways to kill him at all!

5.  Sandor Clegane/The Hound.  Of all the characters, Sandor has probably had the worst transition to the screen.  Book Sandor is fascinating -- sympathetic, but clearly mentally unstable.  Show Sandor is gruff and kind of cold, but otherwise seems okay.  After the Blackwater episode, where Sandor offered to take Sansa away from King's Landing, I remember a bunch of "unsullied" fans screaming: "Why didn't she go with him?!"  He just has a skin problem!  She's so shallow!  Maybe Sansa didn't want to go with him because in A Clash of Kings, Sandor tries to rape her.  He invades her space and makes her sing him a song.  He is about to rape her, but Sansa sings a song that he didn't expect, which makes him uneasy and he leaves.  Book Sandor has had a creepy fascination with Sansa almost from the beginning, when he grabs her after King Robert's tourney and tells her his story.  You would never want Sansa to end up with Book Sandor (well okay, some people do... weirdos).

6.  Jon.  Admittedly, I don't think Show Jon has had a chance to be interesting yet.  For me, Book Jon didn't become interesting until after he was elected the new Lord Commander, which will happen next season.  Until then, I found "the Wall" chapters to be among the most tedious in the novels.  Even so, I think Book Jon comes across a bit deeper than Show Jon, who tends to look confused.  I wonder how Kit Harington will handle the heavy lifting of the Lord Commander scenes, as well as the Big Reveal yet to come... assuming it is the reveal we think it is.

7.  Samwell.  Show Samwell is good-natured and pleasant enough, but I have a real affection for Book Samwell.  You get a much stronger sense of his story arc in the novels.  The scene where he is protecting Gilly from the Other is fantastic -- you feel Sam's desperation, and feel the triumph when, with his last desperate move, he kills the Other with dragonglass.  It is a pivotal scene in the series.  By contrast, that scene felt tacked on in the episode, and Sam himself has seemed like more of an afterthought.  Maybe Show Sam will be given more screen time when he is sent south with Gilly and Maester Aemon.

8.  Eddard.  Here is another controversial one.  I'm a fan of Sean Bean and thought that he portrayed Eddard quite well.  However, Book Eddard has this sadness, this heaviness, that I don't think Bean ever really tapped into.  Maybe it's the fault of the showrunners for never once mentioning the "blood and roses" scene, or Lyanna's "Promise me, Ned!".  Book Eddard is the one character who seems weighed down not just by his past, but by all of recent history.  His chapters bring a gravitas not only to A Game of Thrones, but also to the entire series.  Sean Bean's portrayal is good, but falls just short.  


No Better and No Worse

1.  Arya.  If you had an image of Arya Stark in your head, it was probably of Maisie Williams.  Okay, her eyes should be gray.  That's it.  Otherwise, Show Arya is very much the same as Book Arya.  While it's true that with Book Arya, we get more information about her fears and loneliness, that has more to do with format.  The novels show us Arya's point of view, whereas the TV characters tend to reveal their innermost thoughts through confessionals.  Who is Show Arya going to confide in -- the Hound?

2.  Tyrion.  Show Tyrion is painted with a slightly glossier brush than Book Tyrion.  See the differences between their wedding nights for an example.  Nonetheless, Show Tyrion is much the same
Somewhat better looking than advertised...
as Book Tyrion: cynical, sharp, unappreciated, loathed.  It will be interesting to watch Show Tyrion veer to the dark side as the Lannisters turn on him.  

3.  Sansa.  I was tempted to put Sansa in the Worse category, because I think her character has gotten shortchanged in the TV series.  In the novels, especially A Storm of Swords, Sansa chapters can be heartrending.  Noteworthy scenes include her first period, her wedding, her wedding night, and her reaction to her mother and Robb's deaths.  (And I swear to God, show, you have better not fuck up Sansa's flight from King's Landing.  Update: It did.)  Rather than showing things from Sansa's point of view, the TV show seems to present Sansa from the perspective of others, like Margaery, Tyrion, or Shae.  However, the weakening of her character is balanced out by Sophie Turner's good acting.  Sansa could have come across as whiny, but instead she is sweet and vulnerable, much the way Martin intended her to be.  

4.  Joffrey.  Jack Gleeson has managed to infuse some humor into Joffrey's monstrous ways.  Otherwise, Show Joffrey perfectly portrays Book Joffrey's blackened, shriveled soul.

5.  Daenerys.  Dany was another one I was tempted to put in the Worse category.  I base this mainly on how poorly her scene in the House of the Undying is portrayed.  But once I got over that, I saw that Book Dany and Show Dany are basically the same, for better or for worse.  Both have been more or less coasting since Dany stepped into the fire with the dragon eggs.  Now Dany just has to lift her chin, smile smugly, and one of her devotees will fight a battle for her.  Okay, maybe I'm not giving Dany enough credit: she is pretty clever about deceiving the Astapori slavers, which helps jumpstart her army in the first place.  It's just difficult to tell what goes on behind her eyes before A Dance With Dragons.  Is she developing schemes to overtake the cities she conquers?  Is she an active part of long battle strategy sessions?  Or does she just sit and smile with satisfaction while other people do that work?  It's true that Book Dany never shakes her vulnerability, and Emilia Clarke does a good job portraying it in Show Dany.  It would just be nice if either version brought something more, such as a knack for strategy.         

6.  Tywin.  Show Tywin seems a bit more graceful and mild, which makes him that much more dangerous.  But otherwise, he is the same ruthless, three-steps-ahead tyrant that he is in the novels.

7.  Jaime.  Book Jaime always seemed like a difficult balance: charming, glib, attractive, yet deep.  Yet somehow Show Jaime manages to pull it off.  I could see Show Jaime cynically wandering around the Riverlands, doing damage control after the war.  Though I hope the showrunners spare us by cutting back on the "characters wander" scenes, one of the weakest aspects of the novels.

8.  Brienne.  Show Brienne's portrayal is also very faithful to the novels, especially as she is portrayed through A Storm of Swords, before we start getting her point of view chapters and seeing how vulnerable she feels.  

9.  Davos.  Many of the TV characters seem as if they were lifted whole from the novels, but none more than Show Davos.  I can't see any gap between him and his gruff, honest, loyal counterpart in the novels.

10.  Varys.  Book Varys strikes me as a little more openly sinister, but otherwise, Book and Show Varys are evenly matched.  Both are mysterious, yet manage to invoke our sympathy at the same time.

11.  Theon.  Show Theon nails Book Theon's character, from his initial swagger to his insecurities to his quiet yearnings and resentments.  Show Theon also deserves credit for portraying the character's chilling journey from a nobleman's son to Ramsay Snow's abused pet.     

12.  Asha/Yara.  Fuck this Yara nonsense.  Her name is Asha.  At least Martin trusts us to distinguish between two people with similar-sounding names.  Regardless, both versions are fierce, kicking ass and taking names.  Some bonus points to Show Asha for vowing to go retrieve Theon instead of being like: "Yeah, I'll just hang around here and wait for a Kingsmoot so I can challenge my crazy uncles."


Aside from characters who turned out better or worse, there are certain aspects of the Martin universe that have been enhanced or forgotten.

Winners

1.  Brothels.  Did we ever see so many brothel scenes in the novels?  I guess we can't have our weekly dose of sexposition without them.

2.  Short Attention Spans.  That sounds bad, but it's actually not.  While Martin might think himself clever for always having major characters just miss each other, it becomes tedious to the reader.  Fortunately, the showrunners seem to agree.  Forget this characters hardly meeting crap -- let's have Melisandre come to collect Gendry.  Maybe in Season Five, they'll have Arya ask Samwell about her brother Jon.  And speaking of tedious, Show Asha's vow to bring home Theon suggests that the show might do away with the Kingsmoot.  We can only hope!

3.  Violence.  Martin's universe is pretty grim, with unspeakable horrors being committed every other chapter.  Yet the TV show has managed to actually increase the depravity.  By, say, throwing in a scene where Joffrey has painful, violent sex with a whore using spikes.  Or having Talisa stabbed about a thousand times in the belly while her novel counterpart, Jeyne Westerling, survives unscathed.  Is there some sort of dick measuring contest between Martin and the showrunners that we don't know about?

Losers

1.  The Direwolves.  In the novels, the direwolves hold a strong spiritual connection with each of the Stark children.  When one dies, the others somehow know and will howl in mourning.  On the show, the direwolves are more like "nice doggies," who pop out every once in a while, but are otherwise not a factor.  The show missed the chance to show the direwolves' connection after Grey Wind's death.

2.  Subtlety.  Martin's writing tends to be pretty graphic, but he still manages to hold back now and then.  For instance, we just hear about Robb's and Grey Wind's decapitations, portrayed almost like rumors or tall tales.  Martin does not actually force us to read about Robb's corpse being paraded about with Grey Wind's head.  Not so with the TV show -- Corpse Robb with Grey Wind's head is shoved in our face.  Not just our face, but poor Arya's as well.  The TV show also seems content to do away with some of the intricacies of Martin's plotting, downright ignoring characters and small acts that will become significant later.

3.  The Bannermen.  With some exceptions, such as the Boltons and the Freys, we don't get the sense of the great lords' relationship with their bannermen the way we do in the novels.  Almost nothing with the Manderlys, Umbers, Mormonts, and Cassels.  Not to mention the Redwynes, Royces, Selmys, Florents, and Westerlings.  The Red Wedding is pretty horrifying, but even more so when you know that Dacey Mormont, Wendel Manderly, and Smalljon Umber are getting killed along with Catelyn and Robb.

4.  Westeros History.  The show has a gritty, hurried, unsentimental vibe, which does not allow much wallowing in the mournful history that Martin has created.  So while we get the occasional mention of Rhaegar, we have next to no idea who he was or what he believed.  No birth on the day of the Summerhall Fire, no belief in Azor Ahai, and no Tourney at Harrenhal.  But it's not just Rhaegar -- we miss out on learning about other prominent Westerosis, like Arthur "Sword of the Morning" Dayne or his sister, Ashara.  And those are relatively recent deaths.  Forget even trying to introduce the Blackfyre Rebellion or the War of the Ninepenny Kings.

Conclusion

So while the TV series has done a very nice job, all things considered, of keeping up with Martin's universe, those who have never read the series should give it a try.  It often provides more context for what you see on the screen.

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.   

5 comments:

  1. Can't believe I remembered Osha, but left out Bran. I would place Bran in the "No Better, No Worse" category.

    Same with Rickon, given that he doesn't register in either version.

    As for Hodor... hodor.

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  3. What about Jorah Mormont or Barristan Selmy or Podrick Payne or Drago? I know you only have so much room though...
    Personally, I like book Barristan better - the fact that he wasn't disguised in the show was disappointing and so was the fact that they didn't include Strong Belwas.
    Drago is a no better or worse
    Jorah is a not better or worse
    Podrick may actually be better on the show, just for entertainment value (and book Pod was waaay younger)

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    1. The review would never end if I had to list all of the characters. ;) I agree with your assessments, though it's interesting that Jorah is to some extent very different in the book. More bristle, less smooth.

      I've considered doing an update to include scenes done better on the show or in the book, like the Red and Purple Weddings and the Eyrie.

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