Friday, June 20, 2014

Game of Thrones: Book vs. Show

Needless to say, this post contains a few spoilers.

By now, Game of Thrones the HBO series has completed its portrayal of the third -- and arguably the best -- book of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Storm of Swords.  It even dipped into A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons story lines.

As both a reader and a viewer, I can now sit back and make a measured assessment of each medium's strength and weakness.  Whereas before, I did a post comparing the book characters to their show versions, here I will look at which medium does a better job portraying important story moments.


1.  Ned Stark's Death

Setting the Scene: Eddard "Ned" Stark, Hand of King Robert and primary POV of A Game of Thrones, has accused Queen Cersei of conceiving her children (including heir-to-the-throne Joffrey) through incest.  He is then locked up and informed that if he repents his claim, his only punishment will be banishment to the Wall.  Fearing for his daughters' safety at King's Landing, Ned lies and says that he made up his claim.  Unfortunately, the new King Joffrey decides to punish Ned by cutting off his head.

Assessment: Whoa!  The main character never dies!  Both unspoiled readers and viewers were blown away by this break with formula.  It was pulled off incredibly well in both cases, but I give the show the edge for allowing us to see it from multiple points of view all at once.  With the book, the reader must deal with the awkwardness of seeing things from just Arya's perspective.

Winner: Show


2.  The House of the Undying

Setting the Scene: For reasons that are unclear (in the book), or to reclaim her stolen dragons (in the show) Daenerys Targaryen visits the House of the Undying in Qarth.  She then must navigate the mysterious fortress in order to find... something.

Assessment: Daenerys's storyline in A Clash of Kings is rather dull compared to A Game of Thrones, but her visit to the House of the Undying largely makes up for it.  It's like navigating a haunted house with visions that tell the future.  Dany is instructed to go through only the door on the right and always take the stairs up, which leads to a heart-pounding scenario where she sees only doors on the left and realizes at the last second that the last door on the left is the one on the right.  The visions she sees are still being discussed by fans.  Some include literal events in the future (the man with the wolf's head), while others are visions of the past with unknown implications (Raegar and baby Aegon).  It was bold and exciting and... entirely missing in the show version.

In the show, Dany walks into maybe two or three rooms, only one of which suggests something that could occur in the future (the charred remains of the Great Hall at King's Landing).  Then she's chained up and her dragons melt a guy's face and... it's over.  Just doesn't have quite the same impact.

Winner: Book


3.  Battle of the Blackwater

Setting the Scene: Stannis Baratheon has killed his brother Renly and is closing in on the ultimate prize: the Iron Throne.  He just has to conquer King's Landing to do it.  On the other side, Tyrion Lannister prepares for the onslaught with a few tricks up his sleeve.

Assessment: I was never as enamored of the Battle of the Blackwater as many, maybe because I didn't care for Stannis in A Clash of Kings, yet I did not want the Lannisters to win.  However, both book and show do an excellent job laying on the tension.  I recall the book spending more time on Tyrion's battle strategy, including the infamous scene where he prepares the wildfire, as well as a much edgier scene between Sansa and Sandor Clegane.  At the same time, the show had visual delights like the green flames of wildfire on the Blackwater.  Being unrestrained by specific POVs also allowed us to see Stannis's perspective, as well as Cersei's.     

Winner: Draw


4.  The Red Wedding

Setting the Scene: Robb Stark, King in the North, has been winning battles but losing the war.  His greatest misfires were to leave Winterfell relatively unguarded (so Theon Greyjoy could sack it) and to break a pledge to his allies, the Freys.  Robb was supposed to marry a Frey daughter, but instead (in the book) married Jeyne Westerling because he took her virginity or (in the show) married Talisa Maegyr out of love.  The Freys claim that Robb's party can make it right if his uncle, Edmure Tully, marries a Frey daughter instead.  And so Robb, Catelyn, and the Stark bannermen head to their wedding...

Assessment:  The show's depiction of the Red Wedding was pretty horrific, but there was just something about A Storm of Swords's depiction.  The Storm version began with a room filled with too many people, terrible food, and deafening noise.  Catelyn feels ill, but is trying to enjoy the post-wedding festivities.  Yet there are signs that something is off: Edmure's wife keeps sobbing, and is this the first time those musicians ever picked up instruments?!  Then, with a sickening twist, everything unravels.  The musicians are replacing their instruments with weapons.  Stark bannermen are getting shot and stabbed.  Suddenly Robb is shot by quarrels.  The scene is told from Catelyn's point of view, and you can feel her growing desperation and madness, right down to her final plea for Ned to rescue her.

While I'm just as glad the show never depicted Catelyn clawing the skin off of her face, I feel that it erred in going for sudden shock over growing tension.  Especially since the shock of Talisa getting stabbed, like, a thousand times in her pregnant belly had disturbing misogynistic overtones.        

Winner: Book


5.  The Purple Wedding

Setting the Scene: King Joffrey, the world's greatest monster, has just wed Margaery Tyrell and everyone is gathered for the wedding feast.  What could possibly go wrong?

Assessment:  I'm a little sorry that the show could not portray the 70-odd courses that were present at the book feast, but otherwise, the show did a nice job recreating the tension in A Storm of Swords.  (Not surprising: George RR Martin wrote this episode.)  Joffrey was appropriately vile and insulting.  His death scene was fast, and Jack Gleeson did an effective job portraying the scared little boy Joffrey truly was.  Oh, and pigeon pie!

Winner: Draw


6.  Lysa Arryn's Death

Setting the Scene: Sansa has finally fled King's Landing under the protection of Peter Baelish ("Littlefinger").  Baelish marries Sansa's aunt, Lysa Arryn, and they move to the Eyrie.  Lysa is so in love with Baelish that it drives her insane when she sees him kiss Sansa one morning.  So Lysa decides to solve the problem by tossing Sansa out the Moon Door, where 600 feet of nothing lies between her and the ground.  Baelish manages to talk Lysa out of it, before surprising her with the revelation that he has always loved Catelyn instead... and shoving her out the Moon Door.   


Assessment: Everything about this scene, and the lead up, works better in the book.  The scene lasts longer and is more intense.  Baelish must work harder to rescue Sansa from Lysa's clutches.  Lysa's madness means more because we understand the history behind it -- how she lost her virginity to Baelish and supported him at King's Landing all those years.  (It also gives more meaning to other scenes where Lysa's father is dying and he keeps apologizing for "Tansy.")  This is also where the reader first learns that Lysa poisoned Jon Arryn at Baelish's behest, then lied about it to the Starks, paving the way for the events in A Game of Thrones.

By contrast, the show's portrayal of this scene feels rushed.  And why on earth would Baelish talk her down from way across the hall like that?  That said, the show has done everything beyond Lysa's death better.  I thought it was clever the way Martin had Baelish set up Lysa's singer as the murderer, but in the show, it was even better that the lack of a clear alibi led to Sansa revealing her true identity to the Vale lords.  Sansa post-Lysa seems empowered and possibly dangerous to Baelish, whereas book Sansa is learning, but still seems timid and afraid to act.    

Winner: Book

Winner of the Aftermath: Show (for now)


7.  Oberyn Martell's Fight With the Mountain

Setting the Scene: Tyrion's trial for the murder of Joffrey isn't going so well, until an unlikely person steps in to serve as his champion in a trial by combat: Oberyn Martell.  Oberyn wants revenge against the man (Gregor Clegane) who raped and killed his sister, as well as the man (Tywin Lannister) who urged him on.  And so the fight between man and Mountain begins...

Assessment: There are some aspects of the book version that I wish the show had included, such as Tyrion's horror at Oberyn using just a spear to fight the Mountain.  The book version of the fight scene also seems to last longer, with Oberyn dancing along, jabbing at the Mountain repeatedly.  And there's something about a stable boy getting killed...

The show scene is shorter, but more acrobatic (love those mid-air spins, Oberyn).  It also has the benefit of two things: a deeper characterization of Oberyn, so that we care about what happens to him in addition to what happens to Tyrion, and a subversion of tropes.  The scene begins in a broadly comical manner that so many of these David and Goliath scenes begin with: "Oh my God, are you crazy?  You are so dead!"  Then, usually, the David bests the Goliath, everyone cheers, and David and his love interest share a kiss.  In this case, Oberyn's gruesome death is sadly true to the book.  

Winner: Draw


8.  The Battle of Castle Black

Setting the Scene: The wildlings have banded together in a massive army led by Mance Rayder.  Their goal is to get beyond the Wall and infiltrate the Seven Kingdoms.  Only the badly undermanned Night's Watch can stop them, led by Jon Snow.  And so the fight begins.

Assessment: Until this point, the Night's Watch chapters in the book were among my least favorite.  Once Castle Black prepared for battle, everything seemed to kick into a higher gear and I found myself turning the pages eagerly.  The same cannot be said for the show version.  Whereas the book battle seems to build steadily throughout A Storm of Swords, the show loses the thread by having Jon and the Night's Watch make a side trip to Craster's Keep for... reasons.  So instead of spending more time preparing for what is to come, Jon and the Night's Watch seem to remember the big, overwhelming forces approaching them at the last minute.  The show also made the mistake of isolating the Battle of Castle Black in a single episode the way it did the Battle of the Blackwater.  Even though Castle Black is arguably more important in the grand scheme, it does not make for nearly as compelling a viewing experience.     

Winner: Book


9.  Tyrion's Escape

Setting the Scene: Jamie frees Tyrion from his cell before he is to be killed.  Before they part (in the book) Jaime confesses that Tysha, Tyrion's wife from long ago, was not really a whore after his money, but someone who truly loved him.  This devastates Tyrion because he believed Tywin's claims that Tysha was a whore and let her be gang raped by Lannister soldiers.  Tyrion parts ways with Jaime bitterly, telling him that Cersei was fucking around while Jaime was gone and "yes, I killed your vile son."  Tyrion then makes his way through the underground King's Landing passageways until he finds the one leading to the Tower of the Hand.  There, he discovers Shae in Tywin's bed and, after strangling her to death, goes to find Tywin...

Assessment: There is nothing wrong with the show's portrayal of events, except that they are surprisingly rushed.  So many Tyrion scenes were allowed to linger in Season Four (including a speech about beetles), yet this was the sequence that really needed breathing room.  Instead, Tyrion quickly finds and kills Shae, with minimal struggle, before going after Tywin in the privy.  (That never made sense to me in the book or show: it's not like Tyrion is six feet tall and weighs 200 pounds.  Would Shae really be so powerless to overcome him?)  The final dialogue between show Tyrion and Tywin lacks the power that it had in the book.  Not to mention Tyrion's dry observation that Tywin Lannister did not really shit gold.

While I don't mind the Tysha scene's removal, I was really bothered by the Shae scene because of the show's earlier characterization of her.  In the book, she is always just a dumb, greedy whore.  During the trial, she reveals herself to be a dumb, greedy whore who was always playing Tyrion.  In the last scene, we learn that she is a dumb, greedy whore who was, and may have always been, Tywin's paramour.

Whereas in the show, Shae is painted as being more complex.  She sincerely cares about Tyrion and Sansa.  On more than one occasion, she urges Tyrion to run away with her to Essos.  So what are we supposed to make of her betrayal at the trial and subsequent move to Tywin's bed?  Was it really because she thought Tyrion stopped loving her when he called her a "whore" (trying to make her leave so she would be safe)?  Was it because the Lannisters captured her before she could escape, and Tywin thereafter made her his bed companion?  An explanation would have been helpful.  No actually, what would have helped was a story change to suit the new Shae: such as Tyrion finding her already dead because she tried to kill Tywin.                   

Winner: Book


10.  Brienne's Search for Sansa (and Arya)

Setting the Scene: Brienne swears an oath to Catelyn Stark to bring her daughters back to her.  To that end, Brienne is tasked with bringing Jaime Lannister to King's Landing as an exchange.  Unfortunately, by the time Brienne arrives at King's Landing (in the book) the Purple Wedding has happened and Sansa already fled, and/or (in the show) Brienne learns that Catelyn and Robb were killed.  And everyone thinks that Arya has been dead, like, forever.  So Jaime gives Brienne Oathkeeper and has her go out in search of Sansa (and only Sansa, in the book).

Assessment: I like that the show denizens of King's Landing still remember Arya, unlike their book counterparts.  That leads to many more interesting possibilities than what the book has in place.  In A Feast for Crows, Brienne wanders through the Crownlands, constantly asking random people if they have seen "a young maid of three-and-ten" with Sansa's description.  The rest of the time is spent feeling angsty about her boyish upbringing.  By contrast, show Brienne's trajectory feels much sharper: she actually heads in a direction where the Stark girls might be, meets someone who knew Arya, and finally meets up with Arya herself, with awesome results.  Next season might find her continuing on to the Vale and meeting with Sansa (as Alayne).  That said, show Brienne's search could receive a downgrade if she doesn't meet a very important character that appears in the books (you book people know who I'm talking about).     

Winner: Show (for now)

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