Anatomy of an Adaptation: Examining Two Scenes Translated from A Clash of Kings to “Game of Thrones” Season Two
It’s more than cliché to say that “books are always better than the movie,” it’s also boring, unfair, and just plain pretension dressed up as intellect. Sure, some books are better than their movies, and maybe even that’s true for most adaptations. But some movies based on books are better than their source material - Jurassic Park and Fight Club come quickly to mind. Even more to the point, “better” is a purely subjective description that fails to understand that different mediums require different ways of telling the same stories. Maybe you like reading better than watching, or vice versa, but that alone doesn’t make either activity qualitatively superior. Some times the book and the movie are equally great (or equally terrible) for different reasons, and there’s really just no good reason to try to force them into a death match. No matter what happens, the format you prefer is still available and always will be, if it’s really that important to you.
HBO’s “Game of Thrones” third season is now half-complete (or a quarter so, if we want to think in Book 3 terms) and the same old chorus of George R. R. Martin and A Song of Ice and Fire fans are back to tell us how much better the books are compared to the TV show. This is preposterous, at least at this juncture in the live-action series. Prior to reading the books, A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings, I accepted that opinion because, well, it made sense as solely a watcher and not a reader. I had to watch season one twice before all the characters and their connections were coded firmly into my brain, but that was far from an unpleasant chore. I’ve only read the books once apiece (I mean, come one, I just started and those suckers are long), but if it hadn’t been for the show I might have had even more trouble remembering who was who and who they were related to. Names simply don’t matter as much as faces, and there are just so many people and houses and sigils and it wasn’t until midway through Kings that I was finally able to keep Barristan Selmy (former Kingsguard, now Dany’s Obi-Wan Kenobi) separate from Beric Donderrion (a knight, now leader of the Brotherhood Without Banners). Incidentially, that little breakthrough is serving me quite well, so far, in season three.
But the real quality of this adaptation cemented for me when I finally read about Melisandre’s shadow assassin killing the self-imposed King Renly. In the show, we see Davos the Onion Knight surreptitiously bring his king’s, Stannis’, “red woman” to a hidden entrance on the shore of Storm’s End and watch in horror as she births a magic baby comprised of, apparently, living shadow and smoke. This scene ends the episode and it remains one of the top five cliffhangers yet on the television series. The very next episode begins with that same shadow baby surprising Renly, his personal guardian Brienne of Tarth, and Catelyn Stark, the mother of our favorite metaphorical direwolves; it then kills the would-be King, leaving Catelyn and Brienne holding the bag. The book, as longtime readers know, places these scenes in the exact reverse order: first we see the shadow baby shockingly kill Renly, and then we see Melisandre birth it again in order to slay another of Stannis’ enemies. It may seem a minor tweak to condense two locations and two murders into one, but it’s actually very adept storytelling on the parts of both GRRM and the showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.
I can’t vouch for the level of surprise readers might have felt when Martin first told his version of the story, but I can easily imagine it being a huge WTF moment, if only because trying to understand what exactly is being described as the shadow impales a be-armored Renly must have been a true mindfrick. Like the show, up until that moment, we were only shown magic beyond the Wall in the North and in the lands beyond Westeros to the East. Suddenly, there’s some sort of shadow and it’s killing one of the three most important plot characters of the novel, in one of the most important lands in the seemingly magic-less continent. It’s only later, probably a hundred pages at the least, that we see how a creature like this could come to be and, again like the show, we only see it’s birthing and not what spell or act enabled its existence (though, we can be pretty sure that Stannis is the shadow-baby daddy). Despite the tweaks, neither the scenes in the book nor the show are objectively better than their counterparts in terms of telling, for all intents and purposes, the exact same story. But both are indeed quite awesome.
(Click here for a fun, but still NSFW version of the sequence’s first half.)
Novelists have the time and the space to litter in as many ideas and questions throughout their pages as they see fit, and can explain and answer them in any order. (This is especially true when the novels are sprawling epics structured in third-person limited chapters.) The payoffs to mysteries in novels don’t have to be nearly as explicit as set-up/punch line, and tend to be more rewarding when they’re revealed once readers have only just forgotten them. For Martin to first show us what the shadow assassin does, and then what it is, he was using a device nearly as old as fiction itself. It’s a very old trick for authors to show what something does and then show how it works, going back as far as The Iliad and perfected by Edgar Allan Poe. This is also how “LOST” told many of its stories and why it was one of the most novelistic television series ever made. Remember, haters, that “novelistic” isn’t necessarily a signifier of quality, so leave your grousing at the hatch door. That show-and-delayed-tell approach might be partially why some fans were put off by the revelations in season six - it was too little too late, as TV shows traditionally answer questions closer to when they’re posed. Unless they’re series-long mysteries, but that isn’t what’s at play in the Melisandre/Renly scenes.
That need to answer pertinent, plot-based questions in a timely manner is a constant TV writer’s burden and it’s why no one should expect a literal translation of GRRM’s novels. Except for the excision of a (narratively unimportant) character and condensing locations, essentially, nothing is changed in the scenes described above. Yet those changes made the events more compelling on the show than they otherwise might have been. We had seen snow zombies and adorable dragons, two very common tropes in fantastical fiction, but we had seen nothing like living shadows, much less living shadows borne from a, for all we know, human woman. If “Thrones” had deigned to show us Renly’s assassination as an episode cliffhanger, viewers would unquestionably have asked, what the f*ck? But would it have been thrilling or mostly confusing, and perhaps too weird without any context? Instead we got to see what the shadow was - which was definitely WTF-worthy - and then we saw what, exactly, it could do. Set-up and immediate payoff. That’s just elementally good television writing.
Maybe it’s weird to claim that a heavily serialized television show, which was based on a series of fantasy books that could be described as one epically long novel, isn’t “novelistic.” Generally, that term implies a certain type of storytelling structure, wherein a story that plays out over the course of an entire season is told in each individual scene rather than the episodes that those scenes make up, though many episodes might still have a theme unifying them contextually. Certainly that style is as true of “Game of Thrones” as it is “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad,” or “The Sopranos” (the show that originally spawned this particular descriptor when creator David Chase likened his seasons to individual novels). But there are aspects of long-form fiction that those other shows utilize, which “Thrones,” in its very TV-ness, does not. Because it contains no flashbacks, no voice over or narration, and no exposition save for when the characters themselves ask basic questions or offer up well-considered monologues, this show is experienced less like a novel than even those other televisual hits, much less the ponderously detailed tomes upon which the series is based. The only caveat here are various dream sequences — mostly from Bran’s POV, but also Dany’s — but since they actually move the plot forward more than they reveal the internal mind of the characters, they’re not at all akin to witnessing the machinations of Don Draper’s imagination. “Game of Thrones” may be based on books but, to its credit, has no desire to actually be one.
Seeing and reading the mirrored sequences described above, it’s clear that the differences in the opposing mediums simply don’t matter in regards to being entertained. As long as their independent strengths are handled skillfully, the same story can hit the same emotional and plot-based beats in multiple mediums without sacrificing anything beyond the absolutely extraneous. (No offense meant to the dearly departed Ser Courtney Penrose or his family.) I quite enjoy all the details that Martin throws into his books, another exceedingly common trope in fantasy, and they color and shade the HBO adaptation beautifully in retrospect. But those details or characters with only a dash of import really aren’t necessary to tell the important parts of this story. The non-essentiality is especially true in a medium where it is much harder, and more intrusive, to get inside characters’ heads. I wouldn’t be opposed to flashbacks in the future, but right now the performances of the actors and the deftness of the adaptation are much more interesting in their novelty right now.
Endless exposition tends to be dull, and dullness — for a TV show or a Valyrian steel sword — is death.
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. If you still have a problem with it, just imagine that the show is an expansion of some bard’s original Song of Ice and Fire that the GRRM’s histories describe.