We’re five episodes into the ten-episode season of Game of Thrones. It’s been so successful that a second season was greenlit after the pilot alone, and rumors are out that season three has been signed off on as well. There’s been a lot of different recaps out there – Television Without Pity and Entertainment Weekly both have recaps each week – but I want to focus less on plot development and more on the character arcs and shifts between novel and show. ASOIAF is largely a character driven story, and I really want to delve into how these changes affect the characters. Because this is about the differences between the books and the tv show, be aware there are definitely spoilers for the first book, and likely the next three.
|Sansa doesn’t like people spoiling themselves accidentally.|
So far, Ned Stark, Sansa Stark and Tyrion Lannister have all been pitch perfect. Ned and Tyrion, as fan favourites of the books, are no real surprise and I’m glad that Sansa, who is definitely not a favourite, hasn’t changed, because I loved her in the books. Mark Addy as Robert Baratheon is wonderful too.
Arya and Bran Stark are both extremely faithful to the books, and they are not characters I loved while reading, but I am loving them now. Both Maisie Williams and Isaac Hempstead-Wright are flawless with perfect combination of childishness and solemnity.
Cersei Lannister: her changes are subtle, but they’re there. She’s omnipresent in ways that she wasn’t in the books. Though it’s implied that her and Robert visited with Bran when he was comatose, in the show we actually see it and you can’t tell if Cersei is truly reliving losing a child of her own or if she’s casing the joint for the later attempt on Bran’s life or maybe both. She visits Ned Stark to get a handle on how much he has learned about her and Jaime without tipping her hand overmuch. We haven’t met Tywin Lannister yet, but you get the sense that she is truly his heir as she believes in the books because she is cool where Jaime is hot-headed and quietly savvy where Tyrion is too smart to know when too shut up. It’s hard to get this sense of Cersei in the early books because she’s not a point-of-view character yet, and by the time she gets her own narrative, she’s going off the rails due to personal tragedy and incompetence. Her scene with Robert in episode five was, as my husband said, “the first time there was any honest conversation between two people in five episodes.” It’s a scene we get to see because the show isn’t (and really, can’t) do the unique POV style narrative the books have, and it’s one of the best scenes the show has had.
Catelyn Tully Stark: She has changed from the books, and I’m not sure it’s an arc I liked at first. In the books, Catelyn is the one who encourages Ned to go south, first because she understands what this new Robert is like before Ned does and refusing him would only cause resentment, and then after receiving Lysa’s letter, so Ned can figure out how Jon Arryn died. In the show, she is dragging against Ned’s honour every step of the way. Contrast this with her vicious hatred of Jon Snow in the books, which is toned down quite a bit for the show, and Catelyn’s depth is smoothed out a little too much for my liking. Like Sansa, Cat’s another one who wasn’t a favourite, mostly because fans love Jon Snow and she doesn’t, so the logical choice is to say terrible things about Cat as a woman and mother. But consider the world she lives in, where bastards are not only not brought home to live with the family, but are ignored at best or at worst killed without anyone really caring. Jon gets a family who likes him, training worth of a nobleman in sword and riding, a roof over his head, and a father who respects him. The only one who doesn’t is Catelyn, and it’s pretty clearly shown she is fierce in protecting her family’s interests and Jon directly contradicts those interests. Also, she has always been loyal in her marriage to Ned and she loves him too, and I think Jon rankles her for those reasons – knowing that no matter how much Ned loves and respects her, there is a physical reminder of something he cannot share with her there. So. Yes, her treatment of Jon is shitty but it’s real, and I respect that. And of course, from the attack on Bran’s life onward, Cat becomes the BAMF we all know and love. And by all, I mean, the three Catelyn fangirls out there.
Daenerys Targaryen: The change that bothered me more than anything was Dany’s arc. In the books and the show both, we meet Dany as the abused younger sister of an exiled king who seems to be following rather closely in his father’s footsteps as a mad one. Though the Targaryens marry brother to sister to keep their Ptolemaic bloodlines pure and Dany expects to marry her brother in a few years, she ends up married to Khal Drogo, a fierce leader of the Dothraki horse lords. An awful situation for a thirteen year old (in the books) or a ~17 year old (in the show.) But. In the books, during the wedding, Dany speaks to her husband after receiving the gift of a beautiful horse to thank him, and he smiles at her. Later, during the consummation, though she’s crying and afraid, he takes the time to get her familiar with his body and her own and she says “yes” before sex. In the show, they don’t speak at all, and even though Dany is crying and afraid, Khal Drogo keeps telling her “no” and pulling her clothes off before forcing her to her hands and knees. It’s alarming and uncomfortable in both situations, and it’s most certainly rape in both situations. But the book makes explicit in ways the show doesn’t that thought Daenerys would not have chosen this for herself, it’s a space free from her overbearing, abusive brother, and a place where she can make choices and agency for herself. This tentative step on the road to self-actualization is what makes her growth stronger in the book. In the show, it’s just a victim being abused by a new abuser, and while Dany does go on to gain confidence to rebuff her brother and fall in love with Drogo (as she does in the books), you still remember that she started out abused, was abused more and then is on this path to further abuse. It’s Break the Cutie on a horrific scale. I suppose the argument can be made that since Dany had to be aged upwards for the nudity to fly with audiences, there had to be visual cues of how awful the situation was but I don’t buy it. For one, you still had assholes arguing that what happened on the show wasn’t rape, because she was married (and here I thought marital rape being illegal was common knowledge but there you go), but it’s still pretty obvious she’s being sold into slavery in exchange for an army to a culture that’s portrayed as barbaric and cruel (and I could go into how the wedding of brown people doing awful things to each other and dancing lewdly while white people look on in horror is awful in its own right, but that’s been covered extensively, especially at this great Racialicious piece.) In short, I am disappointed with this character change the most because Dany has so far to go in becoming Dothraki and this really twists the knife into that. For more reason, Isaac Butler covers this really well here.
Jaime Lannister: Like Cersei, Jaime doesn’t get a POV narrative until the later books, and like his sister, we see a more ubiquitous and interesting Jaime right from the beginning of Game of Thrones. You see him share war stories with Barristan Selmy and the king, and Jory Cassel. He gives us background on what led him to kill Aerys Targaryen and makes it seem like a pretty good idea, actually. On the other hand, the casualness with which he shoves Bran in episode one is breathtaking, and he takes cheery pleasure in his brutality in fighting the Starks. It sets up the dichotomy between Kingsguard and Kingslayer Jaimes very early, and given the changes to Cersei’s character as well, it’s only fair Jaime matches her.
Renly and Loras: more sexy exposition, can’t argue with that. Also makes explicit something GRRM said was implied in the books, but again, people making comments on Renly or Loras’ preferences in the book are limited in their point of view. Most of the character changes come from things that are implied or thought to be known in the books, but must be shown explicitly in the show because limited POV narrative is hard to translate to screen (see also: Harry Potter.) Loras being the one pressuring Renly into kingship is interesting, and because the relationship is made explicit for the show, it means the Tyrells are showing their hand early. I wonder how close Loras is to his grandmother? I heard she’s rather thorny. I also thought this was a clever nod to why Sansa gets a rose, and yet Loras doesn’t remember her at all.
Minor linguistic quibble: I’m curious as to why Lysa Tully Arryn is know as Lie-sa, instead of Lee-sa, when every other instead of a ‘y’ vowel is pronounced as a short y: Catelyn, Aerys, Daenerys, Tully. It just seems awkward.
In spite of the problems, Game of Thrones remains one of the best book to screen adaptations in a long time: faithful without being stunted or flattened, original scenes that serve to enhance the story in a suitable manner for a tv show, incredible casting, excellent effects. Though I’m not happy with it, I’m not surprised that most of the characters that lost nuance were women, and I hope that as the show grows, so do they.