Broadly speaking there are three categories of change introduced in Season Two of HBO’s Game of Thrones. For the sake of brevity in an already overly long article, I’ll restrict myself to a few examples, but many more could be provided.[This article continues from The adaptation of HBO’s Game of Thrones: Part One.]
The first category of change is due to the need to simplify things, to get rid of stuff – mostly characters: with A Clash of Swords, George R.R. Martin introduces many more characters to an already crowded stage set in A Game of Thrones (GoT). Apart from causing confusion for many audience members, the more characters there are on screen, the less time and space there are to develop each of them sufficiently. Chop chop. Characters are rarely written into a plot without purpose however and eliminating them inevitably has consequences for the plot: characters generally do things and if these things are important to the development of the narrative, they need to be worked into the plot in some other way.
A good example of this is Arya Stark’s interaction with Jaqen H’ghar, a mysterious assassin who has promised Arya three deaths for having saved his life and that of his two companions: one of the promised victims in Martin’s novel, an unsavoury character by the name of Weese, didn’t make it into the HBO series, so another victim was fabricated by the writers – there had to be three deaths after all. This substituted death is a remarkably trivial incident: in the novel, Arya plans obsessively who should die – she has a profoundly personal reason for every victim she considers. In the TV series the substitute for Weese is a nobody, just a death to get closer to the magic number 3.
This period in Arya’s adventure in Harrenhal is told very differently in the novel and on screen: Benioff and Weiss place Arya in the service of Tywin Lannister, even though (from memory) Arya and Tywin do not interact at all in Harrenhal in the novel. Benioff and Weiss’s change is an ingenious and efficient way however to pursue two narrative threads simultaneously, hers and Tywin’s, even though it’s pure fabrication on their part.
The stealing of Danaerys Targaryen’s dragons by the warlocks of Qarth is another fabrication of Benioff and Weiss. It greatly simplifies Danaerys’s journey and creates a dramatic high point in which she is captured and the dragons prove their worth by incinerating the nasty magician.
Changes such as these can arguably be justified as the transition from page to screen, the need to simplify the narrative threads and perhaps by budgetary constraints (although the dragon scene must have cost a pretty penny!).
The rationale for a second category of change is less obvious, although it also probably results from a need to simplify the narrative. If so, it is simplification taken too far.
In this category I’d include Jon Snow’s long romp through the icy wilderness with Ygritte, a wildling woman captured by Snow and the Night’s Watch north of the Wall. In Martin’s novel, after some limited interaction, Snow lets Ygritte go rather than killing her and then continues to journey with the remnants of his party under the command of Qhorin Halfhand, until only Halfhand and Snow remain. Aware that they too will soon be killed or captured, Halfhand insists that Snow goes over to the enemy, effectively as a double-agent. Snow rejects this order because it profoundly offends his sense of honour as he would have to break his oath, deceive others and give the impression of betraying the Watch. It takes considerable persuasion by Halfhand to turn him, as it should given how integral to Snow’s character his sense of honour is.
Barely any of this makes its way into the series. Instead Benioff and Weiss fabricate new scenes with lots of sexual innuendo as Jon and Ygritte romp through the wilderness. With only a passing comment from Halfhand, Jon proves himself to the enemy by killing Halfhand.
This sort of simplification diminishes the narrative and the psychological complexity of the characters.
Which gets us to the third and most detrimental category of change. When cutting stuff from the narrative, the writers use their creativity and ingenuity to conceal the cuts they’ve made. Sometimes the implications are poorly worked through and the consequence is a change that undermines the integrity of the plot or characters. This results in an inferior adaptation.
Several examples of this could be cited, but one in particular stands out: Catelyn Tully and the events surrounding her freeing of Jamie Lannister. The extent of Catelyn’s betrayal cannot be understated: it is a profound betrayal of her son, Rob Stark, King of the North, and the cause of the North, and it should take remarkable provocation for Catelyn, widowed as she was by the Lannisters, to betray her people by freeing Jamie Lannister. Jamie Lannister also happens to be the North’s most valuable prisoner, a bargaining chip of incalculable value, and let’s not forget that Catelyn is surrounded by powerful men who have lost their own children in the war with the Lannisters, men who want nothing more than to execute the King Slayer.
In the HBO series Catelyn frees Jamie when she learns that her sons Bran and Rickon are captured by Theon Greyjoy in Winterfell. She believes that four of her children are now held captive (she believes that both daughters are held by the Lannisters in King’s Landing) and she secretly frees Jamie Lannister in the vain hope that her daughters at least might be released in exchange.
In the novel Catelyn frees Jamie Lannister after learning the devastating news that her two youngest sons are dead, brutally murdered by Theon Greyjoy. Here is a woman who has lost a beloved husband to the Lannisters, with two daughters held by the Lannisters, and now her two youngest sons have been murdered. This is a tipping point, one that could motivate such a betrayal of her people and her son in the desperate hope of saving two of her remaining children. What would a mother not attempt in these circumstances?
While this might seem like a small difference, it goes to the heart of what is and what is not good adaptation: with this simple change, Benioff and Weiss have trivialised the situation and undermined the integrity of Catelyn’s character and Martin’s narrative: that this woman would betray her son and cause for the reasons Benioff and Weiss provide is inexplicable.
And what is more disappointing is that there is no logical reason for such a change. It is simply poor adaptation.