What Is Game Of Thrones For?

Warning: This post contains spoilers through the second book of A Song of Ice and Fire and the second season of Game of Thrones. Also, if you choose to follow the links, you are agreeing to be fully spoiled for all things that have ever happened.

In the wake of the second season finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones – an episode I enjoyed a great deal – there has been some consternation among what we’ve taken to calling the “experts” (i.e., those who approach the series primarily as readers of the books rather than viewers of the show). Linda from westeros.org is whatever comes after furious and disappointed. Sean T. Collins is trying to work out how to deal with the removal of one of the four things he considers centerpieces of the story.

What all of this furor centers around is the decision of the HBO showrunners to remove a large section of Daenerys’ visit to the House of the Undying from the second book. In the book, George R. R. Martin uses the House of the Undying to unspool a lot of information about both the past and the future. Daenerys sees her brother Rhaegar, the previous heir to the Iron Throne before his death in Robert’s Rebellion, discussing the Song of Ice and Fire from which the books take their name. She sees some metaphoric hints about the situation in Westeros. Most importantly, she is given a lot of cryptic hints about all the things that are going to happen to her on her way to claim the Iron Throne for herself (or whatever it is she will ultimately end up doing). Fans of the books (including yours truly) have spent a lot of time puzzling over/out what all of this prophecy means.

The experts aren’t wrong, per se. Removing this section dramatically changes the story away from what we see in the books. I think Collins does a nice, concise job of explaining what we lose:

For all intents and purposes it’s not in the show at all, not in a form that counts — a form freighted with all that prophetic information and linking Dany to a grand tapestry of past, present, and future events.

To a large extent, one of the things the books are about is history. We start many years after the events of a major rebellion that unseated a dynasty, as well as a smaller rebellion that was crushed by the new king and his allies. This glorious new reign is on the verge of falling to shreds as its internal inconsistencies begin collapsing. Most of this information is opaque to us and gets gradually revealed, slowly binding us in the “tapestry” Collins is talking about. We also get prophecy to give us a sense of where this is all going. It is, above all, a grand epic fantasy in the traditional sense.

Of course, Martin does take an additional step that radicalizes the entire process. We see most of the events of the story through the eyes of the bastards, rogues, and assorted other small people who will be written out of the storybooks (it’s obviously not an accident that we don’t get to see anything through the eyes of the titular “kings” of the second book). But seeing history through the eyes of the people it will trample underfoot doesn’t change the fact that that’s part of what these books are about.

So what happens when the show changes what the books are about? To push back a little against some of the more extreme reactions, I will say that it’s not like we didn’t see this coming. The show has never bothered to explore the past of Westeros. We know almost nothing about the rise of Robert Baratheon. We get one throwaway line about Jon Snow’s mother. We have one scene with a statue of Lyanna. We know virtually nothing about Rhaegar. The Reeds were not even cast for season two. This was always a big flashing warning sign that the show was not going to concern itself overmuch with the grand historical narrative.

As an expert myself, but more importantly as a proselytizer, I have done my best to sell this show to my friends who haven’t read the books. It’s an easy entrée into a daunting series of doorstops, so why not? And it’s interesting to me the variance in the reactions between the experts and the newbies. The people I know who came to this show cold pretty much universally loved the latest episode. To them, the history doesn’t matter, because they have no notion that it should be there in the first place. They are able to enjoy this show purely on its own terms, and they do. A lot.

So, ultimately, I think it’s left to those of us on the other side to come to terms with that. This show is not going to be a scene-for-scene adaptation of the books. And, to some extent, the more it has gone away from strict adherence to its source material this season, the better and more confident it’s become. The Tywin and Arya scenes, invented out of whole cloth, were some of the most riveting things I saw on television this year. We need to celebrate that.

We also need to understand that things we hold dear are going to get lost in the shuffle. The point of this show is not to stoke the nostalgia each of us has for the books, but rather to use those books to create a piece of art that has some reason to exist in its own right. If we want to read the books, we can simply read the books. And for people who have only seen the show, I highly recommend reading the books. Come to terms with the differences in vision between these two media.

We do a disservice to what Weiss and Benioff have created when we say, “Well, you ruined my favorite character/scene.” They haven’t ruined anything. Your favorite character or scene is still right there in the book that Martin wrote for you; you can go enjoy it any time you like. That said, I’m not saying you have to watch something you don’t enjoy, because that would be crazy. But I am saying that this is a piece of art, and you should judge it on its own merits. For my money, the scenes we did get in the House of the Undying were haunting, breathtaking, heart-wrenching, and fist-pumpingly badass (in that order). They spoke definitively to what this TV show is about, even if they had less to say about your favorite books.

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35 thoughts on “What Is Game Of Thrones For?

  1. As someone who has not read the books (and discussed pretty much every episode of this season with this post’s author) I pretty much have to agree – this episode was awesome. In fact, I think almost everything that they’ve done so far in the show has been highly entertaining and exceptionally well done. As of now I get to take the episodes at face value and not constantly compare them to the expectations I would have built up in my head after reading it. There’s no let down for me if they don’t make a scene that I wanted/ change up a character. I only have the universe of the show and it’s self-contained.

    That said, there’s no way that I’m waiting another 10 months to find out what happens next. Time to order me some books!

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  2. The point of this show is not to stoke the nostalgia each of us has for the books, but rather to use those books to create a piece of art that has some reason to exist in its own right.

    I space agree with this.

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  3. I’m in general agreement with this, but I still think it’s fair to judge a television or other adaptation in light of the work of art on which it’s based. Change itself may not be cause for complaint, but if it’s a change for the worse, then, yeah, I’m liable to get a tad miffed. For example, I don’t expect the characters of the television “Game of Thrones” to perfectly correspond to their namesakes in Martin’s books, but I would like for them to be as interesting, developed, etc.

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  4. Agreed as well. I knew things in the books were not going to make it into the TV show. It was pbvious early on. They pretty much wrote the entirety of House Tully and the Riverlands out of the TV show for instance.

    I’ll admit I’ve been scratching my head over the removal of the Reeds and also of this prophecy thing being so reduced. It makes Dany and Brans futures seem much more enigmatic (I don’t see any reason why Bran will end up where he does in the books without the Reed children).

    Be that all as it may, though, I’m mightily enjoying the TV series.

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  5. The house of the undying would have had problems even with a fair treatment. But to twist Dany’s storyline so that the House comes only in the last episode??? How cruel. Let her brave the rings (to steal Jordan’s term), if you must… but stretch it out a little.

    They’re either going to have to rely on the masked-lady for exposition, or a lot from … you know who.

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  6. I haven’t read the books, but did break down after last week’s episode and went to read plot summaries online. Having seen reviews of the newer books (4 and 5), I won’t be reading the series and will be sticking to the HBO show.

    The historical fascination described in this post seems to be a popular source of criticism for how the series of books is progressing. Martin creates an extremely interesting world, and situates his story at a time that is fascinating and extremely influential. However, instead of advancing the plot, he continually drops into backstory. Readers are left waiting almost a decade (in real time), and having read almost 4000 pages of text, with crumbs from the past and an increasing number of cliffhangers, instead of the momentous present that many believed they were promised.

    Again, I haven’t read the books. This is an opinion formed from viewing the show, and from the general theme of amazon reviews. My impression is that the Song of Fire and Ice series is a lot like Lost, or the recent Battlestar Galactica: the creatives behind the show draft a series of mysteries and puzzles in order to create an interesting, engrossing world. For many viewers, the implicit contract for viewership involves an expectation that the ‘big questions’ that drive the show’s founding narrative will be answered, since they are what motivates the existence of the show in the first place. However, while these ‘big questions’ drive many individual episodes, and are often relied upon as a ‘deus ex machina’ excuse for plot twists, their resolution is continually put off, as a carrot to the viewer for following the series until it’s completion.

    Unfortunately they’re often left behind in a mad dash to complete the series, dismissed as being the focus of hardcore obsessives, as the viewer is told that it is really the characters that are the focus of the tv show or book despite the fact that many are extremely shallowly drawn. In reading reviews of books 4/5, where many characters (including those previously believed to be second tier) are in transit without actually reaching their purported destination I couldn’t help be reminded of the last season of battlestar galactica, where a number of world-defining ‘big questions’ remained open. The season’s focus was almost entirely related to episodic stories, where the characters ‘run on a treadmill’, but don’t advance the plot. In the end, most of the series defining questions went unanswered, or were addressed in a perfunctory way.

    I think I’ve seen Martin argue that his books are about the journey, and not the destination. I don’t think that his readers will get to where they’re going, and that’s why I’m not going to read the books, unless the series is completed, and the retrospective reviews are positive. I’m not optimistic, and frankly, am curious as to what HBO will do in 2 years (when they get to book 4), or 4/5 years (if/when they out-pace Martin). I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up being a 3 season series, with the potential to revisit the source material if/when it’s finished.

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  7. Anyone upset over the absence of the Reeds (Bran’s storyline), relax. If you haven’t noticed that the order of events in the books has been frequently shuffled, you weren’t paying attention.

    The Reeds are listed as characters to be cast in Season 3 at Entertainment Weekly’s exclusive look, so what I think is, Bran, Rickon, and the others will meet the Reeds in the first episode of the new season, THEN split up with Bran going with the Reeds. It isn’t too late to insert them into the storyline and have it still make sense.

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  8. I’m pretty happy with the changes. Visual medium != written medium. Changes must therefore be made. You can choose fidelity to source, fidelity to story, fidelity to spirit — all sorts of ways of trying to remain faithful to the written work. I think that fidelity to the source, trying to recreate the book exactly (or near exactly) tends to result in the worst results, because the mediums ARE so different.

    (Graphic novels and the like might be an exception. They are already strongly visual).

    Game of Thrones? Remaining pretty true to the spirit, trying to capture the essence of the world and story. Yeah, it’s cutting a lot. But what remains is recognizeably Westeros during that time period, the story is coherent and engaging, and what is loss in story is made up for in visual aesthetic. And bluntly put: A totally faithful adaptation that made a bad TV series would get canceled. A less than perfect adaptation that made a GOOD TV series? It gets a Season Two. Or three in this case.

    Just as a note: In our house Sam is referred to as “Porkins”. (Reference to the guyt in Star Wars: A New Hope.).

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  9. Unless the TV people have something very sneaky up their sleeve, there’s a scene in the season 2 finale that destroys the backstory for one of the most famous scenes in book 3.

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  10. NOW TAKING BETS:
    what do you think about the show’s writers throwing half the stuff from the House of the Undying in later?

    They appear to be listening to their audience — the reeds are back! The Blackfish is gonna show up!

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    • What makes you say the Reeds are “back” ? Was there any evidence that the producers never had them in the original plan, but added them into season 3 because of audience demand? I just think they were kept out of Season 2 because it would have involved hiring 2 actors for just a few scenes in season 2, whereas now they will be in for a full season. I have read enough discussion from George R R Martin and others to show me that this has been done before. It saves money.

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      • let me put it like this — the Blackfish had minor roles throughout the first two books. It would have been easy as pie to write him out completely. The fact that he’s back in says something.

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