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.