The 'A Song of Ice and Fire' Domain


An Adaptation without Honor

Or: Adaptation Morghulis - This One’s Dead Already

Varys would’ve been a hell of a TV critic. Think about it:

“Adaptation is a trick, a shadow on the wall. And sometimes a very dense source material can cast a very pale shadow.”

With such a statement, the best informed eunuch in the history of fiction would probably shed some much needed light on heated discussions over the second season of Game of Thrones. Yes, adapting a story from one medium to another is quite a tricky business, and also pretty abstract one, especially if you’re adapting something from the non-visual medium to the screen, as it’s almost always the case. No rules are carved in stone there.

Well, some rules are, in fact. For example, the rule that touches not only adaptations, but also the very nature of motion pictures: don’t move them too fast. Pictures, that is. Don’t move them faster than human eye can catch them, or you’ll get strange, rapid action that is bound to look both clumsy and cheap on screen. In short, don’t do what Game of Thrones did in episodes 5 and 15.

In the last scene of episode 5, we see a showdown between Ned Stark and Jaime Lannister, with part of it being literally fast-motioned. One of the last Ned’s charges is shown in a higher gear than the rest of the fight! Did this difference assist Ned in any way is up for debate, of course. In the first scene of episode 15, right after Renly is murdered by the shadow, we see a similar thing: two guards run into the tent and attack Brienne, but she gets some unexpected help from the show’s editing department, that fast-motioned at least one (and possibly more, but it’s hard to be certain because everything’s so fast) of her swings. Knowing this, Brienne doesn’t look as impressive a swordfighter as we believed her to be, right?

In our day and age, well into the 21st century, scenes like those shouldn’t appear in television shows. In fact, they are considered blatant shortcomings, sort of insults to viewers. Hence, we must call Varys to the rescue once more: who is to be held responsible for fast-motioning, the person who gave the order, or the one who executed it? Since it happened twice, and in different seasons, the right answer would have to be – someone who gave the order. It was an easy quest. Much easier than finding out who is actually giving orders on the sets of Game of Thrones.

For the first season, it could’ve been Jason Momoa, since he was the one who insisted on changing Drogo-Dany marriage consummation in episode 1, and on inserting tongue-ripping fight in episode 8. That much we know from interviews. However, Momoa wasn’t around for season 2 – until the finale, at least – so someone else had to call the shots there. Maybe Neil Marshal, the director behind episode 19, who, also in an interview, took the credit for turning Stannis into Spiderman of Westeros by making him the first to climb the walls – it wasn’t like that in the script, but Marshal thought that Stannis needed additional street rep (well, wall rep if you want to nitpick), and he came up with an offer Stannis couldn’t refuse.

Momoa and Marshal were surely in charge of certain aspects; however, afore mentioned blunders obviously didn’t fall in those aspects. Someone above Momoa and Marshal had to give the green light for fast-motioning embarrassments. That someone has to be the other executive, the one who doesn’t represent “the pervert side of the audience,” but is instead trusted with “the serious drama side.” Shameful as they are, described situations most definitely don’t fall under “perversion” category but under “drama,” so the guy responsible for them has to be the exec that Neil Marshal didn’t mention in his interview for “Empire online,” the interview that revealed how things actually work behind the scenes in Game of Thrones. (In a nutshell: Marshal described how, while filming the “Bronn singing with a whore in his lap” scene, one of the execs persuaded/ordered him to put much more emphasis on the naked female body; the unnamed exec – most certainly one of the showrunners, David Benioff or D. B. Weiss – explained that he represents “the pervert side of the audience” and demanded the nudity to be fully exposed, which was a situation that Marshal described as “pretty surreal.”)

The exec in charge of “serious drama” aspects of the story is most surely failing in his job. The one who controls the amount of perversion is nailing it, since perverts really have little to complain about Game of Thrones, but the other guy isn’t doing a good work. In fact, the “serious drama” exec appears to be someone who shouldn’t be involved in any TV material in the first place, cause he drastically lacks basic knowledge required for making a television, as evidenced by the fast-motioning swords of Westeros. Also, both execs generally seem to be without any organizational skills: not only do they keep finding the most dramatic circumstances for changing their minds on what is to be filmed and what not, but actors and actresses seem to regularly rewrite scenes too, and a last-minute-replacement director is allowed to add stuff on his own. It probably isn’t an exaggeration to say that “Game of Thrones” frequently deviates from its own scripts, let alone from the source material those scripts should be the adaptation of.

In a 60-70 million dollars project, that much improvisation tends to result in a complete mess. And Game of Thrones will hardly go down in history as a craftily balanced show. On the contrary: with showrunners that aren’t above using blasphemies such as fast-motioned swordfights or above targeting “the pervert side of the audience,” HBO’s epic fantasy will probably be remembered as a confusing sum of malfunctioning parts.

How malfunctioning those parts were? Honestly – much more than one can get the impression by reading the episodes’ reviews in mainstream media. For example, no reviewer mentioned the editing incidents in swordfights in episodes 5 and 15. Well, to the reviewers’ defense, those were some fast incidents, hence easy to miss; but the failed climax of episode 17, titled “A man Without Honor,” was in fact impossible to miss, and yet it was also largely overlooked in the media.

After Theon Greyjoy exposed crisped corpses of two youngest Starks to the shocked and disgusted residents of Winterfell, nobody in the TV audience was equally shocked or disgusted, let alone as furious as 12 months ago when mostly animals were being slain for crimes they didn’t commit. Not a single soul threatened to quit HBO over tragic fates of two completely innocent kids, in contrast to Ned’s death last season, which prompted thousands of viewers to proclaim they are to cancel their subscription. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that TV audience simply didn’t buy the notion that those bodies belonged to Bran and Rickon. It appears that the TV audience saw right through Theon’s deception. Now, was it designed to play out that way? Were the viewers expected to realize that those bodies didn’t belong to Bran and Rickon? Was it only Theon who failed in the deception or more people were behind this mummers’ farce? One can only guess, but given the timing of the scene, the emphasis camera put on the horror on the face of maester Luwin, and the eerie music in the background, showrunners probably intended to leave the audience with at least ambiguous impression, if not the bleakest one. Viewers were supposed to doubt, to wonder, to fear Theon’s action. In the immortal words of Big Pussy from the first episode of “The Sopranos:” they know, but they don’t know; they hope maybe the kids will turn up; if.

But, the ball was dropped on this one. TV audience just didn’t believe the mummers. In fact, it was perhaps the most anti-climatic climax in the recent history of television drama. It was a failure so big, that not only no person believed those were Stark kids hanging from the ropes, but also nobody cared for the poor creatures whose burnt bodies acted as Bran’s and Rickon’s.

One might say there was a remedy for this. If only a character from the show foreshadowed the burning of Stark kids, mummers would’ve sold their farce. Hell, Bran could’ve done it himself, since he also foresaw the taking of Winterfell by Theon’s troops and “drowning” of Rodrick Casel; it would’ve been so easy to add few extra sentences to Bran, describing the horrible death that he and his younger brother were about to meet. Once Theon stormed in his room, there wouldn’t be a viewer not frightened for the lives of Stark boys, especially after the beheading of Rodrick Casel would prove Bran right about everything else. But, there is a big problem with this solution, making it practically unusable for the show. This solution would’ve been too similar to the events that happened in those absurd piles of text written by George R. R. Martin, piles no homo sapiens should ever mention for the fear of being branded a ‘purist’ – and who, in their right mind, would want to be called that?! Yes, in those fat, printed things that are the source material for HBO’s show, the killing of Bran and Rickon was intelligently foreshadowed, in a way that actually left no lose ends once the whole mystery was unraveled. However, this subject touches the nature of adaptations, and we’ll get to that later.

Pretty malfunctioning was also the part where wildlings release Jon Snow in the finale of season 2. As far as his captors know, Jon only protected his life by killing an angry attacker; to them, Jon did nothing other than proving to be a better swordsman than his fellow “crow;” he didn’t show any willingness to betray his oath and switch sides; actually, by witnessing how deadly with a sword Jon is, wildlings should’ve become much more cautious around him; and yet, as soon as Qhorin’s body fell to the ground, previously bloodthirsty leader of the group cut off ties of Jon’s hands. So yeah, Rattleshirt and his company are bound to enter the race for the nicest captors of Westeros, competing against the Lannister forces that kept Arya in Harrenhal.

Speaking of Arya and Lannister soldiers, they seem to adore her! Lannister troops protect Arya in every possible way: first, when Amory Lorch tries to catch her in a yard crowded with his fellow soldiers, not a single soldier helps him by stopping Arya; second, after Amory’s death, Lord Tywin orders his Gestapo to find out what happened, and Gestapo engages in the task without shying away from hanging their fellow soldiers who fail to give them satisfying answers, however, none of the soldiers exposes Arya as the one who just a moment ago was trying to escape Ser Amory. Hence, the Baltimore police may rest easy now, because Tywin’s Gestapo surpassed them as the single most ineffective investigative unit on television.

The most incompetent captors of Westeros, on the other hand, are guards in the army of the North. Right after Jaime Lannisters credits them for being great jailors, he makes them look like complete morons by escaping from the see-through pen in the middle of their camp. Along the way, Jaime also murdered the single person in hundreds of miles that was willing and capable of helping him in his escape – Alton Lannister, not only a comrade of Jaime but also his kin – which makes Kingslayer almost as stupid as his jailors were.

But, Starks are masters of keeping their captives, compared to Pyat Pree. That guy stages a coup and murders like half a Qarth, just to get Daenerys to the House of the Undying; when she finally goes there, he chains her, explaining that she is to remain there for eternity, because her presence makes dragons and their magic stronger (by the way, when and how did he come to this conclusion is quite the mystery); and than, he positions himself right in front of the very combo he just declared extremely powerful! Not some of the variations of himself, but his very self, the original! And, when dragons start coughing smoke, preparing to unleash the fire, Pyat leans forward, as like to have a better view of his own burning that is about to happen! Karstark’s son was a lousy jailor, but this is a whole new level: Pyat Pree must be Karstark’s imbecile bastard, expelled from Karhold decades ago for not being able to hold his prisoners.

There’s a number of malfunctions on smaller level (like Tyrion’s scar – it’s geometrically impossible for a single strike of sword to leave that kind of a trail on human face, without going through the skull of the guy whose face was attacked and thereby killing him, so a somewhat different scar would be much more appropriate), but those previously counted malfunctions are critical to some of the most important characters from the show. Not characters from the books – yeah, used the word; legal to call me a purist from now on – but characters from the show. Which means, when analyzed separately from the source material, this TV story has logical holes and inconsistencies on its own, and these problems corrupt almost every of the core stories in their decisive, life-or-death situations. Jon’s free just because his captors start to act in a way that is completely opposite to their behavior up to that point, and without any viable reason for the change in their attitude. Arya remains uncovered simply because Lannister soldiers don’t give a damn about the girl who runs from their general right through them. Daenerys is free only because her foe put her along her own firing squad and than stood in the way of flames. Jaime is surrounded by idiots that aren’t able to hold him in a pen deep inside their camp, but are somehow able to recapture him as soon as he’s out of their reach. In all of these cases, circumstances and actions were conveniently illogical, in ways that allowed plots to move in directions that were designed by the showrunners; i.e. we got plots and characters that don’t evolve logically or naturally, but forcibly.

Do we know any other show that so frequently asks its viewers to suspend logic?

No. And that just might be the root problem with Game of Thrones. It doesn’t fall into the category of shows that don’t demand too much logic in the first place, like The X-Files or Lost or True Blood or Prison break; those shows depended on more or less tasteful usage of clichés and you can love them or hate them, but while watching them you dо not necessarily need to thoroughly process what you observe. On the other hand, Game of Thrones doesn’t fall into the category of shows that closely follow the logic of our world (The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad), or follow their own logic which may or may not be similar to the logic that defines our lives (Battlestar Galactica). Simply put, Game of Thrones falls outside these categories, and for the worst possible reason: it’s a little bit of both. Like, for one part of the episode a viewer has to be so involved in the world depicted in the show, that he/she must know by hearth all the differences between religions present in Seven kingdoms, or recall the tiniest details of utterly complicated war strategies of all sides involved; but, in the next sequence that same viewer is expected to put aside any norms and accept juvenile or unreasonable behavior of characters that allows the plot to move forward.

All these shortcomings, terrible even for a TV show, look only worse when compared to the source material, where none of them exist. They were all invented for television, which speaks volumes about showrunners’ talent for adapting the stuff found in “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels, or creating the new sub-plots and twists.

Did Benioff and Weiss feel any true respect for the novels is quite unclear. Yes, they talk about their love for Martin’s work all the time. However, when Alfie Allen, as he disclosed in an interview, asked them whether he should read the books or not, they responded with something like: “Whoa, that’s a really good question, but we can’t help you, you’ll have to decide for yourself.” Now, how is it even possible for any fan of the books to give that answer to that question? What on Earth could be the downside of Allen reading the books?

Whatever respect they have or have not for Martin’s writings, Benioff and Weiss did decide to deviate a lot from the novels. And shortcomings emerged. Not surprisingly at all. Martin is capable of creating smart characters that remain smart even when making wrong choices; Benioff and Weiss are not; because of that, advantages that books have over the show are beyond counting.

But, here’s the list of some of the most significant things from the novels that were changed for TV:

  • After leaving with Qhorin’s group, Jon fights for his life, not for his virginity. This difference is already explained in details in westeros.org review of the season 2 finale. If you haven’t read it, than just accept that, in the novels, Jon isn’t an idiot; nor is Qhorin; nor are wildlings.
  • Catelyn Stark is not a bimbo. Some of her actions are deeply disturbing, no doubt, but they all came out of desperation, or fear, or rage, or grief, not from the stupidity.
  • Robb Stark isn’t a male version of Paris Hilton. Really, he isn’t a guy more interested in partying than in protecting his family and his realm. In the novels he makes a mistake, not a sex scandal.
  • Jaime is the real deal, a danger to real warriors; but not to Lannisters, he’s on their side.
  • Arya’s the real deal, too. In the novels she really, really isn’t a glorified hotel worker. Each and every gift she possesses is challenged to its limits all the time, and she still manages to survive. She witnesses horrors that affect both hers and reader’s characters, but endures. Her journey was best described as a “medieval equivalent of Apocalypse Now”, as was written last year in some blog or something.
  • Sansa never heard of the Stockholm syndrome. She actually doesn’t want to be a noble victim. She really tries to escape from the jaws of Lannisters. And she manages to do some good along the way.
  • Sandor has a personality for more than few chapters (book equivalent of an episode). He becomes interesting early on in book one, and keeps getting more and more captivating as the story progresses. Better you know him, ruder he gets, but he somehow crawls under reader’s skin.
  • Sandor’s feelings for Sansa constitute one of the most memorable love stories of all times. He is literally crazy for Sansa, because in her he recognizes a feature that isn’t unlike his basic trait: craving for a master that won’t inspire any true affection or devotion. Deep inside, they both just want to be left alone, and therefore they both hide in the open. She just wants a husband that will take her body, but leave her soul. He just wants a lord that will hire his muscles, but leave his soul. (That’s why, for example, Imp is so unacceptable for both of them – Imp likes to mess with people’s souls more than anything.) Psychologically, Hound-Sansa relation is among the most compelling ones in the entire ASIOF world.
  • Cersei is multidimensional, much more than in the TV series, despite what show-enthusiasts claim. You have to read a little more careful, but yeah, her dimensions are there.
  • Bronn does suggest a solution for Joffrey situation, but his solution doesn’t involve hiring prostitutes, nor any sex at all. And Tyrion really likes Bronn’s solution. Oh boy, he likes it so much that he almost immediately stops thinking about it, fearing the temptation to actually heed Bronn’s suggestion.
  • Tyrion as a Hand actually had a work to do besides Shae. He’s like Michael Corleone in The Godfather after Vito was shot at: doing everything possible to save his family, despite not liking them nor their schemes that much.
  • Most importantly: Tyrion, kid you not, didn’t forget about Stannis. Nor did anyone in King’s Landing forget about Stannis. While the war was raging in the second book, King’s Landing remained a capital everyone wants to conquer, and didn’t turn into a medieval model for nowadays Switzerland.
  • Stannis isn’t Melisandre’s puppet. Their relationship is much more complicated, enigmatic and fascinating than what we saw at the war-table, in episode 12. Yes, she’s using him to some extent. He’s also using her to some extent. But they first and foremost respect one another. They’re not open books to each other, and especially not to their enemies, which they enjoy collecting even more than in the show.
  • Geography does matter. People take time to travel. Armies take time to travel. Littlefinger takes time to move from one location to another, and he visits fewer locations to begin with.
  • Daenerys’ arc in the second novel is unexpectedly brief, true that, but, contrary to what you may hear, it is quite eventful. There’s the Red Waste ordeal; there’s the House of the Undying adventure, sort of “Eyes wide shut” on steroids (what happens in HOTU, stays in HOTU, unless a mother of dragons burns it); and there’s dramatic attempt on her life. Not bad at all for just five chapters.
  • There is a damn good reason why nobody tried to steel Daenerys’ dragons. Remember how, from the very beginning of the ASIOAF, everyone was praising the novels for treating the magic much smarter than great many other fantasy stories do? How pleased the readers were to find out that people of Westeros and Essos accept the unnatural the same way we would: they’re shocked, or afraid, or disgusted? Well, that’s it: of course nobody’s going to mess with a girl who gave birth to the first three dragons in centuries. Of course everyone’s going to think about it one more time. And of course people in Qarth, one of the most decadent cities around – not unlike decadent cities from our own history, some ten centuries ago – are pretending to be even beyond thinking about dragons. Makes perfect sense in Martin’s world, would make a lot of sense in our world (had something like dragons existed), and eliminates “madness… madness and stupidity” seen in the show.
  • Dialogues are always sharp, always meaningful, always entertaining and occasionally hilarious. There’s a reason George R. R. Martin is considered a master of dialogues. And the reason is, most certainly, somehow connected to characters being skillfully developed. And to Martin being concerned with “smart side” of the readership, rather than with the “pervert side.”
  • Everyone has a purpose in Martin’s story. Even Dontos.
  • Characters do reappear in Martin’s story. Even Dontos. Even Ghost.

None of these aspects had to be dropped from the show because of the financial reasons. Yeah, we hear all the time about budget, like it’s the main character (hard to remember any other series that inspired so much talk about the money invested), but in reality, the biggest and silliest changes didn’t cut any corners. Look, for example, Theon’s story in season 2, and Ralph Ineson’s role in it. Ineson was cast as Dagmer; but, Dagmer is quite a minor character in the books; so, showrunners fed him with some Reek’s action; and they didn’t cast Reek. Why, exactly? Why was Dagmer kept, and Reek dropped? Because of the budget? No way! Ineson as Reek would have almost the same amount of screen-time he had as Dagmer, so he wouldn’t cost a penny more than he did. All the scenes would’ve been staged quite similarly, with two exceptions: 1) Dagmer’s introduction in the Pyke would’ve been replaced with Reek’s introduction in Winterfell – but this replacement also wouldn’t affect the budget; 2) Theon’s last scene would have to be different and, instead of the speech, involve the return of Reek in his true identity, but this also wouldn’t complicate the filming nor increase the cost. And a small, financially meaningless scene of Theon sending Reek for help would have to be added. So, Dagmer was no cheaper than Reek would’ve been, and yet, showrunners decided their series needs irrelevant Ironborn more than Bolton’s bastard, which led to the most confusing part of season 2 finale: burning of Winterfell.

But, all that pales in comparison to the mother of all deviations. The change that very well may turn out to be jumping the shark moment for Game of Thrones. The liberty showrunners took, which singlehandedly destroyed all the respect for the main heroes, the Starks. It’s the decision to make false deaths of Bran and Rickon irrelevant not only for the audience, but also for the Seven kingdoms as well.

In the show, Theon makes sure that no information of him burning Bran and Rickon leaves Winterfell. Hence, outside the old castle and Yara’s troops, nobody knows Stark boys are “dead.” Their mother and brother don’t know, either. Catelyn and Robb nevertheless make all those irrational moves they also make in the novels – Cat releases Kingslayer, and Robb marries a girl he wasn’t betrothed to; only, in the novels both of them are previously informed that Bran and Rickon are murdered; and that really makes all the difference in the world.

Theon’s intelligence blockade is somewhat illogical in itself: if one burns two kids in order to gain some respect, then one shouldn’t dread the infamy of that act, or the respect is the last thing one will get. But, in combination with Cat’s and Robb’s later actions remaining as in the novels, it was even nastier. It served a devastating blow to the Starks’ integrity. After seeing how Cat betrays Robb, and then Robb betrays arrangement with Freys, viewers unfamiliar with the source material are bound to lose all the respect for once honorable but now too treacherous Starks. There may be some sympathy left for old times sake, but viewers probably won’t be rooting for this weak family any longer, at least not as strongly as before. Which means that the moral anchor of the whole saga is drastically shaken. And in a world this bleak, one needs a moral anchor to fully enjoy the story and not spiral down to nihilism.

The show was always flirting with nihilism, much more than the books did. Martin wasn’t leading a crusade against honor; Benioff and Weis often do exactly that. In Martin’s world, honorable characters make mistakes, even grave mistakes; they are humanly flawed and they sometimes loose their lives for that; but they never abandon their honor, and therefore never loose respect; even their foes, after beating them, continue to hold them in high regard. There is a cynicism in Martin’s world, thanks to his bold idea to put some after-Enlightenment philosophies in the medieval political environment – that’s why we have this mythical surrounding that fascinates us with it’s exoticness, but at the same time heavily corresponds with our reality; that’s why venturing through ASIOAF not only evokes childish joy of exploring, or commands parenting-like concern for characters, but also makes readers question the very foundations of social organizing; that’s why readers are often inspired to analyze human societies in all their shapes and forms. But, in Martin’s world cynicism isn’t overwhelming, despite the fact that some heroes are saved because of it. Martin’s world, bleak as it is, does seem to harbor some faith in integrity and honor.

Otherwise, the whole Night’s Watch concept would’ve look ridiculous (as it often does in the TV show, by the way: there probably isn’t an unspoiled viewer that understands why would any sane person enlist in the NW), and it certainly does not. On the contrary, the Night’s Watch is, among the readership, not only understandable, but also a welcome concept. Even Tyrion, though expressing nothing but cynicism for NW, nurtures some deep respect for those who took the black.

Showrunners, on the other hand, don’t seem to know how to balance their personal admiring for power-plays, with all the finer threads in ASIOAF. They’re obsessed with power, and they keep overlooking other, even more important themes in Martin’s saga, like ancestry, duty, loyalty, etc. That’s why in the show cynicism grows into the soundest state of mind, which inevitably leads to nihilism being recognized as the very thing showrunners advocate. And they advocate it from early on: when Lysa yells “You don’t fight with honor” at Bronn, in episode 6, he responds with “No, he did”, while pointing to the hole he just threw Ser Vardys through. That line has a nice ring to it, true that, but it also carries the profoundly disturbing message that honor is some kind of a burden that must be renounced.

That message goes against the basic nature of Martin’s story. Without honor, there is no courage. And without courage, you’re left with Tywin Lannister as the fan favorite – as it happens in the show. (Hopefully, fandom for HBO’s Tywin won’t result in a sophisticated medicine worker he falls in love with during the next season.) In the novels, the courage isn’t a magic virtue that protects everyone who possesses it, far from it, but the lack of courage is as big a sin as they come. So, when Joffrey, of all people, states that Tywin’s fear of Mad King was really not a secret, everything falls into it’s place. That’s right, Tywin’s a coward. Always been one. Clever, capable and dangerous, but coward. That is why he lacks personal honor, to the point that he isn’t sure which of his children are really his, but he never dares to do something about it. That is why he never felt much affection for his children: say what you want about Cersei, Jaime and Tyrion, but they’re all braver than their father, and he knows it. And, readers know it. Hence, Tywin is infinitely intriguing and often feared, but never respected, which is one of the most impressive testaments to Martin’s careful and balanced attitude towards honor.

Was it showrunners’ intention to mock the very idea of honor is a hard question, and pretty irrelevant at this point. After poor handling of Bran’s and Rickon’s “deaths,” it doesn’t matter what their intentions were, because the damage they inflicted is probably beyond repairing. HBO’s Catelyn was played for a fool, just like HBO’s Robb spells out to her. HBO’s Robb Stark did cross Walder Frey, just like HBO’s Cat warned him. No honor survived HBO’s “adaptation” of remaining Starks’ adults, whose sudden desire to pull out of the war with Lannisters – the war which, they realize, they can never win, despite having the upper hand all the time – and hurry back home, doesn’t make any sense at all if you leave out their grief over Bran and Rickon.

Had the HBO followed the books more closely, TV audience would get significantly stronger and deeper story, with stronger and deeper moments. This can never be overstated for the Catelyn and Jaime conversation, that was brutally massacred in the TV show. In the book, that’s the confrontation in which one side is starting to lose sanity, while the other is starting to regain long lost humanity. It’s the unforgettable exchange, implications of which shake the foundations of Westeros. It is the battle of two broken spirits, of two sharp wits with wounded souls, of two people convinced they couldn’t be hurt any more and couldn’t get worse than they already are – only to find out they actually can hurt and worsen each other much more. On the “How epic it is” scale from one to ten – 1 being the last year’s wedding of Prince William, and 10 being the murders organized by Michael Corleone on the day he godfathered his sister’s baby – this conversation is pure eleven. When you read it, you probably cannot see how could it ever loose it’s brilliance, no matter from where to where it is adapted.

Yet, the HBO did it. They managed to demolish it. Part of it they put somewhere it doesn’t belong, in the last episode of the first season. The rest of it they flayed down to few catchy lines, and took it out of the context by completely changing the surrounding circumstances. And the audience was left without the conversation that would launch Michelle Fairley and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau into the pole positions for “Emmys” and all the other acting accolades.

We’re told over and over again that some changes were made for the TV show because certain things work so well on page, but not on the screen. But, isn’t adaptation supposed to be adjusting the source material to another medium, and not altering it drastically because of flatulent estimations about what’s not screen-friendly? If something isn’t going to “work on the screen,” as you claim, why don’t you make it work by adjusting it smartly, instead of inventing something completely new that doesn’t work on screen, wouldn’t work on page, and can never work in the minds of dedicated viewers that belong to the non-pervert side of the audience?

However, if you take a closer look, those subplots and twists from the source material could very well, in almost every case, work on screen with none or minimal adjusting. And the show would’ve been better off without changes, made by self-proclaimed “Masters of Screen.” It is true that the series would then lose Arya-Tywin conversations, which were nicely acted – but not written “brilliantly,” as it can be heard too often; the acting alone elevated those scenes. On the other hand, Arya’s relations with Gendry and Hot Pie would be fully developed that way; those relations are already written masterfully in the novels, while in the TV show they are all but abandoned up to this point. Also, Harenhall sequences would serve their initial, paramount purpose: illustrating the horrors of war, seen through the eyes of a smart, brave, but traumatized and unprotected noble girl, who belongs anywhere but there. The very fact that Arya shares the fate of common people in Harenhall is one of the strongest points of the second novel, ironically titled A Clash of Kings despite it being almost fully devoted to kings’ subjects on all levels, rather than the kings themselves. After explosive first installment, George R. R. Martin’s saga goes deeper and much darker places in “A Clash of Kings,” which is an act of literary genius; and nowhere is that more evident than in Arya’s experience in Harenhall. Depriving the story of that segment is like remaking “Apocalypse now,” but completely omitting the Brando character and all those jungle horrors, while expanding Martin Sheen’s preparations for the mission, because, you know, he and Harrison Ford work so well when sharing the screen.

HBO people often claim they invented Ros so they can add the perspective of common folk. Only, we know it isn’t true – they themselves told us, through interviews and commentaries; and, if they were so interested in the common folk’s perspective, why did they ruined so much of Arya’s story in the first place? There, in Harenhall and in the Riverlands, they had all the perspective of common folks they needed.

They could give us the common folks in King’s Landing, too. The book did it, with Tyrion and his crazy good dynamics with the people he rules over. And the best thing is, it wouldn’t have to be expensive to film it, because in the novel those dynamics heavily rely on reports Tyrion gets from his subordinates, most often Varys and Bronn. (Of course, had showrunners go that way, Tyrion and Varys would’ve been talking much less about fish pie, and Tyrion and Bronn wouldn’t argue that much about grammar – and nothing beats fish pie and grammar on screen, right?)

Those dynamics not only crucially enriched the riot scene, for example, but, if perspectives are what you’re craving for, put the Battle of the Blackwater in much wider perspective, too. Those dynamics, along with Stannis-Melisandre-Davos explosive relations that are mostly ignored on screen, placed the War of the Five Kings in the context that is entirely absent from the show: it isn’t only a conflict over thrones and territories, no, it’s the epic struggle over human souls as well, and it is fought both on macro (Westeros) and micro level (inside the hearth of every person involved).

And, one more point in this regard: many readers believe Arya misspent her first two Jaqen whishes. Like, it’d be wiser if she used those on figures like Tywin, or Mountain. Well, actually, it is the third whish that is wasted, being completely unnecessary: infiltrators disguised as prisoners would’ve gotten out anyhow, even if Arya didn’t help them. So, as soon as she tried to play “The big game,” she missed; while she was taking care of immediate problems and immediate justice, as it was only fitting for her position, she hit the targets. Her first two victims were the ones that counted – on a more common level than expected by the readership hungry for the revenge of Ned, but counted nevertheless; the third one did not. And who knows what sort of hell would break loose if she’d given Tywin’s name to Jaqen? The way she used the first two wishes, at least she may be absolutely certain that she made the world a slightly better place by eliminating two psychopaths that would undoubtedly bring irreparable damage to other humans if she didn’t stop them. Also, it plays beautifully with the riddle Varys posed to Tyrion: who is to be blamed for Ned Stark’s death, the king who gave the order, or the executioner that carried it out? Arya didn’t mess with the kings when presented with an opportunity, true that, but she made sure the executioners don’t go around with impunity. With season 2 filmed like it was, however, the synergy between Varys’ riddle and Arya’s murders was also lost.

So, when we complain about Ros, we’re not trying to insult Esme Bianco, as Bryan Cogman alluded in his recent interview. On the contrary, we’re implying that maybe it’s the showrunners who don’t respect Bianco that much, as evidenced by using her naked body to no end. Had they put Bianco’s character in a more meaningful role, everyone would’ve been better off, Bianco included. And the story would’ve been less deprived of it’s most valuable aspects.

ASOIAF story is deprived of lot of things in it’s TV version, and yet, we’re constantly being told that it was inevitable, because adaptations that are “100 percent” accurate are impossible. It is repeated so often it became sort of an axiom. But, let’s get back to already mentioned Sherlock Holmes, legendary detective invented by the novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle more than a century ago. Those days television didn’t exist, let alone adaptations for screen, so Doyle certainly didn’t write “screen-friendly” stuff. Yet, most of the later film or TV adaptations of Sherlock’s adventures tend to be as faithful to the source material as they can. That is especially true for BBC series Sherlock Holmes from the late eighties, with Jeremy Brett in the main role: it was praised for being almost fanatically faithful to Doyle’s novels (when wanted to tone down Holmes’ drug addiction, thus avoiding potentially bad influence on younger viewers, the authors asked for the approval of Doyle’s daughter); it was critics’ darling; and it was adored by the audience. Today it is considered a TV classic, for it’s writing, acting, directing, production… There’s hardly a thing those guys did wrong. And they did all that by keeping it close to the novels.

That is how you adapt the source material you love.

Similar things can be said even for the most recent one of Sherlock Holmes’ TV adventures, the BBC’s modernized Sherlock, where the famous detective is transferred to the 21st century – the authors still went great lengths in order to stay loyal to Doyle’s original works. They did manage to preserve many aspects of the source material, like characters and the overall spirit of the stories; hence, the legacy of Sherlock Holmes lives on.

It is also noteworthy that, in their time, the Russians made film versions of some of the novels from the “Golden Age” of Russian literature. Those adaptations were word-for-word faithful to the classic books they’re based upon. Granted, The Brothers Karamazov movie is therefore far from entertainment, but, truth be told, only an idiot would try to make an entertaining adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s darkest masterpiece. The film is quite watchable, however, albeit very demanding attention-wise.

Shakespeare’s dramas also receive that same loyalty when being adapted. Quite deservedly, deviations from The Bard’s original stories are rare and mostly denounced by critics and audience.

There is a lesson to be learned here. Think you can do Dostoyevsky’s or Shakespeare’s stories better than Dostoyevsky or Shakespeare themselves did? Think again!

It is, of course, too early to claim that Martin’s saga belongs up there with literary classics – it might be on it’s way there, but it needs to be finished before the ultimate verdict can be reached. Nevertheless, after five published installments “A Song of Ice and Fire” already demands to be treated similarly in it’s adaptations. You think you can tell Martin’s story better than the Martin himself did? Really? Think again, and then once more.

HBO, sadly, chose the other path. Hence, the TV history will remember that Game of Thrones showrunners had the opportunity to create a symphony, but instead tried to make a rock song, and what they did produce at the end was a pop hit that lasted a summer. With all it’s entertainment virtues (overrated, but existing nevertheless), Game of Thrones will never be considered television masterpiece like The Wire, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad were and are. Hell, when 2011 was summarized by the critics this passed December, Game of Thrones looked at the back of Homeland, the series that is chalking in clichés of all kinds, and nobody seemed too bothered with it.

Pity, because, while still fighting for it’s place in the literary Pantheon, “A Song of Ice and Fire” would be in the league of it’s own among television projects, if adapted properly. All due respect for the basic stories and screenplays of The Wire and The Sopranos the only two shows I’d praise for reaching the artistic and philosophic heights of literature, but ASOIAF is hands down the best source material that hit the screens.

About the Author

Miodrag Zarković is a Serbian television critic and writer for one of the most popular weekly magazines, Pečat.