Adaptation Done Right: Game of Thrones

Two years ago I was in the mood for some fantasy, and one series that consistently received high praise was George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice And Fire. I started the first book, A Game of Thrones, and couldn't put it down. It's the whole package: great story, great writing, and most importantly, interesting characters for whom you hope and fear.

While it's fantasy, Martin's approach is more subtle; the fantasy elements lurk at the edges of the story and are gradually revealed. At times it feels historical in nature until Martin reminds you that dragons once existed, magic is still practiced, and the Others are rising from a restless slumber. It's all handled brilliantly, and each chapter leaves you wanting more, so when I learned HBO was developing a show based on the series, I was both thrilled and worried. Was my precious book about to be violently mounted by a Dothraki horse lord? How was HBO going to handle the special effects, the large battles, and the constant brutality? After all, Martin has no qualms about giving major characters the ax (or sword as the case may be). Would HBO remain true to his vision of a more adult fantasy tale?

Overall, the answer is yes.

HBO does a superb, character-driven adaptation of A Game of Thrones. The dark tone of the book is captured and the interweaving stories of deception and intrigue remain intact. The world of Westeros comes to life; the sets are terrific; the special effects are good. Of course, as with any adaptation there are changes: minor characters play larger roles; there is a lot more sex and a lot less direwolf; and the only large scale battle is not even shown. Some changes are welcome, others are puzzling or even laughable.

The book is told from the point of view from a plethora of characters: Bran, Catelyn, Daenerys, Eddard, Arya, Sansa, Jon, and Tyrion. However, in the show, the story also unfolds from an even larger cast of characters, including Robert, Cersei, Jamie, Varys, Theon, Littlefinger, Joren, and Viserys. As a result, many scenes in the show are not in the book or are told from a different character's point of view, and this isn't a bad thing.

For instance, there is a great scene between Robert and Cersei where they discuss the troubles of the realm and ruminate on their failed marriage. While not in the book, the scene works because it develops the story while revealing character and history. Other standouts include the verbal sparring between Varys and Littlefinger and a scene where Lord Tywin skins a deer while instructing his son Jaime on the finer points of being a Lannister. These additions convey all the vicious scheming and backstabbing from the book as characters vie for the Iron Throne. Not to mention every scene is wonderfully acted. The only odd choice is the portrayal of two minor characters, Lord Renly and Ser Loras, as lovers. In the book, Littlefinger quips that Renly dresses better than most women, but I’m not sure that automatically qualifies him as gay. It's a strange addition, and I'm curious how it will be handled next season. However, the scene in which their love affair is revealed is almost comical as we watch Loras shave Renly's chest and underarms before giving him a blowjob. Seriously? I'm not sure if this is HBO trying to maintain its edgy reputation, but it made me chuckle, which probably isn't the reaction the writers were hoping to elicit.

Speaking of sex, sure there’s plenty of sex and nudity in the book, but HBO takes it to the next level. In the show, doggy-style is the preferred position in Westeros, and oftentimes sex is used as a vehicle for exposition. In the book, Martin creates a complex world complete with its own history and a cast of hundreds, so naturally there is a lot of exposition, but Martin is a good writer, so it's never tedious. In general, exposition works in the show. For example, conversations between Tyrion and the men of the Night's Watch help reveal the history of The Wall and what might lurk on the other side. Sure, it's exposition, but it goes down easy. Of course, any scene with Tyrion is awesome as Peter Dinklage dominates the role. But back to the sex, or sexposition if you will.

Take Ros, the resident prostitute who provides her services to Tyrion, Theon, Littlefinger, and even Maester Pycelle all so we can learn more about these characters and their back stories. That's one very busy woman, and at times it's comical such as Ros' girl-on-girl scene in the brothel where Littlefinger discusses his love for Catelyn while instructing Ros on the finer points of pleasure, interjecting such gems as “Play with her ass.” I guess the show's writers figured that sex, boobs, and even the occasional penis makes even the dullest history lesson easier to stomach. I wouldn't say it harms the story, but it is pretty in-your-face, and as other scenes so deftly demonstrate, you don't need sexposition to reveal character and story, especially when you have quality actors fully embracing their roles.

The only major disappointment so far is the direwolves. I expected CGI would be used to portray these massive beasts, but in the show they have chosen to use real wolves. In the book, direwolves are described as much larger and fiercer than regular wolves, and in Episode One the dead direwolf corpse shows us what they look like full grown. Sadly, the real wolves don't match up. Also, in the book, the wolves assume the personalities of the Stark children, rarely leaving their sides as they play the role of watchful guardians. We see this in the show at times, but it is more developed in the book. Thankfully, the wolves appear at the same crucial moments as in the book, such as when Summer kills Bran’s assassin. Other scenes are added, like when Robb's Grey Wind bites off the Greatjon's fingers. However, because the show does not fully stress the wolf/child bond, we don’t feel as bad when Arya must drive-off Nymeria or when Ned is forced to kill Sansa’s wolf Lady.

These scenes are much more powerful and heartbreaking in the book. We don’t even see Rickon's wolf Shaggydog until the last episode (hell, we don’t even see much of Rickon himself). So while the wolves are there, we miss the importance of their relationships with the children, not to mention other cool scenes such Bran getting saved by Grey Wind and Summer or Tyrion meeting Jon and Ghost for the first time. I'm sure working with real wolves isn't easy, which is probably one of the reasons they are underutilized, but they continue to play important roles in later books, so it will be interesting to see how the writers include them in future seasons.

Lastly, there is the handling of the only large-scale battle in the book. The series does a great job capturing the small-scale combat, such as the Hand's tourney or Jaime fighting Ned, but once we get to the Lannisters' battle with Robb's army, you can tell they probably didn't have the budget or resources. In the book, Tyrion shows his bravery and fighting prowess by leading a band of unruly tribesman into battle, and we get a sense of the grim reality of war. In the show, however, Tyrion is unceremoniously knocked unconscious by one of his own men just as the battle begins, and we rejoin him after the smoke has cleared. This doesn't work for two reasons. First, it makes Tyrion look a bit pathetic and second, who doesn't like seeing a large-scale medieval battle? George R.R. Martin, who wrote Episode 8 this season, is currently working on the script for the major Battle of Blackwater Bay in Season Two. Martin has famously called his series “unfilmable” and said that he wrote it in response to his time as a television screenwriter where he was constantly told to edit his scripts because they were too complex and costly. It will be interesting to see how battles are handled next season because everything only gets bigger and more epic.

I'm sure there are some fan fanatics that dissect the book and show line-by-line, and while this may be a fun (albeit tedious) exercise, it really serves no purpose. Of course dialogue is changed, characters are tweaked, scenes are added or deleted. And this is the nature of an adaptation. But here’s the real question: Are changes made while still staying true to the tone, the characters, and the story?

Where Game of Thrones is concerned, the answer is a resounding yes. Season One ends as the book did with Daenerys naked, covered in ash, cradling her newborn baby dragons. This scene, like so many others in the show, captures the story perfectly and is hopefully a sign of things to come.