Note: this essay discusses books 1 and 2 of George R.R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire and seasons 1 and 2 of HBO’s Game of Thrones. There are no spoilers here regarding later books.
What thoughts do you have about how HBO is adapting Martin’s first two novels in the Song of Ice and Fire series? Here are some of mine.
Daenerys is justifiably one of the most popular characters in Martin’s epic series The Song of Ice and Fire. In the second novel in the sequence, A Clash of Kings, one of the most memorable chapters is Daenerys’ visit to the House of the Undying. It’s a nightmarish and unforgettable episode, a great mix of Poe and Lovecraft as well as Martin, full of horror and dream-like disorientation, as the heroine risks her life by submitting to magic. Daenerys, an exiled princess of the House Targaryen, does so in the hopes of making the sorcerers who rule the city of Qarth support her in her quest to raise an army so she can return from exile and conquer what was taken from her and her family. But she knows she’s risking all: she has no way of knowing whether she can trust the sorcerers, especially Pree, not to mention no way of knowing whether she can survive their magic.
Among fans of Martin’s books and the HBO series based on them, Game of Thrones, there’s been a huge amount of chatter and hand-wringing about whether the HBO series is justified in rewriting some of its source material rather than just cutting it so that 1000+ page novels can be distilled into 8-10 hour-long TV episodes. It seems like the majority of comments on the Facebook Game of Thrones pages regarding the “changes” introduced by the TV production have been negative—especially after Season 2 began and it was clear that the producers, directors, and writers were taking even more liberties with the text sources than they did in Season 1. Some of the negative comments were reasonable and thoughtful, but many were just rants verging on textual fundamentalism. How dare the HBO people leave out X or change even one plot point, snatch of dialogue, or even a tiny piece of my favorite character’s clothing or armor?
There’s been little exploration on either Song or Thrones fan sites (that I’ve seen anyway) of the opposite issue: are the HBO episodes sometimes improving the novels, especially in terms of drama and characterization? This is an important issue because Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones arguably give us some of the most complex and compelling characters in all “fantasy” writing—not excluding even Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, a clear predecessor that Martin is both paying homage to and trying to top. Although some have inner conflicts, Tolkien’s characters by and large are easily separated into good and bad, the one obvious exception being Gollum. Martin’s characters, by contrast, can rarely be easily placed into easy moral categories. Martin takes us deep into the world views of a wide variety of characters, even the most “evil” ones, so that even if we end up hating those we must see the world through their eyes and understand how they understand why they act as they do.
As John Bradley—who plays Samwell Tarly, Jon Snow’s closest companion in the Night Watch—smartly says about Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s interpretation of Jaime Lannister, one of the “villains” whom we love to hate yet can’t stop watching, Jaime loves playing psychological games with everyone, especially his captors, testing to see whether he can destabilize them and find an opening to give him power over them. Bradley wonders how this Lannister villain can be so secure in himself, even while trying to dismantle others’ confidence. (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQEj47gno-w&feature=youtu.be) It’s sort of like the fascination caused by Iago’s villainy in Othello—one of many examples that could be cited in praising Game of Thrones as the most Shakespearean show on current TV. It’s Shakespearean in terms of its violence, its seeming infinitude of fascinating characters and situations, and its rich exploration of the price of power and the powers that the powerless can discover in themselves. Another Shakespearean element in Game of Thrones is that it’s quickly become the most pirated drama out there [footnote 74, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_of_Thrones_(TV_series) .]
A strong case could be made that major characters such as Ygritte, Theon, Stannis, Cersei, Tywin, Sansa, Daenerys, and Arya (my favorite) all have more expressive dialogue and more deeply explored motivations in the HBO TV series than in the books. The HBO characterizations of these wonderful personalities build on Martin’s books but they also take more risks and explore these key characters more profoundly. This difference is in part caused by the superb actors playing these parts, but it’s also a function of how these characters have been reconceived and transformed by brilliant writing and directing that isn’t afraid to rethink who Martin’s characters are and what they might mean.
(I haven’t mentioned the obvious other major character, Tyrion Lannister, because he is a superb character in the novel, fully realized and unforgettable, in part because—as many, including his creator, have said—Tyrion is a modern person in what’s essentially a medieval world. Peter Dinklage’s portrayal of Tyrion is stellar too, worth all the Emmys he may get, but here’s a case where I would NOT want to argue that the HBO character is better than in the novels.)
With some of the changed portraits, such as Daenerys in Qarth or the characterization of Theon’s inner conflicts and self-hate, the HBO series mixes careful editing with really smart invention. In other cases, such as those scenes in Season 2 between Tywin Lannister and Arya, the writers invented entirely new scenes and dialogue—but all in the service of brilliantly characterizing both these protagonists more thoroughly.
(It complicated our view of Tywin as a villain to see him testing his new servant girl yet unable to stop himself from admiring how she’s smartly making a way for herself in a tough world. It was equally fascinating watching Arya maneuvering on a razor’s edge as she tried to be respectful while fending off Tywin’s attempts to ferret out more about her. Plus, visually the scenes were stunning—all shadows and shafts of sunlight, with powerful closeups and pauses. Arya parried each of Tywin’s queries as if she were fencing, and when she made a mistake she quickly shielded herself. The swordmaster Syrio Forel taught Arya better than he knew! By paring down the large number of plot complications involving Arya in disguise having to work for new “masters” in Clash of Kings and reimagining these as Arya having to work for one of the most ruthless of the Lannisters, the HBO revisions better kept the focus on Arya’s wily resourcefulness in the face of adversity. Yes, some things were lost by all the cuts, but much was gained.)
OK, enough digressions. Let’s explore a few reasons why the HBO Daenerys (Dany) might be even better drawn than the Dany in the novel. I’ll take as my test case the climactic moment in Season 2, episode 10, called “Valor Morghulis.” One of the most stunning scenes in a episode filled with great moments occurred when Daenerys puts her life at risk to get her stolen dragons back by entering the House of the Undying knowing she’ll be attacked by sorcery.
The “Valor Morghulis” episode—which got the highest viewership of any Game of Thrones episode so far, either in Season 1 or Season 2 [see the Ratings section of Wikipedia’s entry on Game of Thrones] —was written by the Game of Thrones producers, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and directed by the series co-producer, Alan Taylor. Whether they discussed with Martin the changes they introduced I don’t know, but Martin’s been loosely involved in the entire series and it’s hard to believe that Benioff and Weiss didn’t share with him at least some of their ideas about how to do the season’s final episode.
It’s appropriate first to look briefly at what happens in the House of Undying chapter in Clash of Kings, told from Daenerys’ point of view. (It’s the next-to-last “Daenerys” chapter, coming a little over two-thirds of the way in the novel.) As I mentioned, there’s bits of Poe and Lovecraft and somewhat generic fantasy and horror motifs in the nightmare visions in this chapter, along with a plot that alludes to an epic hero’s journey into the world of the dead to learn something that will aid him (it’s usually a him) on his quest. (Odysseus, Aeneas.) As Dany says to some of the Undying she meets in Clash of Kings, “speak to me with the wisdom of those who have conquered death.” She receives the prophecy she requests, but as in most epics the omens are confusing to interpret—though here the meanings are hardly as opaque as, say, Elijah’s prophecy to Ishmael in Melville’s novel Moby-Dick: “three treasons will you know … once for blood and once for gold and once for love.”
Pyat Pree, head sorcerer of Qarth, at first appears to be on Dany’s side, giving her advice before she enters the House on how to survive its labyrinth and sorcery (“never go down, and never take any door but the first door to your right”). Not too surprisingly, Pree later proves treacherous. An avatar of Pree appears and tempts her to think she’s gone the wrong way, or even exited the House entirely; when Dany refuses to follow him, “his face crumbled inward, changing to something pale and wormlike.” (This moment was probably one of the points that gave Benioff and Weiss inspiration for their revisions.) At the chapter’s very end, Pree tries to kill Dany with a thrown knife when, to his surprise, she emerges from the House with her sanity intact. But (unlike in the HBO scene) Dany’s climatic confrontation with Pree in Clash of Kings is rather anti-climatic; it’s Dany’s protectors who save her: “the knife went flying, and an instant later Rakharo was slamming Pyat to the ground. Ser Jorah Mormont knelt beside Dany in the cool green grass and put his arm around her shoulder.” Benioff and Weiss wisely decided that this was not the way to bring Dany’s House of the Undying journey to its conclusion.
Another inspiration for the HBO revisions surely came from the moment in Clash of Kings when a wizard king tempts Dany by offering her knowledge, weapons, and luxuries. In Martin’s words, “She took a step forward. But then Drogon [one of Dany’s baby dragons] leapt from her shoulder. He flew to the top of the ebony-and-weirwood door, perched there, and began to bite at the carved wood.” Drogon, not too subtly, is reminding Dany that she must take the weirwood door, which lies to the right, rather than listen to her tempters. Drogon later uses his fire-powers to save Dany from vampiric, decaying creatures who latch on to her and start to devour her. “She could hear the shrieks of the Undying as they burned” will remind HBO viewers who read the Clash of Kings of Pree’s screams as he burns in the HBO version.
Dany’s hallucinations in the House of the Undying in Clash of Kings include tempting visions of childhood that make “her heart ache with longing.” (Martin’s prose is not always cliché-free, unfortunately.) One vision Dany has is of Ser Willem from Braavos calling her “princess.” But this vision barely makes Dany pause; she’s in no way fooled or tempted by it: she wants to kiss his hand, “and then she thought, He’s dead…. She backed away and ran.” Benioff and Weiss would take this moment and revise it to make it much more interesting: it becomes two different dream temptations for Dany. And unlike in the novel, these temptations aren’t easily rejected by her; they appeal to deep needs within Dany that aren’t fully explored in the first two novels in Song of Ice and Fire.
Now some arguments for the greater strength of the HBO Dany. These ideas do not depend on the actress playing her, Emilia Clarke, though Clarke’s very good acting certainly does no harm to my case[footnote 1]. Rather, I base my claims on how Benioff and Weiss’ writing and the directing have transformed and strengthened the whole House of Dying episode. Here are three points to consider regarding the HBO Game of Thrones changes:
- what Dany knows before she enters the House of the Undying;
- what visions she has inside it; and
- what we should make of the episode’s fiery end
1. There was much howling by fans on the Internet because Benioff and Weiss changed Dany’s motivation for entering the House of the Undying: only in the HBO version the sorcerers have stolen her dragons and now she must get them back. This doesn’t happen in Clash of Kings. But this change makes Dany’s motivation to enter the haunted castle much stronger and more understandable. Furthermore, unlike in the novel, Dany doesn’t get a verbal “map” from Pree telling her how to survive the castle’s physical and psychological maze.
Pree’s motive in the novel for giving Dany this accurate map confuses me. Because he hopes to make an alliance with her and her dragons if she survives? How plausible is it that she would do such a thing? Not very, I think, given that Pree would have little power over her; she’d surely give him her thanks and move on. It’s more reasonable, not to mention more Machiavellian, to think that in the novel Pree gives Dany his “map” thinking she won’t be able to follow it and so will become trapped by the House of the Undying’s spell, leaving Pree then free to take her dragons. Either of these two possible interpretations are interesting, but they are hardly compelling: if we assume that Pree’s “helping” Dany in the novel is a dangerous illusion, Pree’s treachery is far more vividly realized in the HBO version of the plot. In Game of Thrones, Dany enters the tower with no guide and against everyone’s advice because her instincts tell her the Undying want her dragons’ power; she knows she’s in a life and death struggle with Pree and the other undead sorcerers who have slain most of the rulers of Qarth. This makes for much better drama. Pree’s evil is just as devious, but Dany’s response is more daring and dangerous—and much more is at stake.
2. The dream visions Dany has in the House of the Undying weren’t just of random scary stuff, however frighteningly they are described in the book. Dany’s visions in the HBO episode are directly tied to Pree testing her and trying to trap her. Once she’s mysteriously drawn inside the House of the Undying, leaving her guardians behind, she has no map, just her bravado and intelligence to guide her. She grabs a torch to explore the darkened chambers—and shouts defiance at the Undead and their “magic tricks.” But the cinematography also superbly captures Dany’s vulnerability—it’s like she’s entering a crypt. (It’s like that moment in all great horror films, when we want to shout to the heroine, “no no, don’t go into that room alone…”.)
Dany’s lost, imprisoned dragons become her allies in the HBO reading of the House of the Undying—they help her rescue them and herself. It’s Dany hearing the dragons’ screams in the distance, for instance, that allows her in her dream vision to resist the temptation to touch the Iron Throne.
Think for a moment how superbly imagined Dany’s vision of King’s Landing and the Iron Throne was in the HBO version. For Dany’s Throne temptation unfolds a vision of King’s Landing after it’s been burned and looted and abandoned to Winter. The seat of power in Westeros has been abandoned, and Dany in her dream longs to approach it and to touch it. Dany reaches out in her dream and almost touches a snow-covered arm (?) of the Throne.
But then Dany hears her dragons’ distant cries and pulls her hand away. If she’d touched the Throne what would have happened? Could she have been frozen alive in the future forever? And how should we interpret all this? As a cool allegory for how Dany must to learn she can’t ascend to power too easily—she has to be patient and fight for it? Or just as a vision of the dark, cold future awaiting not just Joffrey but the Iron Throne itself?
After Dany resists the temptation of the Iron Throne, she steps outside of “King’s Landing” and suddenly—it’s dream space-time, after all—she is far away, going through the gate in the Wall into the frozen North. In this dream-geography for Westeros, Death is an even scarier boundary, giving a whole new meaning to “Night Lands” and what might lie on the “other side” of the Wall. Dany wanders into the Night Lands—and it’s here that she encounters her most dangerous dream of all, a vision of Drogo “living” and yearning to reunite with her. Their brief dialogue was superbly written, with both humor and tenderness (and a choice swear word from Drogo that really did make him seem to have come back from the dead).
Once again the dragon cries play a crucial role. When they interrupt Dany’s hypnotized contemplation of husband and child, they prompt her to resist the illusion—the wish-fulfillment dream—that Drogo lives and all her losses can be recovered. She’s touching foreheads with Drogo and looking at “their” child, until she hears her dragons screaming in the distance calling her away. Another brilliant detail ends the scene: when Dany was first enraptured by the vision, Drogo and the baby seemed fully alive; once she’s skeptical, Drogo’s eyes, we notice, have become unfocused, his body language stiff and all wrong. It’s as if Dany’s doubt and then her refusal has made Drogo suddenly a living corpse, undying yet dead, exposing the fakery of the vision’s life-like hologram.
In the HBO version, then, Pree the sorcerer lays really powerful mind-traps for Daenerys. Pree seems to be probing to find Dany’s weakness by tempting her with two of her most seductive but unspoken desires—her desire for power and revenge and her yearning to retreat into an alternate future where she’s not a childless widow. If Dany succumbs to either of these seductions, Pree will truly control her; she’ll have enchained herself. Dany has to resist those visions in order to continue on her rendezvous with her destined real power & leadership, still well in the future. In short, the dream visions added by Benioff and Weiss are not just clever or gratuitous additions but reflect a profound understanding of how the entire House of Undying episode should work as a test of Dany’s character. Ultimately these changes are very much in line with the primary “arc” of Dany’s character development in the novels, as she moves gradually from weak innocence to strength. We could also say the HBO changes here are true to the spirit of Martin’s portrayal of Dany, if not to the letter.
3. After leaving Drogo, Dany suddenly finds herself transported by magic back into the Undying tower room—the same one with multiple doors and a central pedestal that she first entered before her visions. It may be that she’s never left the room—that all her “journeys” to King’s Landing and the Wall and Drogo’s tent have been merely implanted visions. But now the room is no longer empty: Dany’s dragons are there on the pedestal, chained. And Pree emerges from the shadows, a cadaverous grin on his face. His temptation-visions having failed, he is now intent on confronting Dany with brute power—and the strength of cast iron chains. Confident of victory, as the best villains always are, he makes the same mistake that those villains often do—he gives away his secret. In this case, it’s his motive: to keep his magic strong, he needs to imprison both Dany and her dragons. It’s a kind of vampirism, but here Pree’s need is to feed on magic, not blood. This is Dany’s final temptation—the temptation of despair. But Pree’s reliance on mere chains to hold Dany proves a mistake.
I particularly enjoyed how the dragons played a part in Dany’s liberation by gradually discovering their power to kill. (Previously, in an absolutely delightful scene, we’ve seen them being taught by Dany to use a tiny jet of flame to cook the meat scraps. They’re sort of like leathery kittens learning to use their claws.) As with the suspense involving wildfire in the “Blackwater” episode, the suspense here too is carefully built up before the fire is unleashed. Dany first looks over her shoulder at the little ones. Seeing her, they get a gleam in their eyes, then one of them emits a puff of smoke while Pree gets a somewhat worried look on his smug face.
When Dany gives the command for fire, one dragon lets loose with a short, tentative burst—and it starts a small fire on Pree’s sleeve. Suddenly multiple, full-throated jets of fire stream out from either side of Dany as she stands chained and untouched by the flames, eyes closed, looking within herself. Pree does his best imitation of a marshmallow melting, twitching, and collapsing into the fire. And then it’s all over. The dragons don’t break or melt their chains, or Dany’s; once Pree dies the chains turn to dust before our eyes, cold cast iron merely proving itself to be part of Pree’s spell.
As “Daenerys’s Dragons” [ https://twitter.com/DaenysDragons ] tweeted, the Emmy nominations academy should “create a Best Dragon(s) in a Drama category….”
In the great screen shot above, now circulating widely on Thrones fan sites, it’s almost as if the fires are coming from inside Dany herself, from her womb. Chained, Dany in the HBO version learns how to unleash some of her dragons’ powers—just as she has repeatedly discovered strength before in the face of others, especially men, doubting or betraying or trying to capture her. But the dragons are not just about Dany having better weaponry. Dany’s dragons are both “real” yet also allegories for Dany’s own inner strengths of character, ones she must gradually discover. In the endings of each of the first two seasons of Game of Thrones, Dany walked through fire to make her new powers born. And we know there are more to come.
So … what do you think? How would you compare the House of the Undying chapter in Clash of Kings with how it was done on HBO?
I don’t know about you, but I rank the House of the Undying sequence as one of the best moments in the entire “Valor Morghulis” episode, and that episode of Thrones as one of the best and most moving TV I’ve seen in decades of watching. (Yes, “Blackwater’s explosions and fighting were cool, but the season-ending episode had wildfire plot explosions and revelations of much subtler kind.) Each of the other scenes within “Valor Morghulis” is rich enough for an essay too—I haven’t even mentioned White Walkers; or the scene with Tyrion and Maester Pycelle, Podrick, Shae, and Varys; or Arya’s magical last encounter with Jaqen H’ghar; or Jon Snow finding out that he actually does “know nothing”….
What’s maybe not so delicious is having to wait until spring 2013 for Season 3.
But high quality is rarely mass produced.
 See Vintage-Blogs for 15 June 2010 for reaction to Emilia Clarke being cast as Daenerys, including facts about her audition, samples of her acting on the British TV show Doctors, and a rave review of her audition for Dany from none other than GRRM himself. http://vintage-blogs.blogspot.com/2010/06/emilia-clarke-is-new-daenerys.html
For an essay of mine on the Game of Thrones title sequence (the opening shots with theme music), see this link. It’s responding to fan sites and a friend’s blog.