Adapting A Song of Ice and Fire into a coherent and accessible TV series was thought to be an impossible task. Yet writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (with the help of Bryan Cogman and George R. R. Martin) have managed to do it. But their task gets even harder in the coming years. Martin himself recently noted the difficulties that will arise in future seasons.
With Martin’s comments as a backdrop, it seems like a good time to dive in-depth into the issue of adapting future seasons and, in particular, the challenge awaiting the writers with books 4 and 5, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. Here to talk about those issues in a special guest post is frequent WiCnet reader and commenter, Greatjon of Slumber.
SPOILERS! This post will discuss in detail the events of A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. Only read on if you have read those books. You’ve been warned!
Greatjon of Slumber: Hello! First off, a big thanks to WiC for letting me opine on this – some of you know me as Greatjon of Slumber, and I’ve been commenting here for more than a year. This post should basically be considered a storm of spoilers, so for the Unsullied, this is about the time to leave and go somewhere else.
Game of Thrones as a show has presented a huge challenge to its adapters but there’s no doubt that they will be even more challenged as the show reaches what appears to be the middle – and transitory – entries in the book series. These two books, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, have their detractors who see them as largely inferior to the third towering entry, A Storm of Swords, and to the other books as well. While I share some of the misgivings about the two books, I largely see them as strong entries to the series, particularly on a second reading of each, which I’ve done since the show went on hiatus after the finale in early June. They do present their problems, though, and so this post details some of the issues the showrunners are likely to face in Seasons 4 and 5, and a bit of 6 as well, with the thorniest issues at the top, and those of lesser concerns later.
First, though, we have to set up a few assumptions here. One major question, of course, is how much time the two books should occupy. Given that HBO executives have said the show can run as long as there are stories to tell, but D&D have stated that they wouldn’t want to go for 10 seasons and “kill the golden goose.” Let’s assume that A) the show won’t be cancelled and B) our beloved George R.R. Martin finishes the series (when is another matter). With those thoughts in mind, these two books are likely to be truncated somewhat sharply, with plenty of secondary characters eliminated, with ruminative passages cut back, with a subplot or two – even for the most important members of the show’s cast – excised entirely. If these things are done, and GRRM can get The Winds of Winter released by late 2014 or so, they should be on track to handle the show in 8 seasons – 9 if the last two books are truly gigantic – but really, 8 feels like the sweet spot.
With that parameter, AFfC and ADwD and the plot developments within are probably best handled if most of the two books form the entire basis for season 5, with a couple of smaller plotlines moved into Season 4, and some of the latter chapters of ADwD moved into season 6. This presents the best opportunity to structure a thematic arc for the major characters in the fifth season, it builds in plenty of big, crowd-pleasing moments, and allows the story to make similar points that GRRM is making without bogging things down. As said, there are plenty of challenges, so let’s start with the one most frequently mentioned:
A Feast for Crows
Readers often speak of their disappointment with A Feast for Crows, and I admit to being one of those on first reading as well; but after a second reading I found it richer and more compelling, though it does lack for the big events that made A Storm of Swords the pinnacle of the series. However, there’s no doubt that GRRM hardly invites his long-time readers into the picture at its beginning. After chapter upon chapter of Stark, Lannister and Baratheon, the prologue concerns a handful of characters we’ve never heard of in The Citadel. That’s followed by a score of new characters either unseen entirely in the previous three books (Areo Hotah, captain of the guard in Dorne) or little-seen (Aeron Greyjoy, the Drowned Priest), and these characters for the most part open windows in places where there isn’t a previous POV character to lean on. In past books, newly introduced POV characters were often a key part of the scenery in other POV chapters – Theon Greyjoy, for instance. With the additions comes a natural resistance from readers – “Why should I care about this person? Where the hell are the Starks, anyway? Where is Tyrion? WHERE ARE MY DRAGONS?”
The primary characters we identify with as being on a “journey” of some kind – Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow and Danaerys Targaryen – do not appear at all. In addition, much of it is ruminative, involving long journeys and internal dialogues with the characters of Brienne of Tarth and Jaime Lannister as they make slow progress toward their goals. Brienne’s arc is particularly difficult– introducing people who make little difference to the plot (Ser Illifer the Penniless? Nimble Dick Crabbe?), and provide little insight into Brienne’s psyche (not all of them – Elder Brother and Hyle Hunt are noted exceptions.) One could argue her travels give a window into the despair of the common folk of Westeros and the horrors of war. In that case, that’s easily accomplished by taking Septon Meribald, a minor character who should be kept, and perhaps combining him with Elder Brother, making him a man who travels the villages periodically and returns to the Quiet Isle with Brienne. It’s an easy combination, and takes two similar, though compelling, characters, and makes them one. Then keep her meeting with the High Sparrow, her heated confrontation with Randyll Tarly, and whatever people she kills on the way, and lose the entire digression to Cracklaw Point.
This book has some worthy material – particularly Aeron and Victarion Greyjoy, the Dornish plotting, Arya in Braavos, and Sam and Gilly’s journey with Maester Aemon. Notably, though, if Brienne’s plot is reduced – or moved in part to Season 4, where it seems to be going judging by reports from the set – most of the other plots (along with Sansa) involve very little time at all, so the show can feel free to concentrate on the meatiest stuff in this book – Cersei Lannister and Margaery Tyrell, the King’s Landing political intrigue. Cersei really comes into form in this book, and there’s plenty of strong stuff to draw on here.
The Meereenese Knot
The weakest portion of the two books and often unremarked upon is the last quarter of A Dance With Dragons — almost everything that follows after Daenerys flees Meereen on Drogon’s back. Some of the stuff involving Barristan Selmy will eventually be important – but given that her flight is such a strong way to stop for a TV season, the Barristan coup in Meereen is best saved for Season 6. Tyrion’s appearance in Meereen can also be halted here, leaving his signing on with the Second Sons (regardless of how he arrives there) for an early Season 6 development. Those events represent a new beginning of a sort, and so are best left for later on.
A refrain heard from many readers, and one that I can’t entirely disagree with, is that the books strand Dany in Meereen for a long time. And if the show evolves as I’d expect, we’ll see her conquer Meereen in Season 4 and in her words, stay and rule as a queen in Season 5. The motivation here, of course, is to do right by her citizens after her failures in Yunkai and Astapor. To me, though, the true difficulty will be her plot in Season 4, which is going to seem somewhat repetitive after Season 3 unless they concentrate on her betrayal by Jorah Mormont instead, which would form a stronger emotional spine than the conquest of the city of Meereen. Either way, the expectation should be that Season 5 and thereon are likely to be uniformly strong seasons of material for Emilia Clarke, but this one may suffer a bit.
For Season 5, however, no such problem exists – the growing pains associated with her new rule in Meereen dovetail with Jon’s experience as a new Lord Commander and as Cersei presides as Queen Regent in King’s Landing, and tying those three threads together represents an exciting way of plotting out a fifth year in this show, and it’s one of the reasons to be most confident that the fifth season, while not containing anything on the level of the Red Wedding, is not going to be the disappointment that some already expect. If the justifications for staying in Meereen are the corpses on the road and the death of children at the dragon’s flame, it will work well enough.
Reducing Unneeded Characters and Subplots
That said: the only way to do this properly is that subplots and minor characters who inform on the actions of the “secondary” major characters (the Tyrells, Greyjoys and Martells) will have to be largely cut out. Even though there are compelling characters in Doran Martell, Victarion, Aeron and Euron Greyjoy, Arianne Martell, Obara and Ellaria Sand, et cetera, they – like the Starks – have friends and advisors, and those folks are likely to be truncated to walk-ons or not mentioned at all. GRRM has already set up many – Doran, Victarion and Arianne especially – with major importance to the plot. I don’t expect they’ll be eliminated, but they will be secondary at best.
But when it comes to new characters, it’s time to think ruthlessly: Do they advance the plot in some kind of way that cannot be easily handled by an existing character? Are they so important in their own right that to do without them would be difficult? Will we need them later? Are they easily distinguishable by their appearance? Do they, in some way, enlighten us about the condition of Westeros or illuminate us on the psyche of a major character in particular? If the answer to any, but hopefully at least two or three of these questions is “yes,” it’s likely a character that can be kept, be they major (Victarion, Euron) or minor (Septon Meribald, Elder Brother, Moqorro, Randyll Tarly, Gyles Rosby). Of those, Meribald and Elder Brother could be combined, but they’re illuminating to the viewer; Moqorro is important to the plot and passes based on his appearance. Rosby, too, has a notable character trait, his terrible coughing, and Tarly as Sam’s father will be familiar.
Further, the producers have already shown that they’re willing to sacrifice tertiary characters if it A) does the viewer the favor by putting two other interesting people together to have fun conversations and B) ignore the amount of time needed for traveling long distances (Littlefinger’s jetpack that gets him from the Storm Lands to Harrenhall in short order, which he later loans out to Melisandre to bring her from the Riverlands to Blackwater Bay in one episode).
On the chopping block, then, among others: Harys Swyft (make Mace Tyrell the Hand of the King early), Aurane Waters, any Umber not named Greatjon, the Quiet Man of Braavos (sub in Jaqen H’ghar), the Kettleblacks (use the already established Meryn Trant), all of Arianne Martell’s companions save Darkstar, and cut back the Sand Snakes to a recognizable two. Lose almost everyone on Tyrion’s boat ride save Jon Connington, Young Griff, Septa Lemore and keep Varys there for a few episodes, too, just for familiarity. In addition, after a brief intro of Connington, keep him out of the show until they invade the Storm Lands in Season 6 – and eliminate Harry Strickland, too. In Meereen, Hizdhar zo Loraq is already cast, but what about the rest? Keep Ben Plumm and perhaps the Shavepate, but dump Yurkhaz zo Yunzak, Reznak mo Reznak, and Galazza Galare.
Our favorite Lannister, Tyrion, is also ripe for cutting. His entire digression with Nurse and Yezzan may have to be sacrificed; it would seem to make sense to have Tyrion end his arc of Season 5 electing to sign himself up with the Second Sons with the intention of trying to sway them to Dany’s side. Sure, we’ll lose his adventures as a traveling dwarf act with Penny, but something has to give here. Alternatively, his arc is slowed substantially, and we close Season 5 with a very VERY brief introduction of Yezzan, and then Tyrion, Penny and Jorah Mormont are present for Drogon’s appearance and Daenerys’s flight, leaving the bloody flux and Second Sons plot to Season 6, if at all.
The Shae “Problem”
Technically this problem is a Season 4 issue, and not related to the 4th or 5th books, but just the same, it needs addressing. There’s speculation that the producers won’t have the heart to have Tyrion kill off Shae, or for her to be revealed as a betrayer of Tyrion, instead having her hung by Tywin Lannister, perhaps using the golden chain she was given as a gift. And it’s true that the relationship between Tyrion and Shae is dramatically altered than in the book, where she seemed content to more or less be the happy hooker and even rejected the possibility of love. The show’s conception of Shae is much different, portrayed by Sibel Kekilli is a jealous, resentful creature, having developed more attachment and something of a sense of entitlement as it pertains to Tyrion. It’s also true that Tyrion is somewhat less of a grey character than in the books, though the show has done well to portray most of its characters with a lot of shading, particularly difficult people like Stannis, Cersei and Jaime, and certainly have an opportunity to shade things this way with Tyrion.
The expectation that the producers will “chicken out” is probably unfounded – not one major character whose number was up in the books so far has been spared. Viewers have already been given significant clues here – Shae’s growing jealousy as Tyrion is forced to marry Sansa Stark; the vocalization of her predicament to Tyrion: “I am your whore, and when you are tired of fucking me, I will be nothing,” and most importantly, the scene with Varys in “Myhsa,” where Varys, perhaps of his own accord, tries to buy her off, which only enrages her further. D&D have laid the foundation pretty well on this one – and while the journey to the endpoint will mine a different path than in A Storm of Swords, the end result is likely to be the same.
Tying the timelines together effectively
A unique challenge presented by the books, of course, is that events unfold in various places that cannot easily be placed in the timeline – sometimes the Iron Islands seems to be running about parallel with late Book 3 events, Arianne Martell’s first narration is in mid-book 4, her narration from late Book 5 appears to be a week later at most, despite 900-1000 pages of story in between. And in addition, the show will need to contend with 15 distinct stories: Jon/The Wall, Sam, Arya, Sansa/Petyr/The Vale, Jaime, Brienne, Cersei/Margaery/King’s Landing, Daenerys, Tyrion/Jorah, the Dornish, the Iron Islands, Stannis, Ramsey/Theon/Roose, Bran/Rickon, and Davos. That’s just ridiculous.
Some of these, thankfully, will take a backseat. But that pattern has already been established. In Season 1, the most important stories, in order, were probably as such: Eddard (incl. Arya/Sansa/Robert), Daenerys, Tyrion, Jon Snow, pretty much in that order.
Season 2 was this: Tyrion, Theon, Stannis/Davos, Arya, Cersei/Sansa, then Jon, then Daenerys.
Season 3 goes another direction, in that it has about 8 plots, all equally important, with Daenerys, Jaime/Brienne, Cersei/Tyrion/Tywin (King’s Landing) and then Jon/Wildings and Robb/Cat. The producers did a good job cutting developing thematic ties and concentrating not one, but two episodes on a limited set of characters – Episode 8’s “Second Sons”, and Episode 9’s “Rains of Castamere”. They’ve already said that this may happen again, and if so, it’s a good thing. Season 4 promises to be a showcase year for Tyrion and Jon Snow, likely followed by Arya, Brienne and Cersei. Thankfully Sam and Jon occupy the same space, so that reduces one plot.
But Season 5 would do best if it builds its spine out of three stories that connect to each other thematically, as Jon Snow struggles with his new position as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Daenerys becomes a queen in Meereen, and Cersei sees her rule spin out of control in King’s Landing. After those three, the only other plot that occupies the same level of importance is Tyrion, and that’s largely the result of Tyrion being a GRRM favorite and because of Peter Dinklage. But if the producers are smart (and they are), these three storylines will dominate the action in the fifth season because they hit on a favorite theme of Martin’s – who is qualified to hold power, and dealing with the messy realities of acting as ruler, not just the lead-in to claiming a leadership role. What does that mean for other characters? It means Sansa, Arya, Brienne, the Iron Islands and Dorne will all hopefully occupy some space, but most of their plots should be executed within a few episodes (say, visit Dorne in Episode 1, 3, and 7 only), to keep the plot focused. Even the Vale ties into the theme – but again, it’s where it would seem wise to have Sophie Turner and Aiden Gillen take a step back.
Reading A Storm of Swords sometimes feels like watching fireworks – Omigod! Omigod! Wait, wait, OMIGOD! So there is of course a desire to think about climactic moments for the end of Season 5 (the coming season will have no issues), given that many of them are shocking but without the kind of kinetic violence that defined “Blackwater” and “The Rains of Castamere”. Fear not – imagine a final two episodes that includes Daenerys taking off on her dragon after narrowly missing being poisoned, Cersei’s walk of shame through all of King’s Landing, the stabbing of Jon Snow, Arya’s first kill as an assassin, Theon’s attempt at an escape from Winterfell, and Victarion Greyjoy coming on shore at the Shield Islands, cutting people in half with his axe. Intersperse throughout the year the harrowing scene on the Rhoyne with the Stone Men (the best moment of horror in all of the books), Brienne’s encounter with Rorge and Biter, the escape by the Blackfish (yet again, at least for the show), the execution of prisoners at Moat Cailin, Jon’s beheading of Janos Slynt, and Arya’s killing of Dareon, and there’s plenty of action here. Be not afeared.
Bronn, We Hardly Knew Ye
Lastly – there’s a real issue that comes with the introduction of so many characters, and that’s the matter of doing something with the ones that don’t seem to have a role going forward. For the likes of Ros, it was easy – she didn’t exist in the books, so D&D could jettison the character when they saw fit. And of course, all those marked for death already are likely to meet their end.
Until now, though, we haven’t seen the death of anyone who matters so much down the road that they couldn’t be filled with someone else’s part – Mago comes to mind. That may change. Gendry largely fades away in AFfC, but now that Davos has given him a chance to go to King’s Landing again, the producers clearly have other plans in mind.
Jerome Flynn has been a real delight in the show’s first three seasons, and he played a key role in Season 2 (particularly in “Blackwater”), but his role diminished a bit in the third season. And when there’s discussion of someone being on the chopping block, it’s naturally him, given his last major act is to refuse Tyrion’s request to fight for him against Gregor Clegane. Cersei secures his marriage to Lollys Stokeworth, but later foils an assassination attempt.
That plot is likely to be left aside (Lollys wasn’t at the riot of King’s Landing, her most notable appearance), leaving a few options:
1 – Stick with the books. Bronn fades into the background, and this may end up being the choice given GRRM may have a role for him in the 6th and 7th books.
2 – Send him to Dorne and replace Areo Hotah. This might work – the biggest problem, though, is that Doran Martell is considered the most cautious man in Westeros. Making a sellsword his personal bodyguard seems out of character.
3 – Have him replace one of the Kettleblacks. Somewhat intriguing – but while Bronn is a sellsword, being drawn into Cersei’s schemes seems out of character for him. The same can be said for Cersei, too, who is unlikely to trust anyone that close to Tyrion. It wouldn’t work.
4 – Have him go on the road with Jaime in place of Ilyn Payne. Probably the most intriguing option. One of GoT’s greatest strengths is its “Let’s put these two people in a room and let them talk” tendencies, and Flynn paired with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau would be a hoot, particularly if he accompanies him to break the siege at Riverrun, opening the tantalizing possibility of a Bronn-Blackfish conversation, too. The fear, of course, is that someone else knows Jaime cannot fight, which was the point of using the mute Ilyn Payne. But that’s a minor issue.
5 – Kill him off. Yeah, it has to be considered, and not just for him, but Gendry as well. In this case, though, I’m leaning to option 4 as the most interesting one, followed by option 1, then this one.
I’ve gone on a long time here. I look forward to several more seasons of the show, and while they present thorny problems to tackle, they’re not unsolvable. For the Sullied, it opens possibilities; frequent postings by Unsullied often remind those of us who have read the books that we miss the ability to see things anew – so any surprises are often welcome ones.