Anatomy of a Throne: “Two Swords”
By Marc N. Kleinhenz on in Editorial.

HBO’s Game of Thrones brandishes a consistent and high degree of fidelity to the nearly 5,000-page-long source material of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, but there still, of course, are differences. While most of these gaps from the page to the screen are small and detail-oriented, it is nonetheless the case that the most subtle discrepancies often hold the biggest insight into the adaptation process, into the demands of filmmaking, and into the rigors of the literary narrative.

This, then, is the anatomy of a key scene of Thrones – not because of its dramatic importance or visual effects whizbangery, but because of the telling nature of its realization.


Introductions and Incriminations

My name’s Marc N. Kleinhenz, and I’m the features editor for Tower of the Hand, along with the editor and publisher of the site’s anthology ebooks (A Flight of Sorrows was released a year-and-a-half ago, and A Hymn for Spring is due out in June). Additionally, I’ve written for Westeros.org, The Huffington Post, and 19 other sites, sometimes about Game of Thrones and sometimes about film, videogames, comics, and other assorted nerdiness.

All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying that I’m an obsessive-compulsive who likes to prattle on and on about George R.R. Martin and his world, in all its variously realized forms. I’m exhilarated and not just a little intimidated to be Winter Is Coming’s newest guest essayist, providing a column that will be weekly for at least the first half of the current season; depending upon time constraints and reader feedback, it may or may not revert to its original fortnightly format.

I say “original” because Anatomy of a Throne used to run over at the wonderful Comic Related for the past two years. Zack and I, however, thought that it would be a more natural fit here at WiC, and the editors at Comic Related were gracious – and enthusiastic! – enough to agree. So here we are.

And here we go:

Episode: “Two Swords” (401)
Scene: Prince Oberyn’s introduction

The introduction of Prince Oberyn Nymeros Martell of Dorne in A Storm of Swords perfectly mirrors the character’s role in the novel: small and mostly subtle, though explosive when necessary and certainly irrevocable upon the overarching narrative. It is a scene that, like so many in Game of Thrones’s handling, is simultaneously reduced and expanded, fitting the narrower confines of the production budget while being made larger-than-life in order to titillate (literally) the viewing audience and fill out the requisite storytelling needs of the medium; let’s not forget that the so-called Red Viper is actually added to the mix in the first half of Storm, while showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss opted to hold him back until the latter half. This means that the character’s role needs to be significantly elongated in the fourth season, just as the Tyrion Lannister-Sansa Stark marriage arrangement, for instance, was expanded in the third (which was partially thanks to Oberyn’s removal in the first place, making everything come full circle).

The simplification of the sequence first. In most major respects, the Dornish procession up the kingsroad to a trepidacious King’s Landing is identical to its literary counterpart; it’s only in the smaller details that differences start to creep up. Never wasting an opportunity for all the characters to be rid of their horses – thus saving a tremendous amount of production time and, therefore, money – the showrunners once again have Tyrion and his welcoming party, such as it is, be on foot, though in this particular instance, the effect is negligible, at best (unlike, say, having Tyrion and Bronn the sellsword hike it from the Eyrie and across the Mountains of the Moon on foot [“The Pointy End,” episode 108]). Likewise, Tyrion’s compatriots are only a sliver of what he has in the book, reducing the number of players needed in a location shoot that is already rife with extras, props, and animals. (Their exclusion is only aided by the fact that none of them, including the lord commander of the City Watch, has been properly introduced in the television series.)

And this, actually, is where some of the subtlety of the sequence starts to come into play. Only lesser lordlings are present to represent King Joffrey Baratheon, and when taken in conjunction with Tyrion, who is only the master of coin and an imp, to boot, the royal welcome loses much of its warmth and is revealed to be the icy reception by Lord Hand Tywin that it truly is. Given the reason for the Dornishmen’s presence in the city – they have come to take Tyrion up on his offer of joining the small council, made when he was the acting Hand of the King and when he shipped Princess Myrcella off to Dorne (“What Is Dead May Never Die,” 203) – it is easy to see that Lord Tywin is just as eager to insult his son as he is the Martells and to let them both know that he only enters this situation begrudgingly.

Much of this political shading is lost in the series – an understandable elimination, given (a) the nature of time constraints and (b) the proliferation of George Martin’s subplots and counter-plots and counter-subplots – and what little remains of it is transfigured to the Dornish instead of against them. When the revelation that Prince Oberyn has arrived instead of Prince Doran, the regent of Dorne, is dropped, it is aided and abetted by the blatantly dismissive behavior of the Dornish lords and the complete absence of the Red Viper himself, both of which are showrunner inventions. The scene, despite being mostly true to the original, has a decidedly different effect.

Viewers don’t get their introduction to Oberyn, then, until the following scene, in Lord Petyr Baelish’s brothel, representing the sequence’s biggest deviation from the printed page. Why the change in venue? To utilize that often-misunderstood and -misquoted maxim: Weiss and Benioff wanted to show instead of tell. (And, presumably, to also film the greater part of the material in a controlled and long-standing set as opposed to at a time-sensitive location.)

In Martin’s version, Tyrion and Oberyn ride alongside one another as both of their entourages head to the capital, engaging in a lengthy and rather involved conversation. The prince’s peculiar mixture of cordiality and insult, his ability to pivot from jocularity to death threat without ever changing the tone of his voice, is slowly built up, with the dwarf filling in all the rest of his backstory for the reader’s benefit – the range of his mercurial disposition, his sexual promiscuousness (including his rumored bisexuality), his charges of possibly dabbling in the dark arts to make his enemies suffer as much as possible, his deep-seated and long-lasting enmity with the Tyrells of Highgarden. By placing him smack dab in the middle of whores and Lannisters, nearly every last bit of exposition is delivered – using breasts and blood, of course, which replaces the book’s lyrical abstraction with a certain level of visceralness. It is, admittedly, a practice that Benioff and Weiss have nearly perfected over the past three years.

And it leaves much room for an Oberyn Martell that is, perhaps, more dynamic than the one in the novels.

Previous Installments

Episode 201: “The North Remembers”
Episode 203: “What Is Dead May Never Die”
Episode 207: “A Man without Honor”
Episode 209: “Blackwater”
Episode 210: “Valar Morghulis”
Episode 304: “And Now His Watch Is Ended”
Episode 305: “Kissed by Fire”
Episode 309: “The Rains of Castamere”


36 Comments

  1. Deathdreams
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Jinglebell!

  2. Aldi_A
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    Stannis!

  3. Hodor's Bastard
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    Welcome Marc. I enjoyed your “Flight of Sorrows” compilation and other essays.

  4. Lyn
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    welcome! looking forward to reading more from you!

  5. Marc N. Kleinhenz
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Hodor’s Bastard,

    Hey, thanks! They’re a pain in the ass to coordinate, but they’re also worth it. :)

    ~M.

  6. Aldi_A
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    I thought his introduction was decent at best if we still get the story he told Tyrion in the books I’ll be ok with it but if they swapped that for this it wasn’t worth it.

  7. Mrs. D. Ranged in AZ
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    I’m excited to see you’ve become a poster here at Wic and look forward to reading your stuff. Welcome!

  8. Hexonx
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    Being someone that has only read each book once (and many years ago) it’s nice to have posts like this to help remember some of the finer details. Thank you.

    Also, I’m sure you don’t pick the pictures but it’s rather odd to have the main picture not be of the scene being discussed.

  9. Tyrion Pimpslap
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Aldi_A,

    Yes, we need to hear how cruel Cersei was to baby Tyrion and how noble Jaime was. But strictly from a show standpoint, I think they hit a home run with Oberyn’s intro. It introduced everything that we needed to know about him. There is still time for little anecdotes from the books to make their way into the show.

  10. Patchy Face
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    Nice dissection – looking forward to more!

  11. Friend of Fire
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    Nice article

  12. james
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 4:53 pm | Permalink
  13. Veltigar
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Three things:

    1) Welcome to WiC.net

    2) I love the idea behind this and I’ll certainly read the older articles. This is exactly the type of contribution to WiC.net that I want to see more often. Very enlightening.

    3) Rules are rules :p When you’re a contributor to WiC.net you should adopt a name from ASOIAF (preferably House words).

    Howard Stark: The moment you think you know what’s going on in a woman’s head is the moment your goose is well and truly cooked .The only solution then is to cast Mads Mikkelsen as Euron.

  14. Marc N. Kleinhenz
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Veltigar,

    Heh. I suggested “The God of Tits and Wine” (that’s House Manwoody, right? ;)), but we’ll see what Zack says.

    And thank you, everyone, for the warm welcome. It’s incredibly nice and very much appreciated.

    ~M.

  15. Arya Dunyett
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    Welcome, Marc. I’ve got your Flight of Sorrows and enjoyed your insight. You bring even more depth to an already complex tale – something like a closer look at the fine embroidery in the costumes that one misses on a standard TV screen.
    I look forward to more of your thoughtful mental beadwork.

  16. Ashara D
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    Welcome! You strike a nice balance between discussing the source material and remaining non-spoilery. And I always welcome anyone who can explain the choices made in the adaptation process, rather than just the whining about said choices. Looking forward to more.

  17. otia dant vitia
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    I was hoping to see Oberyn in season three but on reflection it is probably best he was kept until this season. There needs to be a tightness in his arc that would have been difficult to sustain across two seasons, imo. His character is going to have much more of a dramatic impact this way.

    Thanks for your contributions and i’m looking forward to reading future thoughts.

  18. Veltigar
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    Marc N. Kleinhenz:
    Veltigar,

    Heh.I suggested “The God of Tits and Wine” (that’s House Manwoody, right? ;)), but we’ll see what Zack says.

    And thank you, everyone, for the warm welcome.It’s incredibly nice and very much appreciated.

    ~M.

    That would be a cool modname :D where whores go would also be a funny one although, I don’t think it would make for a good Manwoody motto :p the lack of a penisjoke just doesn’t feel right ;)

    Hercule Poirot: I am not a bloody little Frog! I am a bloody little Belgian!
    And Mads Mikkelsen would make a bloody good Euron!

  19. otia dant vitia
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    Forgot to say, i’d love to be a fly on the wall in the writers’ room to see how they go about breaking down the season – just to appreciate how they go about deciding what goes in and what doesn’t. Failing that i’d pay good money to see a documentary of the process. Dream on i suppose.

  20. Jack
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    You do not partake?

  21. House Mormont
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Welcome :)

    I can’t really decide which version I liked best, Martin’s was subtle and the back story was delicious, but the show’s was so dangerous and explosive I loved it

  22. Marc N. Kleinhenz
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    otia dant vitia,

    Oh, I’m sure it’s inevitable — a Blu-ray feature, perhaps?

    ~M.

  23. Marc N. Kleinhenz
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    Arya Dunyett,

    That’s quite honestly the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me. I’m telling my wife to take notes!

    ;)

    ~M.

  24. ace
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    Since we are dissecting the Episode. A sort of related one. AVClub has a nice article on Ep1 and how framing can affect the mood and create sympathy on certain characters

    http://www.avclub.com/article/game-thrones-cordially-invites-you-take-damn-seat–203286

  25. freoduwebbe
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    very enjoyable. Hope you keep giving us your insight.

  26. WeirwoodTreeHugger
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    Do we still need the anecdote about Tyrion as a baby? We already know Cersei is cruel, there’s no need to reiterate that with lengthy exposition. I don’t think that’s the purpose of the story anyway. I think Oberyn told it because he knew it would Tyrion where it hurts. It was a way to throw Tyrion off balance. The same thing was accomplished in the show when Oberyn stood the Lannister welcoming party up and Tyrion had to go searching for him. Oberyn made damn sure the Lannisters got the message that they have no power over him. That’s the important part IMO.

  27. The_Wanderer
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    Marc this is a great write up. I really like that you incorporate aspects of filming and budgets into your analysis, too. People usually don’t talk about those things when talking about the show, but they’re important to discuss.

    Looking forward to reading more from you on this site.

  28. Von of the 3rivers
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    Looking forward to reading more of your insight. As others noted, nice to not read any complaining. Love the show and have read the books multiple times. Yes, my life is not interesting but my imagination…

  29. Assunta
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    This was interesting and an enjoyable read. Looking forward to your further posts.

    (Gotta change the name though, or I fear someone might do it for you).

  30. Shock Me
    Posted April 11, 2014 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    Glad to have a new contributor. Sorry your prose has to be surrounded by the ugly new site design.

  31. Russell Glasser
    Posted April 11, 2014 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    I just occurred to me that Oberyn’s introduction reminds me of nothing so much as Samuel L. Jackson’s character Jules in Pulp fiction. On the one hand, he’s being all polite and telling jokes. On the other hand, he’s also terrifying.

  32. Mrs. D. Ranged in AZ
    Posted April 11, 2014 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    ace,

    I don’t know diddly about framing and filming but I did note how condescending Oberyn’s treatment of Tyrion was (commented on it in the open chat thread). For me it’s not just about the dialog but the physicality of the actors. Like how Cersei is always worrying at something with her hands…a ribbon, the edge of her dress, the base of a goblet….It happens in almost every scene where she and Tyrion are talking (where they aren’t yelling at one another that is). Lena is clearly doing it on purpose to gesturally communicate Cersei’s inner state, which is a state of constant worry and fear. Tyrion does similar things but with his face. Many of the actors have mentioned how great it is to act with Dinklage because he doesn’t just say the words, he emotes and interacts with them, which makes it easier for them respond. And that ability of his shows–it’s what makes him such a fine actor (Sophie, who is so young, also excels at this ability to say quite a lot with her face). Dinklage’s ability to say something loud and clear with a roll of the eyes or the raise of an eyebrow plays well with the deliberate framing and sympathetic perspectives being presented to us by the camera. Regardless of who is directing an episode, if Tyrion is in it, you can guarantee there will be close up shots of his face and expressions. They do this with other actors as well, but it seems to me that Tryion gets more of this treatment than any other.

    Another notable scene regarding close ups that comes to mind is the bath scene where Jaime finally tells Brienne about the Mad King. I would love to see a “framing analysis” of that. If I recall correctly, it would be the first time that both are at an eye to eye level (and both are notably naked–i.e., vulnerable and open to one another). I could go on and on praising the visual aspects of this show, everything from the framing to the cinematography, but I know I’m just preaching to the choir. The AVClub article is a great reminder of not only how GOT is a feast for our senses but also for our subconscious thought processes.

  33. Zack
    Posted April 11, 2014 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    I wanted to let you know that this essay has just sold at least one extra copy of A Flight of Sorrows. Thanks for the interesting read.

  34. OldeCrone
    Posted April 12, 2014 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    I’m relieved that you are not one of those “books first” people who complains about every small deviation and thank you for your insightful post. I’ve read some of the books and [as I've said on other threads] would not have done so unless I’d seen the show but don’t know the full (i.e. the five books) story thus far. Reading the books I find a little like reading Russian classic novels (not that I’ve read loads but I have some) – I have to refer to the list of characters [or compile one myself] to remind me who the minor characters are. If you are an “expert” on the books could I mention something that puzzles me? One fact people mention often is that Mr Martin breaks with the convention where the goodies win at the end as if he were the only writer who had ever done this. Is this supposed to be just as relates to fantasy? I’ve read plenty of books that had endings that were not of the type that people were going to live happily for ever after, for example many of Emile Zola’s and Honore de Balzac’s book. I don’t accept that Mr Martin is the first person who writes about “grey” characters either. Stories about “goodies” only can tend to be rather dull (e.g. Pollyanna with the “glad game”)- Billy Tremblelance wrote about flawed heroes and that’s why his plays have lasted. Some of the stories of the Brothers Grimm were grim and most of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories scared me as a kid (I still don’t like his stories much except perhaps “The Ugly Duckling”). Sorry, I’ve gone on a bit. None of what I’ve typed takes away from Mr Martin’s great achievement in creating the gritty fantasy world partially founded on real history. I find myself (I’m no expert is history – just interested) thinking perhaps that bit is based on so-and-so or such-and-such. Once again thanks for your perceptive piece of writing.

  35. Valyrian Eyes
    Posted April 12, 2014 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Mrs. D. Ranged in AZ:
    ace,

    I don’t know diddly about framing and filming but I did note how condescending Oberyn’s treatment of Tyrion was (commented on it in the open chat thread).For me it’s not just about the dialog but the physicality of the actors.Like how Cersei is always worrying at something with her hands…a ribbon, the edge of her dress, the base of a goblet….It happens in almost every scene where she and Tyrion are talking (where they aren’t yelling at one another that is).Lena is clearly doing it on purpose to gesturally communicate Cersei’s inner state, which is a state of constant worry and fear.Tyrion does similar things but with his face.Many of the actors have mentioned how great it is to act with Dinklage because he doesn’t just say the words, he emotes and interacts with them, which makes it easier for them respond.And that ability of his shows–it’s what makes him such a fine actor (Sophie, who is so young, also excels at this ability to say quite a lot with her face).Dinklage’s ability to say something loud and clear with a roll of the eyes or the raise of an eyebrow plays well with the deliberate framing and sympathetic perspectives being presented to us by the camera.Regardless of who is directing an episode, if Tyrion is in it, you can guarantee there will be close up shots of his face and expressions.They do this with other actors as well, but it seems to me that Tryion gets more of this treatment than any other.

    Another notable scene regarding close ups that comes to mind is the bath scene where Jaime finally tells Brienne about the Mad King.I would love to see a “framing analysis” of that. If I recall correctly, it would be the first time that both are at an eye to eye level (and both are notably naked–i.e., vulnerable and open to one another).I could go on and on praising the visual aspects of this show, everything from the framing to the cinematography, but I know I’m just preaching to the choir.The AVClub article is a great reminder of not only how GOT is a feast for our senses but also for our subconscious thought processes.

    I’ve noticed this about Cersei’s hands too! And you can see that Jack mirrors the exact same movements with his hands in a lot of scenes, especially in the one they’re discussing clothing and Margaery in one of the episodes in season 3 (sadly, don’t remember which). It establishes a nice connection of mental state, like you said, and also of body language between mother and son. Awesome.

  1. […] Episode 201: “The North Remembers” Episode 203: “What Is Dead May Never Die” Episode 207: “A Man without Honor” Episode 209: “Blackwater” Episode 210: “Valar Morghulis” Episode 304: “And Now His Watch Is Ended” Episode 305: “Kissed by Fire” Episode 309: “The Rains of Castamere” Episode 401: “Two Swords” […]


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