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.
Episode: “The Lion and the Rose” (402)
Scene: King Joffrey’s death
In George R.R. Martin’s insanely labyrinthine A Song of Ice and Fire, certain scenes are remarkably straightforward in conceptualization and execution both, while others only fully develop far later on in the novel (or, even, later on in the series). A Storm of Swords, the third installment in the saga, is particularly guilty of containing both types, and the death of King Joffrey Baratheon, unfortunately for the purposes of this column, falls into the latter classification: only after his murderer has been unmasked and a number of other threads – such as, say, Ser Dontos Hollard’s role in the plan – have been resolved can one truly step back and appreciate the complexities of the plot twist and the challenges inherent in bringing it to the small screen.
While this makes comparing the finished television episode with its literary counterpart exceedingly difficult at this point in time (perhaps a reassessment will be needed at the completion of the season), there is still the death itself, which is, of course, the centerpiece of the entire sequence. In the book, as soon as Joffrey’s coughing fit is revealed to be him choking – it is Queen Margaery Baratheon who first makes the observation, with her grandmother, the Queen of Thorns, screaming, “Dolts! Will you all stand about gaping? Help your king!” – his Kingsguard swarm him, with one pounding him on the back (the medieval version of the Heimlich) and another ripping open his collar. From there, the scene gets progressively, exponentially more terrible:
A fearful high thin sound emerged from the boy’s throat, the sound of a man trying to suck a river through a reed; then it stopped, and that was more terrible still. “Turn him over!” Mace Tyrell bellowed at everyone and no one. “Turn him over, shake him by his heels!” A different voice was calling, “Water – give him some water!” The High Septon began to pray loudly. Grand Maester Pycelle shouted for someone to help him back to his chambers, to fetch his potions. Joffrey began to claw at his throat, his nails tearing bloody gouges in the flesh. Beneath the skin, the muscles stood out hard as stone. Prince Tommen was screaming and crying.
As his face grows darker, Ser Meryn Trant pries Joff’s mouth open to jam a spoon down his throat. The only effect it has is a dry, clacking noise – and that’s only because the king tries to speak, lifting a hand to either reach for or point to his uncle, Tyrion Lannister. The dwarf, in a state of zen-like shock, goes over to inspect the wedding chalice despite the rational part of his brain screaming at him to get out of there, pouring its remaining half-inch of deep purple wine out onto the floor.
There are two takeaways from Martin’s deeply effective prose. The first is the raw emotion that permeates the action, the terror and suffering and confusion that first afflicts Joffrey and then radiates out to everyone else around him. While there is no doubt that Joff has retribution coming his way, Martin is also expressly toying with the notion that perhaps no living being ultimately deserves to undergo such a painful experience; not even the most vividly black-and-white character can escape the author’s world of endless greys or the compassion of an objective observer.
The second is the sheer pandemonium that Martin has enveloping the dying king. The wedding guests all try to stampede out of the chamber (in the book, the wedding reception takes place within the throne room) at once, resulting in some of them “weeping, some stumbling and retching, [and] others white with fear.” Fights break out, bodies get trampled underfoot, and the City Watch attempts to intervene. Up on the dias, Margaery sobs while her mother tells her it wasn’t her fault. And Queen Regent Cersei Baratheon, in a torn and stained gown, sitting in a puddle of wine, screams like an animal at her son’s death before rounding on Tyrion and demanding that both he and his wife, the lady Sansa, be arrested for the crime. (It takes a little bit of time, of course, for everyone to realize that Sansa has already been whisked away.)
Much of these effects are removed from “The Lion and the Rose,” leaving behind a laser-tight focus on the (more contained) actions of a comparatively small group of characters – as has been the show’s wont since the very first episode. There are several immediate reasons for such an alteration: the constraints of time and money; the necessity of a leaner, meaner throughline, even within large set pieces; the inclusion of several more perspectives in any given scene, such as, in this instance, Lord Tywin Lannister (who is only a minor character in the novels and, thus, warrants no POV) or Ser Jaime Lannister (who isn’t present in the original scene). But perhaps the biggest impetus here is the simple ability for such a prolonged bit to become unintentionally comical or otherwise over the top (one has visions of Monty Python re-enacting the scene as described above, to great effect).
Then there’s the emotional resonance of the scene itself, which is one of the biggest influencers of how material is produced in any filmic enterprise, adaptation or no. The so-called Purple Wedding (which seems to be a moniker that originated at Tower of the Hand) is, in this sense, the exact inverse of last season’s Red Wedding, and that’s exactly how it was shot: a relative lack of background action (yes, even despite the tramplings) and a general subduing of the foreground drama’s graphicness – which, in the case of Game of Thrones, means no expansion of violence to include the likes of Queen Talisa Stark and her unborn child. As much as showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff are accused of gratuitousness and, even, crassness, they have demonstrated a remarkable ability to downplay at key moments over the years.
And, of course, it is not as if Joffrey’s demise on-screen, subdued or no, is lacking in graphic depiction or emotional intensity.
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”
Marc N. Kleinhenz is the features editor for Tower of the Hand and the author of It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones, an ebook companion to Game of Thrones. He has written for The Huffington Post, co-created and-hosted two podcasts, and has even taught English in Japan.