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: “Breaker of Chains” (403)
Scene: Meereen’s champion
By the time Daenerys Targaryen and her motley crew of Dothraki bloodriders, eunuch soldiers, and freed slaves get to the massive city of Meereen, the Great Masters have withdrawn behind the city’s walls, scorched the fields and poisoned the wells for scores all around them, and prepared a special surprise for the khaleesi: Meereen’s hero, Oznak zo Pahl, the nephew of the richest man in Meereen and the son of the city guard’s commander, is dispatched almost immediately, dressed lavishly and itching for a fight against the would-be conquerors’ own champion.
“This man is a buzzing fly, no more. Ignore him – he will soon be gone,” Dany tells her attendants. Ser Jorah Mormont is quick to agree, but Lord Commander Barristan Selmy emphatically objects:
”Wars are not won with swords and spears alone, ser. Two hosts of equal strength may come together, but one will break and run whilst the other stands. This hero builds courage in the hearts of his own men and plants the seeds of doubt in ours.”
Ser Jorah snorted. “And if our champion were to lose, what sort of seed would that plant?”
“A man who fears battle wins no victories, ser.”
“We’re not speaking of battle. Meereen’s gates will not open if that fool falls. Why risk a life for naught?”
“For honor, I would say.”
In this way, Meereen’s champion is used as a plot device to not only engage the reader, but to also educate him in the medieval conceptualizations of honor and combat and, in addition, to further the growing divide between Dany’s two greatest advisors (a throughline that is aided by Selmy’s hitherto concealed identity – he is known only as Arstan Whitebeard since his arrival at Daenerys’s khalasar at the end of book two – and that is paid off later in the chapter, when he finally unmasks himself). That’s a lot of narrative birds to kill with just one stone, and George R.R. Martin does it seemingly effortlessly.
He does it again just a few short paragraphs later. After an hour of Oznak endlessly riding back and forth under the city’s walls, taunting the besiegers’ manhood, mothers, wives, and gods while the Meereenese cheer him on, the hero finally outdoes himself: he dismounts, undoes his robes, pulls out his “manhood,” and directs “a stream of urine in the general direction of the olive grove where Dany’s gold pavilion stood among the burnt trees.” It starts something of a trend, with several hundred of his fellow citizens following his lead, pissing down through the ramparts at the invaders. It is enough to finally move Daenerys to action, and, in so doing, Martin skillfully lays out the intricacies of strategy, loyalty, and motivation that bind the disparate – and, at times, mutually exclusive – elements of her army together: her bloodriders are too precious to her, as members of her Queensguard and as the lynchpins of her meager Dothraki horde both; Ser Jorah, her most trusted advisor, is too irreplaceable; and Daario Naharis is too necessary, as he is her only means of keeping a hold on the various sellsword companies (yes, in the novel, there are multiple ones) currently in her service.
The answer, then, is Strong Belwas, an eunuch bodyguard sent by Magister Illyrio Mopatis (the wealthy patron of the Targaryens most heavily featured in the series premiere, “Winter Is Coming” [episode 101]) in the previous book who just so happens to also be a former slave from Meereen’s fighting pits. When all the others around her rage at her choice, Dany’s response crystalizes the precarious tightrope she has to constantly walk as a would-be ruler:
“Strong Belwas was a slave here in the fighting pits. If this highborn Ozank should fall to such, the Great Masters will be shamed, while if he wins… well, it is a poor victory for one so noble, one that Meereen can take no pride in.” And unlike Ser Jorah, Daario, […] and her three bloodriders, the eunuch did not lead troops, plan battles, or give her counsel. He does nothing but eat and boast and bellow at Arstan. Belwas was the man she could most easily spare. And it was time she learned what sort of protector Magister Illyrio had sent her.
Belwas does not disappoint, though not without drawing the match out and making it something of a spectacle – exactly what he was trained to do for all his years as a slave fighter. He dodges the hero’s 14-foot-long lance during the first two charges (“A chivalrous man would dismount,” Barristan the Bold comments), and then, on the third, he slices through the horse’s legs, forcing Oznak to fight on foot. There is a brief but intense swordfight, which results in Belwas planting his blade right in the center of the Meereen champion’s forehead. Oznak zo Pahl’s head is subsequently severed from his body and held aloft by Belwas for all of Meereen to see. And when the defenders on the walls shoot their crossbows at the former slave in anger, he merely turns around, pulls down his trousers, and shits in the direction of the city, using the former hero’s striped cloak to wipe himself. The jubilation from Dany’s ranks is long and raucous, and then the queen and her councilors begin strategizing how best to take the city.
What’s interesting in the television show’s rendition of this scene is not what was cut – having the city’s hero strut about and hurtle epithets for an hour is, obviously, out of the question, and reducing the fight to just one vicious sword slash saves on both shooting as well as screen time – but in what was changed: it is Barristan who is dismissive of the challenge, while Jorah is the one who is attuned to its propagandistic benefits. The switch is not as inconsequential as it might initially seem; it is fully within Selmy’s character to view any situation initially and fundamentally through the prism of honor, having been a member of the Kingsguard for nearly all his life, while Mormont, being a disillusioned pragmatist, has had to concentrate on nothing but his survival through his many years of exile.
The only immediately apparent explanation for the change-up is the showrunners wishing to continue Dany’s reliance on the ultimate wisdom and guidance of Ser Jorah – though past experience warns us to wait until the end of the season, if not longer, before making any final educated guesses, as alterations of this type are usually setup for a television payoff down the road. (Not having Ser Loras Tyrell be named into King Joffrey Baratheon’s Kingsguard at the end of season two [“Valar Morghulis,” 210], a seemingly inexplicable mistake, was to allow the knight to be made into Queen Regent Cersei’s betrothed the following year [“Kissed by Fire,” 305], a part which was played by Loras’s older brother in the novels.)
Another change that is immediately explained is Daenerys’s instant interest in engaging Oznak, which is, somewhat surprisingly, for a rather utilitarian purpose: “I have something to say to the people of Meereen,” she says, but “first I will need this one to be quiet.” The khaleesi of Game of Thrones is a slightly more dramatic character, one more willing to engage in theatrical spectacle for the benefit of her followers and enemies alike, so it comes as no great surprise that she has a stirring speech to make when arriving at the site of her next conquest. (Similarly, it also isn’t a surprise that executive producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss wished to add a bit more visual heft to her monologue by catapulting slaves’ manacles into the city, another deviation from the source material that is wholly invented.) And, ultimately, of course, the long, drawn-out process of siegecraft may be appropriate for a 1,125-page novel, but it’s less than ideal for a nine-hour season of television.
There are two more adaptive modifications that are worth pointing out, and both are ultimately for the benefit of Daario Naharis. In the show, Dany’s interior decision-making as to who to send as her own champion is made verbal, and by having it be an actual back-and-forth dialogue with her attendants, it avoids coming off as the stilted monologue that it otherwise could have been (see Lord Petyr Baelish’s lengthy “sexposition” speech in “You Win or You Die” ) and also serves to help deepen Daario’s characterization – not to mention help further his relationship with Daenerys Stormborn along.
Furthermore, the way that Daario dispatches Oznak zo Pahl may be quite different from Strong Belwas’s methodology in the book, but it is equally revealing of their respective personalities: the sellsword is ingratiating, funny, and shockingly, brutally efficient, making short work of whatever obstacle may be in his path. In this way, Weiss and Benioff come remarkably close to the same level of bird-slaying that Martin pulls off with the scene, even if it is in the service of an ultimately different effect.
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”
Episode 402: “The Lion and the Rose”
Marc N. Kleinhenz is the features editor for Tower of the Hand and the publisher of Dr. Steven Attewell’s remarkably in-depth Race for the Iron Throne: Historical and Political Analysis of A Game of Thrones. He has written for The Huffington Post, co-created and -hosted two podcasts, and has even taught English in Japan.