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: “Oathkeeper” (404)
Scene: Littlefinger’s cabin revelation
When Lord Petyr Baelish pays Lady Sansa Lannister a visit in her cabin aboard his ship, a tumble of revelations (inadvertently) spew forth: he’s taking her to the Eyrie, where he’s going to marry her aunt, Lysa Arryn; he’s the one at least partially responsible for King Joffrey’s death; the method of the assassination was poison, delivered through the necklace that Sansa wore that day; and, finally, by means of the transition from this scene to the next, Littlefinger’s partner in crime, Lady Olenna Tyrell, is unmasked.
It’s a wonderfully dense scene, particularly given its short, three-minute duration, but the true gem lies within what can only be called the growing sentience of the former Sansa Stark. The shrewdness she shows in her line of questioning – when she asks Petyr if he killed Joffrey, one has the sense that she’s been working it over and over in her mind and has inexorably deduced the truth of the matter – is a marked difference from the Sansa that we are introduced to at the very beginning of the show, whose only concerns lie with her mother brushing her hair and the dreadful possibility that she won’t be accepted as the baby-making machine for the crown prince (“Winter Is Coming,” episode 101).
Indeed, not only is the shell-shocked lady able to piece together Lord Baelish’s involvement in the plot, she’s also able, almost effortlessly, to whittle down the list of suspects who acted as his accomplice, using a deft combination of logic and intuition. And, finally, the cherry on top is her bravery – or is that her naivety? – to essentially call Littlefinger a liar to his face. When he gives her a rather evasive rationale for why he committed regicide, she flatly tells him, “I don’t believe you”; when he explains how he couldn’t trust his “friend” Joffrey, a vicious boy with a crown on his head, she responds with “Who could trust you?” much to Petyr’s surprise (and, possibly, delight). Not even Tyrion Lannister, who knew for a fact that Littlefinger was lying about him and the dagger used in the attempt to kill Bran Stark (“Lord Snow,” 103), ever called him out on it. The little lady is learning how to play the game of thrones, whether she realizes it or not.
The corresponding scene(s) in the book has the same basic thrust, but its particulars are inverted. In A Storm of Swords, Ser Dontos Hollard had given Sansa explicit instructions to meet him in the Red Keep’s godswood the night of the royal wedding, and she took the pandemonium over Joffrey’s death as her cue to make her escape. It is when she’s switching out her clothes for a clandestine outfit she had stashed in the bole of a tree the night before last that she makes the terrible discovery: one of the jewels in her spun silver hair net (yes, it’s a hair accessory in the novel, as opposed to a necklace) is missing, and, immediately, “a sudden terror filled her. Her heart hammered against her ribs, and, for an instant, she held her breath.” Ser Dontos had told her that the hair net was magic, that it would take her home, and that she had to wear it to the wedding – explanations that obviously played to Sansa’s hallmark superficiality as a character and gullibility as a child (remember: she is several years older in the television series).
She instantly confronts the inebriated fool when he arrives in the godswood, but he drunkenly shushes her. “‘No murder. He choked on his pigeon pie.’ Dontos chortled. ‘Oh, tasty, tasty pie. Silver and stones, that’s all it was, silver and stone and magic.’” She doesn’t believe him, but the added shock of hearing that Tyrion has been arrested for the deed makes her pliable enough to be escorted out of the city and to the waiting rowboat.
The reveal of Lord Petyr’s involvement in her rescue from King’s Landing is a surprise, just as it is in the HBO show, but one that is profoundly greater: unlike Game of Thrones, which had Littlefinger directly approach Lady Sansa from the get-go (“Valar Morghulis,” 210), the source material always had him go through Ser Dontos, from the beginning of book two onwards. The fact that the fool was merely a cat’s paw in service to Littlefinger is a delicious bit of mind-fuckery – and when added to the quick succession of other revelations that follows in this chapter and the next, the payoff to the rather slow and oftentimes dreary throughline of Sansa’s escape from the capital instantly becomes a rip-roaring rollercoaster ride. It’s easy to see why showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff wanted to spread the many ups and downs across two entire seasons instead of two individual chapters.
If Sansa’s intuition into the very existence of the murder conspiracy was heightened in the novel, it is her growth as a thinking, feeling character which is up-played in the show. When Lord Baelish gives her his explanation for Joffrey’s assassination, there is no defiance, no questioning, no insight that sees right through his story:
“I had no motive. Besides, I am a thousand leagues away in the Vale. Always keep your foes confused. If they are never certain who you are or what you want, they cannot know what you are like to do next. Sometimes the best way to baffle them is to make moves that have no purpose, or even seem to work against you. Remember that, Sansa, when you come to play the game.”
“What… what game?”
“The only game. The game of thrones. […] Put Joffrey from your mind, sweetling. Dontos, Tyrion, all of them. They will never trouble you again. You are safe now – that’s all that matters. You are safe with me, and sailing home.”
And that is the end of that.
This difference in characterization is partially the result of the change in media – on the written page, the impact of the murder of Ser Dontos is mitigated by the swirl of Sansa’s internal shock, whereas, on the screen, it is far harder to obfuscate the violence and malevolence that Littlefinger exudes – but also partially the conscious decision of the showrunners to make Sansa something of a stronger character and player both, to pay off George R.R. Martin’s slow-burning character arc in a far faster and, just possibly, more dramatic way.
Given the episode’s finale – the introduction of the so-called Night’s King and the revelation of how White Walkers are born, which is never even alluded to in the thousands upon thousands of pages in the novels – this interest in paying off the overarching narrative’s various storylines is right at home.
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”
Episode 403: “Breaker of Chains”
Marc N. Kleinhenz is the features editor for Tower of the Hand and the publisher of Remy Verhoeve’s nerdtastic Waiting for Winter: Re-Reading A Clash of Kings, Part II. He has written for The Huffington Post, co-created and -hosted two podcasts, and has even taught English in Japan.