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: “First of His Name” (405)
Scene: Littlefinger’s accidental revelation
In a novel filled with unexpected reversals of fortune, giant battle sequences, and, of course, murderous wedding scenes, one of A Storm of Swords’s single biggest, most breathtaking moments is when Lord Petyr Baelish’s conspiratorial dealings are laid bare.
The importance of this revelation is hard to overstate. Littlefinger’s involvement behind the scenes of the narrative thus far is nearly all-encompassing; everything from the death of Lord Jon Arryn, the first Hand of the King witnessed in the series, to Eddard Stark’s deployment to King’s Landing to the War of the Five Kings itself is all his doing. The character is the closest George R.R. Martin gets to having his very own Darth Sidious, the main antagonist of George Lucas’s six-picture Star Wars saga (what? There’s more SW movies coming out? Nope – haven’t heard of ‘em), and this scene is the equivalent of that other George revealing that Lord Sidious and Supreme Chancellor Palpatine are one and the same.
Littlefinger’s unmasking, in fact, is so dramatically pregnant, it serves as the cliffhanger ending of the entire novel, and though it may lack a certain emotional devastation that the Red Wedding (“The Rains of Castamere,” episode 309) contains, it’s nonetheless one of the most anticipated moments for book-readers to see delivered on screen.
Imagine everyone’s surprise, then, that the scene not only lands right in the middle of the season, but that it also is slipped into an otherwise expository sequence that has Sansa delivered to the Eyrie and Lord Baelish marrying the former Lysa Tully.
To explain: Lysa’s extreme candor in the murder of her husband and the blaming of the Lannisters (“Winter Is Coming,” 101) is lifted from the later scene of her extreme jealousy in the sudden presence of Sansa Lannister, when she’s had too much to drink and allows more than she should to slip out in her fury. In the show, such an admission causes Littlefinger a certain level of discomfort, moving him to shut the wench up by agreeing to her advanced marriage schedule; in the book, the consequences are a bit more drastic, given the presence of other characters who are certainly not meant to hear of such sordid machinations. It is an interesting move on the part of showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss, subtly but irrevocably changing the storytelling cadence of the entire throughline.
As with all the other adaptive maneuverings, there are certain explanations for and ramifications caused by the move. First, the rationale: the writer-producers have repeatedly stated their intention of shifting the dramatic arc of the typical Game of Thrones season forward by several episodes this year – and if Joffrey can die in only the second installment (“The Lion and the Rose,” 402), there’s nothing stating that Storm of Swords’s final chapter can’t be similarly advanced. But since there are certain elements that are more appropriately reserved for the later slots, as in Martin’s original telling, Weiss and Benioff ended up splitting the difference, delivering the information of Petyr and Lysa’s secret Sith ways early and saving the dramatic fallout for later. It is a strategy that has actually been employed several times in the series already, perhaps most noticeably with the previous season’s arranged marriage of Tyrion Lannister and the former Sansa Stark (“Second Sons,” 308), drawing what was only one or two chapters in the source material into a several-episode-long story thread (which, ironically, also heavily featured Lord Baelish. Mayhaps the showrunners have had a particular game plan for him all along?).
(And then there’s the little issue of moving several characters’ – such as Theon Greyjoy’s, Jaime Lannister’s, Daenerys Targaryen’s, and, now, apparently, Sansa’s – material from books four and five forward to the current season, helping to pad out this year’s narrative while simultaneously trimming the fat from future episode rosters [and ensuring that what will ultimately be 7,000 pages of story can be told in only six or seven seasons]. What is television, after all, if not a creature of convention, and what is good writing if not the disruption of the expected?)
The ramifications of such a move are, at least in the short-term, to strangely complicate the rollout of exposition to the viewer. There is already a big twist in the scene where Littlefinger and Lady Arryn reunite: the fact that they’ve been romantically involved years ago, back during Petyr’s puppy dog phase with Catelyn Stark – and that, as a corollary, all his bluster to King Joffrey’s small council that he was more than sly enough to wed and bed the lady of the Vale (a plot point substantially played down in Game of Thrones’s rendition [“Walk of Punishment,” 303]) was just another layer of bullshit. On the page, this inference was proof enough of Lord Littlefinger’s game-playing acumen, a hint to whet one’s appetite for the main course that would be coming in the following chapter; in the show, it seems that Benioff and Weiss wanted to make that statement a bit more flagrantly, putting down all of Baelish’s cards on the table with one grand flourish. It is not an altogether incorrect move, given the sheer density of characters, locations, and plot lines that inundate every single episode (if it hasn’t been said already, Thrones will go down in television history as being the single most narratively dense production); it may constitute a bigger info-dump for viewers upfront, but it promises more smooth sailing down the road.
Well, as “smooth” as Martin is capable of.
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”
Episode 404: “Oathkeeper”
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.