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 Laws of Gods and Men” (406)
Scene: Tyrion’s grand demand
The episode-ending, season-stealing, award-winning performance that Peter Dinklage delivers in his demand for a trail by combat is, of course, an especially potent scene, one that will be hard for the actor to top in subsequent installments (though he will certainly be given the material with which to try). What makes it even more notable is that its translation to the screen is nearly identical to George R.R. Martin’s original conceptualization, from its location to the blocking of characters to nearly every word of dialogue, but it still packs quite a different dramatic punch – even beyond Dinklage’s emotional intensity.
The culprit here, as is so often the case with HBO’s flagship series, is the reshuffling of material that both precedes and runs concurrently with the scene, creating an entirely different narrative context for everything to play within. Showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff have specifically trimmed and tucked two specific throughlines, and analyzing both not only shows how stories can be most poignantly told through small details, but also reveals how the two writer-producers approach the overarching narrative of Game of Thrones.
The first change involves the man who is arguably the main character in the sequence in question: Hand of the King Tywin Lannister. His strategizing in the novel A Storm of Swords – attempting to force his son to confess and take the black – is largely the same, though with decidedly different dynamics and hugely changed deliveries. Here, it isn’t Jaime Lannister who arranges a plea bargain for his dwarven brother, but Kevan Lannister, Lord Tywin’s brother (and Lancel’s father); it is Tywin’s idea to have Tyrion be extricated entirely from King’s Landing (and, not coincidentally, from House Lannister), and it is Kevan’s familial duty to convince the Imp to take it, despite his personal conviction that his nephew is, indeed, a kingslayer and kinslayer both. And what’s interesting to note here is that, as the trial continues to grind on over the course of the next three days, Tyrion starts to seriously consider the offer – and, indeed, he may have very well gone for it, if not for his fundamental questioning of his lord father’s trustworthiness and, of course, for the ultimate, game-changing appearance of Shae.
Why make the edit? The minor explanation is that, despite his continued (background) presence in the books, Uncle Kevan hasn’t been seen since the end of season two (“The Prince of Winterfell,” episode 208), and the showrunners tend to consistently deploy these characters throughout the sequence of episodes if they are to sprout up and interact with the main throughline in any significant way (such as keeping both Robb Stark and Theon Greyjoy front and center in the narrative despite lengthy, book-long absences in Martin’s telling, or making such ancillary characters as Talisa Maegyr or Ramsay Snow into main [that is to say, listed in the opening credits] players). And not only has Ser Kevan been out of sight, out of mind for too long, he’s also been nothing but a peripheral presence in the show, making his dramatic impact at this key moment too minimal.
Much more importantly, however, the character of Ser Jaime needed more servicing (in the eyes of Benioff and Weiss, at least), helping to further propel his character development while simultaneously filling in all the extra episodes that have been devoted to Storm of Swords. Making him offer to rescind his sacred vows after all speaks volumes about Jaime’s love of and devotion to his brother, and it makes his transformation from would-be child-killing creep to redeemable, sympathetic would-be hero in the audience’s mind all the more complete. (Not to mention the simple fact that such a change makes the material in question infinitely more dramatic and, therefore, infinitely more filmable, which is also something that the executive producers keep their eyes on.)
It also proportionately makes Lord Tywin all the more despicable, despite his own heart-warming moments of affection with Arya Stark in the second season; the murder of his grandson is simply yet another opportunity for house advancement – and what can be more important than the continuation of the family line, despite Tywin’s many nieces and nephews? (Though, to be fair on this point, Game of Thrones has the consistent habit of paring back the number of branches of the various family trees, attempting to make the story as streamlined as possible for the typically-overwhelmed average viewer, so we honestly do not know how many other Lannisters there are lurking in the background.) That his character did the same in the novel is of no consequence – there, it appeared to be an attempt at salvaging an intractable situation; here, it comes off as an active, almost gleeful, manipulation.
Then there is the other major alteration at work in the scene: Tyrion’s decision to demand a trail by combat. In Storm of Swords, this is essentially his first thought at how best to acquit himself, given the sheer number of witnesses that Queen Regent Cersei has arrayed against him (which we directly get to witness in the television rendition) and given his success with the tactic previously (“A Golden Crown,” 106). Indeed, a large number of scenes before or even during the trail are dedicated to this very possibility, with Kevan warning Tyrion against such a maneuver – Cersei already has her champion in mind, and she’d love to pit him against whatever hapless creature Tyrion can scrounge up – and Tyrion attempting to feel Ser Bronn of the Blackwater out on the possibility. The former, of course, has been completely cut, and the latter has presumably been moved to next week’s installment (“Mockingbird,” 407). In Game of Thrones, then, Tyrion may have considered such a seemingly remote option during his imprisonment, but the first the audience gets to hear of it is during Dinklage’s dramatic delivery – certainly one of the key reasons why the reshuffling of the material was made in the first place.
Another reason for the change is, simply, the standard level of narrative condensation (as it were) that the showrunners apply to each and every chapter of the source material; in this instance, a three-day, extremely drawn-out trial, in which Tyrion continually – and fruitlessly – attempts to sketch out a counter-strategy while being held at arm’s length from friends and family alike, gets compacted into one major sequence, with just one short recess (for Jaime and Tywin to make their deal). This, also, compacts the emotional intensity of the sequence, reinforcing the heft of the cliffhanger ending.
When all of these edits are taken together, Tyrion’s anger-fueled tirade becomes a double-whammy: not only a retaliation against Shae’s fictitious testimony, but also a repudiation of Lord Tywin’s grand ambition and, indeed, life work. Much more than it ever appears in the novel, the scene becomes, at its very core, an extraordinarily vicious duel between the outcast son and the proud father, an attempt to cause as much physical and emotional trauma to one another as possible before the bitter end.
In this way, material that is presented in a more detached, conceptual way is reduced to a bare-bones, visceral depiction – more appropriate to television storytelling, perhaps, and certainly an intriguing alternative viewpoint into psychologically complex and narratively compelling characters.
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”
Episode 405: “First of His Name”
Marc N. Kleinhenz is the features editor for Tower of the Hand and the author of It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones, Vol. I, which covers Game of Thrones’s first season. He has written for The Huffington Post, co-created and -hosted two podcasts, and has even taught English in Japan.