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 Mountain and the Viper” (408)
Scene: The duel
The duel between Prince Oberyn Martell of Dorne and Ser Gregor Clegane is one of the most faithful sequences to make the transition from the page to the screen, from its lines of dialogue to (most of) its blocking to its climatic denouement. All of this actually makes what differences there are all the more revealing of the adaptation process, generally, and showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff’s approach to and strategies with George R.R. Martin’s narrative, specifically.
The changes actually start before the fight does, when Tyrion Lannister goes to attend his champion, who is preparing in his own chambers. When the dwarf enters, four of Oberyn’s younger Dornishmen lordlings – including Lord Dagos Manwoody, whom A Podcast of Ice and Fire has become so unnaturally obsessed with – are dressing him for battle, including a chainmail byrnie and an open-faced helm. A long and somewhat involved conversation (but aren’t they all in A Song of Ice and Fire?) ensues between the Imp and the Viper, forming a bookend to their first discussion: Oberyn reveals that he and his sister were to be – if his and, apparently, Tyrion’s mothers were to have their way – married to Cersei and Jaime; that Tyrion and his lady wife are invited to come down to Dorne for an extended stay after the duel (to cause as much political trouble for Lord Tywin Lannister and King Tommen in King’s Landing as humanly possible); and that Lord Tywin had scorned and insulted the Martells even back then, earning their enmity from the first possible chance.
It is no surprise that the showrunners altered this lengthy preamble – beyond the concerns of dry time, the condensing of locations and characters to the bare minimum has been a remarkably consistent hallmark of their adaptation, not to mention of television production, more generally. And the removal of all of the Viper’s armor, even his helm, makes for a much more instantaneous understanding of his tactics and, more importantly, of his personality than a description or discussion of what constitutes only a partial suit of armor ever could, particularly for an audience that isn’t even remotely familiar with medieval combat. Expedience triumphs over realism here – another showrunner trademark (though, in this case, it is negligible, at best).
The most telling difference between the two versions, however, is Benioff and Weiss’s inclusion of humor. In the book, when Tyrion asks his would-be savior if he should be drinking before battle, the other promptly responds, “I always drink before battle.” In the series, Oberyn snaps off the droll, “You learned this during your years in the fighting pits?” before continuing on (a line that simultaneously manages to reference Daenerys Targaryen’s storyline in Meereen, something which the executive producers have also mastered over the years, forming their own, cross-referential version of exposition or backstory.) Tyrion, for his part, gets his own zinger, thanking the gods that a man’s size doesn’t matter when on his back. And then there’s Grand Maester Pycelle, a character not even specifically mentioned as being at the fight in the novel, who shines in his continued mistreatment at the hands of House Lannister.
Why the injection of so much levity into a scene that is anything but? There is, undoubtedly, a certain element of playing to the lowest common denominator here – a strategy which Shakespeare himself mastered five centuries ago – but there’s also, on the other end of the spectrum, the attempt to make a sharper contrast with the gore and tragedy of the climax. That Weiss and Benioff do this helps to make the proceedings more multi-dimensional, on the one hand, but it also prevents them from reaching the same unrelenting level of intensity that Martin does, on the other (not that Oberyn’s and Ser Gregor Clegane’s duel needs any help on this front).
A smaller alteration on the face of it is the changing of the duel’s venue, from the Red Keep’s outer ward in the book to a location outside of the castle in the show. Both manage to hit essentially the same marks in terms of size and capacity of people, but the crowd is much more of a participant on the page. As Tyrion himself observes:
It looked as though a thousand people had come to see if he would live or die. They lined the castle wallwalks and elbowed one another on the steps of keeps and towers. They watched from the stable doors, from windows and bridges, from balconies and roofs. And the yard was packed with them, so many that the gold cloaks and the knights of the Kingsguard had to shove them back to make enough room for the fight. Some had dragged out chairs to watch more comfortably, while others perched on barrels. […] Some of the onlookers even had small children sitting on their shoulders, to get a better view. They shouted and pointed at the sight of Tyrion.
What’s more, as the fight continues to wage on (although never explicitly stated, it seems that the duel lasts for the better part of an hour), the spectators continue to edge forward inch by inch to get a better view of the action, despite the efforts of the Kingsguard to restrain them.
The sheer complexities of managing so many extras, let alone attempting to coordinate their actions or actively incorporate them throughout the set – especially on a location shoot – was undoubtedly enough to make the crew instantly forget filming Martin’s written depiction. And while the executive producers managed to wring some truly impressive visuals of the Red Keep looming in the background out of the switch-up, there is one dramatic flourish that they had to forego, when the Red Viper is cornered by the Mountain That Rides:
The stable was behind [Oberyn]. Spectators screamed and shoved at each other to get out of the way. One stumbled into Oberyn’s back. Ser Gregor hacked down with all his savage strength. The Red Viper threw himself sideways, rolling. The luckless stableboy behind him was not so quick. As his arm rose to protect his face, Gregor’s sword took it off between elbow and shoulder. “Shut UP!” the Mountain howled at the stableboy’s scream, and this time he swung the blade sideways, sending the top half of the lad’s head across the yard in a spray of blood and brains. Hundreds of spectators suddenly seemed to lose all interest in the guilt or innocence of Tyrion Lannister, judging by the way they pushed and shoved at each other to escape the yard.
Instead of asking why Benioff and Weiss cut (no pun intended) this bit of business, it may perhaps be more illuminating to ask why Martin decided to include it in the first place. In what is one of the book series’s most prevalent thematic motifs, this utter disregard for the stableboy’s life actively reinforces the thankless and valueless role the smallfolk play in medieval society – and it also aptly illustrates Gregor Clegane’s psychology, to boot. The Game of Thrones fix here was to simply move this particular sub-scene to the previous episode (“Mockingbird,” episode 407), and have Ser Gregor execute prisoners instead of madly hacking away at an innocent bystander. While it’s not an exact correlation, it still gets the point across (again, no pun intended) nicely. (And the visual flair of seeing the Mountain slice off a stableboy’s head and having his armor get covered in gore, meanwhile, got transferred to the very end of the duel, when he crushes Prince Oberyn’s head in in a much grislier fashion.)
The final change of note is, perhaps, in some ways, the most subtle: the last/lost character beats of the two real protagonists of the scene, Tyrion and Queen Regent Cersei. When the Viper’s Dornish spear gets impaled into the Mountain’s torso, Cersei’s “wail of fury” rings out along with the crack of the ashwood shaft. And after his champion is so savagely dispatched, Tyrion finds himself on his knees retching up his breakfast.
The showrunners, obviously, opted for a much more stoic response from their version of the characters, removing any words or bodily fluids from the proceedings. While it’s imminently understandable to let the actors’ body language speak for itself – what can possibly beat Peter Dinklage’s face in that final shot? – it’s also emblematic of just how differently these two, much more than any of the other characters, are handled in the series: they are much more glacial in their composures and far less volatile in their interactions, making the slightest glance the equivalent of a screamed line of dialogue.
It is the fight between inner and outer realities, then, that becomes the true highlight of the duel.
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”
Episode 406: “The Laws of Gods and Men”
Episode 407: “Mockingbird”
Marc N. Kleinhenz is the features editor for Tower of the Hand and a freelancer who has written for a total of 23 sites. Some of his non-Game of Thrones work includes theme park analysis and interviews with Batman writers and artists.