Anatomy of a Throne: “The Mountain and the Viper”
By Marc N. Kleinhenz on in Editorial.

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.

Previous Installments

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.


34 Comments

  1. howland reed
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    Long live House Manwoody!

  2. Mormegil
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8Qx10IuKLs

    Anton Lesser is in 5 episodes next season and has one more appearance this season which has something to do with the Mountain.

  3. Chris77
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    I have only just watched the episode, to be honest I dreaded it. Since Oberyn was such genius casting I liked him far more than in the books so I actually dreaded his demise even more than the Red Wedding. Before I watched the episode, I reread the chapter, to steel me and I was astounded how true to the book they were.

    I am glad now to have gotten this behind me. I don’t know what will happen in the final two books, but For now, I think the worst is behind me…

    Long live House Martell!

  4. Laurentius
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    Well written!

    Although, reading the books I never pictured the fight as going on for an hour, rather more like the time it was given in the show version.

  5. NewJeffCT
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    Ugh, by not having the Mountain speared through and pinned to the ground on his back, they ruined the whole fight for me.

    Just kidding… they did a great job with the duel, though I wouldn’t have minded a bit of dialogue with Ellaria and Tyrion:
    ES: “Oberyn is toying with him”
    TL: “The Mountain is too bloody big to be anybody’s toy”

  6. ash
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting article – I’d like to see more of these. I don’t mind changes in the book, for the most part I think the writers have moved the story along in a way that Martin didn’t. But I do like knowing how these decisions were made and what factors go into them, factors that often have to do with technical problems that I never would have thought about. Now for your next article, I want to know how you guys decided to change Sansas arc, a change that I think is really fascinating

  7. Dammit Patrice
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    Excellent analysis. Very well done!

  8. rth758p
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    How the battle should have went: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8oOi6JOXEQ

  9. StrokemeMarg
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

    I noticed something while re-watching the episode;, when it looks like Oberyn is going to win, the camera cuts to the faces in the royal booth. Jaime is the only happy camper, Mace isn’t happy, not Tywin, Cersei noticeably so, Pycelle (understandable after what Tyrion did to him), and even Vary’s isn’t happy. Why would Vary’s not be happy with a Oberyn victory? I know from the books why Mace wouldn’t be, Highgarden and Dorne are enemies, but the show hasn’t stressed that.
    Still why the gloom look on Vary’s face when it appeared Oberyn was going to win, interesting, because the director and writers wanted it that way. What do readers not know about Vary’s ultimate motives, that D&D know?

    Another item of note, Jaime isn’t wearing his Kingsguard armor, surely at an event such as this he would be?

    Below is the pic showing the reaction in the booth to Oberyn’s apparent near win.

    http://cdn.film-book.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/nikolaj-coster-waldau-charles-dance-lena-headey-julian-glover-conleth-hill-game-of-thrones-the-mountain-and-the-viper-01-1280×720.png

  10. Grey Ghost
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

    I really missed the puking scene, its one of my favourite moments. Going into the episode, I had hoped it would start with Tyrion enjoying a hearty breakfast topped with Dornish peppers.

    The Dornish subplot during the fight, ending with a splash of Dornish peppers upon the floor. And the reminder it wasn’t just Oberyn we were rooting for.

    Tyrion’s parting thought and laughter are just priceless :D

    But yeah, the show did good, eventually. The head will haunt me, and the beetles will taunt me.

    Nice writing dood. I hope we can look forward to an epic Wall one next week :)

  11. Varymyr's Foreskin
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

    I did the same thing. it’s remarkable how the asshats over at the site whose name may not be spoken are whining about this scene. Losers. I mean that with love. And by love, I mean hatred.

    Chris77:
    Before I watched the episode, I reread the chapter, to steel me and I was astounded how true to the book they were.

  12. Marc N. Kleinhenz
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 12:10 am | Permalink

    Chris77:
    I have only just watched the episode, to be honest I dreaded it. Since Oberyn was such genius casting I liked him far more than in the books so I actually dreaded his demise even more than the Red Wedding. Before I watched the episode, I reread the chapter, to steel me and I was astounded how true to the book they were.

    I agree — Pedro Pascal was just spot-on. It was sad watching him the whole season, knowing that he had to go.

    =(

    ~M.

  13. Marc N. Kleinhenz
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    Laurentius:
    Well written!

    Although, reading the books I never pictured the fight as going on for an hour, rather more like the time it was given in the show version.

    Thank you!

    Maybe it was just me seeing the whole fight in Bullet Time in my mind’s eye…

    ;)

    ~M.

  14. Marc N. Kleinhenz
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 12:13 am | Permalink

    Dammit Patrice:
    Excellent analysis. Very well done!

    I’m glad you can’t see me blushing right now — it’s so embarrassing!

    Thank you for the kind words.

    ~M.

  15. Zack Luye
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    Marc N. Kleinhenz,

    Blush on my friend, blush on

  16. Marc N. Kleinhenz
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 12:21 am | Permalink

    StrokemeMarg:
    I noticed something while re-watching the episode;, when it looks like Oberyn is going to win, the camera cuts to the faces in the royal booth. Jaime is the only happy camper, Mace isn’t happy, not Tywin, Cersei noticeably so, Pycelle (understandable after what Tyrion did to him), and even Vary’s isn’t happy. Why would Vary’s not be happy with a Oberyn victory? I know from the books why Mace wouldn’t be, Highgarden and Dorne are enemies, but the show hasn’t stressed that.
    Still why the gloom look on Vary’s face when it appeared Oberyn was going to win, interesting, because the director and writers wanted it that way. What do readers not know about Vary’s ultimate motives, that D&D know?

    That could merely be Lord Varys’s mask he wears for public consumption; it would not do for the Spider to be cheering on the Imp when the royal family is actively hoping for his conviction.

    Then again, maybe he’s just passing gas.

    ~M.

  17. Marc N. Kleinhenz
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 12:23 am | Permalink

    Grey Ghost:
    I really missed the puking scene, its one of my favourite moments. Going into the episode, I had hoped it would start with Tyrion enjoying a hearty breakfast topped with Dornish peppers.

    The Dornish subplot during the fight, ending with a splash of Dornish peppers upon the floor. And the reminder it wasn’t just Oberyn we were rooting for.

    Tyrion’s parting thought and laughter are just priceless :D

    But yeah, the show did good, eventually. The head will haunt me, and the beetles will taunt me.

    Nice writing dood. I hope we can look forward to an epic Wall one next week :)

    Oh, man — no pressure here! >.<

    I actually have absolutely no idea what to tackle next week, so any and all suggestions would be welcome.

    And thank you for the compliment. =)

    ~M.

  18. GeekFurious
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 12:25 am | Permalink

    Laurentius:
    Well written!

    Although, reading the books I never pictured the fight as going on for an hour, rather more like the time it was given in the show version.

    Ditto. Especially when you consider how George has written most fights. I pictured it over quickly, pretty much like in the show.

  19. Luka Nieto
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 1:11 am | Permalink

    Good article overrall. I enjoyed it very much. However, an hour long fight is absolutely ridiculous. The show’s version was already a bit longer than an average duel to the death would be in real life, but as a show it has to be epic. But an hour? That’s laughable. If GRRM gets so mad at the show for not using helmets, I doubt he would like —let alone write— an hour long duel to the death.

  20. David Marcenaro DeBernardis
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 1:37 am | Permalink

    We’re missing something big here. The writers and showrunners cut Oberyn’s conversation with Tyrion, and shortened others. Yet they had time for the polarizing and ultimately pointless conversation about the made up Orson Lannister crushing beetles. I get what they were trying to do with the scene. It was a decent metaphor for the gods, and actions of man, society etc. However, it was SIX MINUTES that could have been spent on Oberyn and Tyrion, or other important plot elements. There could have been more Pedro Pascal screentime!

  21. Robin Moss
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 4:14 am | Permalink

    An hour for a duel like that really is ludicrous. Note, even in the book the only time descriptions is that it ‘seems’ to go on for a while. Has anyone here ever actually fought in some form of competition? I do tae kwondo and am fairly strong and fit, and two 90 second rounds of competitive full-contact sparring with a 30 second breather in between leaves me gasping for breath with heavy limbs. And my body armour won’t weigh half of what even Oberyn’s light chainmail and leather would.

    I could see the duel being a just little longer as per the book version; should have taken a mite longer to wear down Gregor’s ‘freakish’ strength, and it was so awesomely staged I would have happily watched a bit more! Absolutely brilliant.

  22. Greatjon of Slumber
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Marc very nice piece.

    I want to throw some love in the direction of Hafthor Bjornnsen too, though. The guy is massive and true to Bronn’s description in that he’s quicker than you’d think. Not as tall as the others, but he certainly projected the menace very well and his voice did not sound dubbed or sound like Ian Whyte did in Season 2. He did a fine job.

  23. Ashara D
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    David Marcenaro DeBernardis,

    It seems that it was more important in the context of the show!story to emphasize the brothers’ shared childhood and genuine love for each other than it was to continue to emphasize a rivalry that is already well established with the audience involving a character who is about to exit the story. Made sense to me given events in the upcoming final episode.

    Thanks for doing these well-written and -reasoned articles, Mr. K!

  24. A Molehill of a Mountain
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Marc N. Kleinhenz,

    Then again, maybe he’s just passing gas.

    Your most insightful analysis to date :-D

    Seriously though, blush on. Thank you for the effort that you put into these and the insights that you share.

  25. Dickey Madden
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    StrokemeMarg,

    Nobody plays the Game of Thrones better than Varys. He knows he has to look suitably upset at the Mountain losing or he might be in the arena next!

  26. BlackBloc
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Personally I’m not seeing any disappointment on Varys, unlike Tywin, Cersei, Pycelle and Mace. It just looks like his generic Bitchy Resting Face syndrome to me.

  27. NoPuristsAllowed
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    This was an absolutely spot one, wonderful article. It puts that horrid harpy Linda’s anti-fight screed to shame.

  28. NoPuristsAllowed
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Varymyr’s Foreskin:
    I did the same thing. it’s remarkable how the asshats over at the site whose name may not be spoken are whining about this scene. Losers. I mean that with love. And by love, I mean hatred.

    Exactly!

  29. Ours is the Fury
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    NoPuristsAllowed,

    I don’t agree with Westeros’s take on a lot of things, but can we steer clear of these gendered insults?

  30. JOberyn
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    I wish they replaced that entire conversation with the Red Viper’s story about the Tyrell Lord and the velvet rope. It was one of the most insightful conversations between him and Tyrion that shed some light on his thought process.

    But yea, that beetle story did nothing for me.

    Still a fantastic episode!


    David Marcenaro DeBernardis,

  31. Hodor's Bastard
    Posted June 7, 2014 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    Although I would have appreciated the grisly sight of seeing Tyrion on his knees, retching up his slim hopes for justice through his mouth and nostrils, the crestfallen, truly hopeless, look that Dinklage conjured up was a satisfying ending for the episode.

    Tyrion’s dark journey of finding rationale to godsmashing, blasphemy, insignificance, and dragon-seeking has begun in earnest…

    Loved your writeup, Ser Kleinhenz. Thx again.

  32. Marc N. Kleinhenz
    Posted June 10, 2014 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Robin Moss,

    Thank you for your personal frame of reference regarding the duel; that does, indeed, change my reading of George’s time descriptions. =)

    ~M.

  33. Marc N. Kleinhenz
    Posted June 10, 2014 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Ashara D
    Thanks for doing these well-written and -reasoned articles, Mr. K!

    Hey! Don’t I know you, Ms. D?

    :P

    ~M.

  34. Marc N. Kleinhenz
    Posted June 10, 2014 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Hodor’s Bastard:
    Loved your writeup, Ser Kleinhenz. Thx again.

    Iie, doitashimashite. >.<

    ~M.


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