Adaptation and the Women of Ice and Fire

This post will contain spoilers only from the first two seasons of Game of Thrones and from the first two books of A Song of Ice and Fire, A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings, with many comparisons between the source books and the TV show. This discussion also contains references to instances of physical and sexual assault from the TV show and the books.

With the second season in our rear-view mirror, I thought it was time to revisit the discussion on women in Westeros and what it means for Game of Thrones. There have been strides forward with the introduction of a host of new women, and there have been stumbles backward with poorly thought-out alterations to major characters. While there are parts of the ASOIAF books that could be called problematic, there were fewer issues because it was a world created by one author and his vision. On television, we’re seeing a collaborative effort that sometimes left viewers scratching their heads at the changes from season to season, and in the adaptation from book to screen.

Whatever Happened To Catelyn Tully?
Catelyn Tully Stark, played by Michelle Fairley, is one of the most controversial characters of Game of Thrones. She was always a much debated character among book fans; some love her for strength of will, and some loathe her for her treatment of Jon Snow, her husband’s bastard son.

The issue with her that we’ve encountered, slightly in season 1 and more noticeably in season 2, is that we’re only seeing one aspect of her character: her motherhood. The source of the shift in attitude is not a mystery.

“Bran has definitely been abandoned. His father left and promised he’d come back before too long and is never coming back. His mother’s absence probably seems even more inexcusable. Why hasn’t Catelyn come back?” – David Benioff, Inside the Episode 15

All motivations, actions and value are directly connected to Catelyn’s role as mother to her children, her possible failures in that role, and her desire to be reunited with the kids. While dedicated parenthood is an admirable trait, in Cat’s case we have seen all other aspects of her character erased. The simple archetype of the strong mother may be powerful, but frankly, it’s not that interesting to watch or particularly relatable. I’m saying that as a mother myself. We are more than our love of our offspring, and George R.R. Martin’s Catelyn was more complex than a woman who desires nothing but to be at home with her little ones. She adores her children and acts in their interest but she is politically astute. She doesn’t necessarily think that she has to be by their side all the time in order to be doing what is best for them. The problem with TV-Catelyn is that archetypes only make for interesting drama when they’re being deconstructed, and that isn’t happening.

In A Clash of Kings, it’s Catelyn who suggests an alliance with Renly Baratheon. This was erased from the show, and we only saw her reluctance to be the envoy assigned by Robb. Instead of being the source of a good idea, she’s merely the mommy scolding the boys for fighting at the meeting between Renly and Stannis.

Michelle Fairley deserves a huge amount of credit for bringing something of the Cat we know from the books to the screen. In A Game of Thrones, Cat argues for peace instead of war during the King in the North crowning scene. In the television scene, she has no lines, and Robb’s choice to accept the crown is treated as a Great Moment. The only foreboding we get that this is not a smart move is what we see in Fairley’s face.

Too often, the cause of the war has been laid at Cat’s feet, which is interesting because she alone fought for peace in the book. Her son chose to accept kingship, and to continue fighting against Tywin Lannister and the Iron Throne. Tywin chose to react to his son Tyrion’s arrest by sending Gregor Clegane to slaughter in the Riverlands. Robb and Tywin both make the choice to begin and continue a war, yet they are not vilified for it. Tywin is actually admired for his ruthlessness.  Dozens of small factors contribute to the war, but these two notable leaders had a choice, as did Stannis, Joffrey, Renly and every other person in power who knowingly forged ahead with bringing death and destruction to the Seven Kingdoms.

The show insists that Catelyn’s children be her entire world by phasing out her political agency, and yet she is punished when she acts to protect her offspring, by releasing Jaime before the crowd can lynch him, or pursuing those she believes have hurt her son, when she arrests Tyrion. It’s farfetched to think the war can be blamed on her, that Catelyn somehow forced all these great and powerful men to pursue their ambitions.

“Robb’s sense of honor and his ideals were built on his father and his mother both. He’s fighting this war and his mother has just done something terrible in his eyes. It makes him wonder, why are you following this code, why are you so committed to loyalty, honor, dignity, duty beyond to the exclusion of all else when no one else around you really is.” –D.B. Weiss, discussing Robb’s dalliance with Talisa, Inside the Episode 18

So not only is it Cat’s fault that the war started, and that she released Jaime (who wasn’t going to “last the night” according to Brienne), but now she is also responsible for Robb’s honor weakening enough for him to have sex with Talisa. In A Clash of Kings, Robb sleeps with his future wife after learning of Bran and Rickon’s “deaths,” before he learns that his mother has released Jaime. It had nothing to do with her, and yet the show runners have determined that Catelyn is now to be held accountable for Robb breaking his vow to the Freys. This doesn’t just affect Cat; it makes Robb considerably less likeable to see him berating his mother so disrespectfully. The affable young king has been replaced by a rude fool who wasn’t even aware that his followers, the Karstarks, were very unhappy and going to kill Jaime before Robb could ever use the Kingslayer as a valuable hostage.

What is the point of these changes? Alterations to make the story flow are expected, and sometimes welcomed; the POV chapter structure of ASOIAF would make a direct translation jarring and disconnected onscreen. However, we’re seeing some arbitrary character changes that take away what we loved about the story to begin with.

Sansa Stark’s Disappearing Act
What we’ve seen of Sansa is mostly good, but half her storyline was missing. Though many have lamented the lack of interaction between her and the Hound, it was really the connection between her and Dontos Hollard, the disgraced knight and jester, that was given the short shrift in season 2, leaving Sansa with not much to do. Was it pushed back to season 3? We don’t know.  The cutting of Sansa’s repeated beatings by the Kingsguard is understandable. Her developing connection with Shae was great, especially given the lack of female friendships on Game of Thrones, but it didn’t advance her story much.

The sexual assault inflicted on some women during the riot scene in the book was transferred to Sansa, with her nearly suffering the same fate before being saved by the Hound.  In Clash, she was terrorized but there was no sexual element to it. Many feel that this was unnecessary, and some criticized the length of time we see Sansa being attacked onscreen. Although it’s understandable that the writer may have seen this as just condensing aspects of the riot, adding another type of abuse did nothing for Sansa’s character development. It’s belaboring a point we’re already aware of: she is constantly in mortal danger, surrounded by enemies who are willing to kill her, while she’s forced to smile and behave as a future queen.

Rh’llor, save us
Another disturbing change was Stannis’s choking of Melisandre in the season finale, “Valar Morghulis.” Stannis may question the fire priestess, but he is a serious and cold-blooded man. It was wildly out of character for him, and pointless. The enraged choking seems like a nasty way of trying to take the powerful sorceress down a peg. Then after this assault, she brushes it aside and shows him his future in the flames, with her as loyal to him as always. The choking affects what we know of the characters: that he is petty enough to abuse a woman who helped him as he wished, and that she is willing to accept it. That is not a good development.

A Whiter Shade of Westeros
The deletion of Chataya and Alayaya is another point of contention. From a practical point of view, it makes sense to continue featuring Ros (Esmé Bianco) in the brothel as the audience is familiar with her. I like her, and I think the actress has done a good job in the role. I’m not interested in pitting two (or three) female characters against each other.

The problem we have here is that in removing Chataya, owner of a King’s Landing brothel, and her teenage daughter Alayaya, we lose a more detailed introduction to the Summer Islands and its culture. It’s a sex-positive environment, completely different from the scorn and distaste people regard brothels and prostitutes with in the Seven Kingdoms. Chataya runs her own business, and is no victim of Littlefinger’s machinations. She likes Tyrion, chooses to work with him, and her daughter Alayaya is the one mistaken for Shae by Cersei. Even knowing that someone else is his real love, Alayaya doesn’t throw the other woman to the wolves (okay, lions in this case) to save herself from a beating. There was more intensity in this personal connection, as Tyrion genuinely likes the young woman and her mother.

We also lose two of the few characters we meet in Westeros in the first three books who are people of color. Everyone in Westeros is not white. It’s not what George R.R. Martin wrote in his books and there’s no reason it has to be that way on the show, with everyone of color restricted to the Essos continent or the Summer Islands. Salladhor Saan (Lucian Msamati) is from Lys, one of the free cities along the coast of Essos. We know that the TV version of Xaro Xhoan Daxos (Nonso Anozie) is from the Summer Islands. However in ASOIAF, we have non-white people in King’s Landing, and there are two Dothraki riding with Vargo Hoat’s mercenary company, the Brave Companions. In addition to these four individuals, undoubtedly there are other people of color on Westeros. It’ll be interesting to see the cast for season 3 and beyond, with the ultimate introduction of House Martell of Dorne.

Unfortunately, in cutting Chataya and Alayaya, we’ve lost two characters who would’ve created a more interesting world and stronger drama, and it was a disappointment. On top of that, we saw Irri (Amrita Acharia) killed off very prematurely this season, removing the most visible non-white woman on the show up until that point, for no real reason.

Game of Thrones has displayed a better grasp of woman characters who are aggressive and reject the traditional Westerosi female role in, like Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth, and Yara Greyjoy. Their stories have not been without change, but are generally more faithful to the source. The wildlings Ygritte and Osha are interesting and distinct characters that live on their own terms. And while Daenerys Targaryen struggled in the Red Waste and in Qarth, she ultimately reclaimed her dragons and her own power. Though there have been problems with the adaptation, the show still has some of the most dynamic and fascinating women on television. With the arrival of characters like Meera Reed and the Queen of Thorns in season 3, it could be the best season yet.