Anatomy of a Throne: “Two Swords”

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.

Introductions and Incriminations

My name’s Marc N. Kleinhenz, and I’m the features editor for Tower of the Hand, along with the editor and publisher of the site’s anthology ebooks (A Flight of Sorrows was released a year-and-a-half ago, and A Hymn for Spring is due out in June). Additionally, I’ve written for Westeros.org, The Huffington Post, and 19 other sites, sometimes about Game of Thrones and sometimes about film, videogames, comics, and other assorted nerdiness.

All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying that I’m an obsessive-compulsive who likes to prattle on and on about George R.R. Martin and his world, in all its variously realized forms. I’m exhilarated and not just a little intimidated to be Winter Is Coming’s newest guest essayist, providing a column that will be weekly for at least the first half of the current season; depending upon time constraints and reader feedback, it may or may not revert to its original fortnightly format.

I say “original” because Anatomy of a Throne used to run over at the wonderful Comic Related for the past two years. Zack and I, however, thought that it would be a more natural fit here at WiC, and the editors at Comic Related were gracious – and enthusiastic! – enough to agree. So here we are.

And here we go:

Episode: “Two Swords” (401)
Scene: Prince Oberyn’s introduction

The introduction of Prince Oberyn Nymeros Martell of Dorne in A Storm of Swords perfectly mirrors the character’s role in the novel: small and mostly subtle, though explosive when necessary and certainly irrevocable upon the overarching narrative. It is a scene that, like so many in Game of Thrones’s handling, is simultaneously reduced and expanded, fitting the narrower confines of the production budget while being made larger-than-life in order to titillate (literally) the viewing audience and fill out the requisite storytelling needs of the medium; let’s not forget that the so-called Red Viper is actually added to the mix in the first half of Storm, while showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss opted to hold him back until the latter half. This means that the character’s role needs to be significantly elongated in the fourth season, just as the Tyrion Lannister-Sansa Stark marriage arrangement, for instance, was expanded in the third (which was partially thanks to Oberyn’s removal in the first place, making everything come full circle).

The simplification of the sequence first. In most major respects, the Dornish procession up the kingsroad to a trepidacious King’s Landing is identical to its literary counterpart; it’s only in the smaller details that differences start to creep up. Never wasting an opportunity for all the characters to be rid of their horses – thus saving a tremendous amount of production time and, therefore, money – the showrunners once again have Tyrion and his welcoming party, such as it is, be on foot, though in this particular instance, the effect is negligible, at best (unlike, say, having Tyrion and Bronn the sellsword hike it from the Eyrie and across the Mountains of the Moon on foot [“The Pointy End,” episode 108]). Likewise, Tyrion’s compatriots are only a sliver of what he has in the book, reducing the number of players needed in a location shoot that is already rife with extras, props, and animals. (Their exclusion is only aided by the fact that none of them, including the lord commander of the City Watch, has been properly introduced in the television series.)

And this, actually, is where some of the subtlety of the sequence starts to come into play. Only lesser lordlings are present to represent King Joffrey Baratheon, and when taken in conjunction with Tyrion, who is only the master of coin and an imp, to boot, the royal welcome loses much of its warmth and is revealed to be the icy reception by Lord Hand Tywin that it truly is. Given the reason for the Dornishmen’s presence in the city – they have come to take Tyrion up on his offer of joining the small council, made when he was the acting Hand of the King and when he shipped Princess Myrcella off to Dorne (“What Is Dead May Never Die,” 203) – it is easy to see that Lord Tywin is just as eager to insult his son as he is the Martells and to let them both know that he only enters this situation begrudgingly.

Much of this political shading is lost in the series – an understandable elimination, given (a) the nature of time constraints and (b) the proliferation of George Martin’s subplots and counter-plots and counter-subplots – and what little remains of it is transfigured to the Dornish instead of against them. When the revelation that Prince Oberyn has arrived instead of Prince Doran, the regent of Dorne, is dropped, it is aided and abetted by the blatantly dismissive behavior of the Dornish lords and the complete absence of the Red Viper himself, both of which are showrunner inventions. The scene, despite being mostly true to the original, has a decidedly different effect.

Viewers don’t get their introduction to Oberyn, then, until the following scene, in Lord Petyr Baelish’s brothel, representing the sequence’s biggest deviation from the printed page. Why the change in venue? To utilize that often-misunderstood and -misquoted maxim: Weiss and Benioff wanted to show instead of tell. (And, presumably, to also film the greater part of the material in a controlled and long-standing set as opposed to at a time-sensitive location.)

In Martin’s version, Tyrion and Oberyn ride alongside one another as both of their entourages head to the capital, engaging in a lengthy and rather involved conversation. The prince’s peculiar mixture of cordiality and insult, his ability to pivot from jocularity to death threat without ever changing the tone of his voice, is slowly built up, with the dwarf filling in all the rest of his backstory for the reader’s benefit – the range of his mercurial disposition, his sexual promiscuousness (including his rumored bisexuality), his charges of possibly dabbling in the dark arts to make his enemies suffer as much as possible, his deep-seated and long-lasting enmity with the Tyrells of Highgarden. By placing him smack dab in the middle of whores and Lannisters, nearly every last bit of exposition is delivered – using breasts and blood, of course, which replaces the book’s lyrical abstraction with a certain level of visceralness. It is, admittedly, a practice that Benioff and Weiss have nearly perfected over the past three years.

And it leaves much room for an Oberyn Martell that is, perhaps, more dynamic than the one in the novels.

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”