A Dance of Divergence: The Changing Landscape of HBO’s “Game of Thrones”

HBO’s Game of Thrones

This latest season of ‘Game of Thrones’ can be summed up rather simply: bad things happen to good people. There are some exceptions to this rule, but this is largely the foundation upon which David and Dan’s Westeros is built. The problem with this is that the books cannot be summed up so – they can’t be summed up at all, really, and that’s a huge part of their appeal. No one is really bad or good in Martin’s Westeros; things happen, not always at the right time, to people who may or may not deserve it.

And that ambiguity has been lost, five seasons in to HBO’s adaptation. Show!Westeros is a black-and-white world: Cersei will do anything to kill her brother and to solidify her power; Jaime will do anything for Cersei; Varys is working to seat Daenerys on the throne; Jon only wants to save the world from the threat of the White Walkers; Stannis will sacrifice everything to become the rightful king. These characters are only shadows of their book selves, motivated by clear goals and pursuing either the right or the wrong path.
Has Show!Stannis made the right decisions?

Nowhere is this loss of ambiguity clearer than in Dorne: Ellaria and the Sand Snakes have become ridiculous caricatures of themselves, hellbent on killing a little girl, despite the fact that this is the same act that Oberyn gave his life trying to revenge. In the books, Ellaria realizes this irony and tries to persuade the Sand Snakes – who are less unified, more developed, and significantly more interesting in the books – against their course of action. Jaime’s involvement in this storyline completely ignores his growing disillusionment with Cersei in the books, his travels to the Riverlands, and his continued growth as a character. Episode 1 Jaime is largely the same as episode 10 Jaime, and that’s a crying shame.

We could have had so much more

It is not only living characters that suffer from simplification, but also the deaths of some major players. Most notably, perhaps, Shireen’s: the Stannis of the books refuses, even as the northern weather worsens, to burn any of his followers and he tells his men that if he should die, they must fight to put his daughter on the throne, but the Stannis of the show gives in to burning of his only offspring so that he might have a chance of defeating the Boltons and securing the North. Book!Stannis believes in the Lord of Light, but he believes in his duty and his family more.

Jon’s death, meanwhile, appears largely heroic – can’t the guy catch a break? He’s just trying to save all of Westeros from the greatest threat it’s ever faced, and the Night’s Watch can’t seem to wrap their heads around that. But in the books, Jon starts to make some bad decisions, including the decision to ride to Winterfell with a group of wildlings in order to deal with Ramsay. He becomes less of a hero, and more of a man trying to do the right thing but making some bad judgement calls in the process. His death at the hands of his sworn brothers is lent more legitimacy – these aren’t men stabbing their leader because he’s a little too friendly with the wildlings, these are men who are genuinely afraid for the future of the Watch. In other words, the books make it less easy to decide who’s right, who’s wrong, what’s deserved, and what isn’t.

For the Watch?

By no means am I trying to argue that everything done this season was terrible or poorly adapted. The battle at Hardhome was some of the best television I’ve seen all year, and it gave us a lot of new and exciting information about the strengths and weaknesses of the White Walkers. The High Sparrow’s plotline was powerfully, though not 100% faithfully, recreated (Cersei’s walk of shame was especially moving). Arya’s journey to become a servant of the Nameless God is intriguing and tense (though the evil of Meryn Trant seemed a bit over the top – did he need to be a pedophile?). And Dany’s story, though completely changed from the books (I will never, ever admit that Barristan the Bold is dead and whoever thought that idea up should have to face him in single combat), has been made largely more interesting, more efficient, and more dynamic. There are things to love in this season, and characters to root for – I’m just not sure that the sacrifices made were worth it.

The worst sacrifice of all may be Sansa’s. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the now-infamous rape scene on the night of her wedding, suggesting we wait and see where she ends up before criticizing the decision to put her in Jeyne Poole’s shoes. It turns out that there wasn’t much point to the change at all – Sansa became Jeyne for the sake of becoming Jeyne. Yes, she does take things into her own hands by the end, and she does learn to tread carefully around and manipulate (to some extent) those in power, but she isn’t much changed from the girl in King’s Landing who was also the victim of a psychopath and also managed to escape before being completely broken. Compared to what we could have had – Sansa learning political strategy from Littlefinger in the Vale – I’m more than a little disappointed.

Things have only gone downhill for Sansa

I’m disappointed for women in general this season, in fact. If they didn’t die – the final few episodes had a stunning death count of female leads, including Shireen, Selsye, Myranda, and Myrcella – then they had their characters simplified, in the case of Ellaria and the Sand Snakes, or their potential squandered, in the case of Sansa, or had their characters omitted entirely (Where in the name of the Seven is Lady Stoneheart??). Daenerys, Arya, and Margaery (whose sass, smarts, and political power are all fantastic improvements over the book character – besides, who doesn’t love Natalie Dormer?) fared rather well, but here’s hoping next season will be kinder to its women.

The show’s divergence from the books is growing at an exponential rate, and the changes are not all ones to be celebrated. The two stories will end up at the same place, but I’m starting to lose faith that the journey to arrive at that destination will be as satisfying for both.

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