Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Adaptation Continues

New Game of Thrones episodes resume next week. It's the only TV drama I watch nowadays (I know there are other good shows on, but it's a free time issue) and, having read all 5 of GRRM's books released so far, I find the process of adaptation from one medium to another to be fascinating in and of itself.

The first season of Game of Thrones probably followed the original source material more closely than any text-to-screen adaptation I've ever seen. The things that were changed were insignificant in comparison to changes I've seen in other text-to-screen adaptations, such as the later Harry Potter movies where vast swathes of the books were omitted. (In all fairness, keeping every subplot would have made the fifth and sixth Harry Potter films about six hours long each.)

You could probably watch season 1, then move directly to reading book 2 and all the rest, and the story would flow perfectly.

Ironically, this Season 1 recap shows arguably the two biggest deviations Season 1 made

The second season deviated from the source material (book 2, A Clash of Kings) to a far greater extent. Quite a bit was omitted: Arya's travails on the way to Harrenhal were condensed, we never heard about Stannis besieging Storm's End, and the details of the political situation in the North were kicked down the road to be fleshed out at a later date. The Reed kids never made an appearance in season 2; neither did the good, gentle, and kind character of Ramsay Snow; these characters have, however, been cast and will appear in season 3.

Basically, if you do what my wife did and watch the first 2 TV seasons and then read book 3, you'll need a cheat sheet to fill you in on all the omissions and changes.

The primary source of fans' ire in Season 2 was the fact that two storylines in particular were heavily altered. In both cases, I can see why they did what they did:

1. Daenerys' time in the city of Qarth was completely rewritten and reworked, probably because they felt it didn't have sufficient drama before to fill out an entire TV season. The Qarth stuff was self-contained enough that it didn't affect anything else.

2. Robb Stark is much more of a central character than he was in the book A Clash of Kings, in which he basically never appeared after the first few chapters. This has an interesting ripple effect on characters and plotlines.

First, because the focus is on the action at Robb's military headquarters, we never see the castle Riverrun.  Jaime spends most of book 2 locked up in Riverrun's dungeon, but on TV his 'dungeon' is a tent at Robb's camp, and when Catelyn makes a certain fateful decision near the end of the season he's clearly a couple of hours away from getting lynched by Robb's men. As a result, Catelyn's choice to spring him from confinement makes much more sense in the TV show than it ever did in the book.

However, one unfortunate effect of Catelyn being so close to Robb at this time on TV is that she sees the romance developing between Robb and whats-her-name, which leads to her spouting cliched 'I will not allow this marriage!' dialogue. I prefer the bit in the books where Catelyn finds out about Robb's marriage after the fact, in a scene that, much condensed, goes something like this:

ROBB: I'll forgive you for letting Jaime go if you forgive me for marrying a random girl you've never heard of. Deal?
CATELYN: Deal. Wait, what?!

That leads us to Robb's choice of bride. In the books, Robb marries a girl named Jeyne who displays no character or personality whatsoever beyond 'I love Robb'. I cannot stress strongly enough that Jeyne is an utter and complete non-entity whose only reason to exist is to marry Robb Stark, which then causes certain other things to happen.

Therefore, I really can't complain that in the TV show, Jeyne's been given a complete transplant of name, background, and personality, and is now a field medic named Talisa who spends her time sawing off gangrenous limbs and is played by Charlie Chaplin's granddaughter (it's true, look it up).

Apart from all that, my feeling about season 2 was that it improved quite a bit as it progressed. The first four episodes, despite some good individual scenes, struck me as oddly paced and never really drew me in. For reasons I can't put my finger on, things improved markedly with episode 5 (which may have marked a first in episodic TV history by killing off a major recurring character in the first three minutes) and episodes remained well-constructed for the remainder of the season.

I think I have two complaints about the adaptation. The first one is unavoidable: it's a matter of budget. Back in season 1, when Khal Drogo is finally persuaded to get up there and give that speech about how he's going to conquer Westeros and smash the Usurper's army, it would be much more intimidating if we had ever seen evidence that Drogo had more than about a dozen warriors under his command. Similarly, in the Battle of the Blackwater in season 2 it never quite looks like Stannis has enough troops to take King's Landing, particularly after half of them are roasted alive in their ships. (That said, I'm not sure I'd be happy with a Lucas-style Special Edition where vast army divisions are digitally added.)

The second is that I suspect the vast scope of the story is making it difficult for people who don't already know the books to follow what's going on, at least without going back and reviewing episode recaps online. In Episode 8 of season 2, Qhorin Halfhand and Jon Snow are captured by the Wildlings, and Qhorin tells Jon the best thing for him to do is to defect and act as a mole, and he'll have to do whatever it takes for the Wildlings to be convinced of his intentions. In Episode 10, Qhorin picks a fight with Jon, who slays him in combat. In between comes Episode 9, which ignores the Jon-Qhorin-Wildlings plotline in order to focus on the dramatic events transpiring down in King's Landing. I doubt many people who hadn't read the books were able to follow the John-Qhorin situation, particularly ones who were watching one episode a week.

Finally, I've found that sexposition doesn't really bother me, although I am grateful that the term, potentially quite useful, has been introduced into the English language because of this show. Just before the Battle of the Blackwater, Bronn exchanges acerbic words with Sandor Clegane while he's got a naked lady in his lap (my wife dryly observed, 'She has no pubic hair'), and I figure this is probably a completely realistic way for a warrior to spend his last hours before battle in a pre-industrial world.

That said, I'm rather hoping not to see many scenes that exist solely for their shocking sex value. I wasn't such a fan of the infamous 'Joffrey's birthday present' scene, in which Joffrey is invited to spend the night with a pair of prostitues in the vain hope that letting off some adolescent steam would be good for him. The problem isn't that the scene isn't in the original book (Joffrey's actions are totally consistent with his character), but rather that it doesn't really serve any plot-related purpose; it's gratuitously shocking without really having earned it.

Apparently it was written to make sure audiences wouldn't rationalize Joffrey's actions by thinking 'aww, he doesn't know any better, he's just a kid'. I think I'd rather have had the show make that point by having him shoot crossbows at rioting King's Landing citizens; explaining why they were rioting would have been a good opportunity for exposition of Westeros politics (i.e., the townspeople are unhappy because food prices are high, because Highgarden is withholding food, because Highgarden is allied with Renly).

Anyway, I'm quite curious to see what choices season 3 will make in adapting the material.

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