Over the last few days, Elio and I have been working our way through the bonus materials on the Game of Thrones Blu-ray that HBO kindly sent to us. There are some really nifty add-ons that fill in some of the information the show couldn’t convey about the history of Westeros and so on; I just hope they don’t get watched just by those who have read the books anyway. Today, we watched GRRM’s commentary on episode 8, The Pointy End, and since George comments on some of the changes from the books and from his first draft of the script, it led to another discussion (and some more thinking) about the changes between the books and the show.
Obviously, I know there are a lot of people who think having a “purist” outlook on an adaptation is silly. Well, whatever, is what I say to that. Its a perfectly valid stance. In my case, I am much more of a reader than a TV or movie watcher. There are some shows and a few films I love but as a medium I would pick books over TV/movies any day. As such, my interest in Game of Thrones is purely as an adaptation of a series of books that I love. I want to see as much of what is in the books as possible and how well (or not) the show adapts the books is what it stands and falls on for me. Others will obviously have a different viewpoint, but that is mine and it informs everything I say or write about the show.
Of course, it is silly to imagine that an adaptation can be 100% faithful. You are going from one medium to another. As much as I love the inner monologues of certain POVs, they cannot be replicated, except in some cases where voice-over narration might have worked (something which I am actually rather fond of). Budget, of course, is another inescapable reality. I do mourn that the look of the show is so much less grand than the books, but its one where I cannot fault anyone. I wish it looked like the LotR movies where there are scenes of such breathtaking beauty that you really get the sense of Middle-Earth, but obviously that was impossible.
But what I do take issue with are changes that are driven by how things usually are done on TV or changes done because it was a cool idea. In The Pointy End, for example, there’s the fight where Drogo kills Mago. Cool scene? Maybe, I haven’t watched it (too squeamish). But that sort of change is utterly unnecessary and potentially damaging for the story in the long run since the character does reappear. Then there’s the issue of casting, of course. Actors aren’t factory-made robots that look exactly like what is described in the books. But I see no reason not to cast at least someone who is ... in the ballpark in terms of their physical appearance. However, even worse is when a character is radically rewritten such as in the case of Cersei. There is no justification for that sort of change and no way you can argue that it is necessary. I think it is largely an effect of not leaving Cersei and Jaime out as POVs from the start as is the case in the books; suddenly there was a perceived need to flesh Cersei out and it all went straight to hell.
I should add that there are some added scenes that do work for me. When the characters involved feel as if they are the characters from the books and we’re seeing a scene that we can guess did happen off-stage (since the POV structure means some things can never be shown), then I think it can work really well to give some additional depth to a character. But those need to be done in moderation and they shouldn’t take precedence over canon scenes. And when they are utterly out of character, such as Cersei’s and Robert’s talk about their marriage (the most atrocious scene of the first season, despite great acting from Mark Addy), then its a travesty, especially as one considers the pivotal scenes that didn’t make it into the show.
When you praise a book for being unusual, you really shouldn’t pick and choose what aspects of unusual you are going to keep in your adaptation. Jaime and Cersei were left out as POVs to start with for a reason, we weren’t supposed to get their side of the story just yet, just as Robb isn’t supposed to be on stage as much in the second season as it appears he will be. These changes are not necessary for the medium, they are just conventional. A Song of Ice and Fire makes a point of defying conventions, so by caving into them the show is letting the material down.