Essays · Review: Fantasy

Adapting a Story vs an Idea: A Critique of Game of Thrones (Season 7)

Game of Thrones is a TV show adapted from George R. R. Martin’s unfinished fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Game of Thrones is, without a doubt, the biggest show in the world. The books and show are full of rich character development and plots and intrigues so complex that it can be extremely difficult to summarize.

The books guided the show’s hand through season 5, though many of the events of season 6 seem to have come from confirmed events taking place in the next book in the series. However, since entering season 7, the show has been entirely on its own, with nothing but a discussion between the show runners and the author to guide the story. And it shows.

Since the adaptation of these novels into a show, much of the history, background and characterization has been cut. For the most part, this has served the show well: even with the cuts, by season 2, there were enough characters to confound the casual viewer. Cutting points for the sake of an easier viewing experience is necessary in the book-to-film adaptation, and I do not begrudge many of the changes.

However, nonsensical changes to the story have been cropping up in the show, more and more noticeably since season 3, though many of these might be swept under the rug due to being few and far between, and therefore easily forgotten. I will highlight some changes in seasons 3-6 below that I define as “nonsensical”:

Season 3: When Jaime returns to Cersei, she tells him that he is too late. He’s been gone too long, she says, and much has changed in his absence. But what has changed, exactly?  She doesn’t allow him back into her bed and is cold towards him, but she still places trust in him, appointing him captain of the Kingsguard; she even displays jealousy toward Brienne, just as Jaime displays jealousy toward Loras. This could have been interpreted as a hitch in their mutually destructive relationship; except after Joffrey’s death, Jaime rapes Cersei and they seem to go right back to what they were at the start. Their relationship has not developed or progressed, but rather regressed.

In the books, Jaime did not return until that scene in the crypt, after Joffrey’s death, where he and Cersei have consensual sex next to the body of their dead son. She tells him that he’s too late, that he’s been gone too long—because their son died without him. This creates a turning point in their lifelong relationship, and from this point on a wedge develops between Jaime and Cersei.

The problem that this created in the show is only starting to become clear now, in season 7. Jaime remains loyal to Cersei, and still fights for her and warms her bed. But that is all that he has become. The show has been conveying to us, since late season 6, that Jaime is increasingly unhappy and seemingly horrified by some of the atrocities that Cersei has committed. Yet he does nothing. He simply does her bidding, a pawn of the plot until the show needs him to take action.

Season 4: The development of Shae, Olenna and Margaery into well-rounded characters is one of the show’s greatest changes, as all of these are characters that we only see from the limited perspective of other characters in the books. Shae’s story in the books is a simple one, because she is only Tyrion’s prostitute lover. Her betrayal, in the end, is tragic but believable, because we the readers can conclude, as Martin himself observed, that Shae is only after the jewels and pretty things and never had any true loyalty or love for Tyrion.

Yet this is not so in the show. Her love for both Tyrion and Sansa is unmistakably true. This created some beautiful moments as Tyrion and Sansa’s forced marriage makes all three of them miserable. So when, in the end, Shae betrays Tyrion, it is a much bigger shock to the audience. It is also confusing, because the character we have seen is smart enough to realize that Tyrion’s cruel words were only said to get her to safety. Yet how did she get off the boat, and why did she end up taking the stand against Tyrion, and how did she come to be in Tywin’s bed? These questions are left unanswered. There are ways to justify them in the mind of the viewer, of course, as any nonsensical actions can ultimately be justified somehow. Unlike the problem in Jaime’s plotline, this does not have ripples that echo through the show afterward; but it is a plotline that has me scratching my head anytime I watch seasons 3 and 4.

The bigger show-only plothole in season 4 is Tyrion’s decision to not simply escape, but to go to the Tower of the Hand to confront his father. He is angry, yes, but what did he think he could accomplish by talking to him? Ultimately his actions thereafter stem from entering the room to find Shae in his father’s bed, but the question of why he went there and what he intended to do in the first place is left unanswered.

The strange thing here is that this was entirely unnecessary. Tyrion had told Shae in season 1 about his marriage to a girl who turned out to be a prostitute hired by his brother. Jaime’s confession as he set Tyrion free, that the girl had not been a prostitute at all, that that was a lie that their father had persuaded him to tell, would have taken only a minute or two. Tyrion’s fury and the decision to go confront his father at that moment rather than immediately escape would have, then, been a lot easier to comprehend.

Seasons 5 and 6: In these seasons, characters get shuffled around beyond the point of comprehension. Daenerys’s trust in Tyrion may be understandable from the perspective of us as viewers, but in universe, though Tyrion has tried to help, he has not demonstrated his brilliance in playing the game to Dany. Most, if not all, of the major decisions that he has made for her have ended badly. Since she did not see Tyrion’s ability to play the game in season 2 as we did, her trust in him seems foolish and unfounded. Yet the show sent away Jorah Mormont and killed Barristan Selmy, still living in the books and Daenerys’s most trusted advisor, so she has no one else to turn to who is knowledgeable of such things as politics and ruling.

Then there is the Dorne plot. Clearly, they wanted to wrap up the Dorne plot as quickly as possible and could not be bothered to put much thought into it. Doran and Ellaria each have very simple agendas: Ellaria to kill Myrcella for revenge, and Doran to stop her to avoid a war. This plotline, much richer in the books where there is a plot to crown Myrcella queen of the seven kingdoms and Doran wants to bring down the Lannisters by allying with the Targaryens, would have been better cut entirely. It also brings into question the already-abbreviated prophecy that Cersei hears at the start of season 5: “Gold will be their crowns, and gold their shrouds,” the witch tells Cersei, but Myrcella died without ever being crowned. Certainly, in the books there are many prophecies, some that come true and some that do not. But in the show, there have only been two: that of Rhaego, and that of Cersei’s children; Rhaego’s story was thwarted by the witch, but the show acts like we are supposed to believe that Cersei’s came true. But, one could argue, perhaps the “golden crowns” refer to their hair.

Arya’s storyline suffers in season 5 due to a rapid jump in time. When Arya begins to play Lana the girl with the oyster cart, there is no lead-up to this. This is the first time that she is trying to live day to day as someone else, but to the audience, she transforms between scenes. How did she acquire the cart and how long did she go around being Lana before being instructed to kill the thin man? She has a regular customer by the time that we see her doing this, and though she claims in her backstory that she finally saved up enough to buy a cart, she seems to rather conveniently be equipped with a tray to carry around when she needs to spy on someone in the brothel. Though still understandable in this case, this is a small example of the problem that would take over in season 7: jumping straight to the payoff without showing the viewer how the character got there. Even stranger is that though she killed the head of Lord Tyrell’s escort, his violent death in a brothel is never mentioned again.

Arya’s storyline’s problem in season 6 can be put down to choices made for reasons that the viewer cannot understand. That she refuses to kill someone she feels doesn’t deserve death is understandable. That she arms herself and hides away in a cave is even more so. Yet after that, she walks about in broad daylight, openly books passage back to Westeros, and then wanders around and is not at all suspicious when addressed by a stranger. For the first time in a show known as “the show where anyone can die,” protagonist syndrome kicks in and Arya survives these careless actions, being stabbed several times in the gut and the chase and fight that came after.

Similarly, that Tormund, Jon, Davos, Lyanna Mormont (although why she was there at all was strange) and Sansa all survive the Battle of the Bastards is surprising, though we did see casualties in the form of Rickon and the giant.

This brings us to Season 7, where every single one of the above problems is running rampant. Between the battle between Euron and Yara’s fleets, the invasion of Casterly Rock, the loot train attack, and the battle beyond the wall, one would have expected to see a variety of main characters fall. Instead, the only ones to have fallen are Olenna, Ellaria and the Sandsnakes, Randall and Dickon Tarly, and Thoros. The problem is that all of these characters were no longer integral to the plot, no longer had a compelling story to tell, and from a storytelling perspective, it was high time to wipe them out to streamline the narrative around the other characters. None of these is a Ned Stark, a Robb Stark or a Margaery Tyrell, with plans yet to come and a story tragically cut short.

This season, the once-character driven story has turned into mostly a band of pawns that move and think only to serve the plot. Tyrion’s plans are increasingly questionable, all the way to the decision to bring Cersei a wight. Yet while Daenerys snaps at him once and ignores him twice, she still seems to trust him and his judgement—still understandable, as he is the only one who questions her decisions. Distance suddenly means nothing, and characters seemingly teleport across and around the continent between scenes as it suits them. This may seem like a blessing in and of itself, as we don’t need to see scenes of characters traveling while nothing happens. Yet the trouble is that dialogue does not reflect these long passages of time; characters have discussions that reflect that they’ve only recently met in what to us is the second scene that they share, but what in universe has been at least days if not weeks of traveling after their first meeting. Suddenly, characters are surviving left and right: Jaime survives nearly being incinerated by dragonfire at point blank range, every member of the squad that went north of the wall survives impossible odds, Jon survives being plunged into ice cold water for at least a few minutes, Drogon survives Bronn and the Night King attempting to spear him… Protagonist syndrome has taken over, seemingly only because this is all a set-up for the final season, and the writers wanted to save those deaths for season 8.

In season 7, there are exactly 2 plotlines that reflect the character-driven narrative of seasons past: Jon and Daenerys’s romance, and Arya and Sansa’s confrontation. These are quite well done. Daenerys’s entitlement and immediate demand that Jon bend the knee doesn’t sit well with him, so he refuses and this becomes the jumping off point for the first romance narrative that this story has decided to make a focal point. Arya and Sansa have never got along, and the last time Arya saw Sansa, she was standing beside Joffrey and Cersei, encouraging Ned to name himself a traitor. We the audience know exactly what both characters have been through, but Arya has learned to view the world as a series of threats, while Sansa is increasingly unsettled by the changes in Arya and Bran. That these two fall in to Petyr’s hands and question each other’s motives is as inevitable as it is frustrating to the viewer.

Yet meanwhile, all the military plots have stumbled. No one is employing a smart strategy. In the loot train attack, Daenerys burns all the provisions rather than take them. Jon and his squad go to capture a wight from the white walkers’ gigantic and terrifying army, rather than just taking a corpse north of the wall and then waiting for it to reanimate. The only reason the wights end up attacking on the frozen lake is because the Hound decided to start throwing rocks at them.

And, because Daenerys brought her dragons to save these men from their poorly-thought-out expedition, the Night King now has a dragon.

I assume that the dragon will now be used to burn down the wall, and as far as story goes, this is a huge problem. Jon has been terrified of the threat of white walkers for several seasons, but we’ve never seen them cross the Wall. Even though we periodically see them marching, the trouble is that now that all the surviving wildlings north of the wall have been evacuated, there is no one left for them to attack. And they seem to have accepted that, because this season we mostly see the army standing around nowhere near the Wall. But Daenerys wouldn’t do anything about the white walkers unless they could convince Cersei, and Tyrion decided they had to take a wight to Cersei, so Jon and his squad did so in the most ill-conceived way possible, resulting in Daenerys coming to the rescue, which led to the Night King killing and reanimating Viserion.

If Viserion does, indeed, become the tool that allows the walkers to pass the wall, then the white walkers in this show are less of an inevitability and more of a threat that the characters accidentally brought on themselves. Which would be a compelling story, except that the show has been and continues to build up the white walkers as the true and inevitable threat.

The show is still very enjoyable. There have been more “epic” moments this season than any one season in the past. However, for my own part, I always enjoyed the story for the way it reflected a 3D chess match: a myriad of different characters with different viewpoints attempting to achieve different goals, thwarting and defeating and hating and loving each other as storylines become tangled in complicated, delightfully unpredictable fashion. This season, there is no chess. We see little to none of Cersei’s strategies, only the resulting bloodbaths and revenge. What we see of Daenerys’s strategies fail or are very poorly conceived, only designed by the writers to achieve a certain end goal, distracting the audience with big elaborate scenes of battles and dragonfire, and reunion and meeting scenes that fans have been dreaming of for years.

Though we are still 1 episode from the end of the season, I can’t help but feel that once the flames of excitement burn out, season 7 will simply not have the pull of previous seasons. There is less to discuss, less to contemplate, less to speculate upon. At this rate, I worry that the show will go from a contemplation on human nature and the doomed fight for power to a series of elaborate battles and fanservice moments without much strategy or thought or meaning.

This has enlightened me: a story is not merely the beats it follows. The show runners know Martin’s beats, as he has given them his intended ending and no doubt several points that he intends to use to get there.

I highlighted many points in earlier seasons, when the show was still following the books, where there were confusing changes to the story. Yet these could almost all be attributed as character moments, the complexity of the human mind. They did not necessarily detract from the story. As long as the show runners had a complete story to follow, they did very well.

But now they only have the beats. They have to get characters from point A to point B to point C, and rather than try to create a series of events and strategies that would get them there, they simply drag the characters where they need to go with thinly veiled contrivances. The author of the Walking Dead has been quoted as saying that Martin should not have told the show runners his intended ending, and let them decide for themselves what they wanted to do. I am inclined to agree. These are Martin’s ideas, not yet fully developed, being executed by writers who are trying to follow the ideas and bring logic to match them. It comes off as sloppy not because anyone is necessarily bad at what they do, but because it is difficult enough for an author to streamline his own ideas in a story this complex, much less to streamline another author’s ideas, in a universe already slightly deviated from the author’s own, without the time to flesh things out more fully.

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