NOTE: This post will discuss Game of Thrones vis-à-vis George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, and may contain potential spoiler for the TV series.
If the consummate cliché of American film and television of the 20th century was the happy ending, in the 21st it has been supplanted by death. Death to end series, death to end episodes. Main characters and secondary characters, no one is safe. No series has taken on death, from the stunning to the clichéd, quite like David Benioff and DB Weiss have with Game of Thrones. With the demise of Ser Barristan Selmy on Sunday’s “Sons of the Harpy”, Benioff and Weiss have once again dispatched a character alive and well in George R.R. Martin’s novels. The reason for which, when looking at the source material, is murky at best.
Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels currently weigh in at over 4,000 pages. Game of Thrones has less than 10 hours of screen time each season to convey what is in those novels. By and large, they have done a great job of keeping the meat of Martin’s story intact(despite the objections of a section of Martin’s book fandom). Martin’s novels are densely populated with subplots upon subplots, minor houses and characters that are only important to the subplots. While these make for interesting and entertaining reading, these are subplots which there just isn’t room for in an hourish long television program beholden to a budget and a ten episode season. Adapting both A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons into one season would seem a Herculean task. However, the travelogue, world building and subplot heavy nature of these novels, makes them the perfect place for Benioff and Weiss to double up and make up for splitting the third novel of Martin’s series into two seasons. Through the fourth episode of Season 5, tightening up the story lines from Feast and Dance has made for exciting, taught, fascinating TV. The episode ending addition of Barristan the Bold to the list of the living dead makes one wonder, will this add to the story, will it make it better? Or has Martin’s willingness to kill off key characters left Benioff and Weiss feeling the need to amplify that willingness? Or worse, has killing characters become emotional manipulation and a story telling crutch? On GoT Season 4 DVD Benioff stated that Night’s Watch brothers Pyp and Grenn (both living in the novels) were killed off in the show to give a human cost to the Night’s Watch battle against the Wildlings. Reasonable, but the effect seems better achieved by the death of Ygritte (even if it was the clichéd death in the arms of your love) without throwing in two characters far removed from their most meaningful screen time in Season 1.
At the same time, the television adaptation is also an opportunity for Benioff and Weiss to add story twists of their own, and as in any adaptation choices in story and character have to be made. It will be interesting to see how these choices play out on the show, especially when the show and when(or as many of his book readers wonder if) Martin’s novels reach their conclusions. And interesting to see what names are added to list of Barristan Selmy, Pyp and Grenn, Rob Stark’s wife ( Talisa-show, Jeyne Westerling-novel), Pyat Preen (the Qartheen warlock), Xaro Xhoan, Mance Rayder (maybe), Rokharo, Irri, all dead on screen, alive on the page. Some of these characters killed off in the show (or in Xaro’s and Mance’s cases seemingly dead) do have a substantial role in the books beyond the point where the show now stands, Barristan among them. Ultimately, the question will be did they die in vain or for the good of the realm?