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Know Your Name

By (September 1, 2015) No Comment

YouwinoryoudieOf the many ways in which George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series subverts traditional fantasy conventions, one of the most notable is his close attention to the plight of the smallfolk, whose lives are thrown into chaos by a continent-embroiling war that they are helpless to resist. However, a viewer of HBO’s massive (and massively popular) adaptation Game of Thrones could be forgiven for thinking that Martin’s story is completely unconcerned with the lives of the lowborn. Over the course of five seasons, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (hereafter D&D) have repeatedly altered, or outright removed, plot elements that would turn a spotlight on the ways in which the lives of the peasantry are affected by the political ambitions and machinations of the nobles who make up the majority of the story’s cast.

In fairness to D&D, it should be conceded that Game of Thrones could not possibly have been a “perfectly faithful” adaptation of Martin’s novels. That some material would have to be cut, condensed, or recontextualized from the epic five-books-and-counting series in order to translate it into a television show was inevitable. Martin’s enormous cast alone would break the budget of an HBO series, ensuring that at least some readers weren’t going to get to see their favourite characters on the screen (surely there’s someone out there whose favourite character is Osney Kettleblack?).

Besides, novels and television shows are different media and must approach narrative differently as a matter of course. For instance, readers of A Game of Thrones become intimately familiar with the events of Robert’s Rebellion, which precede the action of the novels, by reading Martin’s free indirect discourse on the memories of characters who lived through those events. Short of portraying Robert’s Rebellion through flashbacks (a no-go due to the aforementioned budgetary issues) or extensive expository voiceover (a no-go because nobody would enjoy watching actors make thinking faces during five minute history lessons), the showrunners could hardly be expected to develop the same level of backstory for Game of Thrones viewers.

booksetYet, despite these massive challenges, D&D were remarkably faithful to Martin’s text in the early going. With liberties for budget — battles occurring offscreen, minor characters omitted — and medium — excision of flashbacks — aside, season one of Game of Thrones is a very close adaptation of the novel. However, in subsequent seasons, the need to alter, condense, and cut material from Martin’s increasingly sprawling novels in deference to the realities of television production has forced the showrunners to take increasing liberties with the original text.

I don’t want to get into the more contentious fan debates surrounding these choices (though, for the record, the books are better than the show, Stannis “The Mannis” Baratheon would never do that over such a minor setback, and Prince Doran and Alexander Siddig both deserved better than that butchered Dorne plot!). However, many of these changes, motivated largely by practical need, have the cumulative effect of turning the show from a subversion of medieval fantasy tropes into a much more conventional hero story.

Nowhere is this thematic shift more apparent than in the arc of Theon Greyjoy.

In A Song of Ice and Fire, Theon’s tale, encompassing his betrayal of the Starks, enslavement by Ramsay Bolton, and eventual baby steps towards redemption, is shot through with a critique of the privileges of the nobility and the suffering the highborn can casually inflict on the low.

Early Theon, held hostage by the Starks at their castle, Winterfell, and raised as their ward to ensure the good behaviour of his rebellious father, is a picture of youthful, lordly confidence — a “dark youth of nineteen who [finds] everything amusing” as he womanizes and gallivants about with Robb Stark. Theon demonstrates the dark side of this confidence while sailing to his home in the Iron Islands as an envoy for the Stark war effort, as he beds the ship’s captain’s daughter with false promises of a future relationship, all the while laughing to himself as he “[watches] the man struggle to swallow his outrage while performing his courtesies to the high lord.”

agameDistasteful as his treatment of the captain’s daughter is, Theon’s sense of entitlement quickly motivates far worse behaviour. When his father and sister respond to his return by mocking him and calling his future inheritance into question, Theon betrays the Starks and takes Winterfell, in an effort to defend his wounded pride and prove himself worthy of the privileges he has already been enjoying.

The culminating act of Theon’s rebellion reinforces Martin’s critique of the behaviour of the privileged in Westeros. When, unable to locate an escaped Bran and Rickon Stark, Theon has a miller’s children murdered and mutilated so that their corpses can be passed off as the escapees to teach a “lesson” to the remaining inhabitants of Winterfell, he shows the same indifference to the lives of two peasant children as he has previously shown for the reputations of the peasant girls he regularly seduces. Even as he and his henchman prepare to assault the miller’s family, Theon reflects on having been to the mill to bed the miller’s wife in the past, and thinks to himself that “[t]here was nothing special about it, or her.”

Similarly, Ramsay Snow (later Bolton), the avatar of Theon’s comeuppance, is defined as a character almost entirely by his rage at the denial of his lordly privileges because of his illegitimate birth and his resentment of anyone whose social station is higher than his. This motivation persists even after Ramsay is legitimized and assumes his “rightful” place as the Bolton heir, when his major action in the plot is to take Theon, another lordly heir, hostage and torture and mutilate him until Theon loses his own identity and becomes the manservant Reek.

When Ramsay takes a bride who is supposedly a noble — the lowborn girl Jeyne Poole disguised as Arya Stark — his unsurprising torment of the girl spurs Theon/Reek to his first steps towards redemption. With the Winterfell surroundings acting as a constant reminder of who he once was, and Jeyne herself pleading for his help in escaping her abusive new marriage, Reek is eventually goaded into taking action to save her alongside a group of anti-Bolton conspirators. It is this act of selfless risk-taking that allows Theon to reclaim his identity: the first time we see him after he gets Jeyne to safety, he is identified by his sister as “Theon” and, instead of shrieking that his name is “Reek,” proudly proclaims “My name is Theon. You have to know your name.”

ClashofkingsTheon’s redemption depends on the reversal of his earlier attitude towards the smallfolk. He begins as an elitist young man with an unearned sense of pride based on his lordly birth and reaches his moral nadir when he kills two peasant children because their lives have no significance to him. In the fallout of this crime, he loses his very identity and is placed at the mercy of a rampaging embodiment of aristocratic entitlement in the form of Ramsay. Finally, he reclaims his identity by putting himself at great risk to rescue a girl who he would have formerly dismissed as insignificant due to her lack of social standing. It is an intricately developed thematic arc (particularly considering that the books were written over a period of eighteen years!) that exemplifies Martin’s desire to highlight the plight of the smallfolk who are caught up in the political ambitions and machinations of feudal lords.

Theon’s arc in Game of Thrones is… decidedly less coherent. As I‘ve said, season one stays largely faithful to the text of A Game of Thrones. However, the second season, adapting A Clash of Kings, begins to deviate more significantly, though without doing much violence to Theon’s established character. Theon still goes home, suffers humiliation at the hands of his sister and father, and resolves to capture Winterfell with a small crew of reavers in order to prove that he deserves to one day rule as Lord of the Iron Islands in his father’s place. The major change at this point also arises from the translation between media: namely, the decision to excise Ramsay from the Clash of Kings plot and save his introduction for the third season.

Removing Ramsay at this point is a major change, but not one that necessarily alters the themes of the story. Theon still seizes Winterfell out of a sense of wounded pride. He still exhibits his misogyny and elitism through his interactions with the daughter of the ship’s captain. He still comes to the gradual, horrific realization that he has created an unwinnable situation for himself and, crucially, he still murders the two peasant boys as an alternative when he is unable to recapture two noble boys. At this stage, Theon’s story in Game of Thrones is different in the details, but is following the thematic broad strokes outlined by Martin.

allmenmustdieSeasons three and four, together adapting A Storm of Swords, see D&D making their most significant changes to Theon’s story. The showrunners invent a significant amount of new material and, in so doing, begin to alter the thematic underpinnings of the plot. In the novels, Theon simply disappears from the narrative until A Dance with Dragons, at which point readers gather what they can of what happened to him — namely, a lot of torture — through Theon/Reek’s scattered reminiscences. Much more is implied than is explicitly stated.

On television, this approach simply isn’t an option, as the medium demands at least some onscreen presence in order to keep a character in the consciousness of viewers over a two year period. Obviously, it was necessary to include Allen (and Theon) to some degree. However, as I’ve noted, Theon’s experiences during his “off page” period consist entirely of being tortured and mutilated at the hands of Ramsay Snow/Bolton.

The result in season three was some of the most divisive material in Game of Thrones’ pre-season five history: a succession of scenes where an unidentified character played by Iwan Rheon (eventually revealed to be Ramsay) tortures and mutilates Alfie Allen with the help of his two sexy sidekicks. The torture itself is consistent with Martin’s text, if significantly more explicit.

The one non-torture scene D&D invented features Theon tearfully confessing his sins to a disguised Ramsay. Notably, Theon’s confession includes the declaration that he considers Ned Stark his “real father” and that he “chose wrong” by aligning himself with his own family over the Starks. Nowhere in Martin’s novels does Theon express this level of familial allegiance to a family who raised him as a hostage to be killed in the event of his father’s misbehaviour. By strengthening Theon’s bond to the Starks — the heroes in the eyes of viewers — D&D begin to shift the burden on Theon’s conscience from his callous murder of peasant children to his betrayal of a noble House who happen to be portrayed as the “good guys” on the show.

Likewise, the characterization of Ramsay is significantly altered by two adaptation choices: the casting of Iwan Rheon, and the introduction of sexy sidekicks for Ramsay.

RamsayposterIwan Rheon is a fine actor who plays Ramsay with suitable menace, but he is a long way from resembling Ramsay as described:

Yet for all the splendor of his garb, he remained an ugly man, big-boned and slope-shouldered, with a fleshiness that suggested that in later life he would run to fat. His skin was pink and blotchy, his nose broad, his hair long and dark and dry. His lips were wide and meaty, but the thing men noticed first about him were his eyes … all but colorless, like two chips of dirty ice.

Indeed, I’m surely not the first person to observe that Rheon more closely resembles the darkly handsome Theon of Martin’s novels than Alfie Allen himself. Furthermore, Ramsay’s entourage, a group of sadistic hangers-on to the young lord called the Bastard’s Boys, are replaced by a few nondescript guards and two attractive young women who are clearly portrayed as Ramsay’s lovers (as well as his partners in torture).

In D&D’s hands, Ramsay is now a charismatic ladies’ man, with no backstory to establish his prior existence on the cusp of feudal privilege, who tortures out of a Joker-esque sense of malicious glee rather than a lifelong resentment of people who enjoy the rights he was long denied. The one major alteration that appears in season four — an invented scene where Theon’s sister attempts to rescue him only to be fought off effortlessly by a shirtless Ramsay interrupted in the middle of a kinky sex session with one of his ladies — furthers this new characterization.

DanerysTyrionDRAGONThe fifth season, a heavily condensed adaptation of both A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, was controversial for a number of reasons, not the least of them the substitution of Sansa Stark in the place of Jeyne Poole as Ramsay’s new bride. This change in plot roles for a major character is the direct result of the condensed adaptation. If you’ve paid any attention to internet conversations about the show, you know that this particular change was not well received among fans of either version.

Most of the outrage focused on the changes to Sansa’s plot, as her gradually increasing agency in the novels was abruptly cast aside in favor of returning her to her earlier state of constant victimization (though with a change of scenery and with Ramsay filling Joffrey Baratheon’s role of sadistic abuser). Somewhat understandably, less attention was paid to the substantial effects that the Sansa-Jeyne substitution has on Theon’s story, even as his actions towards Sansa on the show superficially resemble his actions towards Jeyne in the books.

Substituting Sansa for Jeyne completes the abandoning of his thematic arc from the novels for two reasons: her status as the highborn daughter of one of the Great Houses of Westeros and her lineage as a Stark. Sansa’s social standing removes a critical element of Theon’s story in the novels, as he no longer “corrects” his earlier dismissive treatment of the lowborn by selflessly risking his life to help someone he previously regarded as insignificant. Moreover, the fact that the highborn girl he rescues in the show is Sansa Stark continues the idea that “betraying the Starks” is the true crime that Theon needs to redeem himself for.

dancewithdragonsNowhere is this effect more pronounced than in the scene that marks Theon’s turning point. Faced with the need to represent Theon’s inner struggle in an external medium (and with great time constraints), D&D hit on a cathartic scene where Theon confesses to Sansa that he murdered two innocent peasants because he couldn’t locate her brothers. However, since the confession is to Sansa Stark, a more central character than Theon, the dominant point of view in the scene hears the murder of the miller’s sons as good news! Her brothers are alive! The boys who got killed were just insignificant peasants!

I do not believe that at any point in the planning for Game of Thrones David Benioff and D.B. Weiss sat down and said “this whole central theme of Theon’s story? Where he learns that smallfolk are people, too? BORING!” In fact, I doubt that the thematic implications of the story were a consideration at all. The loss of Theon’s moral arc from the books is the result of a series of practical concessions to the realities of the televisual medium, and of narrative concessions to a television audience that wants its “good guys” more clearly defined and more present in the story than Martin’s more ambiguous approach.

Nonetheless, the change is real and it is significant. A Song of Ice and Fire is at its most subversive, and its most stridently moral, when it is confronting the reader with the consequences of the main characters’ actions on the peasantry. In Martin’s moral universe, the Starks may be “better” feudal lords than the Lannisters, but all of the nobility are ultimately implicated in a system that unthinkingly inflicts countless depredations on the majority of its citizens. The changes D&D make to Martin’s story, exemplified by their treatment of Theon, reframe the story as a far more straightforward hero tale, superficially subversive in its willingness to kill off primary characters but committed to a much more conventional fantasy morality. While D&D continue to hit the basic beats of Martin’s plot, they’ve ultimately lost the plot in a fundamental way.

James Ross is a freelance writer, academic, and occasional educator from Halifax, Nova Scotia.