HBO’s Game of Thrones

Nitpicks and Not Being a Know-It-All: Talking to Your Friends About Game of Thrones (When They Haven’t Read the Books)

When people talk about the mainstreaming of geek culture, the evolution of George R. R. Martin’s hugely popular Song of Ice and Fire series into the pop culture juggernaut that is HBO’s Game of Thrones is invariably noted as a sterling example of the mainstreaming trend. As always, I’m happy to see the fantasy genre making a splash and drawing new fans and new readers in—but as with any adaption, there’s bound to be a divide between two fan factions: those who’ve read the original books, and those who haven’t.

[Note: Spoilers for the books through A Storm of Swords are at least hinted at below, so proceed with caution!]

I’ve been utterly delighted to see how popular the show has become with most of my friends and family members—some of whom have started reading the books, in between seasons. Most of them, however, have not picked up the novels, and that’s okay. Would I like them to read the books? Sure. But it’s not about me. It doesn’t make their enjoyment of the show any more or less valid or genuine than mine is…but it does sometimes make it difficult to discuss the show without sounding like a crazy person. Right? Maybe it’s just me.

My problem is that when I find myself in an in-depth discussion of the series with friends who haven’t read the books, I sometimes hear myself morphing, Jekyll and Hyde-style, into the Comic Book Store Guy from The Simpsons. It’s like there’s just enough of a divide between the Westeros of the books and the HBO version to bring out the terrible, know-it-all, detail-obsessed dork that lurks in the hearts of the most seemingly normal and well-adjusted fans. One minute, you’re having a pleasant chat about the joys of Joffrey-slapping or whatever, doing your level best to politely avoid spoilers, and the next minute you feel like you’re shifting from Smeagol the Totally Mellow, Non-Psychotic Hobbit into a sputtering, muttering, sweaty, wild-eyed pop cultural Gollum choking over some relatively minor detail, all because people who haven’t read the books are going to have an inherently different way of interpreting the series than people who have.

And while it’s important to never to unleash the beast on the poor, unsuspecting folks who think that Asha Greyjoy’s name is “Yara” and who have to put up with all the creepy whispering about weddings that we Book People have been doing just out of earshot since last season, I think that now might be a good time to exorcise of few of the petty, nitpicky demons howling in the nerdy abyss between us and them. These are just a few of the weird sticking points I’ve personally run into over the past year or two while discussing the series with people who haven’t delved into the novels—maybe some of you have tripped over the same conversational stumbling blocks; maybe you’ve encountered entirely different obstacles; maybe you just think I’m nuts (totally possible). But since this is a safe space for rampant geeking out, I’m going to get to it, starting with my pettiest gripe of all:

 

Game of Thrones books show things that bother

There is no character named “Khaleesi.”

I try to let this one go, but I just can’t: “Khaleesi” is a Dothraki title—not the character’s name, you guys. Her name is Daenerys. Daenerys “Stormborn” Targaryen—Mother of Dragons, if you’re nasty. And yet, in my experience, people who’ve approached her story through the show only often tend to refer to her as “Khaleesi,” used as a proper name. I know they say it ALL THE TIME on the show (looking at you, Ser Jorah), but anyone who thinks that’s the character’s name just isn’t paying attention. And maybe it’s because I work on a site dedicated to SF/F, but it comes up way more often than it should—I even met a woman at New York Comic Con who claimed to be cosplaying as “Khaleesi from Game of Thrones.” And you know what? Good for her—she looked great, and I totally applaud her enthusiasm. I just wish people would start getting Dany’s name right; hasn’t she been through enough, people?

Again, I know it’s rather petty and that, given what a fantastic job HBO has done in terms of bringing the books to life, I have no right to complain, but again—sometimes you just can’t control the goofy triggers that threaten to wake your inner nerd-dragon. The Khaleesi issue sticks in my craw, for whatever reason, as a pet peeve, but most of my problems bridging the conversational gap between books-plus-show fandom and adaptation-only fandom are more complex, having more to do with changes and new characters introduced in the series. Taken at face value by viewers experiencing the story for the first time, these variations and revisions complicate the expectations of readers who think they know these characters and what’s in store for them (at least to some to degree)—and it can make for some stilted exchanges (and occasionally give rise to an ill-advised impulse to start lecturing) when worlds collide.

 

Game of Thrones books show things that bother

Talisa Maegyr: Not to be trusted?

Several of my (non-ASoIaF-reading) friends and family members have become devoted fans of Lady Talisa over the last season, and so I keep finding myself in conversations in which she’s held up as a (if not the) shining example of a strong, well-balanced female character. And I am all for strong, well-balanced female characters, believe me…I just can’t seem to summon up the same sense of boundless good will and adulation toward Talisa, partially because of what happens in A Storm of Swords and partially because George R. R. Martin has irreparably damaged my ability to trust new characters over the course of five books (not a complaint, for the record!).

Clearly, the show has give us more of Robb Stark’s story and POV than the books did, and in keeping with his expanded storyline, they apparently decided to ditch the pretty non-entity that was Jeyne Westerling. GRRM created the character of Lady T. for the series, and HBO cast Oona Chaplin in the role (she’s the granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin/great-granddaughter of Eugene O’Neill, for all you film, theater, and random trivia-loving fans out there). Chaplin is certainly a charismatic presence, and yet it’s taken me awhile to get used to the character and start thinking of her as real part of the story; for the first few episodes she appeared in, I couldn’t help thinking of her in terms of “Jeyne Westerling’s sassy Valyrian stand-in” or just “Sexy Medieval Nurse” (which, admittedly, sounds like something from the clearance rack at a low rent Halloween store).

Now that I’ve had some time to adjust, Talisa has grown on me (again, I think Chaplin’s done a great job in the role), but I can’t fully get on board with the hyper-enthusiastic Talisa Appreciation Society many of my friends have happily subscribed to. I wouldn’t go so far as to call her a Mary Sue—a term that’s both overused and just isn’t a proper fit, here—but so far, she does seem to exude a kind of Mary Sue-ish, too-good-to-be-true-ish vibe, at least to me. Maybe my expectations have become a bit warped thanks to…well, everything that happens in the novels (seriously: pick a page at random, and there’s probably some sort of treachery afoot), but fellow readers: do we trust her?

Talisa is basically tailor-made to be Robb Stark’s own personal version of a manic pixie dream girl—so instead of pursuing quirky, lighthearted adventures, she’s more into high-minded ideals, healing the wounded, and abandoning the trappings of nobility in favor of honorable pursuits and the accompanying moral high ground (Fact: the moral high ground is like catnip to Stark men). I’m as intrigued as the next fan to find out what happens next with Robb and Talisa, but I just can’t bring myself to buy into the character…or get too attached. People who haven’t read the books might not understand my reticence—but I have a feeling they’re in for some unspeakably traumatic surprises, this season.

 

Game of Thrones books show things that bother

Shae is…not quite what I expected.

In the same vein as Talisa, it’s taken me a little time to adjust to the show’s version of Shae. And again, it’s not that I think the actress (Sibel Kekilli) isn’t doing a very good job—her ability to move between a fierce defensiveness and touching warmth in the same scene is particularly impressive. But the character tends to be kind of humorless and intense in a way that’s fundamentally different from the Shae of the novels, who never took anything Tyrion said seriously. In the books, Shae might pout sometimes, but she spent plenty of time joking around and laughed often, and I understood the basis of their relationship to be tied to the fact that her lighthearted, mocking good humor was irresistible to Tyrion.

Tyrion uses humor as a defense mechanism, but he also wields it as a weapon, utilizing his quick wit to turn the tables against those who fail to take him seriously or treat him with any semblance of consideration or respect. In the books, I feel like Shae took a similar stance toward the world at large: a powerless figure scoffing at the pompous and powerful, rather than quaking or despairing. On the show, Shae is more guarded and standoffish—it’s still believable, but their relationship loses some of the charm, and (looking ahead) Shae’s eventual betrayal packs less of a devastating punch, at least for me, without that connection between them: the only person laughing with Tyrion, not at him, ultimately sells him out…and turns him into an object of supreme ridicule.

I suspect that Shae’s humor was borrowed and bundled into the character of Ros, another character created for the show (though technically originating from the books, where she was mentioned only as “the red-headed whore;” Ros is also given elements of Alayaya’s story from A Clash of Kings). Ros is quick-witted and generally easygoing where Shae is prickly and passionate–I’m assuming Martin and the other powers that be wanted to differentiate as much as possible between these two characters, lest casual viewers get their prostitutes all mixed up, or something. It makes no appreciable difference for people watching the show with no book-inspired expectation, but for me it changes the tenor of the Tyrion/Shae relationship quite a bit—and lord knows humor is a precious enough commodity around Westeros, as it is….

 

Game of Thrones books show things that bother

The softening (or at least humanizing) of Tywin Lannister.

Damn you, Charles Dance. Heading up a family filled with disturbingly charming sociopaths, you’ve managed to make me like the one character in Martin’s world that I knew was pure, unmitigated evil—and now most of my friends will never truly understand The Real Tywin Lannister. By which I mean the Tywin of the novels, who has earned a place of honor in the Right Bastard Hall of Fame—he’s like a less-sympathetic Darth Vader mixed with the dad from The Great Santini mixed with a particularly ill-tempered pit viper.

But on the show, Tywin’s taken a liking to Arya Stark (without knowing that she is, in fact, a Stark), and even his suspicions about her background and political sympathies don’t stop him from taking her under his wing during his sojourn at Harrenhal. He takes her on as a servant, talks and shares food with her, and quickly recognizes her intelligence…he’s arguably nicer to Arya than anyone’s been since her father died, and I AM NOT MADE OF STONE. Dance is still magnificently frigid and calculating in his dealings with his children and his other underlings, but he’s a far cry from the hateful, brilliant, merciless monster I’d come to expect from the books, so again—while I appreciate the change as an interesting development from the original text, it can be difficult to talk about Tywin with people uninitiated into his total bastard-dom.

Similarly, I think people watching the show without any previous exposure to Cersei Lannister (played by Lena Headey) are getting a slightly kinder view of an extremely complex character. Obviously, Cersei eventually gets her own POV chapters in the series (beginning in A Feast for Crows), but even then, she’s certainly not winning Miss Congeniality any time soon—she’s always cultivated more of a bitter, boozy Real Housewives of Westeros vibe. In all seriousness, she’s an incredibly strong, angry, frustrated character with many, many faults, but so far the show has mainly played up two of Cersei’s major facets: her almost militantly maternalistic devotion to her children and her proto-feminist frustration at being merely a pawn in a man’s world. She remains deeply flawed and antagonistic, but overall she’s being positioned on the show as a distinctly more sympathetic character: a mother lion protecting her cubs, a tormented rebel soul at odds with the system—while still being harsh and abusive toward Sansa, Tyrion, and her assorted underlings.

On the bright side, I’d argue that this somewhat revamped characterization of the Lannisters (both Tywin and Cersei) all ties back into the exact quality that makes Martin’s writing so appealing—his project of toying with the reader’s emotions, gleefully muddling heroes and villains, setting up repellent characters that one instantly despises and then showing you their point of view, forcing you to reconsider everything and learn to love them against your will. His backstories are consistently shifting, the facts rearranging themselves from chapter to chapter, book to book until you realize that (much like Jon Snow) you know nothing about what happened in the past, and even the present is tricky and uncertain at best. So getting yet another version of events, through the show, actually fits in remarkable neatly with the way narrative is approached in Martin’s books—it’s just another slightly different retelling of the facts, with a few new perspectives. Some details only hinted at before get expanded, while some threads disappear, and it’s impossible to tell whether they’ve been cut out, or simply remain unseen in the weave of the new pattern.

And of course, in the end, great storytelling is all that matters, right? After all, one rabid viewer’s beloved Lady Talisa is another’s Sultry Replacement Jeyne. Like the song says, you say Yara, and I say Asha; you say Khaleesi, I say Daenerys, so I’ll continue to do my best to muzzle my annoying, nerd-splaining impulse as much as possible as we start the new season. Whether you’ve read the books or not, I think we can all agree that there’s a certain tiny, angry blonde who needs to stop wandering around Qarth insisting to anyone that will listen that she’s the Mother of Dragons all the time. Because WE GET IT. We got it the first million times. Honey, we miss Drogo, too, but it is time to find yourself a stable plotline and settle down!

In the meantime, we Book People will be over here, muttering to ourselves about how you better beware of creepy, gold-toothed gigolos in your very near future. Or who knows? Maybe not. The one thing I’m sure of is that March 31st better get here in a hurry.


Bridget McGovern is the managing editor of Tor.com. In some circles she is known as the Auntie of Dragons.

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