Danny Bowes

Film & TV critic and journalist, novelist, short story writer, playwright, screenwriter.

THE KING IN THE NOOOOOOOORTH: BOOK TO FILM

Earlier this summer, I started reading the Song of Ice and Fire books because of HBO's sadistic resistance to the idea of simply giving the creative team of Game of Thrones enough money and amphetamines to air new episodes year-round. I have found, in news that will surprise literally no one on Earth, that the books are very enjoyable and that George R.R. Martin is an altogether fine chap when it comes to this writing business.

 

The source of my prior resistance to fantasy as a genre—and to the works of that other double-R'd standard-bearer of the genre, Mr. John Tolkien—was the murky slog through hundreds of pages of silly proper nouns (“and they came upon the Hargleshlargle of Namberforth, where the road forked between Shtupleduple and Blarpforth Fen” et cetera) and evil wizards and wide-eyed innocents and all kinds of other things one needs Peter Jackson, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, and Viggo Mortensen to paper over. But the glorious thing about A Song of Ice and Fire is that everyone is absolutely fucked. Innocence is lucky if given the time to wither and die. Everyone is trying to screw everyone else over. Even the Stark daughters, the closest thing the books have to the “wide-eyed innocent” archetype, are anything but. Sansa is steeped in the culture of court intrigue, primeval stew of cynicism, and Arya will cut a motherfucker. And as an added bonus, Martin has an inherent sense of what sounds cool that I've yet to encounter in any other fantasy writer, managing to sum up thousands upon thousands of pages of grim, bleak fatalism into the three-word refrain “Winter is coming.” My kind of universe, all around.

 

The HBO adaptation, with a few slip-ups here and there (some admittedly bordering on catastrophic), does an admirable job bringing this wondrous realm of everything's-fucked-ness to life. What I would submit as its greatest improvement upon Martin's original material is in the portrayal of Robb Stark, son and heir to Eddard, Lord of Winterfell, later King in the North. In the book, Robb is still a kid when his father's head is cut off and he's thrust prematurely into the role of Stark patriarch. He surprises everyone by kicking ass all over the place in the ensuing war, only to meet his downfall in Lady Jeyne Westerling, with whom he falls in love and marries, despite having promised to marry this other dude's daughter in exchange for massive and essential military aid. The other dude, being a mean old fuck even by the exalted Westerosi standards of mean old fuck-itude, has Robb, his bride, and—to really stick it in and break it off—Robb's mom whacked on his wedding day. This, the Red Wedding, is one of the series' most iconic reminders that no one is safe and that eventually we will all freeze in the coming winter and hahaha heh yeah.

 

But the scene where Robb reveals to Catelyn, his mother, that he's violated the marriage contract reveals a boy king who's still very much a boy. When Catelyn points out how dumb it is to marry someone within a day of meeting her with literally world-changing political implications on the line, his reaction is basically “But moooooooooooooooooom . . .” And yes, he is sixteen. But, nevertheless, oy.

 

The show, being a different entity with different needs, made the choice—ultimately beneficial for its purposes in many other ways as well—to “age up” its cast by, in some cases, almost a decade. Richard Madden was cast as Robb, and brought to the part a kind of quiet, even-keeled, handsome intensity that benefited the show greatly. Playing Robb's nobility and grim sense of duty instead of his youth meant that, aside from the occasionally inconvenient by-product of Madden's line readings getting the entire audience pregnant three times in four, the character of Robb read as a legitimate portrayal of the archetypal fantasy hero, who will have his revenge in this life or the next and all that bollocks. Rather than being the “boy king,” he's THE KING IN TH' NOOOOOOOOOOOOOTH (dude seriously worked that Scottish accent for all it was worth).

 

By simply being in another medium the show and the books are separate entities with separate needs, and admittedly I've only just gotten to the scene in A Storm of Swords where Robb tells Catelyn about the change in wedding plans. And thus this is, admittedly, a knee-jerk reaction over the course of a few hundred words. But I do think the way the show handled this storyline—with, rather than Jeyne Westerling, an original character named Talisa who first appears as a battlefield nurse—over the course of almost two whole seasons ended up casting Robb in a more flattering light. As opposed to, in the book, him suddenly appearing after having spent most of his time in the books being mentioned by others rather than being physically present (a function of Martin's use of multiple limited-third-person POV characters rather than omniscient third) with his startling news. But, as with all things, your mileage may vary. Now if you'll excuse me, I want to get back to this book, because all kinds of wonderfully fucked-up shit is on the horizon.

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