When it comes to adaptation, filmmakers are literary cannibals—that is to say, they often cannibalize the source material with a kind of savage artistry—first, hacking off large chunks of back-story; then, skinning off most of the exposition; next, roasting and ingesting only the choicest cuts of scenes, and the best lines of dialogue; and then, finally, regurgitating it all back onscreen.
To accomplish this sacrifice to the movie gods, the screenwriter has a number of primitive tools at his disposal, and a limited amount of time in which to use them.
In this respect, the pilot episode of Game of Thrones provides a good case study. Not only is the HBO series largely faithful to George R.R. Martin’s book, but showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have even found ways to improve upon it (a task that will likely prove easier as they dig into A Dance of Dragons).
The pilot episode, entitled “Winter Is Coming”, is also interesting in that it was shot twice—the original version was filmed in 2009 but never aired. If you’re interested, the script for that iteration is posted online, and you can find a complete breakdown of the differences between the pilots here.
Following the lead of Benioff and Weiss, here’s how to cannibalize and cook a book for cinematic consumption.
1) Hack at the back-story
In The Game of Thrones pilot, which covers some 78 pages of the novel, we lose most or all of the references related to:
-The Children of the Forest and the Coming of the First Men
-How Ned fathered Jon Snow
-Daenerys’ early years
-Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon’s history
-The political situation with Lysa Arryn and her son
A lot of this information ended up in the bonus features of the Game of Thrones DVD set, or in later episodes of the series.
A book can constantly embellish, digress, and backtrack in its storytelling while still remaining evocative. There’s room for back-story, world building, exposition, and mythology. They flow effortlessly into the middle of the action, because they flow from the inner thoughts of the characters.
Films are all about the immediate moment. Time is fixed and the clock is ticking (this is why in action movies there is almost always a literal ticking time bomb.) Flashbacks rarely work. One must get to the point, and quick.
Call it the dumbing-down effect, but there’s only so much information that can be conveyed in a film scene without a) losing the tension and b) boring the hell out of people.
In one scene in the pilot, Benioff and Weiss playfully distill down two pages of exposition about the Children of the Forest, the Sept, and Catelyn Stark’s backstory in four lines of dialogue:
Catelyn: All these years, and I still feel like an outsider when I come here.
Ned: You have five northern children. You’re not an outsider.
Catelyn: I wonder if the old gods agree.
Ned (smiling): It’s your gods with all the rules.
2) Mash the chronology, mix the characters
In rare circumstances, one must also mash the chronology of events found in the book. What once took place over a series of weeks now must take place in an hour.
The opening scenes of both George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and the HBO series begins with three brothers of the Night’s Watch out on a ranging to track some wildlings north of the Wall. In the book, they have been out there for a few weeks. In the show, we see them leaving the Wall, and encountering the White Walkers almost immediately. In this choice, the writers gain urgency at the expense of plausibility; however, they also visually establish the Wall and setting up a wordless eerie tone of dread that was faithful to the feeling of the book.
On even rarer occasions, character motivations may also need to shift.
In the book, Lady Stark urges her husband Ned to go to King’s Landing. In the show, she’s urging him to stay. This makes her appear more loving and better establishes Ned more as a man of honor.
3) Ingest the best
This is the easy part: steal from the book. Martin’s best lines are used throughout the pilot episode (and the series).
I estimate that around half of the dialogue in the pilot was lifted from the book, though it was frequently rearranged, paraphrased, and streamlined.
A good screenwriter can even come up with some good lines of his own. One of the best lines of the pilot was “There is no word for thank you in Dothraki.”
4) Flesh it out
The invented scenes in the Game of Thrones pilot all serve to advance the story in some way, and each one establishes some important piece of exposition, usually through dialogue.
One cannot be too subtle, especially when establishing relationships between characters—get the point across as clearly as possible. In the beginning of the pilot, in the invented scene where Bran practices archery, Jon Stark tells him, somewhat unnecessarily, “Your mother is watching. And your father.”
Images can often overpower the words. When the showrunners screened the original pilot with friends who had never read the books, they had no idea that Jamie Lannister and Queen Cersei were even brother and sister. To clarify, they reshot an introductory scene in King’s Landing with both of the characters; in the original pilot, she spoke to a Maester.
A full list of the differences between the book and the TV pilot can be found here.
Next week I’ll conclude this series on adaptation and see if books or films are inherently better than the other as a medium.