HBO’s Game of Thrones (typically, and before this current season) brandishes a consistent and high degree of fidelity to the nearly 5,000-page-long source material of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, but there still, of course, are differences. While most of these gaps from the page to the screen are small and detail-oriented, it is nonetheless the case that the most subtle discrepancies often hold the biggest insight into the adaptation process, into the demands of filmmaking, and into the rigors of the literary narrative.
This, then, is the anatomy of a key scene of Thrones – not because of its dramatic importance or visual effects whizbangery, but because of the telling nature of its realization.
Episode: “Mother’s Mercy” (510)
Scene: Cersei’s walk of shame
Game of Thrones’s rendition of Queen Cersei Baratheon’s most defining moment to date – her walk of shame from the Great Sept of Baelor to the Red Keep, from imprisonment to (relative) freedom – manages to channel Cersei’s internal monologue of crumbling confidence and, at the end, self-denial so well to the visual dimension, it’s a remarkable feat to behold. But it can’t quite catch all the subtleties and vagaries of the queen regent’s emotional state, and though the production kept most of the elements within and around her that were depicted on the page, there are still several items that were left unused. The result is contradictory: the episode’s version is simultaneously both more subtle and more overt.
First there are the external alterations. In A Dance with Dragons, Cersei is flanked by three septas – Unella is to her right, Moelle is on her left, and Scolera walks behind – who proclaim the fallen queen’s penance to the crowd, presumably sparing the High Septon the sight of a naked woman. Their presence is actually part of a far greater escort, which not only includes the Poor Fellows (called “the Stars” by the commoners due to their sigil of a red seven-pointed star on white [only a few are zealous enough to have it carved into their flesh]), but also the Warrior’s Sons (lavishly-dressed high-born knights dedicated to the Faith and who are largely referred to as “the Swords”) and several novice girls, arrayed all in white, who will one day become septas themselves. The security presence is so light in the episode, it seems more symbolic than pragmatic; there’s no way that, say, the riots that broke out when King Joffrey Baratheon rode through the streets (“The Old Gods and the New,” episode 206) would ever be held back by just a few robed brothers with truncheons in hand and a solitary nun with a bell and a singsong voice.
Then there’s the realm of the internal. Cersei undergoes the whole ordeal, from the sheering of her hair (which is actually all of her body hair in the novel, from her bald head all the way down to her legs, including her genitals) to the walk itself, with a huge deal of pride. She refuses to show cowardice, unlike the previous walk of shame in the books (more on this in just a moment) – “They think that this will break my pride, that it will make an end to me,” she resolutely notes, “but they are wrong.” This means that she doesn’t flinch at the hacking off of her hair, that she publically disrobes herself instead of being striped by others – “she bared herself in one smooth, unhurried motion, as if she were back in her own chambers disrobing for her bath with no one but her bedmaids looking on” – and that she makes the walk with her head held high and her arms casually at her side, ignoring the taunts and jeers of the crowds.
By the end of her ordeal, however, after sustaining injuries to her knee and feet and having a wide assortment of debris thrown at her – including a dead cat that hits the cobbles so hard, it bursts open, “spattering Cersei’s lower legs with entrails and maggots” – it is an entirely different story. The physical pain combines with her time in captivity, producing hallucinations at several points: in the crowd are her father, Eddard Stark, Sansa, and, even, Lady, the direwolf that she had killed (“The Kingsroad,” 102), with Tyrion Lannister and Maggy the Frog (the woods witch who tells Cersei her fortune [“The Wars to Come,” 501]) leaping out of the crowd to mock her. Finally, after falling for a second time, she shakes like a leaf and begs to the septas, “Please. Mother have mercy. I confessed.” Nearly every last vestige of pride has been shredded – though there is still more to lose.
The single most noteworthy adaptation change in this regard actually bridges both the external and the internal: the state of the queen’s body, which, on the screen, obviously hasn’t been through three childbirths. Furthermore, in addition to the literary character’s stretch marks and sagging breasts (hello, old[er] age), there is the little matter of her weight gain; as her wardrobe continues to get too small for her over the course of the novels, Cersei continues to complain of her servants’ incompetence at washing her clothes, since, of course, it has nothing to do with her ever-increasing alcoholism and stress-induced feasting. The High Septon’s walk – and a constant stream of remarks such as “That can’t be the queen – she’s saggy as my mum!” – forces Cersei, at long last, to confront this reality, which does much to finally undermine her prideful resolve and have her emotional state come crashing down around her.
Indeed, at the beginning of the process, the queen regent’s denial is quite profoundly on display:
Words are wind, she thought, words cannot hurt me. I am beautiful, the most beautiful woman in all Westeros, Jaime says so, Jaime would never lie to me. Even Robert, Robert never loved me, but he saw that I was beautiful, he wanted me.
And, by the end, she’s reduced to this:
She did not feel beautiful, though. She felt old, used, filthy, ugly. There were stretch marks on her belly from the children she had borne, and her breasts were not as firm as they had been when she was younger. Without a gown to hold them up, they sagged against her chest. I should not have done this. I was their queen, but now they’ve seen, they’ve seen, they’ve seen. I should never have let them see. Gown and crowned, she was a queen. Naked, bloody, limping, she was only a woman, not so very different from their wives, more like their mothers than their pretty little maiden daughters. What have I done?
And then there was no stopping the tears. They burned down the queen’s cheeks like acid. Cersei gave a sharp cry, covered her nipples with one arm, slid her other hand down to hide her slit, and began to run, shoving her way past the line of Poor Fellows, crouching as she scrambled crab-legged up the hill. Partway up, she stumbled and fell, rose, then fell again ten yards farther on. The next thing she knew, she was crawling, scrambling uphill on all fours like a dog as the good folks of King’s Landing made way for her, laughing and jeering and applauding her.
It is, of course, exceedingly easy to see why the producers wouldn’t want to demand that their lead actress gain weight for the role (and, as a result, why they would double-down on the character’s growing alcoholism), and, even more, why they would want to hire something of a model to act as her body double during this sequence; America isn’t ready for a realistic nude scene involving a female, as the 2002 film About Schmidt, which depicted a fully nude and 53-year-old Kathy Bates, attested to. (It is noteworthy to mention that Game of Thrones did feature an aged man in the nude in its previous walk of shame [“High Sparrow,” 503], although it’s also noteworthy that only his buttocks were shown.) And, obviously, once Cersei’s physical infirmities went out the window, the denouement of both her self-denial and pride being destroyed went out with it. Left in their place is the subtler, more performance-heavy depiction seen in “Mother’s Mercy” – one of the few times that showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss opted to be less overt than Martin was in the handling of the material.
The last deviation is, arguably, the biggest, at least in terms of the overall narrative. In Weiss and Benioff’s telling, the idea for doing the walk of shame originates with the High Septon himself, who has adopted it as a blanket punishment for transgressors of the Faith’s laws (at least, for the high-born ones); in Martin’s version, it is Uncle Kevan Lannister who proposes the idea to the High Septon, knowing that it would psychologically destroy the queen regent and hoping that it would finally have her capitulate to her late father’s wishes, moving back to Casterly Rock and out of the political spotlight once and for all. The alteration was undoubtedly meant to somewhat untangle the dense forest that the books’ storyline often becomes – a constant necessity on the executive producers’ parts – but it also has the effect of further empowering the High Septon, specifically, and the Faith, generally, a trend we’ve already seen develop earlier this season.
Running concurrently with this is the precedent for the walk itself. As previously mentioned, viewers get exposed to the concept seven episodes earlier, when the then-High Sparrow punishes the previous High Septon for his fornicating ways. And although readers don’t have any clue whatsoever what ominous fate is looming over Cersei – Martin actually uses this to great narrative effect, as the imprisoned queen frets over the coming morning’s trials and tribulations while the audience is forced to play catch-up – the characters have had their own exposure to the practice: Tytos Lannister, Cersei’s grandfather, was a weak lord and the laughing stock of the westerlands, and, as part of the effort to reclaim House Lannister’s storied dignity, Tywin casts out the baseborn mistress that Tytos had climb into bed with him and comes up with the singularly cruel punishment of parading her through the streets of Lannisport naked, stripped of all the silks and jewels that his father had lavished on her. In this way, the “whore” would be reminded of the dirt that she actually was, and all the vassal lords of the west would immediately know that Tywin was no meek push-over – that he was, in fact, a man to be feared and respected. This is why Cersei vows to stand so strongly and firmly; she does not wish to go down in history as the second wench who cried and pleaded and tried so vainly to hide her nakedness.
One final point to consider in what has already gone done in pop-culture history as one of TV’s most memorable scenes: if a side-note was made about the inequalities of the television world’s ability to show older or stereotypically-less-attractive men naked but not women, then another point must be made here to discuss Benioff and Weiss’s willingness to make the walk of shame a gender-neutral punishment. Yes, it cuts against the historicalness of the medieval setting, but it also becomes something of a socio-political point of its own, particularly for a series that has become a lightning rod of similar observations or criticisms.
Such is the life of a history-making production.