Anatomy of a Throne: “The Wars to Come”

HBO’s Game of Thrones 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: “The Wars to Come” (501)
Scene: Tyrion’s new destiny

A Dance with Dragons, the fifth entry in the Song of Ice and Fire series, sees Tyrion’s opening chapter answer what was, at the time, an 11-year-long question: just what had happened to everyone’s favorite, witty, patricidal dwarf? (Unlike in the HBO series, which showed Tyrion Lannister boarding a ship right after he killed his erstwhile lover and lordly father, the previous novel contained no such precious information. The ensuing wait was long and terrible, made all the more pregnant with the seemingly infinite possibilities of where Lord Varys was sending Martin’s – and the audience’s – favorite character.)

'Tis a silly place

This first chapter also, in typical Martin fashion, is an elongated and highly detailed affair, depicting Tyrion’s leisurely, wine-infused explorations of Magister Illyrio Mopatis’s manse (the audience is forgiven if they don’t remember dear old Illyrio, the larger-than-life character who has been seen only twice in Game of Thrones’s 41 episodes, both of them in the first season [“Winter Is Coming” (episode 101) and “The Wolf and the Lion” (105)]). The Imp drinks, contemplates either joining the Wall or going down to Dorne to crown his niece, Myrcella Baratheon, in the Dornish tradition to “make rather a lot of mischief,” drinks some more, and then, of course, eats with the “grotesquely fat” magister. Throughout the proceedings, hints are dropped as to what, exactly, Illyrio wants from him, culminating in the revelation that he means to ship the dwarf off to Daenerys Targaryen, to aid her in her eventual ruling of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.

It is not until Tyrion’s second chapter – another slowly plotted affair, rich in atmosphere, depicting the pair’s glacially slow meanderings aboard a litter through the Essosi countryside – that the heart of the matter is slowly breached: Magister Mopatis, we discover, has been plotting a Targaryen restoration in Westeros for quite some time, with the end reward for him being the position of master of coin on the ruling Targaryen’s small council (though Tyrion is immediately suspicious of such a stated motivation). The Imp, for his part, is to be a royal advisor, with his quick strategic wit and treasure trove of Westerosi political insights. It’s the best that a dispossessed and borderline suicidal former lordling could hope for.

Varys and Tyrion contemplating the wars to come

“The Wars to Come’s” rendition couldn’t be more different in its staging, pacing, and – to a lesser extent – in the psychology of its players. The most blatant change, of course, comes in the switching out of Illyrio with Varys, a move which was all but guaranteed, given showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss’s tendency to utilize only their core cast instead of rotating in a never-ending parade of secondary and tertiary characters. And the fact that the fourth season finale, “The Children” (410), showed the Spider climbing aboard the same ship that was going to smuggle Tyrion off the continent was just icing on the metaphorical cake (in the novel, the eunuch remains behind in King’s Landing but goes into hiding for nearly the entirety of the story).

(Of course, the fact that Illyrio Mopatis hasn’t been seen in three-and-a-half long years more than likely played a role in the executive producers’ thinking on this front – this was a major consideration, after all, in their decision to remove any mention of Tysha, Tyrion’s first wife, in “The Children,” despite her being a huge motivator in the little Lannister killing his lord father. Such considerations are at once wholly understandable but still disappointing, particularly considering the presence of another long-lost minor character, Lancel Lannister [who was last seen in “Blackwater” (209)], in the ep.)

Magister Illyrio Mopatis

This replacement of Illyrio may seem a relatively minimal alteration, but its ramifications ripple in ways both big and small throughout Tyrion’s two scenes – and, presumably, throughout the rest of his story arc for the remainder of the season. Varys and the Imp’s familiarity with one another allows them to cut right to the dramatic chase, removing the many layers of introduction, argumentation, and deception that hang so heavily in the air on the page. (It also allows for some banter and genuine laughs, which have long been another hallmark of Weiss and Benioff’s take on the source material.) And the straightforwardness of the Spider’s explanations of his and Illyrio’s conspiracy to dethrone the Baratheon dynasty is remarkable, providing a frankness that is, for good or ill, wholly missing from A Song of Ice and Fire’s many installments. (More on this in just a moment.)

Other, smaller changes worth noting: Tyrion’s extreme self-loathing isn’t quite as pronounced on the screen as it is in Dance with Dragons, partially due to the loss of inner monologues but mostly thanks to the removal of the Tysha component from the character equation. The dwarf is unceremoniously emptied out of his crate (a cask, technically, in the book) in the wine cellar of the magister’s palace in order to help hide his passage into the Free City of Pentos; in the television series, such nuanced story considerations are consistently trumped by production values – it’s far more visually arresting to have grand vistas play out in the background of long dialogue scenes instead of a dimly lit basement.

And, finally, the origin story of Varys and Illyrio’s partnership is not only far simpler in Game of Thrones, it is also, pointedly, much more innocent; rather than simply joining up with a group of people who all “saw Robert Baratheon for the disaster he was,” in the novels the two brainstormed a fencing scheme that had the eunuch steal from lesser thieves while the future merchant would sell the stolen goods back to their rightful owners – for a premium, of course. The motivations behind such a streamlining could either be short- or long-term – it is just too early in the season to know for certain.

Tyrion puking

A final word (or two) on these two scenes’ particularities needs to be said. The trimming and tucking that the showrunners engaged in is, quite frankly, something that needed to be done to Martin’s original story, and its continued effects upon the overarching narrative will, undoubtedly, continue to reinforce its structure, let alone pick up its pacing. Furthermore, the efficiency and efficacy both of Benioff and Weiss’s ability to convey extreme amounts of backstory or exposition continues to unbelievably impress; how Tyrion Lannister’s entire state of mind can be established with just a few lines of dialogue, a few shots of Peter Dinklage’s stellar performance, and one (comically timed) bout of vomiting needs to be committed to a filmmaking class on adaptation.

36 responses

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    1. I believe the reason for Illyrio to be absent is not that his character was removed from the show, but that his actor was unable to reprise him as Illyrio for this season.

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    2. I disagree. Analyzing the differences is even more interesting this year due to the number of adaptation decisions that diverge from the book.

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    3. This was actually unexpectedly pleasant and balanced, well done for that

      I also think Roger Allam just wasn’t available… I mean it’s not like they cut him out… they stayed at his palace instead of going straight to Volantis

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    4. I love these, so I do hope you continue to do these. I haven’t read the books, but I enjoy the insights into the adaptation and cinematic processes. I gather that many, many fans on the internet do not like Tyrion’s journey in the books. I actually enjoyed his scenes the most on repeated viewings of The Wars to Come. Tyrion’s scenes cut to the meat of the story sure and fast. In Ep. 1 in Pentos, Varys’s motivations are finally revealed, as also Tyrion’s mindset. I hope this trajectory of swift cutting to the meat of the story continues for Tyrion’s arc.

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    5. This was a nice read and great way to get geared up for tomorrow.

      I have to agree that the adaptation was handled very well. As always D&D didn’t waste any screen time. I do disagree that GRRM needed to slim down his Tyrion chapters. I enjoy immersing myself in the world he has created but I can understand if people find it to be boring. We all have different views and taste.

      Looking forward to tomorrow!

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    6. Braincandy,

      I think this is a special case, where getting to know every little town, hill and bend in the river between Pentos and Volantis frustrated people because the story is about the fate of Westeros, and Essos is just a side stage

      Now I think of it I can’t see any plot necessity for the things Tyrion did in Selhorys to be in Selhorys etc.

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    7. cihan234,

      I agree with Monty – this is one juicy season for exactly this kind of article. And who knows what they will do next season? But that’s a whole year away.

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    8. I hoped to understand better Vary’s actual position in the books, at last. But what I’ve seen in this fifth season was not helpful at all.

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    9. Mormont,

      That’s a good point. Also, the reason GRRM takes so darn long to write is because he too gets bogged down in the details. At this point I think a large majority of the fandom would rather see the end than as much detail as possible. Myself included.

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    10. Thanks for a great piece! 🙂

      I completely agree D&D accomplished a lot with very little screen time. I really like your phrase for the little things being missing or cut.. wholly understandable but still perhaps disappointing.

      I was curious to see if Roger Allam would be back, I would have liked to have seen him, and was hoping with his distinctive beard look non-fanatical viewers might have a chance to remember him.

      The views in Croatia were gorgeous on screen, much preferred over a basement! 🙂 And the humor between Tyrion and Varys was great, a justification on its own for bringing Varys across the sea.

      The only thing I didn’t like was Varys’s grand exposition seemed so direct, a bit dumbed down, it was less nuanced than I was expecting. At least it’s clear to viewers what Tyrion will be up to this season.

      I wonder if they will ever show just how far back Varys and Illyrio go, and how long Varys has been planning the Targaryen restoration…

      Now I’m curious to see what will happen to Varys, will he travel with Tyrion for a bit? For how long? How will Tyrion get separated and kidnapped by Jorah (if he does)? Will Varys return to King’s Landing and kill Kevan and Pycelle at the end of the season? I hope so!

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    11. davy,

      Huh. No shit.

      If this is true — which I can certainly believe it is — then it amazes me how well the showrunners reworked the material, and how seamlessly it blended in with all their other, previous adaptation choices.


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    12. This was the perfect antidote to the nitpicking and whining that certain other sites (starts with a “W”) engage in whenever the series fails faithfully to include aspects of the books. Nice to read an analysis that understands the necessary choices you make when you translate a book to screen.

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    13. Kay,

      I should probably clarify here: I actually *love* Tyrion’s story arc in “A Dance with Dragons”; in fact, during my current re-read, his chapters have easily been my favorite. (Maybe because these are the most “Lord of the Rings” Martin gets in his series.) When I talked about the necessity of trimming or otherwise editing Martin’s work, I actually was speaking of both “A Feast for Crows” and “Dance with Dragons” generally.

      With that said, however, I really can see the validity of others’ criticisms about the Imp’s travels and travails, just as Mormont mentions. So there ya go.


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    14. One last comment, directed to everyone:

      Thank you very much for the incredibly nice words. It’s rather pleasant and somewhat comforting to know that my obsessive-compulsive nerdisms have so many kindred spirits out there.



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    15. I think you can look at the decision to omit Illyrio’s presence in two ways:

      1. They know that Illyrio still has a role to play in the story but his appearance this season would amount to little more than a cameo so they chose to not bother to bring back the actor until he has something more significant to do. Clearly, Varys was going to be alongside Tyrion for his journey because otherwise he’d be sitting on the sidelines for most if not all of the season which they just weren’t going to do with Conleith Hill. Knowing this, having Varys be the one to explain Tyrion’s next steps and accompany him made the most sense. Having Illyrio there simply to make an appearance seemed unnecessary. The actor’s availability to come in simply to be a prop in a Varys/Tyrion scene may have played into this as well.

      2. Once discovering the plot of future books and how much Illyrio was or was not involved, the decision was made to cut him out of the story and have characters like Varys take on his necessary actions in the next few seasons. There’s also the strong possibility that the Aegon plot has been completely exercised from the show which most likely renders Illyrio’s participation even more insignificant.

      At the same time, the show would need to close off the narrative loop started in S1 which had Varys and Illyrio conspiring about “something”. So they have this scene where Varys explains the relationship and motivations (perhaps leaving out some pertinent information that will be revealed later). Illyrio is positioned as one of many co-conspirators with Varys that helped set Dany on her way but has more or less played his role in the plot and will not be appearing again on the show.

      I personally lean towards the 2nd option.

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    16. Braincandy,

      Well, not everyone! The books will always be first for me – love all the detail but I understand that’s not for everyone. The show is excellent as well so get double the pleasure.

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    17. Seriously, I did like the way the show

      a. Added some humor to it all.
      b. Streamlined things to help get that plot moving more quickly which meandered WAY too much in the books.

      Plus Conleth and Dinklage together are pure awesome.

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    18. Kay,

      Tyrions journey is actually awesome in the books but it would definitely drag a bit in the show if they portrayed his chapters in 100% accuracy. Not a diss on the material, as I said his journey is awesome, it’s just the show and book mediums are 2 completely different things(as D&D say). They only got 10 episodes to play with, so they do have to streamline many of the story aspects. They streamlined it perfectly, adding all the necessary components. The only thing I wish they included was Illyrio,

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    19. Braincandy:

      That’s a good point. Also, the reason GRRM takes so darn long to write is because he too gets bogged down in the details. At this point I think a large majority of the fandom would rather see the end than as much detail as possible. Myself included.

      I didn’t mind the fundamental story of the Tyrion chapters in ADWD but I think it could have been told more concisely. There were times I thought “If I have to read

      “Where do whores go?” one more time it will do my head in.

      While I’m typing, thanks to Mark N for a thoughtful article.

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    20. Excellent analysis, Marc! That was a truly enjoyable read. As fans, we often get swept up discussing the major changes for this show and their future implications – particularly when it comes to things like plot and the presence (or absence) of certain characters. But looking at the smaller details of a scene can be just as instructive. Whether it’s the way a certain character delivers a line of dialogue or how a particular element of the production design is utilized, it’s important to remember that great showrunners think about all of these things. The way that these pieces are presented and altered may not have grand repercussions, but these are the tools of the visual storyteller – just as words are the tools of the author. You can use as many tools as you need to complete your objective, but each and every one has value, and they should never be wasted.

      I thought that the two scenes between Tyrion and Varys in “The Wars to Come” were masterfully constructed. To use your words, I continue to be in awe of Benioff and Weiss’s efficiency and efficacy in handling large swaths of source material and tailoring them to fit both the demands of a visual medium and their own strengths as storytellers. Their work really should be held up as an example to aspiring filmmakers who are striving to learn how to balance the art of faithful adaptation with the realities of production and the need to create an engaging program that can stand on its own.

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    21. As for Illyrio … I do think Roger Allam’s availability played at least a small role in the way Tyrion’s arrival in Pentos was depicted. Had Allam been free and willing to make an appearance, it’s possible that Benioff and Weiss would have found a way to include him in at least the first of these two scenes. In addition to paying off his previously established relationship with Varys, the Magister’s presence would have provide an additional layer of continuity for viewers, especially those for whom the name “Illyrio Mopatis” may not have rung a bell.

      That being said, it was inevitable that the (smart and essential) decision to have Varys accompany Tyrion across the Narrow Sea was going to render Illyrio somewhat redundant. Thanks to the history between the characters and Conleth Hill’s status as a member of the main cast, Varys was always going to be the major foil for Tyrion during this sequence. That Roger Allam might not want to fly to Croatia for what would basically be a cameo is eminently reasonable (During the off-season, many people speculated that Allam might only film interior scenes in Belfast, and that Varys and Tyrion’s conversation on the balcony would be the second part of a sequence that began indoors. But if you have the opportunity to shoot more scenes at a gorgeous Croatian villa rather than on a soundstage in Northern Ireland, why not take advantage of it?)

      Rearranging the intricately maintained structure of TV’s most elaborate production to accommodate the needs of one actor is always a dangerous proposition. But such a thing is not out of the question … if the narrative payoff is ultimately going to be worth it. If it’s not, why bother? So the Illyrio issue takes the form that King Tommen outlined – one of temporary practicality versus ultimate necessity. Like him, I lean towards the latter explanation. The almost-certain excision of certain characters and storylines (a separate decision, one that was probably harder to make) only makes this more likely.

      The ability to make such definitive (and at times ruthless) decisions is one of the major reasons why Benioff and Weiss have been so successful. It’s shockingly easy to think of all the ways that this massive train could have stalled out or flown off the track entirely over the years (and still might). Benioff and Weiss have been quite candid in discussing those potential pitfalls. But not only have the two managed to keep the show running on track, they’ve been able to build and maintain a potent level of creative momentum as well – one that I have faith will carry them through an uneven transitional period in this story and across the uncharted territory ahead. That’s one of their finest attributes as showrunners, and one that I feel often doesn’t get its just due.

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    22. I just wanted to say great job by the author of this article and to the website as a whole. Many I have visited throughout the “off season” and now, get cluttered up with negativity about the adaptations inclusion and exclusion from the books. I completely agree with knowledgeable comments by the fan base of this great site. This is a storyline that needed to be simplified for the show.
      Keep up the great work WotW.

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    23. Marc N. Kleinhenz,

      I also love Tyrion’s arc in ADWD but I doubt it would work in the show.

      About ASOIAF in general I would gladly read everything Martin writes even if it’s slow because I always tend to enjoy it. The main concern though for me is that the pace is so glacial that he isn’t going to finish it.

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    24. ” simply joining up with a group of people who all “saw Robert Baratheon for the disaster he was,”

      I think EVERYONE –,, EVERYONE – is making far too much out of that line, as if it’s some drastic change.

      I realize Young Griff is probably cut, but I took it as just a vague statement that could mean ANYTHING.

      I mean, what was Young Griff but “a group of people who thought Robert was a disaster and wanted their own king in his place who they thought could do a better job?”

      It sounds slightly more altruistic…but that’s just because everyone slants their own candidate as the “right” choice.

      I really found it bizarre how both websites fixated on that line so much as “drastically changing Varys’s motivations”….when if anything, it was oblique and vague enough to fit any plot motivations.

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    25. I think that part of that “group of people” in the show is Doran. And, no I don’t think that

      Trystane is Aegon, bit i think that Trystane’s marriage with Dany will be their(Varys, Doran, Illyrio) plan.

      And if Varys is Blackfire, do you think they will reveal that without YG? Will they simply say that he is “Targaryen bastard” and because of that he supports Dany? Or they won’t say anything?

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    26. mau,

      Just a quick note, you need a space between the opening spoiler tag and the text you want to hide AND a space after the text but before the closing spoiler tag. Otherwise they don’t work. Put another way, put a space at the beginning of the text you want to hide and a space at the end, then put the spoiler tags around that.

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    27. Nice piece, Marc. Refreshing, and I have always been a big fan of Tyrion’s heart of darkness journey and Varys’ motives.

      I was surprised that during Varys and Tyrion’s conversation, V didn’t mention the major change of plan that must have taken place since S1 when it was fairly clear that they advocated Viserys with Dothraki support. I suppose it is unimportant, but the switch from a male Targ to a female Targ in charge must have been a huge shift in strategy and risk. Who said anything about “him”? must have been a recent shift in philosophy for him!

      In ADwD, did we ever discover if Viserys was the primary strategy and Aegon the secondary option, or was super-secret YG/Aegon always the primary strategy? Any thoughts on that?

      Also, do you have any thoughts or concerns regarding the show’s maturation of I & V’s plan given their early conversation in The Wolf and the Lion, V’s use of Jorah, the poison safety plan (V’s little birds playing both sides of the coin by initiating and warning Jorah of the attack) and now enlisting Tyrion as a possible partner?

      For some reason, my imagination made more of the Illyrio absence. Like KT has surmised, I was wondering if Illyrio is already in motion, possibly heading back to Westeros to help “pave the way” for the Slaver’s Bay migration…

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    28. Mormont,

      Not Tyrion specifically

      I think it is because it will be relevant in some elses arc

      Basically the nuances of Essos are highly important in Dany’s arc, but the places are introduced through Tyrions POV

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    29. I loved this piece, as this sort of analysis is right up my alley, not to mention the writing was fantastic. I’ve done a bit of adaptation, and have experienced the inevitable difficult choices which come with adapting material you love. Things have to change and things have to be let go, even when you wish they didn’t.

      I really look forward to your next installment!

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    30. Late to this series of posts, and really enjoying them. I am a big fan of the books but felt that Martin’s attention for detail was on the high end of OCD. Much of Tyrions journey (esp with Penny) was eye numbing to me, and I found myself skipping around a lot. So I love that show makes the story work in a way that the author wouldn’t or couldn’t do. And being a fan of both, I really appreciate your analysis of how each medium is able to tell the same scene. Well done, ser!

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