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: “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” (506)
Scene: Sansa’s marriage night
Sansa Stark’s – or is that now Sansa Bolton’s? – marriage night, for all its controversy and firestorm of media coverage, is a scene that is rather close to its counterpart in George R.R. Martin’s source material. What makes the television show’s take so fascinating to contemplate and dissect, however, is just how profoundly what little changes there are affect the whole rest of the tapestry that is Game of Thrones’s overarching narrative (or so we must assume, at least, given that we’re at last coming to the very edge of the published story thus far).
By far the most immediate difference between the two versions is the simple fact that Sansa is nowhere near Winterfell at this point in her literary storyline (or, really, at any other point in her arc save for the very beginning, all the way back in A Game of Thrones’s opening). In her stead is Jeyne Poole, a character who has a minor but relevant presence in the first novel and who has only appeared just once in the television series (“Winter Is Coming,” episode 101), essentially as an extra.
When King Tommen Baratheon signs the royal decree allowing Ramsay Snow to magically transform into Ramsay Bolton, heir of the Dreadfort and of the Wardenship of the North, the Lannisters – with the help of Lord Petyr Baelish, who had confiscated Jeyne after the fall of House Stark and forced her to work in his whorehouses – ship off Sansa’s former friend under the pretense that she is the long-lost Arya Stark, who has, they say, secretly been in a King’s Landing dungeon this entire time.
Ramsay, of course, is aware of the charade, as is his lord father, but as it is the appearance of legitimacy that matters most, he goes along with the plan. And in yet another deviation, the wedding itself is to take place in the northern town of Barrowton – until King Stannis Baratheon’s slow conquest of the north forces the Boltons to switch to the more removed location of Winterfell (which is simply too devastated in the books to be of any practical use to anyone).
Both alterations – changing out Jeyne Poole with Sansa and making Winterfell the new seat of House Bolton – can be attributed to the same golden rule that has been invoked so many times before to explain why showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff move heaven and earth to streamline Martin’s storytelling as much as they do: the conservation of characters (and, yes, Winterfell is a character in the series). Why introduce Sansa and Jeyne’s friendship in season one when audiences already have to invest in, say, Sansa’s relationship with Littlefinger? And why resurrect Jeyne now, four long years later, when Lady Stark is an individual that audiences have continually invested in in nearly every single episode since – and especially considering that the showrunners had already exhausted her material by the end of the fourth season? (When A Dance with Dragons concludes, Sansa is still in the Vale, awaiting the arrival of a distant member of House Arryn who she has been arranged to marry [since, apparently, Littlefinger means for little Robert Arryn to have an accident similar to his mother’s before long, making Sansa the Wardeness of the East and the North].)
(It is also worth noting that, in addition to keeping the narrative landscape less cluttered, there is a huge financial incentive to reusing those elements that have already been introduced in previous episodes: new sets don’t have to be designed and constructed [or new corresponding locations scouted], and new actors don’t have to be auditioned, cast, and, of course, paid.)
Dance with Dragons’s wedding proceeds mostly in keeping with “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken’s” depiction, on a chilly night in Winterfell’s godswood, but there is a noteworthy alteration of atmospherics: on the page, there is a dense mist hovering over all, adding a palpable sense of foreboding to the night’s proceedings. Theon, remarking on the wooded area’s appearance, describes it thusly:
He had never seen the godswood like this, though – grey and ghostly, filled with warm mists and floating lights and whispered voices that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. Beneath the trees, the hot springs steamed. Warm vapors rose from the earth, shrouding the trees in their moist breath, creeping up the walls to draw grey curtains across the watching windows.
The amount of additional time it would’ve taken to shoot the scene in this fashion would’ve been nearly astronomical – not just with generating all the fog needed to fill the soundstage on the day, but also to match the continuity of all the different takes and shots in the editing bay – so it’s easy to imagine this being the first element to be cut in a production meeting (if, indeed, it even made it to the first draft of the teleplay). Still, it’s remarkable to see just how closely the look and feel of the literary original comes through, particularly with director Miguel Sapochnik’s choice of shots that open the sequence; having the lights in the background be out of focus is a wonderful invocation of Martin’s fogginess, making the candles look like “pale fireflies floating in a warm grey soup.” And the episode’s light snow is a sublime substitution for the mist, evoking a distinct sense of atmosphere (and for only a fraction of the cost!).
Finally, there is the moment of truth: the bedding itself. Just as Sansa is a wholly different character than Jeyne Poole, Ramsay’s treatment of her is considerably divergent, as well – at least, on the surface (the sheer brutality of his actions, of course, remain unchanged in the visual medium). In the episode, he tears Lady Stark’s clothes off, bends her over the bed, and forces himself on her while making Theon Greyjoy watch; in the book, he forces Reek to cut the fake Arya’s clothes, including her undergarments, off, and then – well, perhaps it’s best to quote the passage in full.
Ramsay smiled his wet smile. “Does she make your cock hard, Reek? Is it straining against your laces? Would you like to fuck her first?” He laughed. “The Prince of Winterfell should have that right, as all lords did in days of old. The first night. But you’re no lord, are you? Only Reek. Not even a man, truth be told.” He took another gulp of wine, then threw the cup across the room to shatter off a wall. Red rivers ran down across the stone. “Lady Arya. Get on the bed. Yes, against the pillows, that’s a good wife. Now spread your legs. Let us see your cunt.”
The girl obeyed, wordless. Theon took a step back toward the door. Lord Ramsay sat beside his bride, slid his hand along her inner thigh, then jammed two fingers up inside her. The girl let out a gasp of pain. “You’re dry as an old bone.” Ramsay pulled his hand free and slapped her face. “I was told that you’d know how to please a man. Was that a lie?”
“N-no, my lord. I was t-trained.”
Ramsay rose, the firelight shining on his face. “Reek, get over here. Get her ready for me.”
For a moment he did not understand. “I… do you mean… m’lord, I have no… I…”
“With your mouth,” Lord Ramsay said. “And be quick about it. If she’s not wet by the time I’m done disrobing, I will cut off that tongue of yours and nail it to the wall.”
(And just in case this weren’t sadistic enough, before the scene in question even begins, one of “the Bastard’s boys” boasts as they make their way from the Great Hall to the Great Keep that “Lord Ramsay had promised him a piece of the bloody sheet as a mark of special favor.”)
Why the change in Ramsay’s demeanor to his newfound wife? Firstly, it can at least partially be attributed to the fact that his bride is a real Stark, which, in turn, really legitimizes his claim as Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North. As Jeyne herself notes in Dance, “He knows who I am, though. Who I really am. I see it when he looks at me. He looks so angry, even when he smiles, but it’s not my fault.”
Secondly, there’s the well-documented practice of Benioff and Weiss taking the nastier edges off of their television characters, which, in this case, helps keep the scene be as understated as possible (as much as a rape can be understated, of course). Thirdly – and most importantly – there’s the simple effect of replacing a tertiary character, at best, with one of the main leads, an individual who has had the screen time and character development both to inherently and drastically up the shock value without having to tack on additional layers of graphicness (though it should be noted that such was not the case with the infamous Red Wedding [“The Rains of Castamere,” 309]; even though Talisa Stark was added to the huge roster of victims, the executive producers still found it advantageous to explicitly show her being stabbed in the pregnant belly).
There is one final observation to be made. Weiss and Benioff throw in (early, at least) a small-but-notable addition to the Bolton storyline in the form of Lady Walda’s (supposed) pregnancy, a move designed to reassert Lord Roose’s dominance over his crazed bastard (and whose rough antecedent in the novels is arguably his taking Reek away from Ramsay and dressing him up once again as Theon Greyjoy, in order to give the fake Arya Stark away [should her childhood friend claim that it is, indeed, her, which of the northern lords and ladies would dare speak up and say otherwise?]). In this way, Ramsay and Sansa become something of kindred spirits – individuals whose lives threaten to spin out of their control by larger, mostly sinister forces, seemingly no matter what they themselves do to retain their agency. Perhaps this thematic (and ironic?) solidarity was part of the reason to team these two characters up in this narrative thread, generally, and this dramatic scene, specifically.
Then again, it could simply have been the chance to engage in yet another round of sexual one-upmanship that prompted the showrunners to make the move – a potent influence, given the nature of the source material and their premium cable format, to be sure.