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: “The Dance of Dragons” (509)
Scene: Drogon’s rescue
The opening of the fighting pits, the Sons of the Harpy’s assassination attempt on Queen Daenerys Targaryen, and her subsequent escape on the back of her missing dragon, Drogon, is a fascinating confluence of several different changes, ranging from the most minor to the most blatant. They are all also very revealing of the different storytellers’ modi operandi as we quickly approach the final stretch of George R.R. Martin’s highly dense saga.
The biggest of these alterations, by far, is the simple fact that, in A Dance with Dragons, there is no Sons of the Harpy attack on the beleaguered queen; Hizdahr zo Loraq – who does, indeed, end up marrying Daenerys in the book – proudly boasts that he’s “tamed” the Harpy, ending their guerrilla attacks once and for all (see the Anatomy of a Throne for “Kill the Boy,” episode 505, for more on this). To show that Meereen has supposedly moved into a post-insurgent period, Dany forgoes her traditional Unsullied guard on the way to Daznak’s Pit and instead brings an escort of Brazen Beasts, those Meereenese who have fully embraced the city’s new future and half of whose numbers are comprised of freedmen from all three of Slaver’s Bay’s cities (“Half of these Brazen Beasts are untried freedmen,” Ser Barristan the Bold tells Dany. She goes on to finish that thought for him: “And the other half are Meereense of doubtful loyalty.”)
(A quick-but-cogent aside: the visual look of the Beasts, which is dominated by brass masks fashioned in the shape of various animals – “boars and bulls, hawks and herons, lions and tigers and bears, fork-tongued serpents and hideous basilisks,” Martin tells us – was obviously lifted for the Sons of the Harpy, who are never directly seen in the novel, leaving them something of a looming threat rather than the stars of action set-pieces. This move serves as a tip of the hat – or, in this case, mask – to the source material while fitting the needs of the visual medium. [Ironically enough, the rationale behind both factions’ donning of disguises is the same: to hide their identities and protect their families from reprisal attacks. There is assuredly some sort of social or political commentary floating around in there.])
As it transpires, however, there is no need for either Unsullied or Brazen Beasts. The sequence on the page is more a psychological challenge for Daenerys Targaryen instead of a physical threat, an internal crisis instead of an external one. Trapped by the weight of her responsibilities to a people that she, in all likelihood, has precious little affection for, the manifestation of her constant struggles with and compromises to this foreign culture all but smother her as the blood sport plays out just feet in front of her, forcing her to shed her traditional Meereenese garb – a constant and important runner throughout her story arc, illustrating her fumblings with identity – and try to flee from the fighting pit.
The conflict here is a subtle one with her lord husband, who attempts to keep pushing her to fully embrace the city’s ways by not only allowing men to engage in the “mortal art,” but also to readmit women, animals, and, even, children. There’s also something known as the follies, “comic combats where cripples, dwarfs, and crones had at one another with cleavers, torches, and hammers (the more inept the fighters, the funnier the folly, it was thought),” which are inserted in between the main contests. Dany ultimately, reluctantly gives in on most of these – though she remains resolute in her opposition to child combatants – as the reality of governing stands in stark contrast with her black-and-white moral worldview; as Hizdahr points out with the follies, in specific, not only will her people love her more if she laughs with them, but also the cripples, dwarfs, and old women would starve without the pay that comes from the matches.
But that isn’t to say that there’s not some sort of assassination attempt going on – it’s just more subtle and indirect, as is most of Daenerys’s storyline in Dance with Dragons:
Hizdahr had stocked their box with flagons of chilled wine and sweetwater, with figs, dates, melons, and pomegranates, with pecans and peppers and a big bowl of honeyed locusts. Strong Belwas bellowed, “Locusts!” as he seized the bowl and began to crunch them by the handful.
“Those are very tasty,” advised Hizdhar. “You ought to try a few yourself, my love. They are rolled in spice before the honey, so they are sweet and hot at once.”
“That explains the way Belwas is sweating,” Dany said. “I believe I will content myself with figs and dates.”
As it transpires, the locusts are poisoned – though Strong Belwas survives his bingeing, much to the relief of book readers everywhere – and given the fact that Hizdahr zo Loraq is the one responsible for providing the royal retinue’s refreshments, as well as being the one to insist that the queen eat the tainted delicacy, it has led a number of readers to conclude that the Meereenese noble is attempting something of a coup, and that, furthermore, he is actually the Harpy, the hypothesized leader of the insurgent movement.
That Daenerys’s lord husband is stabbed and killed in the Sons of the Harpy attack in “The Dance of Dragons” is a tremendously surprising development, and not just because of his status as suspect number one for many – it’s also yet another instance of a character perishing in the series while still lingering in the novels (the same as Barristan the Bold, who dies in “Sons of the Harpy” , and, before him, Mance Rayder, who shuffles off the television coil in “The Wars to Come” ). Still, showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff may be teasing the audience with his supposed underworld connections in the form of his late arrival to the Great Pit of Daznak (“Where have you been?” Daenerys asks; “Just making sure everything is in order,” he replies). Furthermore, even if Hizdahr is, indeed, exonerated on Game of Thrones, he may very well still be guilty in A Song of Ice and Fire; it’s not like Benioff and Weiss haven’t switched characters’ motivations or plot functions before (hello, Xaro Xhoan Daxos!).
But back to the point at hand. Although there is no physical threat to disrupt, Drogon still arrives in the nick of time, as Dany attempts to leave her “abbatoir” while Hizdahr zo Loraq tries to convince her to stay (“Sweet lady, no. Stay only a while longer. For the folly, and one last match. Close your eyes – no one will see.”). And much like how Daenerys herself causes a great deal of complications and strife around her simply by being in a foreign city inhabited by a foreign people, Drogon ends up causing the physical confrontation that threatens to kill him just by arriving at the pit and devouring a boar and the day’s sole female contender after their fight is already over. Aghast at the monstrously large dragon consuming the human corpse along with the animal’s – though the boar itself was feasting on the remains before being killed by dragonfire – a lone spearman takes it upon himself to fell the abnormal creature and, in the process, be a hero.
He darted forward, his boar spear in his hands. Red sand kicked up beneath his heels, and shouts rang out from the seats. Drogon raised his head, blood dripping from his teeth. The hero leapt onto his back and drove the iron spearpoint down at the base of the dragon’s long scaled neck.
Dany and Drogon screamed as one.
It is, of course, only a matter of seconds before the dragon knocks the would-be slayer from his back and kills him, but the man’s death is a turning point. “‘Kill it,’ Hizdahr zo Loraq shouted to the other spearmen. ‘Kill the beast!’” It is full carnage from there, not quite to the level depicted in the series – obviously, given that there are literally hundreds of combatants in “The Dance of Dragons” and just a dozen or so spearmen on the page – but it is still a bloodbath, nonetheless. It is only Dany who can stop him, as she finally mounts his back and the two of them take to the sky together.
In this way, Drogon is still rescuing his “mother,” though it is from the existential malaise she is suffering from – and the society around her that is threatening to stifle her in it – instead of the imminent danger of assassination. (Also worth noting: Drogon’s arrival is completely arbitrary in Martin’s telling, whereas there is some room for interpretation in Weiss and Benioff’s version whether there might be some sort of mystical connection between mother and dragon.) It is a permutation in keeping with the series’s overall trend, for better or worse, of externalizing the internal, of making the subtle blatant.
There is one last salient point to make in regards to this long-awaited encounter. Unlike in the episode, where Drogon and Dany share something of a tender moment amidst the hail of spears, the dragon is savage and untamed in Dance with Dragons, nearly snapping her in half and then spitting fire at her. It’s only through the queen’s quick feet that she manages to survive, and only through her heavy reliance on a whip that she finds discarded in the sudden battle that she manages to regain control over her wild child.
Dany hit him. “No,” she screamed, swinging the lash with all the strength that she had in her. The dragon jerked his head back. “No,” she screamed again. “NO!” The barbs raked along his snout. Drogon rose, his wings covering her in shadow. Dany swung the lash at his scaled belly, back and forth until her arm began to ache. His long serpentine neck bent like an archer’s bow. With a hisssssss, he spat black fire down at her. Dany darted underneath the flames, swinging the whip and shouting, “No, no, no. Get DOWN!” His answering roar was full of fear and fury, full of pain. His wings beat once, twice…
…and folded. The dragon gave one last hiss and stretched out flat upon his belly. Black blood was flowing from the wound where the spear had pierced him, smoking where it dripped onto the scorched sands. He is fire made flesh, she thought, and so am I.
There are, of course, a whole score of ancillary changes, as well, mostly revolving around the presence of characters that either aren’t there in the series (Barristan Selmy, as already noted, is not only still alive in the novels, he’s now a major character) or aren’t in the book (both Jorah Mormont and Tyrion Lannister are still slaves at this point, although the latter actually gets the chance to glimpse the mythical queen in her box as he’s forced to perform in one of the follies [he considers revealing himself for a brief moment, but he decides against it, given his fear that Barristan the Bold would prejudice Dany against him]). But these are comparatively minor, given the fact that they don’t affect either the direction or the tenor of the narrative.
A domesticated-but-turning-increasingly-wild Daenerys Targaryen, with her feral-but-increasingly-tamed dragon, however, certainly do.