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 Gift” (507)
Scene: Sam’s first time
Warning: there is material in this article that some may regard as spoilers, given that chapters from the books are discussed in depth, and some of the elements from them may yet appear in future episodes. Proceed with caution.
In a season full of considerably huge deviations, one of the biggest changes is the trajectory of Samwell Tarly’s character arc (though it still, of course, manages to hit many – if not most – of the same destinations along the way). Indeed, the lead-up to the scene where he forswears his Night’s Watch vows and sleeps with Gilly, Craster’s former wife/daughter, is not only unrecognizable in its visual form, it also is highly telling of showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss’s different foci as storytellers – for both good and ill.
In A Feast for Crows, neither Sam nor Gilly is even at the Wall. Jon Snow (who was elected lord commander far earlier in the novels) makes the rather extreme decision to dispatch those characters who are the most likely to fall victim to Lady Melisandre’s pyromaniacal ways: King-beyond-the-Wall Mance Rayder’s newborn son (who, obviously, is wholly absent from the HBO series) and Maester Aemon Targaryen, the man who was almost a king 65 years previously (he had his brother, Egg, crowned in his stead). Gilly is forced to trade out her own newborn babe for Mance’s and escort him down south to Oldtown, with Sam leading the ragtag band. Once there, Samwell is to see the wildling girl safely deposited at his family’s castle, while he himself will train to become a maester at the Citadel, to assist – and, eventually, replace – the ailing Aemon.
(Two items of note regarding this particular storyline from the books. Firstly, the idea of Melisandre wanting to sacrifice even more royal offspring does, indeed, get carried over to Game of Thrones, though here it takes the form of Stannis’s very own daughter, the princess Shireen [which moves the conflict regarding such a proposition from Lord Commander Snow to King Baratheon]. Secondly, Sam’s being sent to Oldtown is actually a development of some note for the character, given that he has been behaviorally conditioned to be revolted by the very idea of joining the maesters’ order; when Sam mentioned that very possibility to his father as a youth, Lord Randyll Tarly responded by chaining him by the neck to a cell wall for three days. Omitting this little slice of backstory and characterization both is probably just as much a result of Sam’s different personality – he’s nowhere near as craven on the show as he is in the novels, which might make such previous treatment stick out like a sore thumb [no pun intended] – as it is a product of time constraints.)
On the journey south, Aemon quickly perishes, with the old man remarking that he should’ve realized that the cold of the Wall had helped preserve him for his 102 years. And since he dies on a Summer Isles vessel, the crew insists on following their own customs for dealing with the loss of a revered elder: celebrating. “Black Sam said good words,” one of the ship’s mates tells him. “Now we drink his life.”
And drink they do – casks of spiced rum, which is the very first time that either Sam or Gilly has had the exotic beverage. Between his sorrow, the unbearable responsibility of his mission, the fear of his Citadel future, and, of course, the copious amounts of rum, Sam finds himself swept off his feet, metaphorically if not literally. Once they’re finally done drinking, he helps Gilly down to the women’s quarters in the bow of the Cinnamon Wind, where things quickly get out of hand:
There was a lantern hanging just inside the cabin, and he managed to bang his head on it going in. “Ow,” he said, and Gilly said, “Are you hurt? Let me see.” She leaned close…
…and kissed his mouth.
Sam found himself kissing her back. I said the words, he thought, but her hands were tugging at his blacks, pulling at the laces of his breeches. He broke off the kiss long enough to say, “We can’t,” but Gilly said, “We can,” and covered his mouth with her own again. The Cinnamon Wind was spinning all round them and he could taste the rum on Gilly’s tongue and the next thing her breasts were bare and he was touching them. I said the words, Sam thought again, but one of her nipples found its way between his lips. It was pink and hard and when he sucked on it, her milk filled his mouth, mingling with the taste of rum, and he had never tasted anything so fine and sweet and good. If I do this, I am no better than [a traitor], Sam thought, but it felt too good to stop. And suddenly his cock was out, jutting upward from his breeches like a fat pink mast. It looked so silly standing there that he might have laughed, but Gilly pushed him back onto her pallet, hiked her skirts up around her thighs, and lowered herself onto him with a little whimpery sound. That was even better than her nipples. She’s so wet, he thought, gasping. I never knew a woman could get so wet down there. “I am your wife now,” she whispered, sliding up and down on him. And Sam groaned and thought, No, no, you can’t be, I said the words, I said the words, but the only word he said was, “Yes.”
Knowing that the vast majority of this storyline would be jettisoned, Weiss and Benioff had a two-prong approach to still keep Sam and Gilly on the same ultimate destination. Sam’s growing affection for Craster’s daughter was pushed to the foreground – yet another sizable difference from the source material in and of itself – right from the very beginning, when Gilly is first introduced (“The North Remembers,” episode 201); indeed, at one point, Dolorous Edd openly refers to Samwell as a “man in love” (“Valar Morghulis,” 210), and, two seasons later, he gets to openly prove it by kissing Gilly before heading off into battle (“The Watchers on the Wall,” 409).
More pointedly, a whole new set of circumstances in the wake of Maester Aemon’s death had to be drummed up in order to get the pair off their emotional bearings and to bring them physically close together. The tack chosen, of course, was violence – more specifically, the threat of sexual assault, which has been a default narrative device that the showrunners have turned to time and again since nearly day one, from Theon Greyjoy’s proposed punishment for trying to escape the Dreadfort (“Walk of Punishment,” 303) to, most infamously (and recently), Sansa Stark’s wedding night (“Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” 506). From a purely pragmatic, storytelling perspective, it is easy to see why such a practice would be instituted: violence is one of several elements that translates especially well to the visual medium, and rape, specifically, has been built into the very fabric of Westerosi society by George R.R. Martin himself. It also, on the screen, demonstrates the perpetual, ominous threat that hangs over Westeros’s denizens (especially the women) in a much more direct way than Martin’s meandering traipses through the countryside do.
The black brothers’ attempts to sexually attack Gilly also perhaps serves another narrative function. At the time of its airing last year, Jon Snow’s expedition back to Craster’s keep in order to bring those mutineers who murdered both Craster and Jeor Mormont to justice (“First of His Name,” 405) was seen as little more than filler, given that Jon’s ascension to lord commander was so delayed – and injecting more violence and nudity into the series can always, generally speaking, be considered a patent bonus, to boot. Now, it may perhaps be considered at least a partial bit of foreshadowing, establishing the notion that Gilly will not be able to escape her sisters’ fate for long (exactly how Jon’s discovery of Craster’s sacrificial offerings to the White Walkers [“The Night Lands,” 202] ended up playing a direct role in his deceiving of Mance Rayder [“Valar Dohaeris,” 301]). The move also, obviously, allows Sam a chance to demonstrate his increasing bravery and newfound sense of courage in a way that is both more succinct and blatant than the character’s slow and halting progression in Feast for Crows, killing two ravens with one stone.
For all of this, however, the lovemaking scene itself plays rather similarly, with the only real – albeit subtle – difference being that the printed page’s version is steamier (no bared breasts or mother’s milk here) while the television show’s depiction is more humorous, with Sam making the “whimpery sound,” followed by the perfectly-in-character “Oh, my.”
A lack of passion, one can surmise, is the price to be paid for more competent and far less awkward characters.