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 Rains of Castamere” (309)
Scene: The Red Wedding
There is an assortment of odds and ends revolving around the wedding of Lord Edmure Tully and Roslin Frey that serves as garnish for the main, grizzly feast: Grey Wind, Robb’s direwolf who literally never leaves his side in the novels, snaps at the first Frey envoy outside the castle, causing him to be locked up in the pens for the remainder of their stay; the young bride Roslin is demure and polite but also constantly tearful as her husband-to-be shows her unfailing kindness; the drums in the gallery that pound through every song, appropriately or not, are secretly the signal that coordinates all activity in both of the Freys’ castles and in the lands surrounding them; the tents outside the Twins that house the majority of the Starks’ bannermen are burnt to the ground, killing all trapped inside; the blow to the back of Arya’s head from Sandor Clegane’s axe is left entirely ambiguous as to whether it was intended to simply knock her out or to fully kill her, adding a final layer of tension and desperation to the climactic scene.
These are all nice touches – well, “nice” in the sense that they help round out a completely bleak and desolate scene – but they are all obviously missing from “The Rains of Castamere.” Such an absence is unfortunate but not at all surprising, given that the series has consistently been prone to weeding out all but the most essential details of every scene, every exchange, and every action set piece, due to the dual niceties of time and money. Still, much more than other similarly pruned scenes, this one manages to deliver nearly the full brunt of the book’s original intent – and given the gravity of the material, that’s no small compliment.
It also turns out that the episode may not need all the extra goodies, after all, thanks to an ace cleverly hidden up its sleeve: Queen Talisa Stark.
In the book, King Robb’s wife – who is actually named Jeyne Westerling and has an entirely different personality and backstory – is kept behind at Riverrun at the suggestion of Lady Catelyn, even though Robb would have much rather taken her with them:
Lord Walder might well construe the queen’s absence from the wedding as another slight, yet her presence would have been a different sort of insult, salt in the old man’s wound. “Walder Frey has a sharp tongue and a long memory,” she had warned her son. “I do not doubt that you are strong enough to suffer an old man’s rebukes as the price of his allegiance, but you have too much of your father in you to sit there while he insults Jeyne to her face.”
Robb could not deny the sense of that. Yet all the same, he resents me for it, Catelyn thought wearily. He misses Jeyne already, and some part of him blames me for her absence, though he knows it was good counsel.
With her absence from the Twins, she – obviously – is spared the fate of the rest of House Stark and nearly all its bannermen. (Whether her unborn child is similarly spared is not at all known at this point in the book series; despite some desperately oblique references that may be construed as pointing towards a pregnancy, Martin doesn’t address the issue in any shape, way, or form [no pun intended]). Since Jeyne has yet, as of the end of book five, to make a grand reappearance, it may seem like showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss’s decision to include Talisa on the Red Wedding’s registry is only the most minor of changes – but it’s still a change, nonetheless, and one that sparks two immediate and competing responses.
On the one hand, having her be the first to be felled at Lord Walder’s hands certainly lands an extra punch to the gut – literally – making the violent scene even more so, both physically and emotionally. It may additionally serve as a stand-in for all the lords bannermen who readers, after spending a considerable amount of time getting to know them across three novels, watch be systematically cut down at the feast (a roster which includes the Greatjon, a character who featured so prominently in the first season but has since inexplicably been cut from the series. More than any other background character, his presence is the most sorely missed). And, finally, it’s a development that in no small way pays off the considerably expanded presence which both Robb and Talisa have been afforded over the course of the past two years, which is now undeniably revealed to be all set-up for a particularly nasty fall.
On the other hand, one can’t help but question the overtly manipulative nature of the decision. Robb, Catelyn, Grey Wind, and every single Northman not from Lord Roose Bolton’s Dreadfort are all dead; is it a literal case of overkill to also include Talisa? When taken within the greater context of the ep, of almost having all the scattered remnants of House Stark be reunited – Bran and Rickon almost meet back up with Jon, while Robb and Cat almost come face-to-face one last time with Arya – there is already a certain threshold of emotional trauma that will undoubtedly leave vast swaths of the audience viscerally drained, if not outright catatonic. And beyond the question of diminishing returns, there is also that persnickety issue of necessity, which has long plagued the production in one form or another, whether it be the copious (extra) amounts of nudity or, perhaps most relevantly, the decision to consistently show infants being slaughtered (most notoriously in “The North Remembers” [episode 201] and “The Night Lands” ).
And placing such a huge focus on Talisa and her murdered fetus comes almost directly at the expense of another element that was so vital and so primal in A Storm of Swords: Catelyn Stark’s complete break from reality.
Finally someone took the knife away from her. The tears burned like vinegar as they ran down her cheeks. Ten fierce ravens were raking her face with sharp talons and tearing off strips of flesh, leaving deep furrows that ran red with blood. She could taste it on her lips.
The white tears and the red ones ran together until her face was torn and tattered, the face that Ned had loved. Catelyn Stark raised her hands and watched the blood run down her long fingers, over her wrists, beneath the sleeves of her gown. Slow red worms crawled along her arms and under her clothes. It tickles. The made her laugh until she screamed. “Mad,” someone said, “she’s lost her wits,” and someone else said, “Make an end,” and a hand grabbed her scalp just as she’d done with [Walder’s wife], and she thought, No, don’t, don’t cut my hair, Ned loves my hair. Then the steel was at her throat, and its bite was red and cold.
Her death wasn’t planned – she was to have been taken captive along with her brother to ensure the good behavior of the river lords – but her murder of a Frey and her descent into some sort of hallucinatory madness forced Lord Walder’s hand. It is the last raindrop in a storm full of unintended consequences or unforeseen events, which this novel had a higher concentrated dose of than any of its sister installments.
A tragic, disturbing, lingering death, though, “The Rains of Castamere” did have for Cat – in spades.
“Valar Morghulis” (210) [ebook exclusive]