Major spoilers follow for series four of Game Of Thrones. Do not read on if you have not seen it.
Dramatising even the most rudimentary of novels for screen – whether it be TV or film – is a tricky art. So spare a thought for David Benioff and DB Weiss, the duo charged with adapting George RR Martin's gigantic A Song of Ice and Fire series into HBO's Game of Thrones.
After all, the sprawling, densely populated books were originally written as Martin's reaction to being restricted in his writing on TV productions of The Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast. As he once explained: “I said, ‘I’m sick of this, I’m going to write something that’s as big as I want it to be, and it’s going to have a cast of characters that go into the thousands, and I’m going to have huge castles, and battles, and dragons.”
For the first two seasons, the TV show has been – more or less – a straight adaptation of the books, with only a few flourishes (this scene, for example) thrown in for development of characters who don't get their own PoV chapters. As the series progresses, though, the cast grows even larger and the structure becomes impossible to implement – especially in series four, adapted mostly from the second half of A Storm of Swords, and beyond.
Fan-favourite Tyrion Lannister, for example, doesn't even appear in the next book A Feast For Crows, whereas Theon Greyjoy is captured in book two, A Clash of Kings, and isn't seen again until book five, A Dance with Dragons. Such pacing works relatively fine for a novel, but would cause riots in the streets for the tight, fluid narrative of the TV series. Imagine: an entire season without Tyrion. What would even be the point?
So, with all that in mind, here are the biggest changes seen in series four. This is your final warning, though: spoilers are coming...
Jaime Lannister's sword training (Episode two, The Lion And The Rose)
In the show: Having lost his sword-fighting right hand, Jaime Lannister must now learn to fight with his left. Given that he's a renowned warrior and captain of the Kingsguard, though, he can't risk training with anyone who will blab about his new-found ineptitude. So: enter Tyrion's suggestion of sell-sword Bronn, who will spar with Jaime and keep his mouth shut – for a price.
In the books: Jaime trains with someone who can't talk about their training sessions because he literally cannot talk: Ser Ilyn Payne, better known as Ned Stark's mute, tongue-less executioner.
Possible reason for the change? This change is one born out of sad necessity rather than anything else; with the actor who portrays Payne, rock star Wilko Johnson, being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer early last year. Thankfully, though, he has since had radical surgery and seems to be making a recovery. It is uncertain, of course, if he will ever return to the role.
Tyrion and Shae: their angry break-up and weird ending (Various episodes)
In the show: In a bid to keep Shae safe from his father, Tyrion verbally abuses his lover (“I can't have children with a whore. How many men have you been with? 500? 5,000?”) so she will leave King's Landing. This back-fires terribly when an angry Shae turns up at Tyrion's trial for murdering King Joffrey and takes her revenge. Later on, Tyrion strangles Shae to death when he finds her in his father's bed.
In the books: There is no horrible speech and therefore no justification for Shae's betrayal – meaning that it hits harder for Tyrion when she turns up at his trial and humiliates him for no apparent reason. This, in turn, gives Tyrion more of a motive for killing Shae when he discovers her in her father's bed.
Possible reason for the change? This is a problematic one. It's clear that the writers wanted to give Shae more of a reason for betraying Tyrion at the trial – and, also, after many affectionate scenes, such an unwarranted betrayal would have seemed jarring. But such a change makes Tyrion's murder of Shae feel wildly disproportionate, unfair and out of character, since she did, after all, have her reasons. One feels it could all have been handled a bit better.
Jaime Lannister forces himself on his sister Cersei (Episode three, Breaker of Chains)
In the show: Whilst their son, Joffrey, lies dead in the same room, Jamie Lannister forces himself on his sister despite her repeatedly telling him to, “stop it.”
In the books: Jamie and Cersei have sex in front of their dead son but it is consensual, with Cersei telling her brother: “quickly, quickly, now, do it now, do me now. Jaime Jaime Jaime.”
Possible reason for the change? This was the most spectacularly ill-judged and baffling change of the series so far. For a start: there was no narrative rationale for it happening – with the event never being alluded to again, robbing Cersei of her agency and going entirely against Jaime's arc of redemption. George RR Martin himself tried to offer a diplomatic explanation of the rape scene by saying that the dynamic in the show is different due to Jaime's return to King's Landing happening earlier than it does in the books. He does say, though, that he never discussed the scene with the producers and signs off with, “That’s really all I can say on this issue. The scene was always intended to be disturbing… but I do regret if it has disturbed people for the wrong reasons,” suggesting that he wasn't entirely happy with the change himself.
How a White Walker is born (Episode four, Oathkeeper)
In the show: It's been established that the incestuous wildling Craster leaves his baby boys out in the woods as a sacrifice to the White Walkers. At the end of Oathkeeper, however, we see what happens to them: they're carried far north and transformed by – what looks like – the White Walker king. As the baby's eyes turn icy blue, a new White Walker is born.
In the books: While such a thing is alluded to by Craster's wives, the White Walkers are very much kept a lingering, ambiguous threat in the books, with no such explicit explanation of who they are or where they come from.
Possible reason for the change? Keeping villains mysterious on the page is easier than doing it on TV. The scene provides enough of a glimpse into the inner workings of the White Walkers to keep viewers excited without giving too much away. Saying that, it is a huge deviation from anything in the books, which makes you wonder how far the show will – and can – go when it comes to inventing a new mythology.
Bran Stark and Jon Snow: ships in the night (Various episodes)
In the show: With Bran being captured by the Night's Watch mutineers at Craster's Keep and Jon Snow leading a force to deal with them, the two brothers come teasingly close to being reunited. However, in the resulting chaos of battle (in which, it should be noted, we first see Hodor go full-on Hodinator* and kill a guy) Bran decides to veto a reunion as it could interrupt his quest to find the Three-Eyed Raven.
In the books: While there is a mutiny at Craster's Keep, Bran is never captured by the mutineers and Jon doesn't lead a retaliation against them. Instead, their quests are kept separate, with Jon staying at the Wall and Bran's group encountering a mysterious figure called Cold Hands, who I won't dwell too much on here in case there are plans to bring him into the series at a later date.
Possible reason for the change? Because, with the odd exception, Bran's storyline in the books is so bloody boring. And so, rather than have them just walking through snow and dreaming of wolves forever, the writers probably wanted to inject a sense of danger and excitement into it all.
(*Other puns available are 'Hodor, She Wrote', 'Dial H For Hodor', 'Meat is Hodor' and 'Hodor on the Dancefloor')
Stannis goes to Braavos (Episode six, The Laws of Gods and Men)
In the show: In order to raise money for his claim to the throne, Stannis Baratheon visits the Iron Bank of Braavos and makes his case for a war loan. Although not convinced at first, Stannis' Hand, Davos, eventually wins them around.
In the books: It's simple: Stannis does not set foot in Braavos.
Possible reason for the change? Two reasons. 1) As the series four finale revealed, Arya Stark is on a ship to Braavos, meaning that the writers had to introduce the city somehow before she went there. 2) The Iron Bank of Braavos may not sound very exciting now, but it plays a big part in events to come. This, therefore, is its set-up.
Yara's attempted rescue of Theon (Episode six, The Laws of Gods and Men)
In the show: Theon's sister, Yara Greyjoy, sets off on a mission to rescue her younger brother from his imprisonment at the hands of Ramsay Snow. When she gets there, though, she finds that he has been tortured into insanity, and won't flee with her. On the boat home, she declares that her brother is dead.
In the books: There is no such rescue. Theon is captured at Winterfell in book two, A Clash of Kings, and then resurfaces as traumatised alter-ego Reek in book five, A Dance with Dragons. As for when or how he meets his sister (who is actually called Asha in the books), that would be a bit of a spoiler.
Possible reason for the change? Again, this comes back to TV being a different medium. It would have been a bit odd for Theon to be captured and then just emerge a few seasons later. Instead, this keeps the drama ticking for non-book reading fans.
The father-son relationship of Ramsay Snow and Roose Bolton (Various episodes)
In the show: The sadistic, gelding git that is Ramsay Snow is depicted as having some serious daddy issues with his equally sadistic, Stark-betraying git of a father Roose Bolton. Being a bastard (and therefore not entitled to the Bolton name), Ramsay spends most of series four trying to gain Roose's respect. This pays off in episode eight, The Mountain and the Viper, when Roose – now Warden of the North after his dirty work at the Red Wedding – legitimises Ramsay as a Bolton, and his heir.
In the books: Ramsay Snow isn't properly seen until book five, A Dance with Dragons. Also, what with him only being seen then through the point of view of another character, there is no glimpse into these private scenes with his father. In fact, there isn't really much else to Ramsay in the books other than being someone you would never trust to perform a vasectomy.
Possible reason for the change? As discussed above, the story has to follow Theon from his imprisonment so therefore has to follow his captor Ramsay too: a good chance to give him some sort of depth and motive beyond wanton sadism. And given that George RR Martin wrote the second episode, the first time you see Roose and Ramsay meet, it's safe to say that the author agrees.
Brienne of Tarth Vs the Hound (Episode ten, The Children)
In the show: Arya and the Hound's brilliant road trip movie comes to an end when they happen to bump into Brienne and Podrick. After a huge sword fight between Brienne and the Hound, the latter is left for dead. Arya, meanwhile, escapes and head for Braavos.
In the books: Where to begin? First of all: Brienne does not encounter the Hound and certainly does not fight with him. Instead, she focuses her quest to find the Stark girls on Sansa, as it is suspected that Arya is dead. This leads to her being severely wounded by a band of outlaws called the Brave Companions, who have essentially been written out of the show. The Hound, meanwhile, is left for dead by Arya after succumbing to an infected wound after a pub brawl (the one that series four opens with).
Possible reason for the change? Dying from an infected wound or an amazing fight sequence between two expert warriors? It's a bit of a no-brainer.
The death of Jojen Reed (Episode ten, The Children)
In the show: As Bran's quest to find the Three-Eyed Raven concludes, the group are attacked by a group of wight skeletons. In the resulting battle, Jojen Reed is stabbed to death.
In the books: Guess what? Jojen Reed is still alive. He survives the battle with the wights and is – as of the most recent book – currently lounging around in the Three-Eyed Raven's cave.
Possible reason for the change? This was quite a surprise. Although, what with the writers of the show having met George RR Martin to discuss how the story ends, it seems like the most rational explanation for it is that Jojen simply does not play a pivotal role in the future of the books. He is, therefore, an excess character. And we all know what happens to excess characters in Game of Thrones: they don't retire in a nice summer house in Dorne.
Bonus change: The big thing that didn't happen (Episode ten, The Children)
After the Game of Thrones finale, the biggest talking point among fans of the books was something that didn't happen at all: a jaw-flooring scene from the epilogue of A Storm of Swords. Of course, I'm not going to reveal what it is but will say that the picture above is a super-subtle allusion that Lena Headley posted on her Instagram earlier this year. You can rest assured, though, that when/if the TV show does decide to go ahead with it in the future, it will blow your goddamn mind.