#7 BEST – Robersei: the original power couple of Westeros
One of the challenges of adapting A Song of Ice and Fire into a TV series is there isn't one protagonist or one story. There are three main storylines (across the Narrow Sea, King's Landing, the North) with several branches. The show does an elegant job of integrating them into one story, with characters going out of their way to mention other locations and storylines so we, the viewer, don't feel as disjointed as we might otherwise.
My favorite example of this is the "Robert and Cersei need marriage counseling" scene, where Robert talks about how worried he is about the potential Dothraki invasion of Westeros. Not only does this connect them to Danny (whose chapters often feel like unwelcome interruptions), but it gives us insight into why the Lannister-Baratheon marriage is so important – and what will happen when it dissolves.
The writers execute this kind of scene so well and so consistently that readers almost don't notice that they aren't in the books.
#7 WORST – Give Sam his glory
In the book, when Sam kills a White Walker, it's in front of all the Night's Watchmen who've been ridiculing him for three books. This is also Sam's chance to shine on his own with Jon off in Wildling land. In the TV show, for some bizarre reason, they changed it so there's no one to see his moment of glory but Gilly.
My theory is that Sam is one of GRRM's two author surrogates in the books. In Sam's case, he's how GRRM perceived himself as a young man: a chubby nerd who struggled with girls and maybe wasn't that popular but was going to go a lot farther than the guys who could do more chin-ups than him. Either that or he's the typical nerd who reads these books, so give us the glory of seeing him become Sam the Slayer.
Given that, it's unfortunate to see the character get short-changed, especially considering that they've been playing up the "Sam gets bullied" business. BUT maybe Sam will get his moment to shine in front of his black brothers in season 4.
#6 BEST – Gendry’s game
For as important a plot-point as Gendry is (Ned's discovery that he is Robert's bastard basically kicks off everything), Book Gendry himself isn't that interesting. But TV Gendry, a worthy foil to the plucky Arya, is.
We hear a lot in the book about how heroic and affable Robert Baratheon was in his youth. We slowly realize that the lecherous drunk we meet in A Game of Thrones bears little resemblance to the man who was Ned Stark's best friend, ruined by the burdens of losing Lyanna, ruling the Seven Kingdoms, and living with Cersei.
Charming, good-hearted TV Gendry does that for us instead. Also while purists may have complained about combining Gendry with Edric Storm, my response is "Who's Edric Storm?"
#6 WORST – Making the Lannisters HBOphobic!
In the pilot episode of Mad Men, when Don Draper is asked if a Jew has ever been hired at Sterling Cooper, he proudly declares "Not on my watch!" This was a bold way of establishing that even our "hero" was a product of the casual prejudices of his time.
Contrast this to Game of Thrones, which realistically depicts medieval barbarism like public executions. When we are introduced to the inimitably honorable Ned Stark, we see him beheading a Night's Watchmen for abandoning his post.
But when it comes to The Gays, the writers of Game of Thrones want to reassure you about how modern and progressive they are!
They do this by putting homophobic words only in the mouths of evil characters, Tywin and Joffrey, who says he even wants to make gayness a capital crime! (Because he's not evil enough.)
So instead of a frank look at how a medieval society might have reacted to homosexuality (which would probably have not been politically correct) we were left with some eye roll-inducing dialogue and a bunch of writers showing that they're cowardly lions.
#5 BEST – The wrath of Khal
Khal Drogo's death isn't particularly remarkable in the book. He just shows up wounded after some big fight, the wound gets infected, and he dies. But HBO outperformed GRRM with this scene, where one of his warriors injures him in a duel. The exchange is much more dramatic, demonstrates Khal's hubris, and foreshadows the eventual collapse of his khalasar.
Also winning a knife fight with your bare hands is a pretty good way to show how tough you are.
#5 WORST – Nobody better lay a finger on my Littlefinger
Have you seen the show where the CIA agent killed by Bane plays an opportunistic, morally ambiguous politician who rises to the heights of power in a morally bankrupt city? Probably not – that show is called The Wire. But if you're reading this article then you have seen the one with him as a one-dimensional, moustache-twirling villain who seems out of place in every scene.
Rather than the dynamic, sly Littlefinger we meet in A Game of Thrones, this one is so obviously evil that he's actually boring to watch – even GRRM has described Littlefinger as the biggest change from his books. When Ned falls in his trap, all we can think is that the slow-witted Northerner's alignment must be Lawful Stupid.
The worst moment is when Petyr personally approaches Sansa and straight up asks her to leave King's Landing with him, completely betraying his motives. Book Littlefinger disappears into the shadows to manipulate both a hapless knight and Sansa to get her out of the city.
On the plus side, I am looking forward to the scene in season 4 where he ties Sansa to a railroad track.
#4 BEST - Jon Snow White and the one dwarf
Jon and Tyrion do have some good interaction in the book, but nothing to compare with the scene where Tyrion catches Jon practicing swordplay instead of attending a feast, their conversations on the way to the Wall, and the scene where Tyrion pisses over its edge.
In the book, it's Donal Noye (a character so unimportant he's not in the series) who lectures Jon about not lording over his fellow recruits that he's a better fighter than they are, but HBO put those words where they belong: Tyrion's mouth. Tyrion understands that his birth was both a blessing and a curse, just like Jon's. Also when he saves Jon, it gives the Imp a rare chance to be a hero.
With just a few well-written scenes, HBO brilliantly connects the story's two most important non-dragon hatching characters.
#4 WORST - Henceforth all toilets in the land shall be called 'Jons'
So Jon Snow does his best Snape impersonation when he double crosses the bad guys while pretending to double cross the good guys. Mance Rayder asks him what his motive is for betraying the Night's Watch and will kill Jon if he doesn't like his answer. Book Jon tells about a feast at Winterfell where he wasn't allowed to sit with his brothers and sisters because he was a bastard. Message: Westeros society rejected me so why shouldn't I reject Westeros society?
But in the TV show, for some unfathomable reason, Jon tells Mance that he wants to switch to the Wildling side so he can fight White Walkers … The White Walkers who – as you know – the Night's Watch are sworn to fight and from whom the Wildlings are running away.
I mean, it's not as stupid as when Movie Faramir did all that crap at the end of Two Towers that Book Faramir never did but … Huh?
#3 BEST – Bronn takes his talents to King’s Landing
So Tyrion is an extremely lonely character, even when he's Hand, but the whole time – since he's a POV character – he's got us. A TV show can't provide internal monologue as effectively as a book can, so the creators gave him as much of a friend as Tyrion can really have.
What I really appreciate is that it would have been really easy to say, "Let's make him the Han Solo of Westeros!", which would have been stupid. Instead the creators just expanded and adapted on what was already at the core of the character: he's a mercenary, but he's not evil; he's fierce, but he's not savage. He is a survivor. And he has a pretty good sense of humor about fighting with honor.
HBO Bronn has enjoyed a greatly expanded role over Book Bronn, and according to the recent trailer that role will expand even more, with Bronn training Jamie to fight with his left hand. In the book, that was Ser Ilyn Payne. I think HBO felt audiences would rather have someone Jamie could a) talk with and b) hadn't cut off Ned Stark's head. Great choice.
#3 WORST – 50 shades of Greyjoy
I can understand why HBO wouldn't want to just let a major character disappear for two whole books, the way Theon does before re-emerging as Reek, then have vieweres learn about what happened to him via flashback. That made sense to do in the book because Theon is a POV character, and we learn about his trauma through his awful memories.
But bogging us down with so many scenes of gratuitous violence is wasteful and pointless. I understand they have a contract with Alfie Allen and they can't just write him off for a season. But they could have shown Theon dealing with captivity by retreating into his memories and having an internal monolog with visions of his Stark "brothers," his father, his sister, etc. … something that gave insight into a very complicated character who can't be true to his inner self because he doesn't even know what that is.
You know. Something creative. Instead we got mindless violence (and sex!) because HBO.
#2 BEST – Those Tywin hunting scenes
People who watch the show first are probably surprised by how little of Tywin Lannister is actually in the books, but we hear a lot about him through Cersei, Jamie, and Tyrion. HBO deserves some kudos in fleshing him out. Charles Dance should really be the one on the series getting the annual best supporting actor Emmy nod. (And Dinklage should be best lead not best supporting, but you all knew that.)
There are two scenes where we see Tywin recreating, in season 1 where he's talking to Jamie and skinning a deer…
…and another in season 3 (which was deleted to make room for a pointless Theon torture scene) where we see him fishing.
These scenes are a really efficient way of delivering a lot of information about his character:
1)He's a man of action and he's capable of taking care of himself despite his age and privilege.
3)This man is so intense that even his hobbies are violent.
These two scenes also show that – yes – you can have characters deliver expository dialogue when they aren't having sex with prostitutes. (Who knew?)
#2 WORST – Shae it don’t spray it
I could understand HBO's need to make Shae a "strong female character" if the source material wasn't already full of so many dynamic female characters. But Book Shae is not one of them. Making TV Shae into the "strong female character" cliché is untrue to the character's core conceit: in a world where some are all-powerful, many are powerless.
Book Shae is like water, she assumes the form of whatever vessel she's put in, so when she's with Tyrion she really does love Tyrion. Their decision to change her so radically has put the writers in something of a bind for Shae's ultimate destiny. (No spoilers here.)
Also there's that awful scene where Sansa and Shae argue because two characters shouting means drama!
Seriously, what is this: HBO or the CW? A serving girl would never pick a fight with a noble and Sansa would never bully a servant. Sansa is not a bitch, she's a lady. Sansa shows this by literally naming her female dog Lady.
HONORABLE MENTION – BEST: Gotta Hand it to them
The saying in Book Westeros about how crappy it is to be Hand of the King is: "The king eats, and the Hand takes the shit." HBO came up with: "The King shits and the hand wipes." It's both more clever and more metaphorically sound.
#1 BEST – Varysimilitude
HBO can be forgiven for bungling Littlefinger because of how well they pull off Varys. In the book, Varys is weak, vacillating, and effeminate. We all get that it's an act, that he pretends to be weak so no one will take him seriously … but it makes it really hard to take him seriously. One of the myths around Book Varys to compensate for that is that he uses magic, which felt so unnecessary that HBO went out of their way to have him tell us how much he hates magic.
Following up on what I said earlier about Sam, Varys is GRRM's author surrogate for who he is now: an all-knowing puppet master who makes all these characters dance. (Still chubby, of course.) Given that, HBO honored GRRM with a character that he couldn't have done himself.
And Conleth Hill's nuanced performance hits the tone the book was shooting for but missed. Varys's scene with the Queen of Thorns, entirely a fabrication of the writers, is pure gold.
HONORABLE MENTION – WORST: Women in combat?
One of the wonderfully memorable Westeros idioms is, "Women fight their battles in the birthing bed." It has been recited in the series exactly zero-point-zero times. This goes along with the writers' unwillingness to be politically incorrect. In 21st Century America, couples don't need to produce a swarm of children to ensure that a few will live to adulthood, but those living in a medieval society did. A woman's fertility was such an invaluable resource you couldn't risk her in combat. Ironically HBO is unwilling to say a few words that objectify women's sexual function … but objectifies women sexually all the time.
And if they have Tywin or Joffrey say the line at some point then I TOLD YOU SO!
#1 WORST – How do you say “I love you” in Dothrakyi?
There's this line in Star Trek where the President of the Federation says, "Let us redefine progress to mean that just because we can do a thing, it does not necessarily mean we must do that thing." HBO forces me to remember this all the time.
So Khal Drogo is a ruthless, savage warlord, but he's also a pretty good husband. On his wedding night with young, terrified Danny, Book Drogo is the model gentleman, who treats his new bride with tenderness and only makes love to her when she says she is ready. This, the first kindness young Danny has received after years of abuse from Viserys, helps broaden her mind about multiculturalism and kindles her dormant leadership skills. This is quite literally the most important moment in the book for Danny because it's where she makes the change from slave to khaleesi. She is the Moon of his Life, not his victim.
HBO Drogo, however, just gives it to her over her protests for the first few episodes because we're HBO! We're extreme! The network's ability to "tell any story they want" actually kept them from telling a good story here (that would be the story that was already there, incidentally).
Let's redefine progress, people!
In conclusion ...
The show's writers do an amazing job with a difficult task -- the biggest failings seem less to come from them and more from the network. But either way, I'm excited to see what they have in store for us this year.
And, as an entitled fan on the Internet, I'll be standing in judgment the whole time.