Was the Game Of Thrones finale right to stick to the books?

Feature Juliette Harrisson 18 Jun 2014 - 07:00

Juliette argues that Game Of Thrones should have made a dramatic change to the events of season 4 episode 10. Spoilers...

This article contains major spoilers for the TV show and the books – do not read it unless you’ve read all the books and are completely up to date with the TV show.

Game Of Thrones season four has made more changes to its source material than any other season to date, and these changes continued into the finale, The Children. Following the deaths of minor characters Pyp and Grenn in The Watchers On The Wall, Jojen Reed became the most significant character who is still alive in the books to die in the TV show, and one of the series’ most impressive and visceral fights took place between Brienne and the Hound, two characters who have never met in the books.

These however, could be said to be fairly cosmetic changes. Pyp, Grenn and Jojen Reed may have predeceased their book counterparts, but their characters, arcs and motivations remained more or less the same, just shorter. Brienne has met Arya and has rather better knowledge of the girls she’s looking for than her book counterpart, but she will be able to slide easily into the rest of her A Feast For Crows/A Dance With Dragons plot while Arya left the Hound in the same way she did in the books following a different fight. The most drastic changes to the source material in the season four finale weren’t the premature deaths, but the character arcs and motivations surrounding two of its most popular characters – Jaime and Tyrion, the Lannister boys.

The alterations made to the climactic events surrounding Jaime and Tyrion at the end of this season have their roots much further back, in changes made earlier on in this season and going right back to season two, and both stem from the series’ approach to their relationships with women. Leaving aside the controversy surrounding where the show has taken Jaime and his relationship with Cersei this season for the moment, let’s have a closer look at just how and why Tyrion’s final confrontations with his brother, father and lover were changed.

In A Storm Of Swords, when Jaime releases Tyrion from his cell, they haven’t spoken in months and Jaime was genuinely uncertain whether Tyrion was guilty of his son’s murder or not. He released him, not because he knew he was innocent (though he hoped it) but to atone for an incident in their youth. Contrary to what Tyrion believed, his first wife Tysha was not, in fact, a prostitute but an innocent young woman who genuinely loved Tyrion, who was gang-raped by half the Lannister guards including Tyrion himself and sent away when Tywin found out about her. Reeling from this revelation, Tyrion lashes out by lyingly telling Jaime he did kill Joffrey before seeking out his father.

The TV show hasn’t written Tysha out altogether – she’s been mentioned a couple of times and the original story as Tyrion understood it was told in season one – but none of these revelations came to light in the season four finale. This is an understandable alteration, chiefly because TV viewers are unlikely to remember the details of a story told four years ago. Additionally, in the books, while we’re in Tyrion’s head, we feel his pain clearly, but as viewers of a TV show, it’s harder to care so deeply about a character we’ve never seen (especially given the show’s deliberate choice to avoid flashbacks). Omitting any reference to Tysha also gives Jaime and Tyrion a touching farewell rather than tearing down Tyrion’s only remaining good relationship. (There was an echo of his angry assertion that “I killed your vile son” in his trial in The Laws Of Gods And Men, when he told Cersei he gained great relief from watching “your vicious bastard die”, but directed at the hated sibling, not the loved one, and without actually confessing).

So, there are sensible reasons for omitting any reference to Tysha, much as it might anger book fans. But while the omission streamlines Jaime and Tyrion’s farewell, it creates some problems in his final confrontation with his father, since in the books, while Tyrion was fairly angry on his own account, it was for Tysha that he really wanted to take revenge, not himself.

There was a solution to that problem available, one several viewers thought the show might go for, but in the end they didn’t because it would have strayed too far from the books. Should Benioff and Weiss have stepped away from the books even more, and had Tywin kill Shae as he had so frequently threatened to do, leaving Tyrion to avenge Shae rather than murdering her?

Tyrion’s killing of Shae is a difficult scene for any number of reasons. As far as the books are concerned, many readers may feel that Tyrion was justified in killing Shae because she had betrayed him and helped his father and sister to condemn him to death. Even so, the scene in which he murders a defenceless, naked woman right after she’s told him (whether truthfully or not, we never get the chance to find out) that she only did what the queen ordered her to, that his father frightens her and she asks if he has come to take her away makes for uncomfortable reading. For some of us, we have not especially enjoyed Tyrion’s chapters or been able to root for him since, which is a shame considering he was once a favourite character (this is not true for all readers, of course – as ever where fiction is concerned, your mileage may vary). To see this scene play out as it did in the book on screen, without the reader being inside Tyrion’s head and without any reference to Tysha or how shaken he is at the revelations surrounding her, would have been even worse.

Of course, a character does not have to be likeable for audiences to want to watch them (is anyone else missing Joffrey, just a little?). It could be argued that we do not have to like Tyrion to be interested in watching his story. But Tyrion’s role in the books and the show was always as one of the characters we do like, in early seasons the only Lannister for whom that was the case. Most of us need someone to root for and someone to like in amongst all the horror. Add to that the controversial scene between Jaime and Cersei in the sept in Breaker Of Chains that rendered the other semi-likeable Lannister impossible to like for many viewers, and depicting audience favourite Tyrion as a man who murders his former lover, however badly she treated him, does not seem like a good idea.

Benioff and Weiss’s solution was to have Shae go for a knife and attack Tyrion first, making his killing of her more an act of self-defence than murder. This has probably safeguarded Tyrion from audience backlash, even though her death still feels deeply unpleasant to some (again, your mileage may vary – personal reactions to scenes of this nature will always vary among viewers and no one’s individual reaction is more ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ than anyone else’s). In the book, Tyrion simply murders her while, naked, she tries to win him back with words. In the show, Shae (clothed for once) lunges at Tyrion with a knife and he defends himself, as although he knocks the knife out of her hands, she continues to attack him physically. Afterwards, he apologises to her body.

The problem with this solution is that the TV version of Shae’s character had moved so far away from her book counterpart in seasons two and three that this final brutal confrontation doesn’t entirely feel right. For Shae to be so intensely angry at Tyrion for dumping her that she wants to kill him seems excessive, even after she knowingly condemned him to death with her evidence. Still, it was necessary to preserve Tyrion as a character the audience can root for in a world where those are few and far between.

These changes to Tyrion’s escape have a further impact on his final scene with his father. In A Storm Of Swords, when Tyrion confronts his father, Tywin calls Tysha a “whore” one too many times and that is what finally drives Tyrion to shoot him. Tyrion has just discovered that to call Tysha a whore is factually incorrect as well as rude and the word reminds him of just what a terrible thing his father has done. While his murder of Shae may be problematic for some readers, almost no one has a problem with his murder of the man who gang-raped and sent away his first wife, father or not.

In the TV version, however, it’s Shae who Tywin refers to as a “whore” and Tyrion objects to the de-valuing of the woman – which would be nice if he hadn’t just killed her himself (and he refers to the act as ‘murder’ despite the element of self-defence involved). After the first arrow, Tyrion and Tywin have one more confrontation surrounding their terrible father/son relationship before Tyrion ends it for good. Where Book Tyrion was driven to murder his father both by his own treatment but even more by his desire for revenge for Tysha, TV Tyrion kills him almost entirely for himself. Even his assertion that he loved Shae feels more like a complaint that his father took her away than a statement about her life or value – at the same time as he asserts her right not to be referred to as a ‘whore’, Tyrion reduces Shae to a plaything his father took away from him.

This is why there’s an argument to be made that having Tywin kill Shae rather than Tyrion would almost have been truer to the spirit of the book, while further away in terms of plot specifics. Tyrion would have murdered his father largely out of grief at his father’s treatment of his lover, as well as on his own account. With Tysha’s true story written out of the sequence, using a character the audience have come to know and love – the TV version of Shae –in her place would seem to make sense.

The main thing that would have been lost if Tywin had killed Shae rather than Tyrion is that his final hypocrisy might not have been revealed. After years of criticising his son for sleeping with prostitutes, Tyrion discovers that Tywin has been doing exactly the same thing all along. Shae’s betrayal would also have been less deep if she did not go willingly to Tywin, though since neither book nor TV show make it clear exactly what’s happened to her or whether she’s been threatened by Cersei or Tywin (“your father frightens me” might imply that she had been in the book), that will remain forever a grey area. It would also affect Tyrion’s motivation and state of mind as he escapes to Essos, but removing the revelation about Tysha probably has a bigger effect on that story as TV Tyrion will not be looking for her, and killing his father would seem to be quite traumatic enough to give Tyrion’s character the hard edge he has in A Dance With Dragons.

Perhaps, though, that solution couldn’t work in the context of season four, because of Shae’s actions during Tyrion’s trial. Essentially, after writing her as a very different woman in seasons two and three, Benioff and Weiss have spent season four forcing Shae back into her book role. Unlike her book counterpart, she became jealous, possessive and unable to accept reality and was then sent away and hurt ‘for her own good’. After that, she reverts to behaviour similar to her book counterpart, almost as if she’s been diverted back onto a train track she had left for a while, betraying Tyrion at his trial and moving on to his father. In the book, Shae was a prostitute who told her lovers whatever they wanted – and paid her – to hear. In the series, however, she had appeared genuinely loving and caring – indeed, her betrayal of Sansa at the trial was almost more shocking than her betrayal of Tyrion, and she had previously appeared so fond of the girl.

Perhaps the most difficult thing about Shae in both the books and the TV series is that, since we only see her from Tyrion’s point of view (and occasionally Sansa and Varys in the series), we never really know what’s happening to her or what her motivations are. This season, we saw her turn up to Tyrion’s trial and betray him but we saw nothing of what happened to her in between or what her life was like without him (having lost both her only client as a prostitute and her job as a lady’s maid). We heard her remind him of how horribly he treated her when he sent her away during the trial (and she could have no way of knowing that he did so with the best of intentions). Then finally we see her in bed, having moved on to a new client because that is her job (though the choice of client and “my lion” had to hurt). If we’d had access to Shae’s thoughts and feelings, or known whether Cersei and Tywin threatened her, would we feel more sympathetic towards her?

Ultimately, there is simply no good way to portray your lead and most likeable character murdering his former lover in her bed, no matter what terrible things she’s done. Perhaps Benioff and Weiss’ solution was the only possible one available – stick to the basic plot of the books, but add Shae lunging for that knife and imply that it is self-defence. But, having changed so much of Shae’s story earlier in the series and written themselves into something of a corner, some of us can’t help but wonder if they might have done better making more dramatic changes, rather than forcing characters that had grown and developed in different directions back into a pre-determined course.

Read our spoiler-filled review of the season four finale, The Children, here.

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