When you play the game of fans, you win or you die. Die-hard devotees of author George R.R. Martin's epic-fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire, the basis for HBO's smash-hit Game of Thrones, have found themselves divided over the changes the show's second season has made to the source material, even as the show earns its best ratings and reviews to date. Should the show remain the books' loyal bannerman, or strike out on its own? Watch as we run down the 10 biggest changes from the book series' second volume A Clash of Kings to the second season so far and render our verdict King Joffrey-style.
THE CHANGE: Are they or aren't they? That question hovers in the background of every scene involving King Stannis Baratheon and his right-hand wizard-woman Melisandre in the novel. Yes, they spend a lot of time alone together, and yes, the shadow baby Melisandre delivers looks a lot like Stannis, but it's up to characters like Ser Davos, and to the readers, to do the math. In the show, the relationship is sex-on-table-tops explicit.
THE VERDICT: Fair play. Stannis and Melisandre making the beast with two backs on top of the Baratheon battle board ("Gentlemen, you can't fuck in here – this is the War Room!") may not have happened before our eyes in A Clash of Kings, the series' second installment and the basis for much of Season Two…but it did happen, or at least something very much like it. The presentation was campy, yeah, but a little camp never hurt anyone. Meanwhile, Season One took the similarly subtextual relationship between Renly Baratheon and Ser Loras Tyrell and made it an open part of the show, to equally entertaining effect, and what's good for one brother is good for the other (well, for the most part).
9. The Fall of Winterfell
THE CHANGE: Just like poor old muttonchop enthusiast Ser Rodrik Cassel, the Winterfell storyline took a lot of little cuts rather than just one or two big ones. A handful of important characters never show up – Jojen and Meera Reed, the teen children of Ned Stark’s swamp-dwelling bannerman and best friend; Big Walder Frey and Little Walder Frey, descendants of the irasciable Lord of the Crossing whose daughter Robb is sworn to marry; Reek, a foul-smelling serial killer locked up in Winterfell’s dungeons – and it’s left to mainstays like Bran, Osha, and Theon to fill in the gaps.
THE VERDICT: I miss Reek and the Reeds (fuck the Walders), I don’t know why Osha had to seduce Theon to escape, and just like in Season One I think Bran’s budding psychic powers have been drastically underplayed. But these are mostly minor complaints, washed away in the magnificent sequence in which Theon conquers Winterfell, cements his rule, and most likely seals his own doom by killing Ser Rodrik. Both Rodrik’s death and the botched beheading come from different parts of the books involving different executioners, but using them here made perfect thematic sense and created the second season’s most powerful sequence.
8. Wildling Out
THE CHANGE: Jon Snow's experiences with the wildlings north of the Wall are a good deal wilder here than they are in A Clash of Kings. His disaster with Craster is a new invention – in the books he doesn't witness the incestuous old fucker's sacrifice of a newborn to a White Walker, that's for sure, nor does he get brained by the guy for his troubles. The chase scene and bump-and-grind with the charmingly blunt warrior-woman Ygritte never happens either, since Jon deliberately lets her go rather than executing her.
THE VERDICT: Not feeling this one. Jon's chase scenes amp up the adrenaline at the expense of the story's slow build and narrative cohesion. Like, shouldn't it be a bigger deal that an actual White Walker came within yards of the Night's Watch's expeditionary force? Couldn't he have just skipped the baby and killed the freaking Lord Commander in his sleep a few yards away instead? Drumming up extra Jon drama raises more questions than it answers.
7. Peaches, Shadows, Greyjoys, and Other Devilish Details
THE CHANGE: Sometimes the small stuff is the stuff you sweat the most. Why change Theon's sister's name from Asha to Yara? Supposedly it's to avoid confusion with Bran's wildling mentor Osha, but is this really a show whose audience can't be trusted with confusing names? Why not have Renly taunt Stannis by eating a peach during their tense negotiation? It's his single most memorable moment, and surely there's room in the show's peach budget. And if you're gonna have a big wide shot of Renly's shadow in his tent, why not do what the book did and make it Melisandre's shadow baby in disguise, so that it can stealthily peel off the wall and attack rather than rolling into the tent like a Lost refugee?
THE VERDICT: Look, unless you just plop the book in front of the camera and slowly turn pages for ten hours, any adaptation from a novel to a TV show is going to make changes both big and small. But because they're small, these changes are all the more difficult to understand, even though they're clearly not a big deal in the long run. Everyone's gonna fixate on different details they remember fondly, and while it's a bummer to have lost these ones, it's something you can put up with if the overall quality stays high.
6. The Tywin and Arya Show
THE CHANGE: He's the cold and calculating patriarch of the richest, cruelest family in Westeros. She's the wild-child daughter of a fallen hero, on the run from forces sworn to destroy her. Together they're dynamite! In the books, Arya spends Lord Tywin's time in Harrenhal as a peon who only catches the occasional glimpse of House Lannister's top dog; the show's incognito-cupbearer plotline is grafted in from another section of the book.
THE VERDICT: Maisie Williams plus Charles Dance equals great TV. It's pretty much just that simple. Kudos to the show for finding a way to have one of its best child actors (and it's got more good ones than some entire networks) and its most commanding actor/character combo (Dance looks nothing like Tywin in the books but it's now hard to imagine him any other way) go head-to-head on the regular. Arya's less-than-effective cat-and-mouse stuff with Littlefinger and Lorch is a small price to pay.
5. Queen Margaery's Naked Ambition
THE CHANGE: I believe it was the great Russian playwright Anton Chekov who wrote that one mustn't cast an actress from The Tudors if one has no intention of requiring her to take her top off. That's certainly one advantage of hiring 30-year-old Natalie Dormer to play the teen queen of the novels – like every character from Rickon Stark to Tywin Lannister, she's been aged up on the show to better reflect modern-day societal – and legal! – norms regarding sex and marriage. But Dormer's sly, sexy performance does more than provide a few more (exquisite) inches of skin to bare: It transforms Margaery from a largely mute mystery whose motives and level of involvement in the game of thrones are unknown at this stage in the book series into a no-holds-barred power player.
THE VERDICT: I'm on board with this one. While George R.R. Martin never made Margaery's political cunning this clear, he never did anything to indicate she wasn't this ambitious, either, so it fits perfectly well. It's less an invention than a peek behind closed tentflaps at something that was there all along, and that's a thrilling sensation.
4. The Madness of King Joffrey
THE CHANGES: Don't get me wrong: Joffrey Baratheon is the absolute goddamn worst in the books and the show. But as far as we know, the Joffrey of the books has at this point limited his most sadistic rampages to cats, rabbits and any other adorable creatures unfortunate enough to come within crossbow range. Yes, he had Ned beheaded, Sansa beaten, and countless prisoners tortured and killed, but that's still a far cry from his very personal supervision of the rape-torture of two prostitutes, or personally ordering the murder of his "father" King Robert's baby bastards (that was Cersei's doing in the books).
THE VERDICT: There's a reason why "the man you love to hate" entered the pop-culture parlance. Simply put, King Joffrey is the best villain on television, thanks not only to young actor Jack Gleeson's flawlessly repulsive performance, but also to the decision to take his sociopathy to new heights (or depths). There's something to be said for the books' handling of the character as a time bomb who has yet to really go off, but the explosiveness of the TV version makes us hope all the harder that he'll lose the game of thrones so bad he'll need to be squeegeed off the playing field.
3. Littlefinger's Big Season
THE CHANGE: The Iago-esque Lord Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish's superpower is to smile, and smile, and be a villain – but in the books we have yet to learn what's behind either the smile or the villainy. That's a big contrast with the show, where he'll tell pretty much anyone – Queen Cersei, Lord Varys, the Tyrell siblings, lipstick-lesbian prostitutes, anyone – that he wants the world and will murk pretty much anyone to get it. And he's getting a whole lot of screentime, running from King's Landing to the Stormlands to Harrenhal and having conversations that in the books either took place off-screen (the Tyrells) or not at all (Cersei, Renly, Catelyn, Tywin).
THE VERDICT: Mixed. Actor Aiden Gillen is one of the show's best performers, and the quiet, smiling menace he brings to scenes like his chat with his star whore Ros is not to be missed. But Littlefinger's ability to be everywhere at once strains credulity, as does his ability to survive encounters with Cersei and Catelyn (and undercover Arya) where his very un-book-like bluster would normally get him killed.
2. Caught in a Robb Romance
THE CHANGE: Fans of actor Richard Madden are legion, and lusty, and lucky. If the show had followed the book's lead, Madden's Robb Stark would have spent almost every episode off screen, fighting battles we never see and falling in love with a girl we never meet (this season, anyway). Instead he's been kept front and center, all the better to meet cute with the mysterious foreign nurse Lady Talisa after one of his victories. She's a far cry from Lady Jeyne Westerling, the pretty teenager from Westeros' west coast (that's Lannister territory) whom Robb falls for in the novels.
THE VERDICT: Good on the show for keeping Robb around, at least. In the books, George R.R. Martin keeps all the kings distant from the center of the action, preferring to show us how their decisions play out among their subjects – it's both a literary technique and a political message, but it wouldn't work on the show since the entire Stark side of the war would basically disappear. The Talisa/Jeyne switcheroo is tougher to get a handle on. Actress Oona Chaplin's got a real spark with the charismatic Madden, and whom he falls in love with doesn't matter as much falling in love at all. But as mega-fansite Westeros.org has pointed out, her "first they argue, then they flirt, and pretty soon you see them at the diner eating breakfast together in the clothes they wore last night" introduction to Robb has been one of the show's most predictable plotlines. Far from a dealbreaker, though, and potentially juicy when the romance heats up.
1. Party On, Qarth
THE CHANGE: Jeez, what didn’t change about this rich and decadent city in the far east? "Rich, decadent, far east" – that’s about it. In the book, Xaro Xhoan Daxos is lily-white and gay rather than black and straight. The Spice King didn’t exist at all. The Thirteen were just one of several factions jockeying for power rather than the city’s overall shot-callers. Dany and company rode into the city well-rested and secure rather than begging for their lives. Her bloodrider Rakharo and handmaiden Irri are still alive. And her dragons are very, very much un-kidnapped.
THE VERDICT: No one’s ever said "You know what the best part of A Clash of Kings is? The structure of Qarthene society!" Martin’s conception of Qarth is fascinating, but streamlining it, punching it up, making Xaro a handsome immigrant who bonds himself to Daenerys in blood, and giving Nicholas Blane’s Spice King a chance to dandy his way up and down the screen all make for entertaining TV. However, the jury’s still way the hell out on the dragon-napping business. You wanna give Dany’s sparse storyline more oomph, be my guest, but her dragons are such an integral part of her that taking them away this early in the game makes her feel like a chump. Still, a warlock-vs.-dragon throwdown (you have to figure this is where things are headed) could be a pip. We’ll just have to wait and see if the storyline crashes and burns or soars.