It’s easy for a fan of the book series A Song of Ice and Fire to be nerdily obnoxious about the differences between author George R. R. Martin’s 1,000-page tomes and HBO’s gorgeous, gory TV show “Game of Thrones,” based on Martin’s books. But the Battle of Blackwater is an interesting case.
There’s a lot of suspense that builds over the course of this huge story, which jumps between dozens of characters, continents apart. The tension comes from the confrontations this whole thing moves toward. If you think you’re the rightful ruler of Westeros, then you know you’ll have to fight and kill those who oppose you. Fans will also note that Daenerys is obviously destined to attack King’s Landing with an army of brainwashed eunuchs and three huge, hungry dragons. Her story is building to an epic battle. The entire sprawling tale is setting the pieces to strike one another.
Anyway, the Battle of Blackwater is between Stannis Baratheon and Joffrey Baratheon. The former is the dead king’s brother, the latter his son. Except Joffrey wasn’t actually Robert Baratheon’s son, but actually the product of an incestuous, covert affair between Baratheon’s queen, Cersei Lannister, and her twin brother, the dashing warrior Jamie.
Stannis leads an army on boats through the Blackwater to King’s Landing, where Joffrey is ruling from the Iron Throne and enacting the political will of his evil mother.
The episode “Blackwater” has rightly been celebrated internet-wide as the best so far on “Game of Thrones.” The script is written by Martin and directed by Neil Marshall, whose monster movie “The Descent” is gory and scary and one of the best horror flicks this century.
The short build-up at the beginning of the episode is brilliant. We see Tyrion Lannister, a cunning dwarf who is Joffrey’s uncle, lying in bed with his lover. “If the city falls, Stannis will burn every Lannister he can find,” he tells her. “Of course I’m afraid.” His men sing and drink with whores as they wait for Stannis’s creeping ships to finally arrive.
Now, if there were a single major nerdy beef I have about the difference between the show and the books, it’s this: The show cuts far too often from one story to another. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” books are made up of chapters from a few characters’ perspectives, and those chapters sometimes go on at great length, so each becomes its own story. The show jumps around much more often, with most scenes running short.
“Blackwater” is the show’s best episode because it’s a huge battle, of course, but it’s also the only time when the series has spent an entire hour on one part of the story. It stays in King’s Landing to show us what happens, rather than jumping to Danaerys or Jon Snow or any of the other characters facing destinies elsewhere.
The death toll of this episode is in the hundreds. Flaming arrows thrum throughout. A guy gets chopped in half by huge sword. Blood sprays everywhere. The screen is filled with guys getting stabbed to death, or getting shot through the eye with an arrow while they burn.
Wildfire plays a pivotal roll. It’s nasty stuff that burns green and can’t be doused. On the show, a single ship filled with wildfire is lit by flaming arrow after it drifts close enough to Stannis’s fleet. The resulting explosion is amazing.
But is it more amazing that what Martin describes in the book?: Fifty feet high, a swirling demon of green flame danced upon the river. It had a dozen hands, in each a whip, and whatever they touched burst into fire.
When Joffrey decides to run and hide, it’s up to Tyrrion to lead his men, who have grown frightened by the king’s retreat and the defection of a fire-phobic warrior called The Hound. On the show, Tyrrion rallies his men with an awesome speech:
“They say I am half a man! Well, what does that make the lot of you! … There’s another way out, I’m going to show you. Come out behind them and fuck them in their asses!” Ram, ram, ram go Stannis’s battering rams against the gates. “Don’t fight for your king, and don’t fight for his kingdoms! Don’t fight for honor, don’t fight for glory, don’t fight for riches because you won’t get any! This is your city Stannis means to sack! That’s your gate he’s ramming! If he gets in, it’ll be your houses he burns, your gold he steals, and your women he’ll rape!” Ram, ram, ram. “Those are brave men knocking at our door! LET’S GO KILL THEM!”
And kill they do. We watch Tyrrion take down one man by chopping out his leg from under him, and then burying his ax into the man’s chest. In the book, he kills many more men, because the proceedings don’t need to wrap up in an hour. He thinks to himself “Battle fever. I’m half a man, and drunk with slaughter. Let them kill me if they can.” The book continues: They tried. Another spearman ran at him. Tyrrion lopped off the head of his spear, then his hand, then his arm, trotting around him in a circle.
As he fights, Tyrrion squints through the smoke to see armed men streaming off a boat, the last boat of more than 20 that are locked together into a kind of bridge. The enemy is leaping from deck to green-flaming deck to cross the Blackwater, including a knight on a terrified horse. “Those are brave men,” he says. “Let’s go kill them.” He gallops toward the flaming bridge of boats, unwilling to look back to see if his men have followed. He jumps his horse into the fray…
Madness followed. His horse had broken a leg, and was screaming horribly. Somehow, he managed to draw his dagger and slit the poor creature’s throat. The blood gushed out in a scarlet fountain, drenching his arms and chest. He found his feet again and lurched to the rail, and then he was fighting, staggering, and splashing across crooked decks awash with water. Men came at him. Some he killed, some he wounded and some went away, but always there were more. He lost his knife and gained a broken spear. He could not have said how. He clutched it and stabbed, shrieking curses. Men ran from him, and he ran after them, clamoring over the rail to the next ship and then the next.
In this scene we see the rarely spoken truth about novels: They’re actually more spectacular than movies or TV shows. Books aren’t limited by effects budgets or running times. The only thing limiting the Song of Ice and Fire books is Martin’s imagination, and Martin’s imagination has no ceiling. In the book version of the Battle of Blackwater, a giant chain is raised to trap Stannis’s ships from retreating, so Tyrrion’s battle climaxes on the bridge of burning green boats, where he kills men and is ultimately betrayed and then saved.
The episode is fantastic on a necessarily smaller scale. It ends abruptly, with Tywin Lannister arriving with his own army. He bursts through the door to the throne room, where Cersei is preparing to drink poison. “The battle is over,” Tywin tells his daughter. “We have won.”
If he hadn’t said so, we might not have known.
“Game of Thrones” is a great show, embarking tonight on its third season, based on A Storm of Swords, which is the third, and by far the best, novel in the series. But it’s limited by the physics of TV-show making. The story has to be edited and watered down. We fans of the books may be nerds, but we’re getting the full tale, unfiltered, straight from Martin’s mind.
The show is great, but fans who haven’t read the books have no idea what they’re missing.