For the first four years of HBOs Game of Thrones, author George R.R. Martin had a writing credit on one episode each season. Those episodes—Season 1s finale “The Pointy End,” Season 2s battle episode “Blackwater,” Season 3s Jaime and Brienne showstopper “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” and Season 4s deadly royal wedding, “The Lion and the Rose”—all marked relatively important moments in the series, and were well-regarded by book-lovers and show-watchers alike.
But that last episode aired in 2014, at the halfway mark of the series—and Martin hasnt penned an episode since. An early version of the last script Martin wrote is available to the public, along with many others, at the Writers Guild of America Library in Los Angeles, though—and unlike the versions of his earlier scripts in the archive there, this Martin draft of “The Lion and the Rose” differs wildly from what ended up airing on HBO. Changes from page to screen are not at all uncommon, this is just a particularly extreme case. A close reading of this draft may help explain why Martin stopped writing for the show.
Publicly, Martin has said that he stopped writing for Game of Thrones in order to focus on completing the next, long-anticipated book in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, The Winds of Winter: “Writing a script takes me three weeks, minimum, and longer when it is not a straight adaptation from the novels. Writing a season six script would cost me a months work on WINDS, and maybe as much as six weeks, and I cannot afford that,” he wrote in 2015. “With David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, and Bryan Cogman on board, the scriptwriting chores for season six should be well covered. My energies are best devoted to WINDS.”
Of course, Martins final season writing for the show also coincided with Weiss, Benioff, and HBO crossing some important milestones. Not only did the show take a huge leap forward in popularity thanks to a deft execution of the instantly viral “Red Wedding” in Season 3—a moment Weiss has said they were aiming for since day one—but speaking with Vanity Fair before Season 4, Benioff answered simply “Yup” when asked if he thought the show would soon outpace its source material. (Martin, meanwhile, called the prospect “alarming.”)
But Martin, Weiss, and Benioff came up with a work-around. Between Season 3 and 4, during a now-famous summit in a Santa Fe hotel room, Martin walked the show-runners through his rough outline for the end of his planned saga. “I can give them the broad strokes of what I intend to write, but the details arent there yet,” Martin told V.F. at the time. “Im hopeful that I can not let them catch up with me.”
That didnt happen—and it seems that Martin and Game of Thrones hit other snags as well. Season 4 is when Martin responded to a controversial, sexually violent scene between Cersei and Jaime on-screen by differentiating the show from his books: “The whole dynamic is different in the show,” he said at the time. “The setting is the same, but neither character is in the same place as in the books, which may be why Dan & David played the sept out differently. But that's just my surmise; we never discussed this scene, to the best of my recollection.”
Martin has also emphasized how writing for television differs from writing his novels. In a 2018 talk on screenwriting, Martin told the audience that Hollywood likes “short dialogue. A line or two. Back and forth, back and forth.” But just as Martins books famously get more digressive as they continue, his scripts for the show started to balloon over time: his version of “The Lion and Rose” swells with ornate, detailed, forward-looking description, and in its original form is over 70 pages—20 longer than the average Thrones script. Weiss and Benioff ended up significantly editing it down, as a comparison between page and screen proves, and moving at least one significant scene into an earlier episode in order to fit everything important in.
Season 4 scripts are also when Weiss and Benioffs infamously colloquial style first appears in the stage directions—such as when Jon Snow chokes down a drink that “tastes like day-old cock cheese.” Still, not all change is bad—and in editing Martins script, Weiss and Benioff showed sharp filmmaking instincts. Here is a rundown of the major changes from page to screen, and what they reveal about Game of Thrones at a major inflection point.
Brans Alternative Visions: “The Lion and the Rose,” the second episode of the shows fourth season, depicts Joffrey and Margaerys disastrous wedding reception, where several Kings Landing plots are coming to a head even before the young king is poisoned; an emboldened Ramsay Bolton trying to secure power in the North, with his cowed servant Reek at his side; and the burning at the stake of several Dragonstone subjects, by order of Melisandre. It also marks the first time we really see the scope of Brans visions.
Assisted by Meera and Jojen Reed, Bran connects to a mid-sized Weirwood tree and sees images both old and new—including a three-eyed raven in the Winterfell crypt, a snowy throne room; and a flash of the Night King, in his first appearance. The montage that ended up on-screen is exhilarating—but its also largely comprised of recycled footage. Martin, on the other hand, wanted us to see this:
Images flash by, one after another; distant places and different times, familiar faces and faces of strangers.
Ned Stark cleans Ice beneath Winterfells heart tree (from the original pilot).
The Mad Kings Aerys Targaryen a gaunt man with silver-gold hair and foot-long fingernails, CACKLES as he watches Neds father and brother burn.
Jon Snow with Ghost. Unawares.
Two children, a boy and a girl, fight with wooden swords in Winterfells godswood. (Benjen and Lyanna as kids).
Robb sits drenched in blood amidst the carnage of the Red Wedding, surrounded by the dead. His dead face slowly transforms into Grey Winds wolfish features.
Jaime and Cersei embrace in Winterfells old keep (the last thing Bran saw before he fell, from the pilot).
A black direwolf with green eyes (SHAGGYDOG) looks up suddenly from a bloody kill, as if he sense Bran.
Hints of strange small children with very dark eyes.
The shadow of a dragon passes across the rooftops of a great city (Kings Landing, where Bran has never been).
Arya with Needle in hand. Her face MELTS and CHANGES.
The visions end with a distinctive quartet of northern hills (per Chris Newmans location photograph), serving as the backdrop to the LARGEST WEIRWOOD weve ever seen.
There are several reasons the show likely decided to pare down Brans visions on-screen. At that point in the series, Weiss and Benioff were still firmly opposed to depicting flashbacks of any kind. At any rate, casting a young Benjen and Lyanna then would have precluded using those same child actors later, say, in Season 6. Other images in Martins version—like those of Robb Stark and Arya—work well on the page, but are a bit too surreal for the world that Weiss and Benioff have established. (Though it might have been fun to have that foreshadowing of Aryas future as a Faceless Man. At that point in the show, she hadnt even gone to Braavos yet.) What we miss most from Martins version of Brans vision, though, is the strong connection between the direwolves—an element of the books that has largely been downplayed on-screen, due to the high cost of depicting those enormous, computer-generated dogs.
Mysterious Direwolf Plans: Speaking of which: Martin leaves a little note for the producers when writing about Ramsays flesh-eating hounds, whom we see hunting down a girl for sport.
[ [N.B. A note for future reference. A season or two down the line Ramsays pack of wolfhounds are going to be sent against the Stark direwolves, so we should build up the dogs as much as possible in this and subsequent episodes.]]
No such clash exists in either the show or the books thus far—so this is an especially juicy little nugget. Martin wrote this note while he was still working on the early stages of The Winds of Winter. As of the end of the previous book, A Dance with Dragons, Ramsay was still at or near Winterfell, preparing for battle with Stannis. (Remember that, show-watchers?) So, at what point would his dogs have a chance to attack multiple Stark direwolves when in the books the animals are all separated and in the show, theyre mostly dead? Does this indicate that Ramsays fate in the book diverges wildly from his fate on the show? Undoubtedly, because . . .
No Wedding for Sansa and Ramsay: Without question, one of the most controversial changes the show made in trying to streamline the books was by slotting Sansa into the role of Ramsays wife and rape victim in Season 5. In the books, Ramsay marries and assaults Sansas best childhood friend, Jeyne Poole—who is being forced to impersonate Arya—instead. (You can actually see Jeyne briefly sitting next to Sansa in the shows pilot.)
At the time Martin wrote this script, though, substituting Sansa for Jeyne was not yet the plan. Martin has Roose Bolton tell his bastard son: “We have a much better match in mind for you. A match to help House Bolton hold the north. Arya Stark.” It should be noted, however, that in Martins script, Sansa isnt free from menace either. At his own wedding-day breakfast, Joffrey still threatens to rape the older Stark sister—once hes “gotten Margaery with child.”)
The Bran Assassination Plot Finally Revealed: In the show, one major question from Season 1—who sent the assassin with that Valyrian steel dagger to murder Bran Stark?—is never quite resolved. In the books, its heavily implied that the culprit was Joffrey. In the shows Season 7 finale, Arya implies the plot was Littlefingers.
But in Martins version of the script, which expands on the implications of his novel, the culprit is clearly supposed to be Joffrey. When he receives a sword from his father as a wedding gift, Joffrey publicly boasts, “I am no stranger to Valyrian steel.” Martin then writes: “That chance remark means something Tyrion; we see it on his face. Before he can react, however, Joffrey brings the blade down in a savage two-handed cut on the book that Tyrion had given him.”
In Martins script, Tyrion doesnt keep his suspicions to himself, either. After he comes to the “dangerous realization” that his nephew tried to have Bran Stark killed, Tyrion says: “Perhaps Your Grace would sooner have a dagger to match his sword. A dagger of Valyrian steel . . . and a dragonbone hilt. Your father had a knife like that, I believe.” Martin writes that Tyrions words “strike home,” and the king becomes “FLUSTERED” as he responds with “guilt” on his face: “You . . . I mean . . . my fathers knife was stolen at Winterfell . . . those northmen are all thieves.” Then, to underline it all, Martin concludes in his stage directions: “Tyrions eyes never leaving the king. It has just fallen into place for him. It was Joffrey who sent the catspaw to kill Bran, the crime that started the whole war. But now that he knows, what can he do about it?”
Tyrion is later tempted to tell his wife, Sansa, what hes figured out, but decides instead to answer her innocent question about whether Joffrey might enjoy a dagger with a double entendre: “It would certainly please me to give him one,” Tyrion says. Had this made it to the screen, it would have helped explain why Joffrey is so publicly monstrous to his uncle at his wedding, and also set up Tyrion as a more credible suspect in the Joffrey poisoning plot—he threatened the boy just that morning.
A More Dangerous Shae: Speaking of clearing up motivations, Tyrions last scene on the show alone with Shae has always been a confusing one. Shes in mortal peril because Tywin knows she and Tyrion are involved—but instead of telling her that, the show version of Tyrion lies and says he doesnt want her around. The girl leaves his room devastated and in tears. In Martins version, though, Tyrion is straight with Shae—reminding her that Ros, the last prostitute he slept with, ended up being beaten and murdered. Martin also has Tyrion trying to knock some sense into Shae by throttling her as he explains that his father will “hang you. If the gods are good, the fall will snap your neck. If not, youll strangle slowly, swinging in the air, your face going black as you fight to breathe. An ugly way to die.” Shae responds to Tyrions violence by pulling a knife, lunging at him, and threatening: “I pray you die.”
This acrimonious farewell better sets up Shaes eventual betrayal of Tyrion but may have too heavily foreshadowed Tyrion strangling her by seasons end. Speaking of heavy foreshadowing: in Martins script, Prince Oberyn Martell casually asks after the Mountain—the man he has come to Kings Landing to kill. “I have heard so much about his prodigy,” he says to Jaime. “Your fathers fiercest fighter.”
Missing Characters: This is the era of Thrones where Weiss and Benioff started to ruthlessly chop out extra characters from Martins story, based on which plotlines they knew would matter to the endgame. (The books Young Griff and Arianne Martell are two prime examples.) Martin has loads of minor book characters in his script that Weiss and Benioff sliced out of the final cut: Lady Olenna Tyrells twin guards, whom she calls “Left” and “Right”; Penny, the female dwarf performer that eventually becomes something of a love interest for Tyrion gets a significant introduction; Ser Osmund Kettleblack, one of the Kettleblack brothers Cersei sleeps with in the books, causing an irreversible rift between herself and Jaime; and Ser Arys Oakheart, a major player in the Dornish Arianne Martell plot that the show decided not to use.
Jaime in the Riverlands: A popular book plot that was cut in favor of sending Jaime and Bronn on an ill-advised Season 5 jaunt to Dorne is the adventures of the Kingslayer in the Riverlands. Jaime develops a good deal as a character in that story thread, which removes him from the corrosive influence of Cersei. (Part of that story line got moved into Season 6, when Jaime meets the Blackfish at Riverrun.) But Martins script hints at Jaimes move to the Riverlands being right around the corner when Jaime mentions to Tyrion over lunch that “smallfolk are starving by the thousands in the riverlands.” In the same scene in Martins version, Jaime also asks Tyrion to give Sansa back to Brienne so he can fulfill his promise to Catelyn.
Spymaster Varys: In the final version of the episode, when Varys tells Tyrion that Tywin and Cersei are on to Shae, the conversation lasts barely a minute and is conducted, hurriedly, on a side path in the palace gardens. In Martins script, however, a lengthier conversation happens in the dungeons, showing us another side of Varys: “It is Varys as we have never seen him before. Not the effete eunuch of the small council, he appears as a denizen of the dungeons; clad in leather and mail, an iron helm on his head, heavy boots on his feet, a whip coiled at his side. Even a BEARD.” Simple enough to say on the page, but its genuinely a challenge to imagine even actor Conleth Hill—who can look quite different from his character—in this mode. Martin also spills a lot of ink in this section describing the scope, scale, and menace of the dragon skulls—“Balerion, Vhagar, and Meraxes, are GIGANTIC, large enough to swallow Tyrion and Varys both in a single gulp, and still have room for an elephant or two”— in the crypt, something the show has never quite found the time to properly address.
A Broken Theon: After being tormented by Ramsay, Theon is a shattered, changed man. But in Martins version, hes even more defeated: “He looks forty years older than the swaggering young prince of season one; battered, filthy, bruised, clad in rags, his beard long and ragged, his hair gone almost completely white.” Martin also casually mentions that Theon is missing two fingers from his hand—which is easy enough to write on the page but would have presented an enduring FX challenge for the show. (Similarly, Tyrion gets his nose cut off in the books—but on the show, his mangled face is represented instead by a tasteful, less technically involved scar.) Fans of Theons alter ego, Reek, will be happy to know that in Martins version of the script, he does speak in the books odd, rhyming mode: “Reek. It rhymes with sneak.”
A Magical Light Show: Speaking of special-effects concerns: Martin had a much flashier light show envisioned for when Melisandre, Stannis, and Selyse burn the nonbelievers on the Dragonstone beach. Watching people burn alive is disturbing enough, but Martin wanted a “tremendous ROAR” to ring out, signaling the Red Gods powers. He also wrote: “The flames CHANGE COLOR: one burns purple, one green, one silver-white. Then a GASP rises from the onlookers, for above the fires, just for an instant, we SEE the three victims rising from their pyres, made young and strong and beautiful again, smiling as they ascend to the sky.”
Martins scenes with Shireen Baratheon also do more to foreshadow her ultimate death in Season 5. On the page, the princess keeps insisting to Melisandre that the burning figures on the beach were screaming as they died, prompting the priestess to respond as her magical ruby pendant blazes with a “baleful” light: “The night is dark and full of terrors, child. And not all screams end in joy.” Weiss and Benioff have said that when Martin had sketched out the rest of the story for them, one of the details he included was that Shireen would die burning.
A More Gruesome Death for Joffrey: As satisfying as it was to watch Joffrey die horribly in “The Lion and the Rose,” Martin had an even more graphic fate sketched out for the boy king: He “CLAWS at his own flesh, tearing deep red gouges in his neck with his nails. His eyes are bulging. His face is a dark purple, the color of a plum, and his mouth is bloody.” Martin is clearly in his element here, tossing in comments like: “Westerosi has no House Heimlich, and this no Heimlich Maneuver” After Oberyn is prevented from trying to help Joffrey, Martin also writes this: “[FYI, Prince Doran was actually rushing to save the king by cutting a hole in his windpipe, a medieval tracheotomy, as he will explain to the court in the next episode.]” This second part is not, it seems, a joke, and was wisely cut from the show.
The Feast: Even Martins most ardent admirers will tell you that when it comes to describing feasts, the author has zero self-control. His original script contains two feasts and a wedding ceremony, with Martin spilling much ink to describe 77 courses (roast boar, pike, ribs, cinnamon pigeon pie, swan), naming individual bards who perform (Bethany Fair-fingers, Galyeon of Cuy, Hamish the Harper), and listing Joffreys gifts (longbow, ship, helm, falcon, scepter). Its a scope and scale that the show, despite its considerable budget at the time, could not have hoped to match.
The version that ended up on-screen replaced much of this protracted detail with character-rich wedding discussions between Cersei and Brienne, Loras and Jaime, and Cersei, Oberyn, Ellaria, and Tywin. These are memorable moments with sharp dialogue that are nowhere to be found in Martins first version. There are, of course, Martin details we miss; it would have been nice, at this largely white affair, to meet Martins “tall black SUMMER ISLANDER in a feathered cloak.” But all in all, its easy to see why Weiss and Benioff opted to transform Martins passionate love affair with feasts into something more streamlined and TV-friendly.
Point of View: In a few scenes, Martin instructs the camera to behave as if its watching from the point of view of different characters. This, famously, is how Martin writes his novels, with each chapter narrated from a different characters perspective. Martin himself acknowledged the difficulty in translating that kind of storytelling to the screen when he said, of that aforementioned Season 4 Jaime-Cersei sex scene: “I was writing the scene from Jaimes POV, so the reader is inside his head, hearing his thoughts. On the TV show, the camera is necessarily external. You dont know what anyone is thinking or feeling, just what they are saying and doing.”
In Martins script, when Ramsay and Myranda are cruelly hunting one of their former bedmates, Martin writes of the victim: “We are in her POV now. We HEAR the sound of her ragged breathing. Trees race past, branches WHIP at our face. Then our POV stumbles and FALLS. The ground rises up to smash us in the face.” Martin instructs arrows to shoot “RIGHT AT THE CAMERA.” The script then switches to Theon: “Now were looking through the eyes of the limping man.” That did not make it onto the screen—though the show-runners did indulge one POV request from Martin. In the final cut, the show delivers directly on Martins script, which reads: “We are padding through the frozen woods north of the Wall, panting heavily, stalking prey.” Weiss and Benioff here kill two birds with one stone: they bring Martins imagination to the screen and find a cost-saving way to handle those increasingly expensive direwolf effects.
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