Game of Thrones: The Bear and the Maiden Fair

It’s always fascinating to watch an episode of Game of Thrones written by George R R Martin. The show has departed from the source novels in a lot of ways, mostly small, occasionally large. Often it’s a matter of necessity, as a completely faithful adaptation would require ten times the episode count and a thousand times the budget, and probably wouldn’t make great television anyway. The written word and the small screen are very different mediums, and you need to tailor a story to fit each. But it’s still strange to imagine Martin sitting there, working on a screenplay, constrained by changes others made to a plot he originally wrote himself in a different way.

You might wonder if Martin would chafe under the requirement to alter his vision, or if his episodes would try to move things closer to the books, but if anything he seems to positively embrace the changes. For every line or scene from the book in his episodes, there’s a dozen or more that are entirely new, and while his dialog perhaps carries a little more of the lyricism and formalness of the novels, he by no means abandons the lighter, more modern tone of the rest of the series.

The Bear and the Maiden fair contained a fascinating example of Martin reinterpreting his own work in the discussion Sansa and Margaery had about Tyrion, to whom Sansa is now engaged. There was a particular line, in which Margaery says Tyrion is handsome, despite, or even because of, his scar. This line took me by surprise a little, not because it’s untrue: Peter Dinklage is certainly a handsome man, but because it states openly what was previously a major, but unacknowledged departure from the books: Tyrion’s ugliness.

The books are quite clear on Tyrion’s ugliness. He is not simply a dwarf, he is extremely ugly, almost monstrous. Then the wound he receives during the battle for Kings Landing results in half his nose being cut away, leaving him even more hideous. This ugliness is remarked upon by many characters, including Tyrion himself.┬áIn the TV series, Tyrion is not ugly. He is a dwarf, yes, and he less conventionally handsome that other men, but he is far from ugly. Unless, like Sansa, you find dwarfs inherently unattractive, then it would be difficult not to acknowledge that Tyrion is in his own way another handsome member of a handsome family. In that respect, the TV series has departed from what is quite a significant aspect of the novels.

Here the problem though: Tyrion not being ugly makes some of the story rather problematic. In the books, Tyrion’s appearance inspires such instinctive dislike that he it makes him a constant outsider, loathed by the peasantry and the high born alike, and protected only by his family name. He frequents whores because other women won’t consider sleeping with him, and is unmarried because only the most desperate lords would consent to him making a match with their daughter. This is despite him being one of the cleverest, richest, and kindest characters in the novel. Tyrion’s story is an indictment of the way people judge by appearance, and willing blind themselves to the truth in order to maintain their pre-judgements. They see a monster, so they want to believe he is a monster.

It’s not clear why the Tyrion of the TV series would be such an outsider or inspire such loathing. He’s just as clever, just as rich, and just as kind, but he’s also older, and handsome. Even accepting that the society depicted has a greater prejudice against dwarfs than our own, is it really believable that Tyrion would be unable to find women outside of whorehouses? Or that no high born lady would fall for his charms, or that her father would consent to her marrying the heir to the Lannister lands, title and wealth? I’m not sure it is.

Don’t get me wrong: I think Peter Dinklage is fantastic, and I wouldn’t want any other actor in the role, even if they were closer to the Tyrion as described in the book, but I thought it was interesting, particularly since George Martin seemed to deliberately hang a hat on in in this episode. It’s interesting as well that he also decided to make Sansa openly state that her dislike of Tyrion basically comes down to him being a dwarf. Sansa is already far from the most sympathetic character, and this isn’t likely to endear her to people any more.