First up….MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR ANYONE WHO HAS NOT SEEN GoT 6 08/READ DANCE WITH DRAGONS.
Ok, we’re happy now, yes? You realise what’s coming? Great.
Here’s some names off the top of my head (I’m sure westeros.org has a much more comprehensive list) S1 – Mago, s2 – Irri, Xaro Xhoan Daxos, Rakharo, s3 – Greatjohn Umber, s4 – Grenn, Pyp, Jojen Reed, s5 – Stannis, Shireen, Mance Raydar, Barristan Selmy, Myrcella s6 – Doran Martell, Trystane Martell, Areo Hotah, Brynden ‘Blackfish’ Tully, Shaggydog, Osha, Summer, Hodor, Jorah Mormont (arguably), Roose Bolton and Walda Frey.
What do all these characters have in common? They are all (as of 608) dead in the TV show Game of Thrones and (as of Dance with Dragons) still alive in A Song of Ice and Fire. This is curious because of any criticism one might make of George RR Martin’s fantastical world, that he doesn’t kill of enough of his characters is not one. Why the disparity and what effect does it have on the story?
It’s fair to say of this list not all are equally inexplicable so (based purely on my own speculation) I’m going to separate them into different categories; dead men walking, not like this, herd thinning and bodycounters.
Dead (wo)men walking or It is known
These are the characters who we haven’t seen (in an imaginary sense) die yet in A Song of Ice and Fire but who will likely meet their end much the same as on the show. The first name that leaps to mind in this group is Hodor. When I saw that play out I thought it had Martin’s fingerprints on it and duly that was later confirmed. I would also just about put Jojen Reed in this group too as I think narratively speaking he will die in pretty much the same place, if not the exact same manner.
Just about sneaking into this bracket I would also include Shireen Baratheon. I’m not sure that in the books it will be by Stannis’s order but I think she is for the flames nonetheless. However, if it is not under her father’s command then she should be pushed into the next category for reasons that will become clear.
There’s not much to write about the It is Knowns because their role is much the same. Some would say they constitute spoilers, I tend to think at this point anyone watching the show hoping that nothing of the books is going to be revealed is probably deluding themselves.
Not Like This
Insert your Matrix gifs here.
This group is of characters I expect to die but not in the way it is shown on GoT and why the different ending makes a difference. The least important of these is probably Mago. Do you remember him? Khal Drogo ripped out his throat in Season 1. It was someone else in the book and Martin is insistent that Mago is due to have a significant role in future instalments. My guess is that he will play the same role as Khal Jhaqo’s bloodriders in the current season and this is simply a case of giving a different name to a character. I could be wrong but until I know otherwise I’m happy to let this one go.
Stannis I would include in this particular category. For the story to advance, Stannis has to die and it seems likely it will be in the North. However, I’m pretty damn certain Martin’s battle won’t consist of charging a load of weary infantrymen in loose formation against the riders of the Rohirrim who have suddenly and inexplicably flocked to the Bolton banner. Likewise, I’ll be shocked (and not in a good way) if Brienne conveniently arrives to deliver Stannis his death blow. I could be wrong but that felt more Hollywood than Westeros, where neat vengeance is rarely delivered. In Martin’s world, punishment is usually meted out by those with no claim to deliver it. Think Ramsey on Theon and Vargo Hoat (Locke on TV) on Jaime.
Whatever fate lies in store for Stannis I imagine it will be a little more complex. If it turns out not to be him who orders Shireen to be burnt then that would reinforce my suspicion that he was made responsible for that so viewers would be OK with killing off a major character in a fairly summary fashion. Certainly they did seem to rush to the end of his storyline.
Myrcella is another whose fate will almost definitely play out very differently. If we accept that the prophecy about Cersei’s children is true then Myrcella will die at some point. That is where the similarity likely ends. Everything Dorne post-Oberon has been horrifically misguided. The Sand Snakes are miscast and badly written. Ellaria has had a complete personality transplant and the whole plot line makes no sense whatsoever.
The result is Myrcella won’t die on a ship with Jaime because Jaime was never supposed to go to Dorne. It makes zero sense for the Sand Snakes to kill her because they were trying to make her Queen. Even if later developments that were never shown on TV pan out, she would still be betrothed to their cousin. In short, I expect little to no resemblance to what we have seen on our screens.
This matters because having Ellaria/Sand Snakes kill her is what led them into the current storyline where having gone directly against his wishes they would have to be executed or be in open rebellion against Doran and…well, we’ve seen how that turned out.
I’m just about persuaded to put Jorah Mormont and Barristan Selmy into this group. In Jorah’s case, he’s been such a major character that I can’t think the showmakers would give him a death sentence unless he had no more role to play. The fact that they’ve cut and pasted John Connington’s fate onto him means that should he die it will definitely be in a completely different manner.
Similarly, while Selmy may or may not be long for Martin’s world it is clear that he won’t die at that point because he is still alive way beyond it, partaking in vital acts in the defence of Mereen. In his case I feel the premature departure has had a negative effect. Another senior figure in Mereen would make it look a bit less like everything is being done by three people in an empty pyramid. The only reason I don’t put Selmy into the herd-thinning category is that if he is to die in the books it’s probably fairly soon.
Lastly, I’m just about persuaded to put Roose and Walda in this group. Like with Stannis, Roose has to die for the plot to move forward and in A Song of Ice and Fire, people are rarely merciful to the families of the deceased. I’m not convinced his end will be as mundane as being stabbed in the stomach by Ramsey after dropping huge hints that he means to set him aside.
Herd Thinning aka We have a budget
The deaths I would describe as herd-thinning are where a character is killed on the TV show and there is no particular reason to think that character is about to die or their death was at least premature for no good in-world reason. These deaths are better explained by budgetary constraints, actor schedules and a general desire to keep the cast numbers in check both for cost and simplifying things for the viewer.
Rakharo (who seems to be an amalgam of Jhogo and Rakharo from the books) seems to have been killed off because the actor had a scheduling conflict. Presumably, if not he would have remained as the visible representative of the loyal Dothraki going on. It may have been the same with Clive Mantle (Greatjohn), although his lines and personality were fused on to the Blackfish from Season 3 onwards.
On the matter of the Blackfish, given that he is explicitly still alive and active in the books beyond the siege of Riverrun I can only think the showmakers considered him an expense they could do without (unless he is to take the place of Un-Cat).
Herd-thinning is the only reason I can think of that would explain the terrible plot decisions of the Dorne storyline. By killing off Doran and Trystane they have closed the door on a number of developments in that region, which to me says they wanted to give the viewers a reason to think Dorne is out of the picture now. Areo Hotah is just more collateral damage in this sense.
Last but by no means least in this group are the direwolves Summer and Shaggydog. They may die in the books but given how much they’ve been shoved to the side because CGI is expensive it’s hard to discount the possibility that this was a motivating factor in killing them off.
The last group includes Osha, Gren, Pyp, Irri and Xaro Xhoan Daxos. Each of these characters was killed not because they are set to die imminently but simply because of the drama their death would give to particular moments. In the case of Pyp and Gren this works. Pyp’s end heightens Sam’s jeopardy while also showing how far he has come as a character and Gren takes the place of a character not seen in the show. His death was done to make people care about a moment that deserves to be cared about.
Irri was killed to heighten the sense of danger in Qarth and in this case it didn’t work at all. The stolen dragons storyline was a major misstep and killing Irri to enable it was a waste of a character and an actress. It also cut much of Dany’s link to the Dothraki and made her entourage too light subsequently. It’s arguable that her role is filled by an aged-up Missandei but they are very different personalities and I can’t see that Irri’s presence wouldn’t have added more.
At the other end of the dragon theft storyline is Xaro Xhoan Daxos. Given that he’s a completely different character on the show to the book version his loss isn’t that important and probably preferable. The presence of the changed character was more problematic as it was integral to the deviations that undermined Dany’s season 2 arc.
Finally, Osha. She might die but I hope if she does it’s handled better than on the show. Another knife stabbing with little build up and zero reflection afterwards. She might as well have been a guest appearance. It’s possible that she was taking the role of one of the spear wives from the book but that doesn’t seem like a great reason to kill her.
Does it matter?
As with most questions, it depends. In the first group not at all. In other cases, as a book reader every time one of these deaths happen you see future storylines and scenes dying before your eyes. That is easier to take some times than others. Not including Arianna Martell is one thing. Bringing in Dorne then changing its course completely is quite another.
When you know you’re not going to see something you’d hoped to see it’s important that you’re given it in such a way that you can accept its loss. When things are edited for content you can always think it happened it just wasn’t shown. So in the Lord of the Rings films, for example, the scouring of the Shire could have happened (in the cinema release version), Tom Bombadil could have happened, the appendices could have happened; we just didn’t see it. There’s no way to undo aberrations like Osgiliath, unfortunately.
For the show watcher who hasn’t read the books and never plans to you can argue that it doesn’t matter at all. After all, if they had no expectations then there is no loss. However, as with any death if it is done without good reason it notices. I generally watch Game of Thrones with non-book readers and when a death doesn’t seem part of the story they tend to be taken out of their suspension of disbelief, frown and ask ‘does that happen in the books?’. They also ask this with stuff that’s in the books but usually after the end of the episode because they are still invested.
I appreciate that Game of Thrones doesn’t have an unlimited budget and my complaint isn’t with that. In fact, if I have a complaint it is directed at TV and film in general. Deaths of established characters can be very effective in drama. It’s important that it is never used cheaply and when that character has more stories to tell that will now never see the light it is all the more important the reasoning is sound.