The Game of Turtles


This post is a response to Ethan Quillen’s post (here) about the changes being made in the adaptation of the book series A Song of Ice and Fire (henceforth, ASOIAF) as it is made into the TV series, Game of Thrones (GOT) by its producers, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss (known as D&D… as much as I dislike the connection between these two chaps and my favourite tabletop RPG this is the common signifier for them in the online fandoms for ASOIAF and GOT).

I have written on this blog before about ASOIAF with regards to the internal theology and cosmology of the series and how G.R.R. Martin (GRRM) seems to have an evolutionary view of the development of religion on ‘Planetos’ (here).  This post moves beyond religious studies per se to consider the nature of adaptation as Quillen has linked the adaptation of fiction to the work of the ethnographer, and my new religious studies research is primarily ethnographic in nature.

A quick biographical aside, and this is not an attempt to blow my own horn, I must also point out that I have a degree from the National Film and Television School in the UK in Script Development, which involves working with screenwriters, producers and directors on their ideas and scripts, as well as guiding the development of adaptations from original works such as books. As a screenwriter I have also worked on adaptations. So I also have a grounding in the theory and practice of adaptation.

However, before I address Quillen’s post I want to tell you a story… its a story that’s been told before. In fact this story has existed in several forms already.  First, it was the experience of the person who first recounted it.  It was then the story that he shared with a journalist, who then reported in in some form of media.  I then read the story, and now I recount it again in my own words.  Therefore, its a story that’s been through several stages of adaptation… and my decision to present it here should indicate that I at least partially agree with Quillen’s discussion of adaptation.  I do not deny that adaptation occurs in the retelling of experience or fantasy, but I have another point to make subsequently.  However, if you are sitting comfortably, I will begin…

Once upon a time there was a young boy called George. George was a very clever boy, a very imaginative boy, a boy with a big heart.  George was a boy who loved turtles.

He loved turtles so much that he kept a few in a big clean terranium, with a lovely stone castle for them all to live in.  Sadly, as clever as George was he couldn’t always keep his beloved pets alive.  Some mornings he’d get up from his bed, dash over to say good morning to his green skinned friends… and find that yet another of them was on their back at the bottom of the tank.  While the others were still happily breaking their fast in the great hall of the castle, innocent smiles on their beaks, another of their number had gone to a better place.  But George grew suspicious of their happy smiles… he began to write a story about how the turtles were in a contest for the castle, and that the losers were being killed off in sinister plots in a dramatic war of succession.

Years later young George R. R, Martin would write a fantasy series called A Song of Ice and Fire… the turtles havent made an appearance in this yet (although he does wear a turtle brooch on his famous fisherman’s hat).  The fantasy in George’s mind became the story of the Game of Turtles, which was in time adapted into the Game of Thrones (ASOIAF), an example that supports Quillen’s post.


However… there is a reason why the Game of Turtles is different to ASOIAF.  GRRM could have stuck with the turtles and written a quaint, if a little blood thirsty, children’s book about a fantasy world populated by turtle knights and lords.  But GRRM wanted to write a fantasy series in the mould of Tolkien and the other greats, one that was publishable and likely to be read widely, even if it was also one that played with some of the fantasy/medieval tropes that had become ingrained in popular culture.  Adaptation is not a neutral project… GRRM took his initial ideas about scheming turtles and they evolved and developed as he became a professional writer.  And being professional means operating within a paradigm (in this case, fantasy literature) even if you try to tease a little at the expectations of that paradigm.

Returning to ethnography we can see a similar working within the boundaries that GRRM’s adaptation demonstrates.  Quillen quoted Geertz to support his #everythingisfiction/#everythingisadaptation thesis, so I think it is only fair if I bring in some Rabinow… with regards to his early works, Rabinow explains that he sort refuge in the mode of professionalism expected of the ethnographer: “I guarded myself with the devices offered by my science and with a certain forced naiveté” (Rabinow, 1977:44)

Likewise, Edith Turner explains that her husband’s work on liminality was initially dismissed in Academia in favour of Durkheimian theory because the latter looked like “Good, clean, anthropology” (E.Turner, 2006: 39).  Victor Turner eventually found a space for his discussion of liminality, but this came years after he had resigned himself to being “steadily mainstream”… “because of our three children and the matter of jobs”, Edith says (E.Turner, 2006: 37).  The ethnographer’s adaptation is as prone to commercial expectations as the fantasy author’s is.

And GOT…? Quillen is correct in describing me as an insane fan of the books.  It is an obsession, I’ll admit that.  But as mentioned, I have also been a professional writer of adaptations, so I know about working within the paradigm in order to produce commercially viable products off the back of original works (yes, yes, ‘original’ is a misnomer if EVERYTHING is an adaptation).  But my problems with the GOT adaptation are because they are working on the basis of an older paradigm where the audience is assumed to be… well… stupid.

Quillen also linked to this blog post in his post: But I’m not clear on whether read it, because this post is less about stamping feet in a tantrum about what has been left out than what themes have been corrupted by D&D’s need for muddled monologuing (that is meant to serve to signal who the audience should think is the bad guy is in a particular scene, a la the James Bond films perhaps) and the whitewashing of D&D’s favourite characters. Such as…

cersei gif

I just (insanely, perhaps) think that the audiences could have coped with a more nuanced show with complicated characters.

Likewise, if you’ve ever come across the Honest Trailer for GOT you’ll have seen a summary of the number of “BEEWBS” in the show.  I’m not a prude… some of them are quite nice if you like that sort of thing.  But the paradigm that D&D are working with allows far less space for women in particular to be the intriguing characters that GRRM intended.  GRRM, the author who complains about the lack of strong women in Tolkien.  GRRM who used the Beauty and the Beast trope in ASOIAF but reversed the genders (Jaime and Brienne). GRRM who created a fantasy loving ‘fair maid’ character and then had her obsess over a man with PTSD and a drinking problem who spits on knights, while being the best of them.  But back to GOT: the following is a list of changes made by D&D that directly diminish the role, complexity and importance of female characters in the show (THIS IS VERY SPOILER HEAVY!! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED) (taken from )

“whilst everyone’s getting pumped for season 5, I think we need to remember a couple of things

  • don’t forget lady stoneheart. don’t forget that the show runners actively decided to cut one of the most powerful character arcs of the book and force her, instead, into the nagging mother stereotype
  • don’t forget arianne martell. don’t forget that it looks like the show runners actively decided to cut a powerful, feminine, kick ass woman of colour, who was next in the line of succession
  • don’t forget that her storyline was all about liberating myrcella and crowning her under dornish law, where women have the same inheritance rights as men, and aren’t passed over in favour of their younger male siblings. don’t forget that her entire storyline focused on females empowering other females.
  • don’t forget that it looks like they’re giving that same storyline to her younger male sibling, who they have gone out of their way to age up so he fits the role, and the story will now probably be “dashing young prince-to-be kidnaps damsel in distress”
  • don’t forget the jamie/cersei rape scene. don’t forget that the show runners actively made the decision to change the story and make that scene include rape.
  • don’t forget that mance rayder had a wife called dalla, and that she had a sister called val and that they were both important leading characters in jon’s story. don’t forget that the show runners actively made the decision to cut them out.
  • don’t forget the totally unnecessary changes to bran’s storyline. don’t forget the fact that rape and abuse just became part of the background set for most of those scenes. don’t forget that the show runners were on set, actively deciding that those scenes needed a little more male on female violence in the background.
  • don’t forget that natalia tena wanted osha to have a pubic wig because when the fuck would a wildling women shave her vagina and the show runners actively told her that wasn’t allowed.
  • don’t forget that they created a female character just to serve as a frequently nude prostitute, and that when the actress, esme bianco, refused to do any more nude scenes, the show runners fired her
  • don’t forget that she was then killed off in the most sexually violent, brutal, and demeaning way possible
  • don’t forget chataya and alayaya, a mother and daughter who were strong, sexual, and unashamedly so, and ran their own brothel. don’t forget that the show runners cut them out, too. don’t forget that the show runners have no problem with sex and prostitution so long as it’s on a man’s terms, and as soon as women are making the decisions, they don’t like it.
  • don’t forget that this show we love and watch and support perpetually goes out of its way to instigate violence against women, to take away their agency, their character, their rights, and their abilities. don’t forget that the show runners consciously make the decisions to demean women and use them as a way to dress the set. don’t forget that they take stories from women and give them to the men. don’t forget that they do not support and respect women the way we support and respect their show.”

TL:DR version: women are deleted/forgotten/raped/simplified.

And this also happens to male characters.  Just one example: Loras Tyrell is one of the best warriors in the Seven Kingdoms in ASOIAF.  But you might have forgotten that since he spends all his free time shagging a prostitute character who wasn’t even in the books, getting down to it very, very soon after the love of his life dies… the one who he is still mourning in the books.


Remember him saying this line about Renly after he died in the show? No? Oh that’s because Loras was too busy showing Olyvar his Dorne shaped birthmark in bed… which might just be one of the laziest last minute plotting devices I’ve ever seen thrown into a TV show!

Or maybe he was too busy talking about fashion.  Because he’s gay,  Did you get that audience? HE’S GAY!!! (thanks D&D, we couldn’t have known that because he was in love with a man, we had to hear about his love of fringed sleeves). Again, D&D are adapting the series on the assumption that the audience is far more stupid than it actually is.

To summarise, I think GRRM’s decision not to write The Game of Turtles series of books was the correct one, it was just a far stronger story with humans in the key roles, and more commercially viable.  However, the assumptions driving D&D’s adaptation are driven by their conception of what we want to see: that beewbs sell, but complex characters don’t.

Quillen’s overall point that everything is an adaptation is not necessarily incorrect.  It is merely partial.  There is no such thing as a neutral adaptation, either in fiction, or in ethnography as we try to fit our work into the professional niche.  We just have to make sure that we are not underestimating our audience and filling our ethnography with the fieldwork equivalent of “Beewbs” instead of doing the source material justice.


Rabinow, P. (1977) Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco, Berkley: University of California Press

Turner, E. (2006) “Advances in the Study of Spirit Experience: Drawing Together Many Threads” at the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, Distinguished Lecture, American Anthropological Association Meetings, San Jose, 2006 [available at]