Italics, Game of Thrones and Cherries on Cakes

The most recent episode of Game of Thrones (4.8 The Mountain and the Viper) was very good. However, as a book reader, I have a small quibble. (Here be spoilers.)

————       SPOILERS     SPOILERS     SPOILERS     SPOILERS     —————


The trial by combat between Oberyn Martell and Ser Gregor Clegane is one of the best scenes in both the book and, now, the TV series. There are many reasons for this. Among them, the fact that there are two levels to what is happening. On one, there’s the whole issue of the murder trial itself, and all that entails for so many characters.  On the other, there’s the desire that Oberyn Martell has had boiling inside him for nearly two decades to get vengeance against the people who killed his sister and her children at the end of Robert’s Rebellion. Rumours point to Gregor Clegane, who happens to be Cersei’s champion for the trial by combat, as the perpetrator of these crimes. So Oberyn puts himself forward as Tyrion’s champion in the fight to the death to get revenge for his sister. So already this was set to be a tense scene: on it hinges the outcome of two plotlines.

There’s one other thing in particular that for me makes this one of the greatest scenes in the books. Admittedly, it is a tiny detail, but it’s the cherry on the cake. Unfortunately, although the TV version of the scene is very well executed, this detail did not feature.

Let’s first run through the basic dialogue between Oberyn and Gregor during the fight, which will hopefully help you understand why this detail makes a difference.

‘Do you know who I am?’ asks Oberyn, as the duel begins. ‘Some dead man,’ replies Gregor, lunging. As they exchange blows, Oberyn explains who he is, and that he is here to avenge his sister. ‘You raped her. You murdered her. You killed her children’, he says. He repeats it again and again. ‘You raped her. You murdered her. You killed her children.’ They exchange blows throughout, but persistently he repeats: ‘You raped her, you murdered her, you killed her children. You raped her, you murdered her, you killed her children. You raped her, you murdered her, you killed her children.’ Finally, he gets the upper hand. Gregor is on the floor, grievously wounded. But no death blow yet: Oberyn wants a confession. ‘Say her name,’ he yells. ‘Say it! Elia Martell. Say it. You raped her. You murdered her. You killed her children. Elia Martell! You raped her. You murdered her. You killed her children. Say her name. Say it–’ But Gregor grabs him, pulls him down, so that they are face–to–face.

Now, here it comes. In the book, here is what happens: Gregor grasps Oberyn’s head, and looks him in the eye. ‘Elia Martell,’ Gregor says. ‘I killed her screaming whelp. Then I raped her. Then I killed her, like this.’ Gregor kills Oberyn.

You might be thinking: ‘What’s the problem? I don’t see anything different from the TV show’s version of this scene.’ Well, my friend, I don’t blame you. It is a small detail, I admit, but it adds so much, I think. What I’m referring to is the use of italics on ‘then’. In other words, in the book Gregor is saying: ‘I killed her children, and after that I raped her.’ Hearing this same dialogue in the TV show, I don’t think this emphasis is made. He says that he did commit the crimes, but he is simply admitting to each of them in a different order than Oberyn said them in.

Why does this matter? Not only does Gregor – now dying and with no reason to keep silent on the matter any longer – admit to three abominable crimes, but, madly, he feels the need to correct Oberyn on the order he performed them in. Gregor is a little enigmatic, despite all the talk about him, but this moment reveals a lot: as the gossip suggests, he relishes violence itself more than any other character in the books. The fact that he remembers the order in which he committed these crimes after nearly twenty years, and the fact that, while lying on the ground potentially–mortally–wounded, he is at all bothered to correct someone on the order he performed them in, both really display this.

And there’s another reason I think this use of italics makes a difference and means that the book’s version of the scene is even greater than the TV show’s. Not only does a confession from Gregor round off Oberyn’s plotline (at least to some extent, since he’s now too dead to get any revenge), but it also rounds off the scene’s dialogue really well. For all the flourishes of the TV fight, this is essentially a scene of dialogue, just with some fighting going on too. Persistently, Oberyn repeats ‘You raped her. You murdered her. You killed her children,’ over and over, throughout the scene, and to no reply until finally Gregor’s line, with the italicised ‘then’, subverts Oberyn’s words. With this line, Gregor confiscates Oberyn’s accusatory remarks from him and makes them his own, taking hold of the power in their exchange of dialogue and concluding it, something which is echoed in the fact that, concurrently, he is finally able to kill Oberyn, concluding their exchange of blows.

This is a good way to round off the dialogue in the concluding moments of this scene–within–a–scene, and combined with what it reveals so succinctly about Gregor, it is a great line.

But these things don’t come across in the TV show’s version of the scene, purely because the actor (or director, or whoever) didn’t choose to emphasise the word ‘then’ in the way that might be expected from the italics we see in the book. The scene in the show is still very good, but this lack of emphasis is a shame, because, as I hope I have demonstrated, so much is contained in that one, tiny detail. It’s amazing what italics can do sometimes.







On the Tip of the Mind’s Tongue

So I have decided to write another blog post, as I haven’t posted anything for quite a while.

But I don’t know what to write. I’ve got lots of ideas, but they are ones I had long ago, and if I haven’t lost my enthusiasm for them, I have, at least, misplaced it. They are good ideas (if I do say so myself) – or some of them are – but… I feel I couldn’t do them justice at the moment. If I felt I had to write them – rather than if they were fresh ideas that had been buzzing through my head for the last few days, which were ‘on the tip of the mind’s tongue’, as it were – they just wouldn’t be as good. They would feel, and would read, forced.

So I have decided instead to write this. At present I’m not sure what it’s about – or even if I’m going to post it. I’m suspicious of anything that I just reel off in one go, even if I make small changes later. It feels wrong. Surely it’ll be clear I have no idea what I’m talking about? Surely I can’t have said all there is to say? Surely I must have left you behind at some point as I frolicked through my own untamed musings?

And surely, if I haven’t dropped my ideas into that subdivision of my brain where things churn around and around until every flaw that my critical faculties have been trained to pick up has been locked onto and destroyed, any piece of writing about them can’t be any good?

During my explorations into writing I have learned that it’s very difficult to ‘see’ what you’ve produced in the same way your audience will. Nigh on impossible, in fact. This is why I, and possibly others, find it difficult to trust what just spills out off the top of my head, even if I know where I’m going with it.

Personally, I’m used to planning in extreme, almost suffocating, detail anything I write before I actually crack on and produce it in the form that I expect people to be able to read it in. Hence this is only my second post on this blog of ours, while two of my fellow Bloggeteers have fired off thirteen between them. When I write essays I plan them in so much detail that my plan has more than half as many words as the finished product. The bulk of the time, thought and effort I put into them has already been spent before I’ve started writing a single word that anyone will actually read. In fact, my essay plans are in such detail that I can get away with only doing one draft. Two days before the deadline people ask me ‘How many words have you written?’ and I say ‘None’ and they look at me like I’m a bomb disposal expert who has turned up with ten seconds to go and no wire cutters.

There’s a quote I like from Abraham Lincoln: ‘If I had eight hours to cut down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening the axe’. That’s what it’s like for me. So this little ramble makes quite a change, and it hasn’t turned out too badly (if I do say so myself). I may post it after all.


Review: Columbo ‘Murder by the Book’ (Season 1, Episode 1)

Everybody has at least one tiny voice, tucked away at the back of their head, that, against their better judgement, they just cannot help but believe. For some, that voice might say ‘There are monsters hiding in the dark’, for others ‘You are destined for greatness’, and for yet others ‘There is a God’. The voice at the back of my head (or, at least, one of them) swears blind that: ‘Stephen Fry is right about everything’.

This is, of course, a common condition. Just recently I convinced a fellow Bloggeteer that he was mistaken about something simply by showing him a video of Stephen Fry expressing a sentiment at odds with said Bloggeteer’s views.

I have the good fortune, in this case, of having already held this sentiment to be true before I’d seen Mr Fry express it so eloquently, and can therefore be (more or less) certain that this belief of mine is a result of my own thoughts and experiences, not of my tendency to take whatever he says as gospel.

But I don’t always have this luxury. Sometimes Mr Fry will say something on a topic of which I know nothing. To save me from wasting valuable energy thoughtfully considering the validity of Mr Fry’s comments, the voice at the back of my head steps in and informs me that ‘Stephen Fry is right about everything’ and puts the matter to an end. I know I really shouldn’t relax into this lazy way of thinking. But I, like many others, for one reason or another, just can’t help lending that little bit extra credibility to whatever thoughts or opinions Mr Fry might express.

Incidentally, I apologise if you began reading this post believing it was about Columbo. I hope I can reassure you, however, with one simple, solid fact: This is a post about Columbo.

So I was watching an episode of QI a month or two ago. Here’s a clip:

‘I do happen to think Columbo is the greatest television series ever made’. The words of Stephen Fry.

And with that, I had but little choice. I was compelled to bump Columbo right to the top of my ‘TV To Watch’ list. Because if Stephen Fry says it’s worth watching, it must be worth watching, right?

Apparently so. ‘Murder by the Book’, the first ever episode of the show (well, not really) is wonderfully unique to me. I admit I have seen quite a few detective shows in my time, mainly because about 50% of my parents’ viewing, at least when I was younger, seems to have been made of them. Taggart, Morse, Midsomer Murders, Silent Witness, Wycliffe, to name a few, are all shows I am (or was) familiar with.

But Columbo is something different. In fact, it could be said this isn’t really a murder mystery at all. Not only do we see the victim spend his last few hours with his murderer in the opening scenes of the episode, we are left in no doubt about who kills who. Much like Luther (which errs more towards race-against-time thriller), the story, for the audience, is not about piecing together various clues, along with the detective, in order to deduce who the killer is. It is about something else entirely.

In ‘Murder by the Book’ we follow the killer through the episode, from committing the murder to succumbing (surprisingly readily) to arrest. There are few scenes without him. There are fewer scenes between our hero Columbo and any of the other characters (only one that I remember). The episode tags along with our killer as he tidies up, ties up loose ends and plays innocent with Columbo; the detective pops up here and there, but it is the killer who is at the centre of the story.

Perhaps Columbo was just part of a wave of programmes at that time structured in this way, but the detective shows of the 90s and 00s that I’m familiar with would never dare be so bold.

Not only does this feel fresh, at least to me, but it is also the perfect way to demonstrate the brilliance of Columbo’s method. Columbo’s appearances are placed in the shadow of the other issues that the killer is dealing with in the aftermath of his crime. This shows how easy it is for the killer to disregard the little man. The detective plays dumb, asking trivial questions and apparently having very little grasp of the details of the case, and as a result the killer underestimates him. Columbo appears unimportant. As I learnt watching QI, Columbo is in fact using the Socratic method, and it is this that gives him the edge. With the killer’s guard down, Columbo can outwit him.

As we the audience follow the killer, we can see how subtle this method is in a way we would never appreciate from Columbo’s side of the story. We can understand how the murderer, preoccupied with tying up the various loose ends, fails to take this incompetent little man, who only pops up from time to time, as much of a threat. But this is his downfall. The brilliance of Columbo’s method could not be exhibited in a better fashion.

So it appears Stephen Fry may have been right once again. This first episode of Columbo sets out clearly a strong, intriguing concept for the show, promising some intelligent and engrossing story telling. While it’s (so far) certainly not the best television show I’ve ever seen, it is indeed deserving of recommendation. Thanks, Mr Fry.