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Game of Thrones' Dorne storyline — and why people hate it — explained

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

This week, George R.R. Martin released a new sample chapter from his still-unfinished next book, The Winds of Winter — and it showcases how he's handling one of Game of Thrones' most loathed plot lines very differently from HBO's adaptation.

The chapter focuses on the kingdom of Dorne, and is told from the point of view of Princess Arianne Martell. And as a whole, it hammers home just how blatantly the TV show and its source material are diverging at this point in the story: Every single character who appears in it has apparently been omitted by the television series.

Any new chapter release from Martin's long-awaited book would draw attention, but this release has received particular scrutiny because the parallel Dorne storyline from the TV show has been so widely criticized.

"In a fandom where even the smallest controversy can set off a massive internet flame-war, the people are united on this one issue: Please, no more Dorne," Vulture's Nate Jones recently wrote. "[The season six] premiere saw the brutal murder of half the Dornish plot's characters, and it was still less interesting than a subsequent scene where a woman took off a necklace."

Indeed, some have even read a hidden meaning into the timing of Martin's new chapter release. Vanity Fair's Joanna Robinson asked whether it might be "a dig at the show’s messy Dorne plot," and "a frustrated author’s best attempt at trying to reclaim the world he’s created."

To understand why Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss made the choices they did, though, you have to understand the unique adaptation challenges presented by the Dorne plot line specifically, and by Martin's most recent books as a whole. A straightforward adaptation of this storyline, as written by Martin, would have risked boring or losing viewers. The problem is that what Benioff and Weiss came up with to replace it ended up being far worse.

What is Dorne?

"Remember me? From when the show's Dorne plot line was good?"

Dorne is the southernmost of Westeros's Seven Kingdoms, and is ethnically distinct and particularly foreign-seeming to the other six. It has a hot climate and is known for its fierce tradition of political independence — the Targaryens who invaded Westeros couldn't conquer it, even with dragons. Martin has said that Dorne could be described as "Wales mixed with Spain and Palestine."

In the early books and the first three seasons of the TV show, Dorne was largely ignored. But in both mediums, the kingdom finally entered the main story in a big way when the Dornish Prince Oberyn Martell arrived at Lannister-ruled King's Landing, and took a central role in the capital's scheming.

Also in both the books and TV series, the free-spirited, sly, and sexually adventurous Oberyn became an immediate fan favorite. His not-so-secret agenda was to avenge the murder of his sister and her two young children, an offense perpetrated years ago by Gregor "The Mountain" Clegane, likely at the orders of Tywin Lannister. But Oberyn himself soon died violently at the Mountain's hands, in a classic George R.R. Martin Shocking Twist.

Why Game of Thrones broke away from the books' Dorne storyline

George R.R. Martin's two most recent books.

The next step in the story, for both the books and show, was to depict the fallout in Dorne after Oberyn's death, since the kingdom itself had remained unseen so far.

And here is where the two mediums began to greatly diverge.

The next stage in the Dorne plot line corresponds with a change in style and structure for George R.R. Martin's books. Beginning with the fourth novel in the series, A Feast for Crows, and continuing with A Dance with Dragons, Martin introduced a plethora of new point-of-view characters, writing hundreds of pages about entirely new subplots that were happening many hundreds of miles away from the main action.

These changes divided fans. Some found the new books to be rich, thematically ambitious, and full of deep world-building. But others complained about the absence of main characters (or the lack of plot movement in their storylines when they did turn up), and griped that the new characters and subplots were far less interesting. Combined with the fact that Martin's writing pace slowed to a crawl around this time, it felt to many like the author was spinning his wheels.

Showrunners Benioff and Weiss were acutely aware of these criticisms, so when the time came to adapt Martin's two most recent books, they changed far more than usual. They cut or condensed many characters and subplots, while altering others so drastically that they ended up bearing only a surface resemblance to what was on the page. Dorne was one of the plot lines that was dramatically reworked.

How the Dorne plot line plays out in the books after Oberyn's death

Arianne Martell, who does not exist on the TV show, as depicted in art featured on George R.R. Martin's website.
Magali Villeneuve via

The Dorne plot line of Martin's most recent two books focuses primarily on three characters from the ruling Martell family: the ruling Prince Doran (Oberyn's older brother), and his two eldest children, Arianne and Quentyn.

When we first visit Dorne in A Feast for Crows, the kingdom is roiled with fury over Oberyn's death, whipped up by the late prince's bastard daughters, the Sand Snakes, who want to start a war with the Lannisters in revenge. Yet the gout-ridden Prince Doran chooses to do nothing, and as a result many of his subjects, including his ambitious daughter Arianne, deem him weak. Arianne hatches her own scheme to trigger the war that the Sand Snakes desire, but Doran learns of her plans and foils them.

That's when Martin hits us with the dramatic revelation that Doran's apparent weakness is an act. For years, he tells his daughter, he's privately been plotting to gain revenge on the Lannisters for his sister's murder — by restoring the Targaryens to power. And now, he's sent sent his oldest son Quentyn on a secret journey east, in hopes of cementing an alliance with Daenerys Targaryen and her three dragons, so they can rain fire on the Lannisters.

"He has gone to bring us back our heart's desire."

She narrowed her eyes. "What is our heart's desire?"

"Vengeance." His voice was soft, as if he were afraid that someone might be listening. "Justice." Prince Doran pressed the onyx dragon into her palm with his swollen, gouty fingers, and whispered, "Fire and blood."

But things don't go according to plan. Quentyn dies a fiery death in Meereen, and with Daenerys still far away, Doran and Arianne must decide whether to ally with a new supposed Targaryen who has unexpectedly arrived in Westeros before Dany and begun his own rebellion against the Lannisters. That catches us up to Martin's two Dorne-related sample chapters from The Winds of Winter.

The show changed the Dorne plot line a lot. But the changes haven't worked.

The Sand Snakes, as depicted on HBO.

Fans of Martin's books hold mixed views on whether the Dorne storyline has been a success. Some love it, praising the evocative settings, the interesting new culture, and Martin's thematic explorations of topics like the danger of being drawn into war. Others have complained about being bombarded with new characters who aren't doing all that much. (I'm in the former group, and I think the Dornish characters are set up to play a really important role in the next book, but we don't yet know for sure.)

Fans of the HBO adaptation haven't had the opportunity to choose one of those two sides, because starting in season five, Benioff and Weiss took a meat axe to Dorne. They jettisoned most of the arc's major characters and everything they did, in favor of a much more streamlined conflict pitting Prince Doran against Oberyn's lover Ellaria and his daughters the Sand Snakes.

The showrunners also decided to introduce us to Dorne through the eyes of a character we already know, Jaime Lannister. Clearly, they feared losing the audience's interest and attention if they faithfully followed Martin's sprawl and threw us in with entirely new faces. In theory, this approach is perfectly reasonable.

In practice, it's proven to be flat-out terrible. With Jaime dominating the Dorne action in season five, the new characters only got a few stray scenes to establish themselves. The result is that all of them are one-dimensional: Doran is well-meaning, Trystane is an airhead, Ellaria wants revenge, and the Sand Snakes … um … well, they like fighting?

The groan-inducing cheesiness of the Sand Snakes has been well-litigated elsewhere, but perhaps the biggest disappointment to fans of Martin's books is the showrunners’ decision to omit Doran’s secret pro-Targaryen plot entirely. This revelation was a hugely satisfying moment, and it seems odd that the show decided to nix it in favor of simply having Doran killed off.

Now, Benioff and Weiss know more about where Martin is going with this story than I do. Perhaps they concluded that the Dorne-Targaryen alliance isn't headed anywhere interesting. Their changes to the Dorne plot also could have been fallout from their apparent decision to cut the aforementioned new Targaryen claimant ("Aegon" a.k.a. "Young Griff") and his accompanying storyline entirely.

Much can go right when Benioff and Weiss decide to diverge from Martin's books — everyone seemed to love last year's entirely invented "Hardhome" episode. But overall, the disappointing Dorne storyline is a reminder of how diverging too far from the source can go very, very wrong. And it's a challenge the showrunners will have to work through again and again, now that they've all but run out of Martin's published material. Hopefully they can pull it off.