How ‘Game of Thrones’ Book Fans Investigated Joffrey’s Murder


One could write several books, or at least media studies doctoral dissertations, on the differences between Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series on which it’s based. There are many, ranging from the insignificant (Theon’s sister has a different name) to the more substantial (the original Mrs. Robb Stark was a complete nonentity). Perhaps the most important, though, is the simple difference between the experiences of reading about 5000 pages of material at one’s own pace and watching a show. And there’s no better demonstration of that difference than the mystery of who killed Joffrey Baratheon, an event viewers have had just a few days to process but readers have been picking apart for the last 14 years.

The jaw-drop moments that make Game of Thrones so addictive, Joffrey’s death among them, come across rather differently on the page. For one, the reader doesn’t experience events like Ned Stark’s death or the Red Wedding in tandem with millions of fellow superfans. Martin’s books have gained readership only gradually over the nearly 20 years they’ve been in print; if you picked up A Storm of Swords when I did, eight years after its 2000 publication, the likelihood that anyone in your immediate circle was reading about your least favorite character’s timely death was next to none. Also keep in mind that in the book, Joffrey’s downfall comes just a few hundred pages after the Red Wedding, making the emotional payoff that much sweeter.

Then there’s the sheer volume of buildup, evidence, and extraneous detail that comes with the extra space Martin’s afforded. This is part of what makes Game of Thrones such an impressive adaptation: the visual economy of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s world-building is astonishing, given the monumental task of introducing viewers to Westeros and its history while simultaneously setting a ridiculously complex story there. In the books, though, there’s ample space to leave tiny clues ramping up to the twists themselves. Before the Red Wedding, for example, Robb’s direwolf goes nuts around his wife’s uncle, a Lannister bannerman who it later turns out was probably in on the job.

Combine the wealth of evidence with readers’ need for a pre-Twitter community and you get the reams of amateur detective work still available on sites like Tower of the Hand and In “The Lion and the Rose,” screenwriter Martin and director Alex Graves do what they can to plant visual clues for viewers who care to take part in a good old-fashioned whodunnit. (Alyssa Rosenberg has a neat rundown of them in her recap at the Washington Post.) For now, though, first-time viewers are still too preoccupied with processing/celebrating Joffrey’s death to worry about who did Westeros the favor of dispatching its king. And as Gawker’s Max Read points out, almost as many people had the chance to poison Joffrey as had reason to do it. No wonder there hasn’t been much brainpower dedicated to solving the mystery based off the show alone.

Fan forums, on the other hand, tell a very different story. There, the focus is less on glorifying a death readers have had years to digest and more on doing the sort of detective work invited by time, tons of material, and the geeky personality typically attracted by high fantasy without the HBO seal of approval. Take this Angelfire web page (side note: remember Angelfire?), which carefully weighs the likelihood that Tywin, Tyrion, or Olenna Tyrell did the deed, using an outline complete with Roman numerals and down-to-the-page citations.

The basic rundown, according to Martin himself, is this: “In the books — and I make no promises, because I have two more books to write, and I may have more surprises to reveal — the conclusion that the careful reader draws is that Joffrey was killed by the Queen of Thorns [Olenna’s epithet], using poison from Sansa’s hair net [a necklace on the show], so that if anyone actually did think it was poison, then Sansa would be blamed for it.” Even without the account Littlefinger provides later in the books claiming as such, it’s much easier for a reader to reach that conclusion on his or her own than it is for the viewer. In a chapter told from Sansa’s point of view, she (i.e., Martin) notes that a jewel from her hair net is missing; earlier, a description of the poison used to kill Joffrey matches that of the jewels almost exactly. That sort of breadcrumb-laying isn’t really a part of Game of Thrones.

There are also factions of the fandom less satisfied with the Olenna theory, summarized by this Tower of the Hand dissection. That’s another side effect of the books’ sheer length: for every simple explanation that’s lurking in the details, there are a thousand crazy-complicated theories that can be easily justified with a sentence here and there. It’s another symptom of the intensity that sets the fandom of the books apart from the fandom of the show, an intensity that’s been applied to dozens of plot lines beyond just Joffrey’s murder. But “The Lion and the Rose” provides a convenient window into the separate ways A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones are received by their respective fan bases, and the responses major plot twists provoke in each.