May 7, 2014

George R.R. Martin responds to uproar over rape scene in Game of Thrones


The recent sexual violence in HBO's adaptation of Game of Thrones has some readers looking back with new eyes at George R.R. Martin's original books. Image via Indiebound

The recent sexual violence in HBO’s adaptation of Game of Thrones has some readers looking back with new eyes at George R.R. Martin’s books. Image via Indiebound


(Are they still spoilers?)

The adoring critical and fan reception to HBO‘s Game of Thrones has taken a hit recently, with charges that the series has been cavalier in its depictions of sexual assault and rape, with one scene in particular striking a nerve. In a column written after the April 20 episode, Margaret Lyons at Vulture explains.

Game of Thrones has been a rape-heavy show from very early on. And it hasn’t exactly been progressive in its take on sexual violence—Daenerys falls in love with her rapist, for example. But last night’s rape scene, in which Jaime assaults his sister Cersei inches away from their dead son’s body, is a new low for the deeply violent series, because the scene was rewritten from the book to recast the sex as not consensual, and yet the show’s cast and crew aren’t even sure whether it constitutes rape.

Straying from source material is inevitable and often necessary, and can make for better TV. But when a sex scene is written in the book as consensual, and transformed on TV into rape, whether you agree or not, nobody should be surprised at cries of exploitation. The show’s director offered his take on the scene to Alan Sepinwall at HitFix, saying, “Well, it becomes consensual by the end, because anything for them ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle.” Not shockingly, that did not make people feel better.

After detailing the changes the producers made to the original scene in George R.R. Martin‘s book, (essentially, they removed everything that demonstrated consent) Scott Meslow at The Week writes, “Several of my favorite scenes are totally original to the HBO series…Until now…I can’t think of any comparable defense for the rape scene in ‘Breaker of Chains,’ which feels like a naked and ill-conceived attempt to push Game of Thrones into even darker territory.”

It’s important to note that sexual violence is not absent from the books.  At the New York Times, Dave Itzkoff quotes essayist Sady Doyle, who says, “The ‘no means yes’ thing is there in the books…The sexualized punishments are there…At a certain point, you get the feeling that you can’t walk through a chapter without expecting something horrible—almost always to a female character—just to prove that this is indeed a very scary and dark piece of literature.”

How does  Mr. Martin feel about the debate this has caused, as well as the changes to his A Song of Ice and Fire series and the uncomfortable questions they raise? Itzkoff was able to ask him over email, and posted the whole thing on the ArtsBeat blog. For the most part Martin is unapologetic, while still distancing himself from the television show. 

Q. Why have you included incidents of rape or sexual violence in your “Song of Ice and Fire” novels? What larger themes are you trying to bring out with these scenes?

A. An artist has an obligation to tell the truth. My novels are epic fantasy, but they are inspired by and grounded in history. Rape and sexual violence have been a part of every war ever fought, from the ancient Sumerians to our present day. To omit them from a narrative centered on war and power would have been fundamentally false and dishonest, and would have undermined one of the themes of the books: that the true horrors of human history derive not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves. We are the monsters. (And the heroes too). Each of us has within himself the capacity for great good, and great evil.

Asked about the criticism that these controversial scenes are included for titillation, Martin has a lot to say. Part of his answer:

As for the criticism that some of the scenes of sexual violence are titillating, to me that says more about these critics than about my books. Maybe they found certain scenes titillating. Most of my readers, I suspect, read them as intended.

I will say that my philosophy as a writer, since the very start of my career, has been one of “show, don’t tell.” Whatever might be happening in my books, I try to put the reader into the middle of it, rather than summarizing the action. That requires vivid sensory detail. I don’t want distance, I want to put you there. When the scene in question is a sex scene, some readers find that intensely uncomfortable… and that’s ten times as true for scenes of sexual violence.

But that is as it should be. Certain scenes are meant to be uncomfortable, disturbing, hard to read.

Itzkoff’s whole interview with Martin can be read here.


Julia Fleischaker is the director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.