Gratuitous Gore in Game of Thrones

Caution: Extensive Spoilers Ahead! For both the Song of Ice and Fire books AND the Game of Thrones HBO series! Abandon Hope, All Ye who Enter!

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So, anyway, last night I finally caught up with Game of Thrones on my DVR. What can I say, it’s been a busy week. Anyhow, I was generally pleased by the changes that the tv series has made to the book storyline– at this point, I am almost ready to call it a completely alternate universe of Westeros and be done with comparing the two universes. Most of the main characters have been improved hugely beyond their characterization in the texts, and many of the pacing problems of the books have been avoided. One tiny little thing niggled at me, though, when the show was through . . . a tiny pinkie finger, and the torments thereof.

You see, in “A Storm Of Swords”, the book that Season 3 of the show is mostly following, we do not see or hear of the fate of Theon Greyjoy. He basically disappears from the text, only reappearing in the later books, transformed utterly by the experiences he’s had in the interim. Those experiences, at the hands of the bastard of Bolton, are essentially tortures that are almost unimaginable in cruelty and sadism. Thankfully, GRRM doesn’t subject us to every detail of them. The aftermath, and the slow reveal of all Theon’s missing appendages and broken bits, is horrifying enough.

The television series, on the other hand, has subjected us now to several scenes of graphic torture. I have to say that I entirely disapprove of this– not just because torture is sickening to watch (which it IS), but because it’s a lousy choice to portray something so graphically for such an extended time. Eventually, the audience recoils– if you’ve ever watched the movie “Casino”, I bet you can remember the point at which you sat back and said “Now, this is just sick for sickness’s sake.” There comes a point where the mind, in order to protect itself, just shuts down the empathy section and refuses to care about these characters anymore.

A lot of people had that reaction to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, so it’s not just mobster movies that can tilt the emotional pinball machine. By choosing to hit us with graphic scenes of torture, both physical, as in the first scene of having his feet broken in the screws and the later scene where his finger is flayed, and psychological, as in the mind-boggling false escape and the later game of lies, the television series risks the very real possibility that the audience will just dissociate themselves from the events. I’ve read several comments on various websites that lead me to believe that a lot of people are having that reaction already. They’ve gone from squirming in their seats in horror to just walking out of the room to get a soda or something.

In a way, it’s a sort of PTSD of TV. Not to trivialize the very real disorder, but for sufferers OF those types of disorders, especially, these scenes may be unbearable even to read about.

I think GRRM chose the right path in his books. By letting us slowly see the results of torture instead of the torture itself, we are allowed to gradually build up some feelings for the broken betrayer of the Starks. He’s done hideous things, but what was done to him was, in a way, his payment for those crimes. The Theon at the end of Book 5 is not the Theon of Book 1. He’s been shattered and is slowly piecing himself back together. It’s one of GRRM’s better pieces of characterization.

By showing us the torture, perhaps the show’s directors felt they were making sure we knew that Theon paid his dues in the dungeons of the Dreadfort. I think it’s too much of an appeal to our worst sides, too much like what people call “torture porn.” There’s a faintly lascivious air . . . which is made even more apparent in the final scene of torment of the episode “The Climb” . . . a scene that I knew was coming but was very nauseated by anyhow.

I had a feeling that the character of “Ros” on the show was due for a death– she had no more real role to play in the events to come, and her usefulness was pretty much over once Sansa and Littlefinger went on to their next destination. I was expecting her to be written out . . . maybe not expecting her to be explicitly shown to be the harlot that Littlefinger sent to an unpleasant demise at the hands of a sadist. But her death scene, in her ripped clothes and cross-bow-crucified pose, was another instance of “too much” in the graphic (and sexualized) violence scale. Mercifully, the scene was brief, but the image lingers in the mind. It’s reminiscent of the queerly obsessive attention that we still pay to the Jack the Ripper Murders. Murder, when it involves a prostitute, seems to become another sort of “service” that they’re providing for the public. By being paraded around by the media in pictures (or carefully positioned and shot in a television reenactment), the public is led to what is, essentially, another exploitation of them.

Yes, yes, it’s all for the audience, and we keep watching so it must be okay with us . . . but will we keep watching? As the thousands of books, websites, and magazine articles about the Jack the Ripper case can attest, we probably will. The scenes of Littlefinger’s whorehouse are, mercifully, now at an end as he moves off to court Lysa Arryn, but the camera’s lustful eye will soon turn to Dorne and the scantily-clad southern women, to Meereen and the scantily-clad women, to Braavos and, well, more scantily-clad women . . . and then there’s the torments ahead for our various heroes and villains. How many more torture scenes with Theon do the directors expect us to endure? The one in this episode dropped my own internal rating of the show down. Any more, and I’ll be strolling to the kitchen instead of sitting on the couch . . . and I’m pretty sure that’s not what the people at HBO want me to do.

Cut the torment, Game of Thrones. Have some mercy upon your viewers, even if there is none (story-wise) for poor Ros and Theon.

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About endurancemom

Writer of fantasy and historical fantasy fiction, mother of 6, former nurse, Catholic convert, wife of 25 years, and general all-around geek. Warning: Do not attempt this at home. View all posts by endurancemom

4 responses to “Gratuitous Gore in Game of Thrones

  • anabbloggin

    I think I have to agree with you. I am not particularly sensitive to gore, I tolerate it quite well and usually require a weekly dose of something more icky that gets the good old adrenal glands working. However, G.R.R did it better, it was shocking even without us seeing it happen, but then again we did see it waaaaay after he was caught, and he was missing waaaay more parts, so it wasn’t hard to be shocked. Sometimes I wonder if they should have held Theon back a season to get the same effect the waiting in the books caused.

    • martibooker

      I understand needing to introduce the torturer (since they eliminated the very complicated twists and turns of him betraying Theon at Winterfell that were in the novel, but after that, well, one hint of torture and the long long nights to come would probably have been ominous enough! :0

  • S.C.

    I agree about Theon’s scenes being gratuitous. I have a strong stomach, but I couldn’t watch Theon actually being flayed – I didn’t think they’d show it. And having watched the episode 7 preview, which also has a Theon scene, I’m afraid that we’ll be witnessing something even worse, if only indirectly.

    I thought Theon’s initial scenes of torment and his “rescue” were both good and served to maintain interest in the character, if only for Iwan Rheon’s amazing take on you-know-who. But they should have left it at that until next season. I don’t think I can take what’s coming next.

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