Fantasy author George RR Martin has said that omitting scenes of rape and sexual violence from the epic Game of Thrones series “would have been fundamentally false and dishonest”, as fans express mounting concerns about the graphic way certain scenes from Martin’s novels have played out in the television adaptation.
Martin was responding to questions from the New York Times in the wake of claims that the hugely popular HBO adaptation of his A Song of Ice and Fire series of bestselling books is trivialising rape through an overreliance on sexual violence in the storyline. One recent scene to have drawn particularly vehement online criticism saw the character Jaime rape his sister Cersei in the tomb of their dead son – a divergence from the books, where the sex is consensual. Writer Danielle Henderson said in the Guardian that she was quitting the series because she was “exhausted by the triumph of men at the expense of women as a narrative device”.
But Martin told the New York Times that although his books are epic fantasy, they are based on history (the series is loosely inspired by the Wars of the Roses). And “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,” the author said.
History, according to Martin, is “written in blood”, and although Westeros – the fictional continent where the series is set – is not “the Disneyland Middle Ages”, it is “no darker nor more depraved than our own world”. “The atrocities in A Song of Ice and Fire, sexual and otherwise, pale in comparison to what can be found in any good history book,” he said.
Martin told the New York Times that the fact that certain critics found the scenes of sexual violence “titillating” “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.”
The books are told from the perspectives of different characters, and Martin said that he tries to put his readers in the middle of the action, rather than summarising events. “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 10 times as true for scenes of sexual violence,” he said. “But that is as it should be. Certain scenes are meant to be uncomfortable, disturbing, hard to read.”
Responding to the New York Times’s question over whether television and graphic novel adaptations of his books were making the storylines more explicit, Martin said that the various adaptations were “in the hands of others, who make their own artistic choices as to what sort of approach will work best in their respective mediums”.
The author also responded at length on his blog to the particular issue of Jaime’s rape of Cersei, saying that in the books, “though the time and place is wildly inappropriate and Cersei is fearful of discovery, she is as hungry for him as he is for her”.
“The whole dynamic is different in the show, where Jaime has been back for weeks at the least, maybe longer, and he and Cersei have been in each other’s company on numerous occasions, often quarrelling. The setting is the same, but neither character is in the same place as in the books, which may be why Dan and David [show creators David Benioff and DB Weiss] played [it] out differently. But that’s just my surmise; we never discussed this scene, to the best of my recollection,” said Martin.
“If the show had retained some of Cersei’s dialogue from the books, it might have left a somewhat different impression – but that dialogue was very much shaped by the circumstances of the books, delivered by a woman who is seeing her lover again for the first time after a long while apart during which she feared he was dead. I am not sure it would have worked with the new timeline. That’s really all I can say on this issue. The scene was always intended to be disturbing … but I do regret if it has disturbed people for the wrong reasons.”
HBO recently renewed Game of Thrones for a fifth and sixth season. Martin is currently writing the sixth book in A Song of Ice and Fire, The Winds of Winter.