George Martin’s novels depict the grimmest of the grim, the most horrendous of the horrendous. It happens across the board from the nobility to the peasantry. He spares no one. And it is good storytelling. I highly approve of some of the necessary changes made to the HBO series, like the intermingling of plots I had wished for in the fourth and fifth books. I do not approve of others, the biggest of which is the unnecessary use of rape the powers that be have decided to implement.
It’s not rape itself. Martin’s world is, as established, a grim one. Rape is a means to power as ancient and effective as any other violent act. Mr. Martin uses it brutally, some may even say he overuses it. Okay, I’ll buy that. But I want to talk about the places he did not use it, for a purpose.
Let’s start with Daenerys Targaryen and Khal Drogo. If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you know the story well enough to be spared a long and drawn out backstory. Dany is given to Drogo in marriage. In the books, she is fourteen; he is in his thirties. HBO made her a little older to lessen the squick-factor there. Okay, fine. In the book, we are expecting Dany’s wedding night to be a brutal affair–not unanticipated, but nonetheless horrific for a fourteen year old girl forced to marry a Dothraki Khal. And yet, with all the rape, murder, blood and gore that started on page one of A Game of Thrones, Drogo doesn’t rape Daenerys on their wedding night. He waits for her to come to him. This is the crux of her absolute love and devotion, and makes believable all that comes after.
Ok, now how about Cersei Lannister? Yes, it’s super-creepy for her and her twin to be having a lifelong affair that results in three children. It’s even creepier when they have sex beside their son’s funeral bier. But that was the point, now, wasn’t it? These two have engaged in this relationship since childhood. Squicky, yes, but again, that’s the point. Their love is absolute. They not only thumb their noses at convention, they hock luggies on it…and then have sex on it. Having consensual sex in the presence of their dead son punctuates this and many character points. Mr. Martin’s good storytelling, however twisted, shines.
Finally–Sansa Stark. In Mr. Martin’s books, Sansa is betrothed to Joffrey. He abuses her. He beheads her father. He does everything humanly possible to humiliate and hurt her–but he doesn’t rape her. And then she’s forced to marry Tyrion, who treats her kindly and–wait for it–does not rape her. Then Littlefinger whisks her away. He steals a kiss, but no rape. In the Eyrie, no rape. Sansa Stark manages to traverse the length and breadth of Westeros without being raped. There is a reason she maintains her status as “Virgin Queen.” It’s good storytelling, dammit.
The writers and producers of the HBO show, however, made some decisions about these three powerful women, and that decision can be wrapped up in one sentence–A woman’s power extends only as far as appeasing a man’s dick allows.
I’m not going to argue that this is not true. Historically, it is. What I’m arguing is that in the world of Martin’s creation, these three women are spared the stripping of their power for a reason, and that reason got taken away. Not only did it get taken away, it is completely counter to story arcs, character arcs, and good storytelling. This decision was bad storytelling at it’s worst, because it took subtle, truly powerful points and turned them upside down. For no apparent reason.
Dany goes from being a woman loved, a woman who believably sacrifices everything for Drogo to the raped-falls-in-love-with-her-rapist trope. (Remember General Hospital? Luke and Laura? No?) Instead of her true power being awakened by her sexuality because of a conscious choice she made–good storytelling!–she is diminished. Later, in the HBO series, Dany “seduces” Drogo, riding him rather than being ridden; but it is at her brother’s demand more than it is Dany’s claiming of her own power.
Cersei is evil, depraved, ruthless. This we know. She gets her comeuppance, but it is not at the hands of her beloved brother. Cersei’s love for Jaime pales beside her love for power. Not so for Jaime. He will do anything for her, for her love. What he would not do is rape her. Why did the HBO powers decide to go that route? Is their relationship not twisted enough? Or was it, again, consciously or not, stripping another powerful woman in the series of her power in this way?
And Sansa, who never even meets Ramsay Bolton in the book, is not only in Winterfell but forced to marry him, and in marrying him, raped on her wedding night with her “foster brother” in attendance. The Virgin Queen has fallen to yet another man’s dick. Why? So Stannis wasn’t riding to Winterfell to save Jayne Poole who was pretending to be Arya and not Sansa at all? (Ok, so he wants Winterfell, too. Stannis isn’t that noble despite his own delusions.) Maybe I’m giving GRRM more credit than I should, but wasn’t at least part of the point of this plotline to show the futility and mindlessness of this war when the White Walkers were on their way? There was no purpose to this straying from the book. It’s bad storytelling, once again, that detracts from both story and character arcs. Condensing the whole Motte Cailin/Theon/Bolton storylines was a good idea. If you’re going to go as far as putting Sansa in Jayne’s role and squeezing the storyline into a new shape, why not have Theon save Sansa before her wedding? Why take from her what I consider a huge chunk of her character?
There is lots of rape in GoT, both in the books and in the series. It’s as common and used as Littlefinger’s smirk, the stink in Flea Bottom and Tyrion’s love of wine. That makes those places Martin spared the women of Westeros stand out, and in standing out, makes a point. Good storytelling is what it is.
David Benioff–you wrote one of my favorite books of all time (City of Thieves) but even I can’t forgive you for this.
18 responses to “Bad Storytelling”
I don’t watch GoT. I thought I would really like it and tried the first few episodes (it wasn’t the violence, nudity or rape) it just didn’t catch my interest. I’m not sure why and I was sad about it because I wanted to like it.
So I can’t add anything to your post as a fan, but I think the points you bought up about ‘not raping’ making for the best story telling is true.
I have seen somethings online about fans getting upset over some of the things – although I can’t comment on it.
PS I changed my password and hope that lets me leave a comment 🙂
Debbie! Finally, WordPress gives you entrance. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!
Terri, I was so tempted to text you Sunday night with the message “OMG – Did that really happen in the book?!” I’ve since learned, before seeing this post, that it did not. You’ve said exactly what’s been on my mind ever since: Three women who were NOT raped in the books have now been raped in the HBO series, for no apparent reason, other than, you know, to rape them. Pisses me off, too. I’ve been a fan of this series, but it’s getting near impossible to stand by that. The Atlantic posted a great analysis of this and everything else that was just wrong with episode six. I think you’d enjoy the read. If the link doesn’t work here, I’ll send it to you via other means. Thanks for another great and thought-provoking post.
Thank you, Karin. I’ve read so many articles on this by now, but I haven’t seen this one yet.
Everyone was up in arms over Cersei, and now Sansa, yet I don’t recall anything about Dany’s, and that was the worst–IMO–stray of all. The whole story arc relied on that ONE point! Argh.
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Ah! And FINALLY, someone mentions Dany’s wedding night rape! That doesn’t sound at all as triumphant as I meant it to sound.
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I hated it when Dany was raped, and I never quite forgave the series for that. They destroyed one of the best moments in the book, and made the entire relationship that followed between Dany and Khal Drogo utterly unbelievable. I don’t remember if people talked about it or not – I wasn’t quite as connected to these on-line discussions back then. I know there have been complaints about sexual violence in the series since season one, but as you point out, some of that is part of Martin’s world, and in the end, HBO just keeps chugging along & doing what it does.
I suspect Sansa’s rape was a watershed for a lot of people who keep giving the series a chance to do better, and only end up being disappointed (even disgusted) again. I guess I’m one of those people. I really don’t know where to go from here. I would hate to stop watching GoT altogether, but I am so tired of having my nose thrust in their doggy-do. They need a woman writer on staff. Would you care to volunteer?
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Karin, that plotline nearly did me in way back in the beginning of the series. It was, IMO, the absolute, key moment of Dany’s character building. It showed a piece Drogo no one was expecting, and made his death all the more poignant, but for Dany? It was the moment she truly became the true heir to the Iron Throne. It was the moment she became the mother of dragons, and the moment she became Daenerys Targaryen. All that had been taken from her, all that was still to come was punctuated by this moment when she–a woman–made a choice. She claimed what, in a society like the one Martin built, was more often than not taken. She gave the most intimate parts of herself–her love and her body–to the man she loved. It was such a HUGE moment, and one of the few kinder moments in the whole series. When HBO took that away, it was done without purpose, and to the detriment of the storyline as a whole. When spokespeople for HBO or Martin give the lame excuses like, “This is a whole different entity,” or “Life is grim in Westros,” I just want to scream. Ned still got beheaded. Robert was still gored by the boar, and Jaime still lost his hand. These were key points in these storylines that did not get changed, but Dany’s key moment did.
Sorry–foaming at the mouth here because so many–mostly HBO people–don’t seem to understand just where they went wrong, and why.
Ugh, YES! I mean, I get it, women have no power in Westeros, and the only thing they can even remotely consider *theirs* can be taken by any male, anywhere, for any reason. It’s a bleak, horrific life. Now stop beating us over the freaking head with it. Like you said, there were reasons GRRM chose not to have these three women raped, and with all the violence in the books, it’s not like he didn’t at least consider it, but he made the conscious decision with each woman NOT to go there. For the sake of their character arcs. Storytelling.
I honestly think it’s gotten to the point the writers are just trying to shock the viewers now. I mean, if you read the books, you know from the moment Ned Stark dies, no one is safe. NO ONE. But what story line/character development can come from these rapes? I don’t see it, and it sickens me.
That’s the saddest part, Eden–there is no point, and I don’t even think it’s shock-value anymore. Everyone knew, from the moment Sansa became engaged to Ramsay, what would happen on their wedding night. Ok, so Theon having to watch was a bit of a surprise, but not so much of one that we gasped. He’s been laid so low–his ultimate rise would have been triumphant enough after he got his dick lopped off. This wasn’t necessary to his arc. Nor to furthering Ramsay’s depravity. It added nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Dany’s rape completely wrecked her storyline. Cersei’s was, more than anything, completely inconsistent with the characters. It would have been more in keeping for Cersei to rape Jaimie, but of course the writers didn’t go there. He’s a man, after all.
I haven’t been watching this season, but I couldn’t resist and clicked anyway, haha. To be honest, I’m not surprised, which is sad. I never read the books, but how Martin did it makes perfect sense. Isn’t he an advisor on the show, though? So he would’ve been aware of this…?
He is part of the show. He is aware. More than anything, he seems to be miffed that fans are asking him why he’s allowing all this to happen. His stock answer is more or less, the show is not the books, the books are not the show. Deal with it.
From our Facebook chat to the blog 😉 I have one thing to say…HBO, you’re dead to me. Seriously, they’ve crossed a line for the sake one thing (yes, they have a reason). Ratings. HBO, Showtime etc. all assume that sex and nudity sells. It’s now added into all their programs for the simple reason that they can.
I don’t think it’s shock value or sex and nudity HBO is banking on. Yes, they CAN, and they do. Like it’s their job! Which it is, I guess. I think it’s more about generating exactly what it has–a shitstorm on the internet. As we are well aware, there is no such thing as bad publicity. I do think that’s the reason for this stuff. I don’t, however, think they are truly aware of what they did to the storylines of these women. I want to believe that if they had, they’d have chosen another way to create a shitstorm. Like I said to Eden, above–it would have been more in keeping, and equally as shocking, for Cersei to rape Jaime at the foot of Joffrey’s funeral bier. Leaving Dany’s storyline alone was much more powerful. Her wedding-night rape was expected, and she looked bored more than horrified. This Sansa thing? No clue what it’s supposed to accomplish other than fury–which is probably what they were going for.
Not a GoT fan, either the books or the series, but the anger over this is so loud it even penetrated the cloud of anime and Korean soaps I normally walk about in. I wonder if they’ll lose viewers from it.
They will lose viewers, but probably in equal amounts to those they gain out of sheer curiosity as to what all the hubub is about.
I have no desire to read books or watch films depicting the rape of women. It adds nothing to our humanity & feeds the worst excesses of male fantasy. I don’t judge anyone’s choices – truly, I don’t – but equally I do not understand how ‘good storytelling’ justifies this stuff.
Rape is a sad fact of life, both historically and presently, in real life and in literature and art of all kinds. There is no denying it. Use it or avoid it in your storytelling, and your reading. That’s completely your call. Mr. Martin chose to use it in all it’s grim and terrible aspects. It was in the places he chose not to use it that the good storytelling came in. In a world wherein rape was not only commonplace, but a “sanctified” form of it came to every young women marrying a man not of her choosing was forced to endure, Martin made these women stand out because they escaped this fate.
I hear you, Terri & understand your reasoning. I could ‘go on’ about this but respect you & your blog too much to use it as a personal platform. Suffice it to say, while writers insist on using rape as a gratuitous tool to sell books, in my view, we have a problem… xXx