It’s an issue that has been brewing for almost two years—should HBO’s Game of Thrones include scenes depicting sexual violence, up to and including rape? Are they problematic, both for the material and the way they’re shot? Should this kind of content be frowned upon, or even censored?
George R.R. Martin, author of the Song of Ice and Fire novels that serve as the show’s source material, spoke with EW this week about precisely this issue. The show is not an exact replica of the books, and the two stories seem to diverge more and more as the series goes along, but in general it’s a faithful adaptation, and Martin’s reasoning applies equally to the books and the show.
“The books reflect a patriarchal society based on the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages were not a time of sexual egalitarianism,” he said. “Now there are people who will say to that, ‘Well, he’s not writing history, he’s writing fantasy—he put in dragons, he should have made an egalitarian society.’ Just because you put in dragons doesn’t mean you can put in anything you want…I wanted my books to be strongly grounded in history and to show what medieval society was like.”
At that, Martin has succeeded—he’s a student of history, and there are countless historical parallels between his books and the conflicts of that period. In a very broad sense, A Song of Ice and Fire can be seen as a re-telling of the War of the Roses, and it’s no mistake that the two warring houses of that bloody campaign, Lancaster and York, sound very much like the main combatants in the fantasy novels, Lannister and Stark. Major events, like the Red Wedding, are based on real-life atrocities like the Black Dinner. The list goes on—when it comes to history, Martin is no dilettante.
“And then there’s the whole issue of sexual violence, which I’ve been criticized for as well,” he continued. “I’m writing about war, which what almost all epic fantasy is about. But if you’re going to write about war, and you just want to include all the cool battles and heroes killing a lot of orcs and things like that and you don’t portray [sexual violence], then there’s something fundamentally dishonest about that. Rape, unfortunately, is still a part of war today. It’s not a strong testament to the human race, but I don’t think we should pretend it doesn’t exist.”
That gets to the heart of the debate—his critics would maintain that these depictions are harmful, and outweigh the benefits of realism. Martin, though, understands the true price of whitewashing history and truth.
“I want to portray struggle,” he concluded. “Drama comes out of conflict. If you portray a utopia, then you probably wrote a pretty boring book.”
Whatever else, you can’t accuse him of that.