What Did You Expect?

Something currently burning up the internet is the tremendous, and quite passionate, response of viewers of the Game of Thrones series to the events of the most recent episode.  This had taken on the name “Red Wedding,” and I’ll leave it to you to look it up.  Or not.  The point is that the episode features a wedding which turns into a brutal bloodbath in which numerous characters are mercilessly murdered.  This has, for some reason, outraged viewers.

I can only scratch my head.  Let me make clear that I am not a fan, and have no interest whatsoever in Game of Thrones, having not read a single page or watched a single frame.  But I know what it’s about, and it’s best summed up as “horrible people doing horrible things to each other.”  There isn’t a single upright character in the thing.  The closest the series had was a main character who was executed early on in the saga.  Perhaps that was making the point clear: no good guys wanted.

The series positively celebrates brutal carnage.  Characters are assassinated, executed, tortured with abandon, in graphic ways.  Many of the victims, and perpetrators, are children, including a nine-year-old girl who is a remorseless assassin.  That’s the case in the books; in the series she’s been aged up to around thirteen, although this was not actually done because a preteen assassin was unacceptable.  They aged up all the characters because the producers knew people would freak out at a sexually active thirteen-year-old, so they made her seventeen.  Mind you, the sexually active thirteen-year-olds in our society outnumber the thirteen-year-old assassins – at least, I hope they do – but that doesn’t keep people from freaking out about sex.  But that’s for another day.

On the other hand, the violence, even involving children, is just fine.  Let’s not kid ourselves, that’s the whole point.  It’s why people watch.  They want to see it.  People are entertained by watching other people die.  Sure, they might say (as some of you are thinking right now) that the real appeal is the nuanced characters, the amazingly complex storylines and, in the case of the books, the clear, evocative prose.  Uh huh.  Tell me, you who are saying this, if you took away the violence, didn’t have a single murder, would you still watch?  Didn’t think so. 

So this recent fan reaction facinates me.  That I would find the very idea of a wedding massacre scene repulsive, nauseating and soul-crushing is of no significance.  That fans would is another matter.  The question is, why are they reacting so negatively to something that surely cannot have come as a surprise?  Were they expecting a fairy tale happy ending?  As the Player says in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, “You call that an ending?  With everyone still on their feet?  Over your dead body!”

Not that this sequence is without precedent.  The Godfather famously ends with a montage of brutal murders intercut with a baptism.  But this was very clearly to indicate the main character’s final slide into total darkness.  And it didn’t outrage people because we ultimately knew that this character was going to go that way, even if we hoped maybe he could be redeemed.  In the end, it became Greek tragedy.  The “Red Wedding,” on the other hand, was simply Grand Guignol.  And which would be more likely to draw an audience?

So the question remains, why did viewers, who watch the show specifically to see the carnage, react with such anger to actually seeing it?  The answer is intriguing.  As one person (a reader who knew about this sequence from when he read the book thirteen years ago) told me, “George R. R. Martin is really good at creating characters you care about, and then brutally slaughtering them.”  And that’s the key.  It’s characters the viewers cared about.  Well, that just changes everything, doesn’t it?  Death and violence are fine when I don’t actually care about the victims.  Bring it on!  But not when it’s someone I connect to.  How dare you depict such awful violence, you terrible author!  Shame on you! 

Um, I’ve been saying that all along.  I didn’t need to relate to the victim to understand that violence is sickening, not entertaining.  I guess the series’ fans did.  And they’re angry because they’ve actually come face to face with the reality of the depraved spectacle they love so much.

Is that why Martin writes such violent fare, to make a statement about our taste for death?  I doubt it.  He wrote it because it sells, and, I’m guessing, he wrote it because it appeals to him.  That’s true for all writers; we write what we like.  While it’s tempting to believe he’s trying to make a statement about pervasive violence in society, there’s no reason to believe that, any more than we should believe other authors when they say they are making a statement about how bad violence is by giving us copious amounts of it.  And, indeed, even if that’s the message, people aren’t going to get it anyway.  Otherwise they would have complained long before the recent episode.  If people actually bought the message that, “violence is bad,” then they would turn off the TV at the first violent scene.  They would walk out of the theater (as I have actually done).  No, the fact is, authors like Martin are making their message very clear: watching people die is awesome.  And readers and viewers whole-heartedly agree.

There’s another possibility, of course.  Perhaps the writers of such dark, nihilistic stories are just that cynical, that discouraged with humanity, that convinced that we are all monsters and there’s no hope for us.  Really, how misanthropic does someone have to be to make a movie as pessimistic as The Purge?  But that’s the norm now.  And that makes me sad.  This despite the fact that it doesn’t surprise me.  I’m a reluctant cynic.  I have often said that, given the opportunity, human beings will be horrible to each other.  Alas, it’s human nature.  So how can I fault things like Game of Thrones for reflecting that?  Because I don’t want to be a cynic.  I’m very sad that I have been made one by what I see.  I really want to believe in something better.  I want to believe that mankind is something loftier, that there is greatness in us, and that we should be striving for that within ourselves and each other.

This is reflected in my writing.  My characters are good people, trying to be the best they can.  That doesn’t mean they are perfect pollyannas.  They make mistakes and do the wrong thing.  And it has terrible consequences when they do.  But they keep trying to be better.  They don’t accept their dark sides, because neither do I.  Maybe I’m living in a fantasy world.  If so, it’s ironic, because most fantasy is like Game of Thrones, dark, violent, cynical, depressing, saying the worst about mankind.  You have to look far for something better.

I, for one, find myself looking some fifty years back to a little TV show called Star Trek.  To this day, it stands out for its positive attitude. Series creator Gene Roddenberry believed in the greatness of humanity, and made his show reflect that.  It’s a stark contrast to most science fiction.  True, the later series became much darker, but there was still that essential optimism.  I believe in that.

I confess I’ve put a few Star Trek references in my book, ones most of my target audience won’t get at all.  I also reference throughout the book a song by a mid-seventies progressive rock band that is also tremendously hopeful and positive.  Do I have these outdated references because I’m out-of-touch and clueless?  Probably.  But still they speak to something very important, something hard to find today.  A young friend recommended at one point a different, much more current song that expressed the same message.  But, while I liked the song (my musical tastes are extremely diverse), I found it musically too dark, too heavy.  Not what I want to reflect.

I believe we can be better, that we can aspire, that we are basically good, and that, given the opportunity, we’ll be good to each other.  I want to believe that, even though it’s hard.  So that’s what I’m writing.  There will be moments in the trilogy that will greatly sadden readers, maybe even anger them.  There will be times when, out of desperation and despair, my characters will do horrible things.  But they will feel the weight of their actions.  And they will find redemption.  Because if we don’t have that, then what’s the point of anything?  We may as well all be mass-murder victims at a wedding.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “What Did You Expect?

  1. Kelly

    I saw the Red Wedding episode but yesterday, and was not surprised by the carnage once it started cannon-balling into mayhem. We then watched several interviews that Martin has given on the subject and he said that he was sick of readers having no fear for the surely-invincible main character. He purposefully killed off the “heros” and “main characters” to prove a point to the reader, to go against fiction expectations. I find this idea intriguing, but the execution of such in GoT leads to a never-ending clusterfuck of every character with a shred of dignity getting slaughtered. That said, I still find it all entertaining and will continue to watch.
    Does that make me a worse person? Well… 🙂

  2. You’re wrong, and I’ll explain why in my next post

  3. Pingback: Registering my admiration for Game of Thrones | The Red Threat

  4. In an effort to freshen my intellectual rigor, I decided to do some research. This article indirectly sheds light on the people who say they watch GoT for the compelling storylines, not the gratuitous violence,
    http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/10-018.pdf

  5. Pingback: Fancy Undress | The Doors to Everywhere

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