On the Page, On the Screen: Sex and Violence in Books and Film

**WARNING: This blog post contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 4 ep 3**

Sex and Violence in Books and Film, or, Why The Issue Is About More Than Cersei Lannister

So much has been said about The Scene in “Breaker of Chains” already – I’m not weighing in with a different view, and this isn’t really what this post is about. I have very strong views about the depiction of women in the media, and about modern “rape culture” and casual sexism, but that’s not for now. Other people have already said a lot on this subject far more eloquently.

So, apologies for the potentially triggering subject, and for the potential spoilers in this post, but the reactions of the fans of the books to The Scene (which is not based on the source material, although GRRM has said he intended it to be “ambiguous”) made me consider the differences between reading and watching.

This is pretty complicated – I’m going to stick with Game of Thrones as an example because it is the best thing to compare a show and a book with.

I was really surprised by my reaction to the latest Game of Thrones episode. Jaime and Cersei have been stuck in a sexual power-play from Season 1, where Jaime has seemingly always taken charge and Cersei has grown increasingly distant and unwilling to make their relationship public (as in the books).

What happened last episode in the Sept has caused outcry among fans, with several blogs criticizing the writers and the script choice, dissecting the character arcs and expressing concerns that Jaime’s redemptive curve has now been irretrievably derailed.

I was very surprised that my own reaction was nothing like this. It really unsettled me, reading the backlash and gut feelings that many people had to this scene, and realizing that I didn’t feel as strongly about it as I felt perhaps I should. I genuinely wondered if that made me a terrible person, or a bad woman, or a misogynist, or just plain cold.

Do I not care about sexism and sexual politics and the portrayal of rape on screen? No, of course I do. I don’t think it’s that. I do appreciate that when it comes to the mass dissemination of images and messages, overt, subliminal, visual or otherwise, you do have to consider the impact they have and what they say about society. Did the (male) writers rape Cersei Lannister so that she would get her comeuppance for turning her loyal brother away, and as punishment for her various character flaws and devious actions? To quote one blogger, I don’t have to explain to you why that’s a misogynistic, messed up scripting decision.

Rebecca Pahle has a good discussion and stance on this in her post, which you can read here, and there is also a good article from the International Business Times and one from MTV which basically gives various opinions from the director, writers, GRRM himself, and the thoughts of the fans.

My issue with The Scene is that of all the articles and comments I’ve read of fans of the books, (as opposed to only the TV viewers), I’ve not yet seen a comparison with the way the books deal with rape or fit into the rape culture. I think that, while I did immediately see The Scene as a rape scene (if it’s ambiguous, it’s probably rape… if it’s ‘yes and no’, then it’s probably rape… if she’s saying ‘no’ and he carries on, it’s probably rape… so, just to clarify – it’s rape) I also saw it as part of the power-play going on between the siblings and I did see what they were, not very sensitively, trying to get across. I was struck with the juxtaposition of doing this in front of the dead son and product of consensual incest as the setting, but even that was pretty much in-keeping with what we’ve come to expect. Not from the show – but from the world and atmosphere of the Song of Ice and Fire.

What really bothers me is that no one who has read the books and watched the show has made the connection between the rape of Cersei and its depiction, and the rape of another, secondary character at King’s Landing, who never made it into the show. Thank goodness.

We never see Lollys Stokeworth. We never get a chapter in her POV. What we do find out is through the perspectives of everyone else, and it’s not complimentary. She’s a “simple”, fat girl and the daughter of a titled minor noblewoman at court, and she is gang-raped, brutally, during the King’s Landing riots. Not only do the main characters not care, but they actively make fun of her and grow impatient with her crying all the time and locking herself in her room. Then, when they find out she’s pregnant, that too is told in a snide manner, and in the end, the punchline of the whole sordid mess is that she’s married off to Bronn. Because, you know, no one with a title is going to touch her, and Bronn can get a title through marriage to her.

Shae sums it all up beautifully. “All they did was fuck her,” she says.



Not cool.

Which brings me on to the complaints of book fans about the gratuitousness of the nudity in the show. I’m fairly sure that nearly all of Tyrion’s scenes with Shae in the books are graphic soft porn, which do not further the plot in any way shape or form. I’ve read about him “exploding” inside her and having to have another go, her nails opening his back, her dancing about doing sexy little stripteases for him, and lots of descriptions of his erect, throbbing manhood (which the young Sansa isn’t too impressed by on their wedding night). I’ve read pages and pages of brothel scenes and sex jokes and descriptions of women’s bits.

I’m not sure that the plot was improved – or the character development arc, for that matter – by their inclusion.

Now – – – here’s the thing.

Does this mean that there’s a significant difference between the way people react to READING and the way people react to WATCHING? 

I mean, if you’re a fan of GRRM’s sex and violence and casual attitude to outright rape and not-quite-consensual-sex, not with Cersei but with other female characters such as Asha (read: rape) and the powerlessness of women and the powerfulness of women in terms of their sex and sexuality, why is it that on the page it comes across one way (or does it?) while on the screen, portrayed visually, the same type of thing albeit with different characters, causes a different kind of kick-back?

When you read about the same themes, does it have the same impact for you as when you watch them happening right in front of you, in your own living room?

Perhaps that says something about the filters that we as readers put up in our heads when we read. Our imagination not only allows us to travel deep into the worlds that our favourite authors have created, but it also protects us from the aspects of that world we don’t want to confront.

Otherwise, why would it bother us so much when we see an attack, compared with buying into or accepting a derogatory, piecemeal report of one that we have only read on the page?

Are we more accepting of Lollys’s fate because characters we have grown to like consider her a joke anyway, and she’s not especially attractive or interesting, or clever? Does that make it okay? But I don’t see anyone up in arms about this. The most I found was a discussion in the thread of this forum, which contains spoilers.

I wonder, if the writers had chosen to depict Lollys’s scenes and transposed her plight and interactions with the other characters straight from page to screen, would people be blogging and tweeting and writing articles about this, or not? If not, why not?

Well – – if the issue is not the content, I would argue that this is because of the medium GRRM is using.

It is argued that the plight of women and their [mis]treatment is used as “shock value” in the show, while “Martin always meant for the world of Game of Thrones to be shocking, but usually that shock is warranted. The reader or viewer is supposed to be forced to reconcile how hard this world is for women, and maybe then reflect on how hard our world is for women.”

Martin succeeds in this because he is using the medium of paper, which encourages this kind of reflection, and not the in-your-face medium of screen, where the interpretations of events are passing through (a) the filter of the writers as they make their not-so-wise choices (b) the director, who interprets this into physical action (c) the performances of the actors, who visually portray the events in their way using the written script and their direction notes, but also their own take on their roles, before it even gets to the viewer, who brings their own filters and thought processes to make sense of what they have just seen.

When things are occurring in real time, right in front of you, you can’t look up from the book and pause and reflect and then read it again. That moment on screen has come and gone and left you reeling, and you can’t un-see what you just saw.

On the page, the reader is in control of the words they read. It really doesn’t matter what the author intended the reader to think, because each reader will have their own ideas about the world, the characters and the events, and bring their own set of experiences and opinions to the text. They can break off mid-sentence and miss the meaning altogether; they can go back and read that part again; they can skip forwards and backwards as they please, and they can give themselves time to think about it before they move on and read the rest.

All this means is that people have a different kind of reaction to what they see than what they read.

I am not in any way saying that means writing gratuitous sex and violence means that tackling these subjects insensitively makes it okay. I am certainly not saying I approved of The Scene. But what I am saying is that I think I’ve figured out why it didn’t immediately repulse me – because, as a fan of the books, I realized that I had read worse.

In fact, that is why I’m not all that bothered about the nudity in the show. As a fan of the books, I’ve been reading it all the time. It’s always there, in the background, either not explicitly talked about or graphically described, but nevertheless a clear part of the Westeros atmosphere. On the page I can filter it out and concentrate on what I, as a reader, think is important – the mechanics of the writing, the plot, the dialogue, the descriptions. I filter out the images I don’t want in my head. I can’t do that with a show. All you have in a show, is, well… the show.

This is making me re-think my viewing and reading choices, and has given me a new appreciation of the way that I read, and the way that I think when I read, and the way that I experience a TV show based on something I’ve read. Not just Game of Thrones – it’s by no means the only culprit here – and not just regarding thorny issues like sex, violence and violent sex.


I’m going to think about that more.

Mainly, I’m definitely going to think about how that relates to my own writing.

What did everyone else make of it? Thoughts on how you perceive things in books versus how you react to them on screen? Comments are open!

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