How Much Violence is Too Much on Game of Thrones?

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David Benioff. Image by Gage S. Skidmore

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DB Weisss. Image by Gage S. Skidmore

Recently, Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss appeared on The Writers’ Room and discussed how tricky it is balance the violence in Game of Thrones with the tone. Too much blood spurting out and it starts looking comical. They discuss Ned Stark’s death, noting they almost showed the sword slicing through his neck and blood gushing out – only to drop these frames from the final cut. Entertainment Weekly’s video has pop-ups on it with fun facts about the show’s violence. For example, Emilia Clarke, the actress who plays Daenerys, was covered with so much fake gore after shooting one scene that, during a break, she got stuck to the toilet seat. (If I had to bet, I’d say that happened after the scene where she eats the horse’s heart.)

Admittedly, I can barely watch the scenes with Theon Greyjoy and Ramsay Snow. Because I’ve read the books, I often sneak out of the room and try not to listen. But, would Game of Thrones be the same if we didn’t feel our characters were in real jeopardy? Based on his comments in this interview, George RR Martin would argue that historically based stories are pretty dull if we can check Wikipedia to find out how they end.

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The breaking wheel

What role does the violence play in the Game of Thrones medieval-esque world? The real Middle Ages were particularly violent. Medieval rulers had a penchant for sentencing letting the punishment fit the crime. They sentenced criminals convicted of most egregious crimes like treason to sentences like drawing and quartering or even flaying. <Gulp> Long-term incarceration was rarely seen as a sentencing option. Instead criminals were mutilated or executed – often in a way that symbolized the offense. Poisoners were boiled to death. Blasphemers might have their lips slit. Nagging women might be put in Scold’s Bridles. When one Elizabethan writer authored a pamphlet proclaiming that Elizabeth I was too old at forty-six to have children and should not marry a French, Catholic duke (a “foul union”), she had the writer’s hand chopped off. Death wasn’t considered the ultimate punishment: a painful death was.

Since the punishment was often public, such violent consequences were an everyday part of life. Officials intended for horrific torturous public punishments to strike fear in people’s hearts and act as a deterrent. The basement of The White Tower at the Tower of London contained the rack, allegedly invented in 1446 by the constable of the Tower, John Holland, the Duke of Exeter.1 Somewhat poetically, at least in a grisly kind of way, the rack was known as the Duke of Exeter’s Daughter.

Unlike Theon in Game of Thrones, whom Ramsay tortures privately, cruelty in medieval and Tudor England was usually public. The English resisted the idea of torturing people secretly in a “torture chamber” per se.

Torturing prisoners for information or before sentencing wasn’t always strictly legal though – even though it may have happened privately in castles. Magna Carta forbade torture before conviction of freemen (not serfs). This right eroded in the early fourteenth century when Edward II seized the Knights Templar. In Henry VIII’s reign, torture really took off. Despite the House of York’s blood-soaked reputation, they were mild mannered in this regard compared to their grandson in this regard.

Would George RR Martin’s world feel quite as three dimensional if it lacked its quite literal character torture? Some of my guy friends have only half-jokingly stated that The White Queen doesn’t work for them because it doesn’t have enough sex and violence. Is the violence what saves Game of Thrones from being a costume drama?

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  1. John was the father of Henry, the abusive husband of Edward IV’s sister Anne of York. []

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

1 Comment

  • Reply September 14, 2013

    Sunday Rambles:

    […] week my friend Jamie Adair discussed How Much Violence is Too Much on Game of Thrones. I was amused to hear that Emilia Clarke, who plays Daenerys, was covered with so much fake gore […]

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