Strife and death are essential parts of storytelling. Yet with the exceptions of books, movies, and television shows based on true events, they rarely feel as tangible as they should. Characters live and die, and with a plot twist here and there, we are always thrown for a loop. Regardless of what struggles they face or pain they must endure, the characters we learn to love are cloaked in a sort of unspoken protection. Even though we fear for them, we secretly know nothing bad will happen. In the end, they will overcome their obstacles, kill the bad guy, and ‘get the girl,’ so to speak. The consequences of their actions seem to matter less, and I’ve found simple scenes which should draw empathy, fear, and revulsion require so much more than necessary to achieve the same reaction. Just think of all the CGI and cheap scares put into scenes to create stress, where in reality, the situation itself should be more than enough. It’s numbing and dull, and in my opinion disservices our capacity to empathize with fiction as if it were real.
I’m sure there are hundreds of examples of this, but personally, I’m starting to feel that the book and HBO series Game Of Thrones uses the perception of the valuelessness of fictional life to create life’s extreme value. At a first glance, one might think “how the hell does Game Of Thrones create value in life?” Characters are bludgeoned, stabbed, raped, beaten, and murdered every episode. Hundreds of people die, and often times with little or no regard from their killer. In this sense, the act of killing becomes so nonchalant that we expect death around every corner. And this is true of many other shows and films as well. Hundreds of people die in horrific ways. Yet the only difference is, they are people we can never see.
Unlike other shows I mentioned in the paragraphs above, time and time again Game Of Thrones has proven it does not discriminate between the members of its cast. Characters you would assume were integral to the plot are horrendously murdered, suddenly and without warning. Stories end abruptly where you didn’t expect (or want them to), and the characters are just as uncertain about their futures as the viewers are. While this may seem jarring at first, because of this, I feel myself actually scared for the characters. From the foreboding warnings from friends of mine who have already read the novels, to the events that take place in the show (especially during the Red Wedding in “The Rains of Castamere”), Game Of Thrones really does prove that no one is safe. To me, this uncertainty completely changes the dynamic of how the show is viewed. Unlike scenes which require over-the top CGI or other special effects to draw our emotions, which end up being less impacting than simple struggles, a swordfight becomes more powerful than someone running around in an exploding space volcano.
Because of this uncertainty, the decisions characters make carry more weight. We, as viewers, begin to weigh in with them. The actions that they take almost seem real. When we see Robb Stark planning an attack on Casterly rock, we don’t think, “I can’t wait to see the look on Tywin’s face when he finds out,” we think, and the story agrees, “Can he pull it off? And if not, will he suffer the same fate as his father?” We don’t follow the characters into glory. Like in life, when someone is sent off to war, we fear for them, questioning whether or not we will ever see them again. And, like in life, you often times don’t.
To illustrate my point, take the final fight between Khan and Spock in the recent blockbuster, Star Trek Into Darkness. This specific scene takes place on a series of ships flying over a city, which they jump between and punch each other on. At no point in time was I actually concerned for Spock (or even Khan, for that matter), even though they were standing atop of various speeding air-cars, zipping high above future-London, where one misstep could have sent them plummeting to their deaths. Where I should have been holding my breath, I was instead simply waiting to see how Spock would prevail. The whole audience knew before the first punch was even thrown that Spock would survive.
In order to create the same sense of fear and anxiety over the situation that considering the realistic outcome would provoke, the studio had to resort to an over-the-top scenario for their fight to take place in; one which overwhelmed the senses to such a degree that we couldn’t help but feel pumped. Instead of watching unblinkingly, hoping the character we had grown to love would survive, we are sitting and twitching while watching things fly across the screen, explode, and make loud noises perfectly in sync to the music. In fact, by the end of the movie, all the characters had survived so many ‘life or death situations’ that it seemed as if there were no real consequences to anything that happened to them. Because of this, nothing the characters struggled through mattered, none of the plot drew me in. I already knew exactly how it would pan out.
Instead of wondering how they will prevail, in Game of Thrones I find myself wondering if they will prevail. No longer are things certain. Characters I want to win may not. Characters I expect to die do not, and in the end, there are no morals, no code, and no justice. Things suck, just like in life, and people indiscriminately die in the same way. In the end, because there is so much death, and pain, and blood, I find myself invested and caring more than I would anywhere else. Their lives almost seem real, unprotected by any literary tropes, and can and will die just like the rest of us. In this way, I feel that life is most sacred and valued in a world where it is not.