But... there’s violence, and then there’s violence. I don’t think I was psychically scarred by the TV I watched, or the literature I read, as a child. And it did not inspire me to drop anvils on my little sister.
I well remember a 1979 film with a very clever screenplay by Nicholas Meyer. Time After Time relates the tale of a shy H.G. Wells using his (real) time machine to pursue Jack the Ripper, who takes it to escape justice by traveling to the present day. When Wells catches up with Jack, the killer memorably turns on the TV to show the carnage present every day in our broken world and utters a couple of lines I have never forgotten: “90 years ago, I was a freak. Today, I’m an amateur.” Kind of sums things up quite well. Strange, isn’t it? We keep adding coats to the thin veneer of civilization, but underneath that crust, I’m not sure our basic natures have changed very much.
So, yes, I know: violence is an unfortunate fact of life. And conflict is absolutely necessary for stories to unfold, because quite obviously, stories without conflict are generally damned dull. Are there violent images in my own novel? Of course. But nothing anywhere near what I objected to in Outlander’s TV incarnation in either tone or description. Do we watch/read to be entertained and titillated by acts of extreme physical/emotional/sexual violence? I sure hope not, although there’s depressing evidence suggesting some people do. To be horrified? Well, maybe, although I’m not sure that’s a good thing either. To be educated? Again, I sure hope not.
So here’s my central question: is it really necessary to portray violence in film and literature in full, febrile Technicolor and graphically overdetailed text?
I don’t think it is. The shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho is regarded by many as one of film’s most frightening scenes, and yet, when you actually look at it, very little is shown; most of the terror comes from things implied. But I think, as we’ve become more and more desensitized to violence, filmmakers and authors have resorted to ever more explicit imagery in a bid to keep the jaded masses interested and entertained. And I have to say that’s not a good thing, because the spiral becomes both self-sustaining and more and more violent. Or as the Roman poet Juvenal said, it becomes bread and circuses.
I was really offended watching Black Jack Randall’s sexual abuse of James Fraser in Outlander. I thought it gratuitous and horrific in the extreme. It was not entertaining in the slightest, and we really didn’t need it to establish what a despicable character Randall is. Let’s contrast it with something from my weekly obligatory reference to The Lord of the Rings. (Which, by the way, I didn’t make last week. Just so that you know I know.)
When Frodo is captured by orcs and held in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, they could have done similar things to him. Might well have done, actually. After all, they’re orcs. Way nastier than Black Jack Randall could ever aspire to be, even in the muddy cesspool of his own mind. But we didn’t need to read about that, and Tolkien, God bless him, didn’t see fit to saddle us with such images --- if they even occurred to him at all, which I doubt. And I don’t think his story is any the less for it. Quite the contrary, in fact.
Now, to be clear, I’m not advocating state censorship. But perhaps some self-censorship --- or restraint or creativity --- on the part of authors and filmmakers might not go amiss. And I know what some people will say: if I’m so offended watching Jamie Fraser sexually assaulted by Black Jack Randall, then I should just turn the Blu-Ray off (and not come back). But those people are missing the point.
Because, folks, a society whose only rule seems to be “anything/everything is allowed --- and encouraged” is in more than deep trouble; it’s doomed... and deservedly so.