Like a lot of people, I’ve been keeping up with Game of Thrones, and like a lot of people I’m aware that the story has its origin in various bits of later-medieval history, at least loosely. And it certainly plays a role in a particular genre of story about the middle ages, despite all its dragons and zombies and kingdoms the size of North America or whatever.
We are to believe that there was once a view of the middle ages which I describe as the “Ladybird Book of Knights” view, which is that maidens were fair, knights were brave, peasants were poor but honest, yeomen were sturdy, friars were jolly, and kings were either good or bad. I don’t think anyone has ever actually believed this except possibly G.K. Chesterton, and there’s a good chance he only affected to. I remember a Richmal Crompton William story in which romantics who believe in Merrie England have the mickey taken out of them, but I was confused by it (as by so many things) because I had no cultural referent.
Most modern filmmaking about the Middle Ages comes from the school of thought that says that everything in history was covered in what I shall broadly call ‘filth.’ Unless it is a movie about the Crusades, where substitute ‘sand’ for ‘filth’ throughout. You can all think of examples of this, I’m sure. As a result, filth has come to be a signifier for realism, even when applied in places that don’t make a lot of sense. I’m sure I’ve gone on before about how people in movies don’t have hemmed shirts, or wear clothes held together with whip-stitches of electrical cable. The realistic thing actually looks too nice to be considered realistic.
The problem arises from the fact that the visual signifiers of “realism” are attached to this EXTREME!! version of something like medieval politics to reinforce some facile assumptions about how society was just a wall-to-wall festival of rape and political assassination. Not that they didn’t have either of those things, of course; I’m just saying that we’re at the point where covering things in filth creates a sort of visual shorthand for “here’s a surprising fact” and people extrapolate, perhaps unconsciously, from there.
And I think that’s perhaps the most interesting thing about the visual storytelling of Game of Thrones — we’ve somehow accepted this everything-at-11 grey griminess as a marker of realism, and very cleverly the creators have used this to portray stuff that is absolutely bonkers as a grittily realistic portrayal of the darkness in the human yadda yadda. And people seem to accept it.
Mind you, the books tried to avoid precisely that problem by making everything realistically muddled, confusing and slow, and we saw how that turned out.