Bryan Fuller Talks 'Game of Thrones'' Sansa Stark, and Sensitivity to Depicting Rape on Television
Just when I thought it wasn’t possible to love Hannibal and American Gods showrunner, Bryan Fuller more, he spoke with EW about excessive rape on television, and why he won’t show it on his own series. As far as I’m concerned, Fuller is already a genius; the way he’s played with Thomas Harris’ characters, shifting gender, race and expectations, and throwing in enough homoerotic undertones to send Tumblr into fireworks-levels of explosive…eruptions. Never mind his attention to detail and gorgeous palettes, the perfection of his casting, and the quality level that makes us forget we’re watching a broadcast network — this man has his finger right on our collective pulse, and he knows exactly what should (and shouldn’t) make it race.
The upcoming third season of Hannibal introduces the infamous serial killer, Francis Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage), who ***Book Spoiler ahead…
during the course of killing families, rapes women’s corpses. Thankfully, we won’t be subjected to that particular proclivity; Fuller says — because of his self-imposed ban — rather than throw it in our faces, we’ll have to infer the act.
“You will have to read between the lines. It happens, but it’s a horrible cherry on top of the shitty sundae of crimes committed against a family.
[Rape is] one of the things on the show that we really wanted to avoid. They’re ubiquitous on television, and there’s an entire series [NBC’s Law & Order: SVU] that’s about rape. It was challenging approaching the Red Dragon story because the crimes that Francis Dolarhyde commits [in the novel] include the horrible raping of corpses, and near-corpses. In crafting the story arc of the Red Dragon, it became a challenge on how to keep true to the novel but deemphasize the exploitive qualities of woman being raped. That was one of the big challenges in terms of how do we keep our promise [to not tell rape stories] to our audience—which is largely female—and also service the novel. It became a tricky matter of deemphasizing women being targeted, and making more pronounced the crimes against the victim’s family as a whole. We didn’t wanna glorify it—well, not “glorify,” because I don’t think any of the crime procedural shows are actually “glorifying” rape. But it is certainly explored so frequently that it rarely feels genuine.”
Fuller’s thoughts on how other series depict rape:
“There are frequent examples of exploiting rape as low-hanging fruit to have a canvas of upset for the audience. The reason the rape well is so frequently used is because it’s a horrible thing that is real and that it happens. But because it’s so overexploited, it becomes callous. That’s something I can’t derive entertainment from as an audience member - and I’m the first person in the audience for Hannibal. My role, as a showrunner, is to want to watch the show we’re creating. And if something feels exploitative or unnecessary, I’ll try to avoid it.
“A character gets raped” is a very easy story to pitch for a drama. And it comes with a stable of tropes that are infrequently elevated dramatically, or emotionally. I find that it’s not necessarily thought through in the more common crime procedurals. You’re reduced to using shorthand, and I don’t think there can be a shorthand for that violation— it’s an incredibly personal and intimate betrayal of something that should be so positive and healthy. And it’s frequently so thinly explored because you don’t have the real estate in 42 minutes to dig deep into what it is to be a victim of rape. It appears over and over again in crime procedurals without upping the ante and without exploring everything that happens. All of the structural elements of how we tell stories on crime procedurals narrow the bandwidth for the efficacy of exploring what it is to go through that experience.
And I’m saying this as somebody who can derive immense entertainment from cannibalism - there’s an irony to cannibalism that I find horrific and amusing. I can totally get behind cannibalism and have fun with it. But rape? Not so much.”
As to his thoughts on Game of Thrones’ Ramsay Snow raping Sansa Stark, Fuller speaks respectfully and carefully about other showrunners’ choices.
“I thought it was handled tastefully, all things considered. You could have done that scene on broadcast. With Thrones, you’re telling a story based on a time where those sort of violations were common. And women did not have the stance in that world to effectively resist. And with Sansa Stark, and that particular attack, we know Ramsay Bolton as someone who is a horrible violator of all things human—what he did to Theon Greyjoy is part and parcel of his cruelty. So it felt organic to the world—not only what happened to Sansa, but [the attempted rape of] Gilly. It feels like we’re in the Wild Wild West, and that’s part of how they’re choosing to explore the story. I see why they’ve made the choices they have in the stories they’ve told, so I can’t criticize them for using that tool.
In the case of Sansa Stark, it feels like they are building toward something for this woman to overcome, and some horrible lessons that she has to learn about the patriarchy that surrounds her—such as Littlefinger knowing what could happen to her and knowing it might force her into taking more drastic vengeance [toward the Boltons] that could benefit him. If I was the showrunner of Game of Thrones would I make those choices? I have no idea. But in terms of me coming into a crime procedural story on Hannibal and seeing the things I don’t like about other crime procedurals, it’s easier for me to say I don’t want that aspect in the one I’m doing.”
Whether or not I agree with Fuller’s GoT assessment, it’s his sensitivity to the subject that stands out. It’s his willingness to lay bare his feelings, and explain up front why he makes the choices he does for Hannibal that makes him an exceptional showrunner. While that’s certainly not a requirement (and I can understand why others might not choose to do the same), it only makes me respect and adore him more.
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