Violence, unfortunately, has become imbedded in our national psyche almost to the point that it’s become a part of our culture. Some people might attribute this to a gradual slackening of morals in this country. Others might say that showing violence is a good thing because it reminds us how awful it is. But how much needs to be depicted?
In The Maltese Falcon, long considered to be the granddaddy of all hard-boiled detective stories, none of the murders happens on stage. The most violent part in the novel occurs when Sam Spade backs the effeminate Joel Cairo into a corner and knocks him out. And he only needs one punch.
A decade or so later, in the era of the 1940s, the depiction of violence was fairly well controlled, to the point of censorship. The motion pictures of the day showed people getting shot, but seldom did the blood-letting get much screen time, and the graphic display was brief. Think about Rick shooting Major Strasser at the airport in Casablanca. Bogey pulls the gun and warns the Nazi: “Put down that phone.” When his command is ignored, a shot rings out and Strasser flinches and falls to the floor, pulling the phone from the wall in a symbolic display of finality. There is no squirting of blood that we see nowadays, no gruesome death throes. And this movie was made during one of the worst periods of bloodshed in the Twentieth Century: World War II. But, let’s continue to round up the usual suspects.
If you read the books of the era, the depiction of violence was pretty similar. It wasn’t until Mickey Spillane came along with I, the Jury in 1947 that violence started being described with a bit more detail. When the sultry vixen tries to seduce Mike Hammer, who’s holding her at gun point as she does a strip-tease, he ends up shooting her in the stomach. “How could you?” she gasps. His reply was both shocking and prescient. “It was easy,” Hammer says.
And thus the depiction of violence began its incremental climb up the ladder of good taste. What once was considered sadistic and vulgar in the 1940s and 50s, became common place in the turbulent decades that followed. Some might argue that the ubiquitous news coverage of the Vietnam War helped to hasten this drop in the standards of good taste. While the 1960s was ushered in with a modicum of depicted violence in movies like The Magnificent Seven and John Wayne’s The Alamo, by the end of the decade Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch literally showed a man getting his throat slashed in close-up slow motion. Sociologists would probably call it a gradual loss of innocence.
Violence and graphic depictions continued to escalate through the 1970s in both books and movies, and all forms of censorship seemed to fall by the wayside. No longer was the depiction of blood and guts restricted, but each new film or book seemed intent on outdoing its predecessors. Sex and nudity were also along for the ride. The Motion Picture Industry came up with several different versions of a ratings code that let movie patrons and parents know exactly what was being shown, and how. Some critics lambasted that code, saying it was unfairly biased against nudity as opposed to violence ("If a film shows a naked breast, it gets an R rating. If it shows one being cut off, it’s PG-13.")
There were occasional retreats on the part of artists in both films and novels and the entertainment industry tried to put some restrictions on nudity, sex, and violence. The aforementioned code went through several incarnations, and as a general rule, showing graphic bloodshed on television was fairly well restricted. I can remember seeing David Janssen get shot in the shoulder by a sniper on Harry-O. The bullet was supposed to have come from a powerful rifle, but Janssen’s shoulder only showed a tiny patch of blood, and he was up hopping around after the next commercial. And who can forget how many times poor Tom Selleck got hit on the head and knocked unconscious on Magnum PI?
But was scaling down the gore the right thing to do? I suppose it could be argued that having these heroes brush off serious injuries furthers actual violence because it’s depicted as no big deal. People got shot, but it was only a superficial injury; the hero got knocked cold by a blackjack, but he didn’t have to worry about a concussion.
In my own work, I’ve never been a fan of showing a lot of blood and guts. Having seen more than my fair share of it in real life, I know that it’s not something I enjoy seeing or reading about. In one sense, some present day writers, such as Cormick McCarthy, are lauded for using violence to shock the reader, but I have to admit, apologies to Oprah, that I couldn’t get through any of his books. The depiction of violence was too disturbing. As I said, I’ve seen enough real-life violence to be entertained by somebody’s vivid and gratuitous descriptions. That said, I do think that it should be portrayed realistically, and the after effects should also be shown. When my kickboxing PI, Ron Shade, finally fights for the title in A Final Judgment, he goes through several very brutal rounds against a highly skilled opponent. At the end, Shade can barely walk and the effects of the fight last for the remainder of the book. It wasn’t the first time Shade’s face has ended up looking like a raccoon. The same applies to shoot outs. They happen, but the after effects, such as guilt, self-examination, and regret, are rarely touched upon. Since I’ve never played a video game, I’m hesitant to comment on them, but from what I’ve heard, they’re not to be emulated by the writers of mystery and suspense. So I’d say, as a writer, you have to tread that fine line. Put in as much violence as you feel necessary, but portray it with realism and make sure you don’t brush off the consequences. In a nutshell, violence shouldn’t be portrayed as glamorous, and should never be gratuitous.
Other than that, keep punching.