A Contemplation of Historical Fiction in Book and Film
A post in the British Medieval History Facebook Group a couple of years back happily anticipated the upcoming showing on US TV channels of the adaptation of British author Philippa Gregory’s War of the Roses White Queen Trilogy. A tiny stone created large ripples. Over 400 comments weighed the pros and cons of the book, the film, and also, the fact that a fictionalized version of history was being discussed so enthusiastically among the ought-to-be seriously-minded group. Much midnight oil was burned over its historical accuracy or lack thereof. There was even hint of transatlantic conflict with American members being overwhelmingly ”pro” for each of the aforementioned and many – but not that many, really – British members being “con”.
I joined those in favour, contributing a mini review: “Good-looking historical soapie, but a story well told, well presented, well cast, and well acted. The whole yarn is there. The power plays, the politics, the treachery, and the bloodletting. The princes in the tower. Clarence drowned in the butt of booze. My horse, my horse, my kingdom for a whole posse of horses. The lead, Rebecca Ferguson, the blonde with the sword in our featured image, was the Bond girl in Spectre, but don’t let that put you off. Richard of Gloucester, who became R3, was perhaps too good looking. He is played by Aneurin Barnard, a fine British actor who did very well as Cilla Black’s beau Bobby in Cilla, as photographer David Bailey in We’ll Take Manhattan, as Boris Drubetskoy in the BBC’s recent War and Peace. And James Frain, who played a smooth and sinister Cromwell in The Tudors, is an obsessive, controlling Warwick the Kingmaker”.
The robust exchange of views among group members inspired me to contemplate the connection between historical fiction and the real deal. What follows is a subjective amble through some of the highs and lows of historical film and fiction. It is a personal reflection, self-indulgent, and replete with comments, asides and digressions.
I confess a liking for slash and bash, doublet and hose, cloak and gown, suddsers. Indeed, to enlarge the historical envelope somewhat, i am partial to the “sword and sandal” epics or yore also, but I’ll l leave those for another day. Whilst I very rarely read the books (there are just too many other things to absorb nowadays), I relish the film adaptations – usually with a nice wine and an iPad and Wikipedia on hand to fact check. I am not too fussy – or high-brow – when it comes to entertainment. I am of the “I like what I like school” of literary appreciation, and I can watch the good, the bad, and the “this doesn’t really do anything for me” (although I have been getting fussier of late).
Some can be excellent. The Tudors was addictive and sumptuous to behold, with its more gorgeous-than-life casting of the lead players. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn will forever be Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Natalie Dormer for me, notwithstanding Nat’s gorgeous but doomed Marjaery Tyrell in the “you either love it or you hate it” Game of Thrones mega mythology and JRM’s sexy soccer coach in Bend it Like Beckham. The series was bright, glittering, and sexy, with an air of perpetual treachery and danger. Wolf Hall, by contrast, was dark and brooding (not just the candle-lit interiors), dour and doleful, with an air of perpetual treachery and danger – but it was not a patch on Hilary Mantel’s masterful novels. The jewel in the crown has to be the late-seventies sword and sandals saga I Claudius, the life and times of a typical dysfunctional, incestuous, and vicious Roman family that was, to borrow Lady Caroline Lamb’s description of Lord Byron, mad, bad and dangerous to know. All three were relatively historically accurate, though with a fair bit of poetic license for dramatic effect.
Not all are this good, however. The adaption of Ken Follett’s cathedral-constructing edifice, The Pillars of the Earth, was like watching paint dry, and its sequel, World Without End outdid it in ennui and melodrama, notwithstanding its concluding twist on what may or may not have really happened to bad, sad King Edward II. The adaptation of Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth, a strange hotchpotch of magic and modernity told a story of the Albigensian Crusade and the persecution of the Cathars in 13th Century France, and was laboured and contrived. But even with these lacklustre longueurs, I hung in to the literally and figuratively bitter end. Historically accurate? Yeah, but, no but, yeah but…
Even second division movies like King Arthur, Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven can draw me in if well directed, well told, and cinematographically well depicted. When it comes to film-making, Ridley Scott, who directed the latter two, can do no wrong, although he can be hit and miss when it comes to the story line (he fares much better with Sci Fi – think Alien and Blade Runner – than with history). There are exceptions: Braveheart (and not just because the wigs looked like they were purchased from the people who gave us Conan the Barbarian), Troy, which was, well, kind of odd (including, as it did, Brad Pitt’s grumpy, well-buffed Achilles), and Oliver Stone’s Alexander which was actually unwatchable – I gave up on it, and I reckon Colin Farrell would leave this one off his cv.
Fine fiction and, indeed, fine plays often make for fine films. Ian McEwan’s Atonement (prewar England and Dunkirk), David Lean’s Dr Zhivago (the Russian Revolution and Civil War) and Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” (the Old South, before, during and after the Civil War). Alexander Dumas’s La Reine Margot was transformed into a beautiful, brutal and sad film by Patrice Chereau (dynastic skulduggery and religious persecution in sixteenth century France). Then there is Robert Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons (Thomas More versus Henry VIII), James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter (Henry II versus his wife and sons), and Jean Anouilh’s Becket (Henry II again, versus his troublesome priest). Though all talk and no action – this trio were plays after all – they were beautifully rendered with stellar casts, each portraying a king who had to deal with opinionated, difficult people, each echoing Christoper Marlowe’s Edward II: “Was ever king thus overruled as I ?”
Moreover, high-end historical fiction has entered the literary canon. Like Robert Graves’ I Claudius, Alexander Dumas’ Three Musketeers, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Mikhail Sholokov’s And Quiet Flows the Don, Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, and Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Each of these have made the transition to film, some with more success than others. Are there contemporary works that might enter the pantheon? What do you think? Maybe Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy – and also, her debut, A Place of Greater Safety, a French Revolution door-stop and a masterful retelling of those tortured times.
Probably the most controversial historical film of all time is David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia”. Historians, critics, and partisans of all faiths and factions have argued about this one ever since it first screened back in 1962. It is a deeply flawed film insofar as it reflects a condescending Orientalism, but a timeless masterpiece nonetheless. Love it or loathe it, one cannot deny the charismatic performance of Peter O’Toole, and the magnificent wide-screen vistas of Jordan’s Wadi Rum. That first vista of the desert sunrise with the music of Maurice Jarre. Man! Another film of that ilk – and also one of my all time favourites – is John Huston’s “ The Man Who Would be King”, a ‘boy’s own’ venture based loosely on a story by poet and Empire booster Rudyard Kipling.
I tend to skip the Mid Nineteenth Century and early twentieth century, which rules out quite a bit of Victoriana and Edwardiana – including “Downton Abbey”, Dickens, Jane Austen, and Emily Bronte. But that is more a matter of personal taste than a dislike for this period. Where does the recent Rajarama “Indian Summers” fit into this mix? A steamy, scenic, well-dressed melodrama of class, caste and copulation set in exotic and tumultuous times. Or the Anglo-Indian ‘upstairs-downstairs’ film “The Viceroy’s House”, a Romeo and Juliet story set against the political duplicity, violence and death of the partition of India in 1947.
To my mind , one of the most enthralling and memorable of historical dramas I have seen is David Milch’s magnificent “Deadwood”. It is set in the eighteen seventies, and is a western too! It ticks all the parental guidance boxes: substance abuse, sexual scenes, strong language, and adult themes. And as a bonus, the acting is superb, the characterization likewise, and the script that traverses from the sacred to the (very) profane and borrows heavily from the raw vernacular and language that channels Shakespeare and Melville. Its lead, Ian McShane, portraying the vicious, conniving, whore-master Al Swearagen, went on to play eccentric Swearagenesque cameos in the aforementioned “Pillars of the Earth” (with predictable, and in that bland film, welcome profanities), in “Game Of Thrones” (an imagining of Al as if he were later to repent and forswear his wicked ways?), and even in a Woody Allen B-movie (“Scoop”, in case you’re interested).
The historical dramas I enjoy can be relatively modern too if they reflect and contemplate well how folk lived, loved and perished in the near past. “Foyle’s’ War”, for example, captures perfectly the ethos and the spirit of place of Britain during the Second World War. Likewise “The Hour” beautifully recreates Britain during the nineteen fifties, just as “Mad Men” draws you back into moods, manners, music and mores of the sixties and early seventies.
But, let’s return to where I began.
Does historical fiction have a place in a History Group forum? Particularly if it plays fast and loose with the established historical record and substitutes glitz and glamour for historical realism.
Historical fiction is for many folk the portal into a lifelong passion for history. And so it was for me. As a young lad growing up in early sixties Birmingham, I devoured Louise Andrews Kent’s “boys own” explorer series. I “went with” them all: Columbus, Marco Polo, Drake, Magellan, and Vasco da Gama. In a sense, I am still travelling with them and their successors both noble and notorious: Cortez and Pizarro, Lewis and Clark, Burton and Speke, Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark, and many others. My adolescent yearnings were sublimated by Sergeanne Golon’s almost soft-porn melodramas featuring the beautiful and pneumatic heroine Angelique. This was my introduction to the history of seventeenth century France: Richelieu, Louis Quatorz, Huguenots, Versailles, and the rest. She was actually bedded by the Sun King himself, and on another exotic frolic, amongst the Barbary pirates, landed herself in the Sultan’s harem. Such thrills for a young lad!
The seed was sown. And good teachers can inspire deeper, and even intense interest. Once my interest in history had been piqued as a youngun’, it was a fabulous teacher who channeled that interest into exploration and inquiry, and a charismatic and wise tutor at university, a Hungarian emigre and refugee of 1956, who despatched me down academic paths. The times were right too – the mid to late sixties, when questioning and dissent were in the air, and old shibboleths were being broken down. Timothy Leary advised that we ought not believe what those in authority told us, and this applied to all authorities, be they political, spiritual, social or intelkectual. I did not cleave to an academic path, however. Travel, romance, and music cast me up on other shores. But the spirit of history still moved me and moves me still.
As for my historical education, the rest, as they say, is history. Or, to quote Saint Paul, “I put off childish things”, and got into the heavy stuff. My point being that young persons’ fiction, and grown-ups’ mass-market (some call it “pulp”) fiction like that of Philippa Gregory, Paulina Simons, and Bernard Cornwell’s Grail Quest, Sharpe and Anglo-Saxon series are inspired by and in turn, inspire an abiding interest in history. An old soldier once told me that he reckoned Zoe Oldenbourg’s “Heirs of the Kingdom”, a tale of the First Crusade and the bloody conquest of Jerusalem, was probably one of the most realistic and visceral depictions of warfare that he had read.
Talking of ‘series’, there is a worrying tendency of writers these days to fail to stop at the red light of one book. I blame it all on Frank Herbert and the fourth, fifth and sixth volumes of his “Dune Trilogy” (he really should have stopped at two!). There was, however a series that I devoured back in the nineteen seventies: George McDonald Fraser’s rollicking, picareque, and quite political incorrect Flashman books. These saw the eponymous anti-hero (the unreconstructed villain in Thomas Hughes’ Victorian yarn “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”) roving and rogering his way through the late nineteenth century, somehow managing to escape by the skin of his teeth from one military disaster after another, including Custer’s famous demise at Little Big Horn, and the last stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak during the disastrous First Afghan War of 1842, One outstanding volume sees the pusillanimous Flashie fleeing eastwards out of The Crimea having precipitated the disastrous Charge Of the Light Brigade (Captain Nolan was fitted up – and we have had a long poem and at least two questionable films inflicted upon us) and making his way through the vast Asian hinterland, one step ahead of the invading Czarist armies, and of sundry Muslim warlords. Amidst the humour is a poignant reminder of those ‘lost worlds’ that succumbed to the relentless blade of progress,
So, to conclude this self-indulgent post, I think my own position on the usefulness of historical fiction is transparently in the affirmative notwithstanding that I am a history tragic and news junkie, and most of my reading is non-fiction. I love walking down what Welsh poet RS Thomas called ‘the long road of history. My favourite quotation is that of Irish writer John Banville: “the past beats inside my like a second heart”.
Because as human beings, one thing is for certain: we all love a good story. As they say, in Arabic, as indeed in all tongues, times and places, “ka-n ya ma ka-n bil ‘adim izzama-n wa sa-lifi al aSri wa la-wa-n”‘ or, “once upon an time”.
3 thoughts on “Fact or Fiction = Friction”
Missi Johnston, an erudite member of a history group I am part of, write an excellent comment to this post. She wrote:
History, and “the historian”, are often mistaken as a singular things, but the field is as complex as any other. Science has its theorists and its technicians, so does history. I see the disparate views on the merits of historical fiction reflecting the differing professional roles historians fill–researcher, writer, and teacher. Certainly the roles are not exclusive, they cross over to some degree, but for the purposes of most effectively relaying my thoughts, I’ll present them in an overly simplified fashion.
–The primary task of the researcher is to ESTABLISH knowledge.
–The primary task of the teacher is to TRANSMIT established knowledge.
–The writer is the wild card. His task may be either, or both, dependent on his target audience. Or maybe to draw attention to a particular aspect.
I certainly agree that, as a teaching tool, historical fiction is undoubtedly valuable. The student must be engaged in order to learn. The most effective way to do this is to pique the appetite and then satiate it with an enthralling yarn. But the bare bones of historical “facts”, as gapped as our own skeletons, leave a disjointed version, so the teacher must flesh it out in order to bring history to life and make it relevant to the student. The teacher must tap his creative side and draw from the works of others to synthesize, expand, and illuminate history. But please don’t let my explanation be seen as dismissive of the teacher’s contribution. It is not so passive as my simplified version makes it appear. In fact, his influence is tremendous. He is the front line. And the more advanced the student, the more the teacher is able to interject some competing views on a topic, and cultivate a more analytic approach.
This is much the same for the writer who targets the mass public audience, except he digs deeper into a specific area. But when the writer targets the academic audience, his colleagues, the writing is far different because he isn’t merely relaying information. He is usually challenging established knowledge. In this way, he has more in common with the researcher.
Understanding history is a process. The researcher provides the building material, the teacher lays the foundation, the writer provides structure, and the filmmaker decorates. Whatever house the audience buys becomes the dominant narrative. The next generation comes along…the teacher opens the door…the writer guides them along the path…along the way something catches the eye of some and they take off in another direction. They yell “Hey guys, look over here!” and the herd turns. Rinse and repeat. Step by step, the reality of history comes more and more into focus. This process is displayed in the historiographies of subjects–the history of the history. It just doesn’t show well because this is the domain of the producers, and audiences are consumers. But its significance is unparalleled.
You wrote that you watch the films with iPad handy to vet information. This in itself admits the balance the writer walks. You are not the average public eye; not simply a student. You bring with you a shield of sorts. I sat in classes alongside 50-60 peers, most of whom indiscriminately digested what they were served, not because they were dummies, but because their primary goal was to absorb and remember, as most of them intended to become transmitters/teachers. It’s not a lesser goal, by any means, just a different one than mine which was the exact opposite in many respects. Or maybe better said the process is backward for me. Whereas the teacher and writer are mostly constructing–putting flesh on, I deconstruct–take it off. And a big part of what I take off is old historical fiction. Most people are surprised to find that I don’t watch any of the contemporary historical fiction programs. How can I claim to love history and not watch Game of Thrones? LOL. But I’m not the dullard I probably appear to be. I channel the same imaginative spirit of the writer and the teacher. It’s what guides me toward new discoveries. The difference is, for me, this comes more at the beginning instead of the end. And to that I would say historical fiction once played a larger role for me too. Like you, it opened the doorway of interest. That matters to be sure. But you wrote that you then moved onto heavier things. So many do not, though, and the fictional component of historical fiction takes on a life of its own, often overshadowing reality instead of illuminating it. It no longer complements history, but competes with it. This is quite alarming to the academic.
So, as a research historian, I have serious concerns with the extent to which literary devices are now used for the purposes of accounting history. Historical fiction may be of great use within the teacher-student dynamic, but by what means is it able to do this but by the supporting structure the academic historian provides? Unless it requires no actual substance, in which case, it becomes fictional history instead of historical fiction (and I would go a step farther and simply call it fiction). If the student, none the wiser to the legitimacy of the material, consumes such what impact does this have on the overall integrity of historical knowledge, and on a broader scale, on the collective memory?
Another great concern for me is the PRESENTISM it invites. Part of what makes historical fiction appealing is that it is so relatable. Well, that’s because it is written with today’s perspective projected backward onto it. But what do we add to our understanding of the human condition by simply looking at ourselves in old clothes? This is how context gets dismissed. We compare self to self and come away with the idea that humans never really change. Add to this the influence of whatever current socio-political ideology dominates and permeates historical fiction…another can of worms.
So does historical fiction have a place in a history group forum?
In a more casual forum, I’d say sure, but let’s keep a cautious eye on it. You guys bring the fun, and I’ll play the boring old spoiled-sport.
[…] of world history. In a more lighthearted vein, I indulged in an unscholarly discussion of how film and fiction have portrayed or distorted history, and in a review of Mary Beard’s superlative history of […]
A very interesting question that has been asked on many history pages.
Films can be a springboard to further inquiry and learning if viewed with an open and inquiring mind. For example, whilst Deadwood might be a work of fiction, it’s characters and general storyline are based on real people and events. Likewise, even, the slash and bash saga Vikings is its overall presentation of events, if not the accuracy of the portrayal. Even the overblown Gangs of New York provided an insight into the divisions prevailed in NYC leading up to the Conscription riots of 1862. The history is there for the finding. The film can provide the signpost.