“I don’t understand the story,” lamented Troy, the affably weak character of Community, a sitcom about the unhappy students of a community college. “If I wanted to know what happened in Europe a long time ago, I would look Game of thrones. “
The commentary was meant to be a gag, but it’s not that far removed from a pervasive notion of what makes up the story, especially for young people who can be understandably confused by the blurred lines between factual and fictional elements in screen representations of a bygone era.
Today we can access limitless amounts of once obscure fact and research just as easily as we can gorge ourselves on TV shows and movies that depict people and places in every epoch of human civilization. Now that it seems so available to us at all times, the very idea of learning (or needing to know) about history can come across as a moldy anachronism of the analog age.
Of course, it is absurd to be wrong Game of thrones – which applies a more serious sensibility to the massively influential tangle of Anglo-Saxon and Nordic life and literature with which JRR Tolkien Middle-earth built – for any form of reality. But in all of its stories of blood, guts and fame, there isn’t much to separate HBO’s popular fantasy series from supposedly realistic TV series such as Marco polo, Vikings, Peaky blinders and Black sails. Were there no dragons in 13e the China of the century too?
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Documentary makers might do a better (if not perfect) job of sticking to the record, but the fact remains that audiences have always preferred to consume the most compelling versions of the story offered to them. This is still the case now that we get our fix from Netflix.
In addition, storytellers have made history since they had the chance to exercise their creative license. For Homer, that is to say if there was a single man named Homer – the raw material of his epics were the stories of the Trojan War passed down from storyteller to storyteller. For Shakespeare, it was the story of the royals from England, Rome, Scotland and Denmark. Their efforts encouraged their successors to manipulate and exaggerate any vaguely verifiable real-life detail for dramatic ends.
Hollywood inevitably inherited this tradition of cheating on history in its quest for wealth and prestige. To be fair, they can have noble intentions as they chase those Oscars – movies like schindler’s list (1993) and Brave Heart (1995) aim to entertain and uplift at the same time. But since the imperatives of this first goal usually outweigh those of the second, it means taking a metaphorical set of hedge trimmers for the heavy stuff of the story.
And even historians will admit that the past needs some pruning, being too full of puzzling gaps, contradictions and inconsistencies to generally provide the kind of clearly demarcated characters and story arcs that hook and satisfy the public. That’s why most of us bring a big grain of salt to our encounters with movies and TV shows that claim to be historic.
That’s not to say filmmakers betray the story when they speak the truth for maximum impact. Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner Lincoln (2012) gets big points on Abraham Lincoln’s truly dramatic campaign to get the 13e Amendment adopted even though many scenes cannot be found in the film’s main source, the biography of Doris Kearns Goodwin Team of rivals: the political genius of Abraham Lincoln. Likewise No, a chilean film published the same year on the extraordinary events behind a marketing campaign that helped end the Pinochet regime. In examples like this, there’s no denying how valuable the bigger, bolder, and wider versions can be to an audience that might otherwise miss the story altogether.
Still, there are always complications when looking back, and even screenwriters who diligently strive to be as specific as possible can learn surprising lessons. History can only seem like a solid thing in the rearview mirror – in reality, it’s a volatile area where no single version of events automatically prevails over other accounts and perspectives.
Consider the controversy that has greeted Selma (2014), director Ava DuVernay’s drama about Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Many American academics have defended Lyndon Johnson for the harsh description of him and his relationship with King while d ‘others agreed with DuVernay’s critical view of how LBJ and the FBI hampered the civil rights movement. A tweet from DuVernay perhaps contained the wisest words on the matter: “Ultimately, people should question history,” she wrote. “Don’t take my word for it or take the word of the LBJ representative. Let it come to life for yourself.
This same willingness to question was just as evident in the online discourse elicited by American Crime Story: The People Vs. JO Simpson, a mini-series about the trials of preeminent celebrities from the 1990s that aired earlier this spring. Each episode received careful analysis on various websites as amateur researchers determined where the show strayed from the truth. Many were amazed to discover that some things that seemed to be far-fetched inventions (like the role of Kim Kardashian’s father in the Simpsons drama) were all about the money.
Times like this point to another reason why historically themed movies and TV shows can’t always tell us the whole story. Sometimes the truth is suppressed not because it’s boring or confusing – it’s because no one in their right mind could believe it.
Jason Anderson is a Toronto journalist, speaker and film programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival and the Kingston Canadian Film Festival.