Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Historical Accuracy, Television Drama, and Storytelling

It's been a while since I've posted anything, and so to get myself back into the groove I thought I'd start with something light: the "problem" of historical inaccuracies in TV shows and movies set in historical periods.  The impetus for this is the teaching of classical myth (round 5) and the BBC drama "the White Queen".

If you haven't seen it, BBC's "the White Queen" is set in late medieval England in the years leading up to Henry VII's (Tudor - father of the more famous Henry VIII) seizure of the English crown - I've seen three episodes and so far he's just a boy.  One of the most familiar figures in the show to the masses today is likely Richard III, the king in the car park.  I confess I know little about the English monarchy, but I've enjoyed the show so far.  It's something of a slower and vaguely historical version of "Game of Thrones".  While watching, my curiosity has gotten the better of me and I've resorted to - gasp! - wikipedia for some background on Edward IV, the (XVIth) Earl of Warwick, et al.

No second season is planned, at least one produced by the BBC (though Starz has other ideas).  While perusing the websites that set out the critical reception of the show I discovered that one of the issues that has attracted some criticism is the ever-present issue of historical accuracy.  Some have bemoaned the lack of this in the show.  For example, some have found fault with the dashingly white teeth, others with the location of the Battle of Bosworth (an episode I haven't reached yet - summary of these comments here:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_White_Queen_(TV_series)#Historical_accuracy).  This leads to the main subject of this blog:  does historical accuracy really matter to an appreciation of an historical drama (TV or movie)?

As a classicist cum-historian cum-Romanist cum-Byzantinist, etc., etc., you're often asked what you think or how you view movies and television shows set in the ancient or early medieval worlds.  The usual assumption is that you spend the bulk of your time nitpicking.  In truth, however, I don't.  In fact, as long as something historical is vaguely plausible, that's all that matters so long as the story and the characters are compelling.  Do people really watch historical dramas to learn about the respective historical contexts?  Or do they watch them to be entertained, and maybe even challenged on some level or other?

To my mind, it's not really important whether specific details are right or wrong, particularly if they're small like teeth colour (though some issues, like teeth colour or something similar can make for interesting commentary with friends).  If an author/screenwriter/etc. changes a few details here and there but it serves to strengthen the story then all the better.  Fact is, despite the historical context, they are still, by and large, works of fiction, even if they are 'based on a true story'.

This is where historical dramas are in many respects a lot like classical myths (or the texts that tell them), at least to my mind.  What makes a particular version of a myth compelling is when the author takes the bare bones of an earlier or traditional story and makes it his or her own in an interesting way.  Electra and the trials and tribulations of her brother (Orestes), mother (Clytemnestra), and father (Agamemnon) provide the bare bones of a good story.  Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles each wrote their own version.  Intriguingly, they all did slightly different things with the story (here - Orestes' and Electra's revenge against Clytemnestra and Aegisthus), and perhaps one of, if not, THE main characters, Electra.  I'm particularly drawn to the Electra of Euripides, who has to spur her brother on to murder their mother. Basically, what I like is not how closely Euripides sticks to an original story (which we can't know anyway), but what he does with what we know.  For me it works the same for a good historical drama.  Getting back to the "White Queen", what makes it good to me is not how accurate the setting and costumes are, but how good the characters and the actors who play them are; those who play Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Warwick are particularly noteworthy.  The story too is enthralling: there's plenty of murder, political wrangling, and courtly intrigue.

So, does historical accuracy really matter?   To me, no.  Ultimately, it all comes down to the story.

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