Saturday, March 29, 2008

"Historical" Dramas - Tudors, Rome, Adams - Good Fiction?

The Tudors starts again tomorrow night and so NPR did a segment on the historical liberties of some of the recent popular historical dramas - Tudors, John Adams, Rome. You can test your historical knowledge with a quiz at the link above, in addition to listening to the story. It's a delightful little piece, with a funny twist at the end regarding HBO's upcoming dramatization of the 2000 election called Recount (with a star cast - Kevin Spacey, Laura Dern, John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson, Denis Leary, Ed Begley Jr.)

I was bothered by some of the changes made in The Tudors and the excuse for melding Henry VIII's sisters - Princess Margaret and Princess Mary, seemed woefully implausible. Basically because there is another Princess Mary (Henry's daughter with Katherine of Aragon, later Queen Bloody Mary), the writer deemed 2 Marys would be too confusing on the call sheets. That's a feeble excuse. And when you know the history and know that it's dramatic enough with out the alterations, it's not clear to me what the cost benefit analysis is. If you don't gain drama, but you misinform people, isn't the cost not worth it?

Sure, some do go to Google and find out what really happened. I did that when I read historical fiction as a kid, but does everyone? Most people believe JFK was killed in a conspiracy because of Olivier Stone's movie. I don't think that's a good thing. I don't think a lack of knowledge and facts is a good thing, and I generally don't like casual relationships with the truth. (such as the Clintons enjoy)

These stories are good enough, in truth, as they are. I couldn't put down Isaac Asimov's non-fiction history of early Rome. His well-written narrative grabbed me. My interest in history began in the pages of historical dramas. The first two books that initiated me were Anya Seton's Katherine (about Katherine Sywnford, 3rd wife of John of Gaunt) and The Sunne in Splendour (about the end of the War of Roses and Richard III) by Sharon Kay Penman, recently reissued in paperback. And if the author's note didn't tell me enough of what I wanted to know I would bury myself in non-fiction - Thomas Costain's from my mother's shelves.

I like historical novels, historical dramas, historical films because they can pique interest. But the more afield they go from the truth, the more troublesome they become for me. I hate the Cate Blanchett movies about Elizabeth for that reason. And I don't like Shakespeare's Richard III for that reason (Shakespeare's source was Thomas More, a Tudor propagandist). I walked out of the Lansburgh last year because I couldn't stand the production or the a-historicism.

The rules for memoirs should be the guiding principle for historical fiction or drama. You make a pact with the reader and if you breach that pack, you have an affirmative duty to let the viewer or reader know where the writer deviated from the truth. Then I'd be satisfied.

Well, you can see what the Massachusetts Historical Society has to say about the HBO series. At their site you can even read the relevant letters as the episodes unfold. It's really cool. The New Republic has also been printing a pretty interesting debate between historians and the writer of that series, you can read here.

UPDATE: Just learned that Michael Hirst who writes The Tudors (he is also the creator and an executive producer) also wrote Elizabeth. Figures. "It may be dry in a history book, but if you think about it, it involves people's beliefs and passions and their whole way of life being destroyed and challenged." He's reading the wrong history books.

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