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Revisionist Historical Fiction

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, May 30, 2020

So over here on Greek TV, there's this very popular drama series that happens to be set in a Greek mainland village in the 1950s, and sells itself as ‘authentically representing an era’. It started off very promising, as a crime drama + family drama kind of story where three sisters that own a coveted piece of land are forced to kill the heir to the big land owner of the area. They bury him and he ‘vanishes’, and the drama goes on from there, with all the ramifications of all of this happening in a close, small society full of secrets and unconfessed vices. In the 50s.

So far so good.

Unfortunately, the story became so popular that the channel ordered something like 4 seasons instead of the single one that the story was designed to take (or maybe two at the most). And as a result of that, the story devolves into a soap opera that resembles the Young and the Restless. (Yes, fine, go ahead and date me)

And while that could happen, and even be a nice illustration of how small close knit societies of the era would keep secrets and/or not act on abuses, the series unfortunately becomes …disturbingly modern: homosexual people come out and somehow everyone accepts them for it, couples get divorced and there is no social stigma over that, young ladies decide they want to have premarital affairs because ‘it’s their right', and so on. In sort, we get current social norms embedded in the 1950s as if they had always been there.

Just to be clear, Greek 1950s society was very puritan and things like pre-marriage or extra marital affairs ruined lives- they were not up for discussion as a right (plus they were officially illegal). Homosexual people were tolerated but not celebrated, and often, depending on the society (especially village vs city) they were marginalized as potentially contagious. Divorces took several years to happen, if they ever did, and the divorced people were treated as little better than prostitutes/loose/bad material that couldn't make a marriage work.

So what happens when a series that is packaged as historical fiction upends this reality, is a two-prong issue: one, those that know history are thrown out of the story immediately. Two, those that don't know history assume that privileges enjoyed today were always a given, and they take it for granted, thus not appreciating the progress and the people that fought for this progress to take place.

When writing historical fiction, I believe that besides telling a story, we also teach about that era in a more visceral, profound manner than a history book. This happens because if the story is good enough, the audience engages and experiences the era, and thus forms impressions and ideas and acquires knowledge on it.

If that knowledge is wrong, then we get people with a skewed knowledge of history, and that in turn brews a lot of other dangers I won't get into in this article. Especially when the historical element is revisionist (e.g. having racial or social equality in, say, the 1600s or 20th century human rights discussions in feudal times), and even worse, revisionist in key historical events, then we run the risk of undermining peoples' perception of the world- especially the younger generations.

But what happens with stories like Inglorious Basterds? Hitler is shot dead in that (spoilers?) and his entire inner circle burns in a cinema inferno. This of course never happened. However, nobody believes it happened. This is not only due to the fact that Hitler's end is so well known it is a meme, but also, more importantly, because we're all aware that Quentin Tarantino's movies take place in an alternate universe of his own alternate history.

And this is the main point I would like to make: there's historical fiction, and then there's historically inspired fiction.

The former requires faithfulness to reality and meticulous double checking as a responsibility to the audience, the latter does not. And all it takes is a disclaimer in the introduction.

Rewriting history to be more faithful to what happened in reality (where possible) is a good thing. Rewriting history to serve our current society's sensibilities is really not.

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giovanni at 3:40AM, May 31, 2020


hushicho at 7:54PM, May 30, 2020

Quite simply, people need to do the reading and the learning, full stop. One should never rely on a piece of fiction, or any sort of entertainment, to inform them about historical fact. Honestly, I really wouldn't want to have a "faithful" representation of a LOT of historical periods, despite how interesting or aesthetically-pleasing they may be. Depending on what a writer wants to present in a work, too, it really may not be very appropriate to an audience for whatever reason. Fiction is typically written to engage a contemporary audience. It's just also very important to have it made very clear that these are not historical records, they're fictionalized versions of events that MAY have happened, but were probably not as how they're presented in the work. Add to that the fact that you can't just generalize an entire sociocultural landscape -- people can study a single period their whole life! -- and it shows especially how there should be understanding that this is not fact.

bravo1102 at 10:11AM, May 30, 2020

Though there are always notable exceptions. The Advocate puts you solidly in the 14th century telling acstory from the actual records. Flesh and Blood despite being very sexy and gory does actually represent the reality of the 16th century and the seemingly modern attitudes are actually representative of the period. The HBO miniseries Rome was more accurate than it really had any right to be and even the Tudors had some good points. But those Cate Blanchett Elizabeth movies are awful.

bravo1102 at 10:03AM, May 30, 2020

Most writers simply don't do the research. It's that simple. They assume that an audience can't identify with 2d century AD morality and points of view so it gets updated. Look at the huge problems movies have had with using period language when referring to races and ethnicities. Even in 1939 Selznick promised the NAACP that the n- word would not appear in the movie Gone with the Wind though it is all over the book. There's a lot of willful ignorance among writers as well. They think they know the era better than the historians just because they read a few books, often poorly researched popular history. Face it, what passes for historical fiction often bears as much resemblance to the real time as Ancient Aliens or Hunting Hitler does to history.

usedbooks at 8:00AM, May 30, 2020

I feel like the public isn't great with subtlety. If you are going to write your own versions of things, go big or go home. Like go full steam punk with your alternate 19th century. Write a story about the 80s where the apocalypse happened in the 50s. Put ancient Egyptians on dinosaur-back. If you aren't going to go full-tilt, then don't write anything that contradicts any written history. It's not hard to place fiction within historical setting realistically. (I kinda feel like the series Murdoch Mysteries was trying to do the latter... but then they have death lasers and cryogenic chambers??)

Tantz_Aerine at 5:51AM, May 30, 2020

Gunwallace: hahaha! I see what you did there XD And I'd probably disappoint on the soap opera front Bravo, but I'm flattered!

marcorossi at 5:33AM, May 30, 2020

The problem, as I see it, is that even when we write about history, we write about stuff that interests us in the present day, so we tend to project our present day views on the past. I personally hatd "the Gladiator" movie because it felt like modern day (american?) moral views projected on ancient Rome, with a lot of realism in details that however hid this sort of psychological distortion, at least in my view. On the other hand, everyone I know thinks "the gladiator" is an awesome movie, if it was an history lession it would be much boring instead.

bravo1102 at 5:01AM, May 30, 2020

This could get very soap operaish very fast if there's a mad rush of people dating Tantzaerine. For example no one would ever mistake Mel Brooks for history even if there are great bits that show what the times were like.

Gunwallace at 3:24AM, May 30, 2020

Wait, we now have permission to date you? Sounds fun.

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