Friday, November 13, 2009

History and fiction: The good, the bad, the ugly and the just plain dull

Now that my university coursework is over for this year, I’m planning to spend some time over the summer doing some creative writing. Yes, I am one of those students of history who also harbours a secret longing to write historical fiction. Medieval mystery/crime fiction, to be exact. (I confess, I’m a walking cliché.) I have a few chapters written and a vague plot outline but I don’t really expect to produce anything as substantial as a complete first draft any time soon. For me, fiction writing is primarily a form of relaxation, a way of escaping the constraints and conventions of the academic and business writing that consumes so much of my time. (This blog is another such outlet, where the rules don’t apply.)

Having said that, I do take my fiction writing seriously in the sense that I’m aware of, and try to avoid, most of the dreadful clangers discussed so passionately here. Many historians find historical fiction hard to read (or watch) not necessarily because the authors may bend the facts a bit to suit their plot, but because of their tendency to have their 14th or 16th or 18th century characters act, think, and believe in thoroughly 21st century modes. Thus, you get 14th century serving wenches espousing the values of third-wave feminism and 16th century atheists who declare their rational faith in science instead of God. (The renowned French historian Lucien Febvre wrote a fascinating and very readable book, The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais, in which he argued that 16th century French language did not contain the words or constructs - as he put it, ‘l’outillage mentale’ - to even *think* an idea like atheism as we know it today.)

Personally, I don't mind a bit of anachronism in my historical fiction, whether literary or cinematic, provided it's well-written or well-acted and, as Maximus said, I am entertained. Topping my list of execrable historical films is Kingdom of Heaven. On paper (and barring Orlando Bloom), this film had all the elements to make for top-notch cinema. Ridley Scott, crusading knights, Saladin, a leprous king and dirty dynastic dealings over a disputed crown (Ha! I could have said ‘diadem’ there, but enough alliteration for one day)… even if you took no liberties at all with the historical record you’d have a rollicking story. I just don’t understand how it could turn out so absolutely lifeless. Poor old Jeremy Irons spent most of the movie looking like he wished he were anywhere else. Running a close second is Alexander, although it must be said that this film at least had some unintentional humour value. I laughed out loud at Colin Farrell’s appalling bleach job, which made him look like a regular at Hair Jude in Levin. And why on earth did everyone have fake Irish accents? It was like something out of Monty Python.

On the positive side of the ledger I put The Name of the Rose, which manages to pull off an almost impossible mélange of papal and royal intrigue, Aristotelian science versus ‘dark ages’ superstition, apocalyptic prophecies, witchcraft, heresy, demonic possession and a visit from celebrity Inquisitor Bernardo Gui. Oh, and there are a bunch of gruesome murders to be solved by Sean Connery, playing the kind of monk one perhaps wishes hadn’t taken a vow of celibacy. And from the land of the small screen comes my current Sunday night indulgence, The Tudors. I’m not sure how historically accurate this series is (any Tudor scholars out there care to weigh in on this?), but the extremely high production values and the quality of the writing and acting lift it out of the usual run of historico-romantic television schmaltz.

Speaking of schmaltz, I’ve had a kind of hankering lately to watch Shogun again, although I suspect my present self would probably be aghast at it’s mixture of Anglo-centric superiority and rampant orientalism. Whereas my past self was too busy being dazzled by Richard Chamberlain’s samurai swashbuckling. Ah, the early 80s, when Richard Chamberlain reigned as indisputable king of the historical mini-series. Actually, that must have been a pretty new television genre back then. Anyone know what the first historical mini-series was? My memories reach back as far as the mid-70s television phenomenon that was Roots, but was there anything before that?

Anyway, back to my obsession with The Tudors. I'm watching the third series and I’m liking the way the writers have managed to incorporate the complexities of European politics and religious upheaval during this period, instead of just doing the standard romanticised 'six wives' story. They’re not shying away from showing Henry VIII's sociopathic bullying and his anxieties about failing to measure up to François Ier in the Renaissance prince stakes, either. Also, without suddenly making Henry wear a fat suit or start dribbling, the director has managed to convey his increasing dissipation and hint at the horrors to come (which can't be easy for the crew, given Henry is played by the rather dishy Jonathan Rhys Meyers).

Incidentally, I’m no fan of the psychohistory (that is, seeking the answers to questions about complex historical change in the personality quirks of so-called ‘great men’), but out of curiosity I looked up ‘sociopath’ and found these amongst the signs listed in the DSM. If the shoe fits, Henry…

  1. Inability to make or keep friends, or maintain relationships such as marriage - check. (In no small part because he keeps having his nearest and dearest executed.)
  2. Apparent lack of remorse or empathy; inability to care about hurting others - check. (See under 1, above.)
  3. Impulsivity and/or recklessness - check. (“Have you got me my divorce yet? Screw the pope, let’s make ME head of the Church of England!”)
  4. Poor behavioural controls — expressions of irritability, annoyance, impatience, threats, aggression, and verbal abuse; inadequate control of anger and temper - Uh, check, check, check, check and check.
  5. Narcissism, elevated self-appraisal or a sense of extreme entitlement -check. (But I’m inclined to give him a pass on this one. He is King of England, after all…)
  6. Tendency to violate the boundaries and rights of others - check. (See under 1, above. See also, ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’.)


RPS77 said...

I originally wanted to see both Kingdom of Heaven and Alexander, but heard so many negative comments about them on TV and online that I decided to skip them both. It sounds like I made a good decision.

Most of the historical novels that I have read have either been set in US history or are of the "alternate history" genre, which has its own set of issues that is similar in some ways to historical fiction, and quite different in other ways. One novel set in the Middle Ages that I remember liking was Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth. If I remember correctly, it did suffer some from the problem of having some characters with anachronistically "modern" attitudes. I do think, though, that it did do a pretty good job of showing, on the one hand, the combination of casual brutality, frequent death and suffering, and a sternly practical "just get by and survive, and don't waste time thinking about anything that doesn't concern you and your family" attitude toward life, and on the other hand, deep religious faith and moments of beauty and high ideals, that really did characterize that period of history. Another sort-of historical novel set in the Middle Ages that I remember liking was actually Michael Crichton's Timeline, which is largely science fiction because it involves something that is akin to time travel, but is not actually time travel (it's complicated). The movie was terrible, but the book was pretty good at capturing some of the major differences between how modern people and 14th century Europeans think and act, and it shows the "time-traveling" moderns frequently finding things that are quite different from what they expected, even though some of them are trained historians in the period.

Bavardess said...

Oh, I loved Pillars of the Earth. I read it before I started studying history, and the thing that really stands out as memorable is how much it made me appreciate the combination of deep religious conviction, artistic vision and incredible craftsmanship that went into building the great medieval cathedrals. I'm planning to read the sequel, World Without End, over the summer, but it will be interesting to see if I respond to it with the same naive enjoyment I had when I read Pillars. I see they're making Pillars of the Earth into a TV series - I hope it's as good as The Tudors!

Ha! You've just reminded me that I saw that movie Timeline on DVD a couple of years ago (though I haven't read the book). It was pretty funny - especially the bit where the archeology students from the future 'introduced' Greek fire into 14th century warfare.

clio's disciple said...

Most of the "medieval" fiction I've liked has a time-travel or otherwise sci-fi-ish spin. I quite liked Connie Willis's Doomsday Book, for example.

But in general I do avoid fiction set in the Middle Ages; often it has the anachronism problem you mention, and when it doesn't it still runs against MY mental picture of the period and I put it down, grumbling.

Bavardess said...

When novels are overtly alternative history or involve science fiction/fantasy elements, I think that sidesteps the whole anachronism problem. It's usually when people are trying to create a 'realistic' narrative about people in the past that they run into problems. My taste tends to run to naturalistic writing (though I do like magical realism), so I don't read that much sci-fi/fantasy. (But if you're looking for time-travel history, best to avoid the movie version of Timeline!)

Good Enough Woman said...

I haven't seen Name of the Rose b/c I still hope to finish the novel, which I've started twice and LOVED but have put down because of some other shiny distraction.

Thoughts on C.J. Sansom? I have Dissolution on my shelf.

Bavardess said...

GEW, I loved the novel The Name of the Rose, too. I've read it two or three times (I have no problems re-reading books I've loved, and Umberto Eco's writing is so rich and multi-layered that I always get something new out of it). I don't think the film version will ruin the book for you, because the book is about so much more than just 'whodunnit'. It is definitely top of my list of 'good book-to-film adaptations' (perhaps a list for a future post).

I haven't read Sansom's medieval mysteries, though Winter in Madrid, which is set in Spain after the Spanish Civil War, was pretty good. I see that like Paul Doherty, he has a PhD in history. I like Doherty's medieval mysteries, but his continued insistence that Elizabeth I secretly had a baby with Robert Dudley (the topic of a recent breathless History Channel 'documentary') seriously irritates me. I want to yell at him, 'Stick to fiction, man!'

Bardiac said...

Is it bad to confess that I've enjoyed the Brother Cadfael tv shows more than once?

I'd love to see the Tudors series; maybe the local library will get a copy. :)

I remember the brouhaha about Roots, and how we all watched it and talked about it at school.

I have to say, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is one of the BEST medieval-set movies ever; once you've read a couple dozen romances, it just totally works.

Janice said...

"The Tudors" lost me with the first season choice to combine Henry's two sisters (Margaret who married into the Scots royal family and Mary who wed the French king before taking up with Henry's best bud, Charles Brandon) into one who somehow got married to the king of Portugal.

I don't mind fiction. I mind historical fiction parading as history!

Bavardess said...

Bardiac - they haven't played the Brother Cadfael mysteries on television here, yet, but rest assured that if they do, I will be tuning in. I must watch MP and the Holy Grail again - it's been years since I last saw it.

Janice - Thanks! Now I understand why I was getting so confused about the Margaret/Mary character. They should put a health warning or something at the beginning of the show - 'For recreational purposes only. Not to be taken as a source for history essays.'

dr ngo said...

WRT the origins of "mini-series," this is, strictly speaking, an American concept dating from the early 1970s, not long before "Roots" (so your memory is pretty good, at least if my memory is a judge).

It arose from the binary division of entertainment on American TV prior to that date. There were two basic forms: (1) The Series, whether comedic ("sit-coms") or dramatic (westerns, police procedurals, or soap operas), which was conceived as perpetual. Things "happened," but nothing ever changed, so that you could come back week after week and find Kojak still sucking his lollipop and Archie Bunker muttering "You meathead!," just as before, and after, and always. (2) The TV Movie (or "play"), which, like conventional theatre drama, had a beginning, a middle, and an ending, all wrapped up within two hours.

The "mini-series" broke this mold by conceiving of - and selling! - the idea of a story with a beginning, middle, and end (like a Movie), but continuing on for more than one episode (like a Series). It assumed that there might actually be an audience who might *remember* developments from one episode to the next, which had never been required before, by either the Movie (which had no sequel) or the Series (in which nothing changed). In that respect, it was a daring innovation.

(Of course the Brits, among others, had been doing it for years. Cf. "The Forsyte Saga" and many other BBC epics which took literary works [with beginning, middle, and end] and spread them out over as many weeks as it took to tell the story properly. But since that wasn't American, it didn't count. Now back to our story.)

As I recall - and this is far too fine a flight of reverie to be sullied by mere research! - the first "mini-series" labelled as such was the melodramatic "Rich Man, Poor Man." "Roots" may well have been the first "historical" one (since we're not counting "The Forsyte Saga," as un-American as it was), and "Shogun" followed not long after.

As always, YMMV.

Bavardess said...

'The Forsyte Saga'! I remember that (though I was probably watching re-runs). That reminds me of that other great Brit series, which I believe qualifies as historical mini-series (or historical soap opera?), 'The Onedin Line'. The opening credits with that big old schooner under full sail always made me want to run away to sea.

dr ngo said...

The Onedin Line was a long-running series - nearly a decade - which fully qualified as a "historical soap opera," IMHO.

Phil Paine said...

I'm particularly fond of "Hour of the Pig" (also released as "The Advocate", a small-scale film set in Medieval France. []. Great care seems to have been taken with this one, considering the small budget. Fine performances by Colin Firth, Nicol Williamson, Ian Holm and Donald Pleasence.

I also have a soft spot for the critically much-panned "Rapa Nui", filmed on Easter Island, which provided a bit non-local work for some talented Maori actors. Here the "history" is speculation based on the disputed theories of archaeologists and paleo-ecologists.

Bavardess said...

Thanks, Phil (and welcome). 'The Advocate' is another film I'd seen and forgotten about. I must add it to my list of movies to watch again. I haven't seen 'Rapa Nui' - did it star the ubiquitous Cliff Curtis? (The 'Maori for all seasons' - I've seen him convincingly play people of Iranian, Mexican and Indian ethnicity.)

Chris Laning said...

I haven't seen it, but I can tell you that the clothing depicted in the Tudors series is absolutely dreadful -- that is, if you think that clothing in a historical series ought to make something resembling a good-faith attempt to represent the actual clothing of the period. Hairstyles even more so. The opinions of the clothing historians I know have mixed fits of hysterical laughter with shudders of horror in about equal measure.

I think what gives historians of a given period fits is not so much directors taking liberties with history; it's that they persist in presenting and advertising their films as "history" when they are heavily fictionized (especially when they take wild liberties with the plots). The movie "Elizabeth" even put up a curriculum guide for teachers, for heaven's sake.

There's an inherent bias that leads audiences to take film as fact simply because of the vividness of the presentation. And films sell so much better if you can delude the audience into thinking it's being "educated" as well as entertained....

Bavardess said...

The clothing?? Part of the attraction of The Tudors amongst my acquaintance is the amount of time some of the cast spend wearing so little of it! They do always seem ridiculously clean, shiny and vermin-free for the 16th century.

You're right about the vividness of film being enough to convince people it must be true. I didn't know that about the film 'Elizabeth', but it reminds me of the offer of curriculum guides from the London Dungeon. (I wrote about that here: