Historical dramas can be the perfect form of escapism, allowing viewers to lose themselves in a time period long forgotten. On the other hand, they've also been known to provide endless frustration for history buffs who can't help but notice the sea of factual inaccuracies on the screen.
Producing an accurate yet entertaining depiction of history is a challenge. Script writers love to put their own creative spin on the truth, but there's a fine line between dramatization and pure fiction.
So where do we draw that line? Is it fair to present a skewed version of history? Are modern period dramas actually doing more harm than good? And does it even matter?
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Do Historical Dramas Spread Misinformation?
If everything depicted in historical dramas were taken as truth, there'd a lot of alternative facts floating around. For example, Outlander features a witch trial, even though they'd ceased to exist by that time; The Tudors borrows bits and pieces from both the Victorian and Elizabethan era; and Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette features some rather interesting shoe choices.
Of course, these additions are obviously nothing more than writers taking creative liberties with their source material— and in Coppola's case, utilizing obvious metaphors. But the thing is, some people do take what they see in historical dramas as truth. Not every viewer is going to take the time to do their own fact checking outside of what they've seen on screen.
But is it really the responsibility of the producers to provide a 100% accurate portrayal of history, just in case their viewers lack the ability to think critically or use Google? It depends on how it's marketed. There's a big difference between peddling something that's part fiction as pure truth, and acknowledging the fictional element of a story that was based on real events.
This is very much true for Michael Hirst, creator of History's Vikings. Hirst has long been criticized for emphasizing how historically accurate #Vikings is. However, not only does the show's narrative mix-and-match historic figures from different time periods — often portraying them as close relatives — but his source material is Viking sagas, which contain a large amount of myth mixed in with the facts.
Hirst recently stated in his Reddit AMA: "I'm not writing a documentary, I'm writing a drama"— no doubt a response to the negative feedback he's seen from history buffs. Show writers may not be required to make such clear disclaimers for their productions, but there's a whole community of historians who definitely expect it.
Audiences Expect A Certain Aesthetic
Allegations of alternative facts aside, the criticism surrounding historical dramas often have more to do with visual elements than the narrative.
Looking again at Vikings, it's obvious that the show takes a fair bit of inspiration from modern, post-apocalyptic sci-fi narratives. Their tough leather armor has some serious Mad Max vibes going on, and the organic color scheme matches perfectly with the Scandinavian forest.
The same earthy palette can be found in Outlander, a show set during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1743. The Scotsmen proudly sport a uniform of grey-blue plaid tartans to symbolize their clan, blending in with the perpetually overcast Highland skies.
As aesthetically pleasing as these costumes are, they're a far cry from the color schemes appropriate to those time periods. First of all, Vikings often wore bright colors like red and yellow, and were more partial to tunics than chest plates.
As for #Outlander, the real highlanders were also quite fond of bright shades— there's a reason red plaid is often what comes to mind when one thinks of Scottish culture. And clan tartans? Many historians agree that they didn't become a "thing" until after the Jacobite Rebellion.
It's an endless source of frustration for historians, but there's some sound logic behind it. People are finicky. A consistent aesthetic of muted tones that visually match everything else in the scene is far more likely to appease an audience than being assaulted by splashes of garish red and yellow. They're trying to market these shows to the masses and ensure longevity, not give historians a chance to nerd out for a single season before the network pulls the plug.
The downfall to this is that viewers may think they're developing an appreciation of a specific aspect of a historic culture, only to find out that what they've come to love is actually only a stylized version of the real deal. It's not quite false advertising, but it may be setting people up for disappointment.
...and so does romance. Vikings features so many alternative relationship dynamics that you'd be forgiven for thinking free love rated just as highly on the average Viking's agenda as pillaging. There's no actual evidence to suggest that Vikings were having threesomes and sharing married women on the regular; nevertheless, the show has taken that culture's relaxed attitude towards sex and used it as license to write some seriously raunchy plot lines— like the controversial lesbian sex scene in Season 4.
In #Victoria, the young queen is shown to be quite infatuated with Lord Melbourne. But historians have argued that there's absolutely nothing to suggest this— in fact, her own diary entries indicate that she simply admired him as her mentor. That's a pretty big leap to make, especially when you consider this is a respected figure from the British royal family.
Again, the key here is acknowledging the dramatized elements of history. Rather than getting up in arms about show writers spreading a skewed representation of real events, consider the audience these shows are pandering to.
And if in doubt of the facts, get Googling! Don't forget: even Paranormal Activity was said to be based on real events, and yet a quick Google search quickly disproves any illusions of the director suffering real-life hauntings.
History Doesn't Always Tell The Whole Story
Whilst historical dramas have a tendency to ignore the facts in favor of a more exciting story, they also often include elements that can be neither proven nor disproven by any historian. In doing so, they add colorful details that may or may not have happened.
This is often the case when the source material itself is either unclear or outright lacking. The film Becoming Jane is the perfect example of this. It explores the life of a author Jane Austen as she becomes quite close with a man named Thomas Lefroy. The foundation of the movie is based off real letters between Austen and her sister.
The movie tells quite the tale of romance. Unable to marry due to their financial incompatibility and disapproval from Lefroy's family, the pair decide to elope. At the last minute, Austen changes her mind, unable to see Lefroy cut off from his only source of financial support if he were to wed her. They part ways, and Austen never marries.
The film hits quite close to the mark in terms of what historians say happened in Austen's life, except for one detail: there's never been any evidence to suggest that Austen and Lefroy attempted to elope. In real life, their hopes to marry were quashed, and they parted ways. The most dramatic, emotional event in the film actually never happened; but if the script writers had chosen to stay completely faithful to what the history books tell us, Becoming Jane wouldn't be half as riveting.
Sometimes, writing creative historical dramas isn't about changing what happened; it's about looking at the missing gaps in the story and daring to ask, "What if?"
Do you think period dramas should be more historically accurate?
[Poll image credit: Colombia Pictures]