Thursday, May 20, 2010

Historical Accuracy in Fiction

Or, hey, nobody remembers the 13th century anyway!

If you haven't seen the new Robin Hood movie, you may want to skip this post. I'll do my best not to go into any real spoilers, but you may not want to be spoiled by my opinions, either.

My husband and I went to see Robin Hood yesterday. I was hoping it would be another Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe actionfest. I was hoping they'd do something different--like set it in the timeframe of the earliest legends (the time of Edward Longshanks, rather than Richard the Lionheart/John Lackland). I was hoping to love it. What I got was one out of three. It's frustrating, because I really wanted this movie to shine.

There was plenty of action, no doubt about that. One thing this movie didn't lack was a lingering, loving look at the grit, blood and horror of medieval warfare. Real? I'm no expert, so don't ask me. Grim? Well, it came very close to my own personal limit of grimness. There's only so much I can take before I wonder why I'm still watching.

Fortunately, there were moments of relief. I loved the scenes between Robin and Marian. It would have been a much different movie if they'd expanded those moments and limited the battle and gore--a movie not made by Ridley Scott. Que sera, sera.

Still, that's not what bothered me. What bothered me were the things I was being asked to suspend my disbelief about. The loving detail with which the movie tried to portray the "reality" of 13th century life created the false expectation that, a) the characters would act in ways "true" to the way life was then, and, b) historic events would be portrayed at least somewhat accurately.

If this is the "real" 13th century and not some fantasy world? Give me a better foundation to believe a common archer in Richard's crusading army would know how to read and be able to impersonate a nobleman. And while we're at it, stop with the handwaving of history in order to make your hero more Heroic. Wasn't there enough of a reason to find Robin Hood heroic when he was saving the people of Nottingham from oppression? Maybe if it had been done with more finesse, I wouldn't have had a problem with it. I don't know--I'm still trying to figure it out.

YMMV, but I just couldn't take that leap. Don't get me wrong, I'm not sorry I saw Robin Hood in the theater. I (mostly) enjoyed it. I just didn't love it. I don't doubt that in a few months the most I'll remember about it is a vague sense of disappointment. Heck, even Kevin Costner's disaster gave us Alan Rickman's delicious scenery chewing turn as the Sheriff of Nottingham--a performance I still remember with glee.

And that brings me around to writing. If you write about historical events--ancient or otherwise--how do you prefer to handle them? I know some of this will depend on the story, whether your characters are inserted in the event or the event is part of the background. Or do you try to avoid real events at all costs? The question for me is, how far can you go before you risk throwing your reader out of the story? Or maybe that's the wrong question to ask?


Deborah Wright said...

first post to get comments by email!

Alice Sharpe said...

I don't write historical, obviously, but I'll take a stab at it from the POV as a reader/watcher.

For me it's a balancing act. If the story is wonderful and the people are talking a little too twentieth century to be absolutely real, oh well, I'll go along with it. If the romantic tale is wonderful and fulfilling but the movie or book is a little grim in places for me, I'll hang in there, too. But it sounds what happened for you was a story that didn't deliver what it promised or what you anticipated (and looking at reviews, you weren't the only one to shrug your shoulders over this movie...) and so there was little to catch your attention (like Rickman's juicy performance in Costner's debacle.)

I think movie people and writers need to be careful when messing with historical fact -- it's all a matter of record and if you alienate people with half truths or misinformation, well, there goes your audience. And once a writer messes with things a little and I catch it, then I'm wary of everything else they say.

As for all this horrific grimness in movies right now -- no thanks, not for me (Hands over my ears, eyes squeezed shut, singing, La,la,la,la,la,la....)

Paty Jager said...

I won't be watching this movie because I don't watch movies to be scared or made sick with gore and vileness. I can tell by the previews it is something I won't like. I only like lighthearted action/adventure shows. I watched the last Indiana Jones movie last night and it had two spots I had to cover my face. Yes, I'm a wimp. ;)

As for historical- I try to incorporate fact with my fiction. I try to keep the language as it would be at the time of the story. Along with clothing, the customs, and the history. You have to remember most of your historical readers are voracious readers and know the history of the time they like to read, so don't try tot fool them. Keep it as historical as you can.

Deborah Wright said...

You're right, Alice, it didn't deliver. Whether that's the fault of the publicists for setting certain expectations or my own fault, I can't say. And it's weird, because I totally enjoy alternate histories and universes, but this just didn't work for me. Maybe if it had been billed as a "re-imagining of the legend" or something, I might have had a different expectation. I don't know.

As for the grimness, I'm with you, Alice. A little of that goes a very long way for me. At least I know going into any Ridley Scott movie just what I'm in for -- I've known that since Blade Runner. He seems to only have that one visual and thematic style. It's a shame really, because the scenes at the Manor between Robin and Marian prove that he can tell a different kind of story if he chooses.

Deborah Wright said...

You're not a wimp, Paty! You just know what you like. Nothing wrong with that! Most times I'm right there with you.

My husband really wanted to see this movie. Since he goes with me to movies I want to see, even when they aren't really his thing, I figured I should go with him to this one. And I did have hopes for it.

I like your approach for adding history and historical details in your stories. I guess as a reader, I either prefer history in the fiction I read to be accurate, or for the fiction to be an alternate history--what might have happened if some event or events had turned out differently. That kind of "what if" lets the writer take whatever flights of fancy they might want without worries about historical accuracy.

Genene Valleau said...

I don't usually write historical stories because I would want the details to be accurate and I would have to do a lot of research. Since my next novella will include a time machine that travels to the past, I've been doing that research. Fortunately, these will be short forays into the past. Still, I'll find someone who who writes in the time periods my characters visit to double-check for accuracy.

As a reader or movie-goer, I'm pretty forgiving/ ignorant of most historical facts. So if I spot something that seems out of place, that means the writers (or whoever) goofed big time! However, there are some historical facts, such as pretty much everyone had rotten teeth (or is that a myth?) that I really don't want to see displayed on the big screen.

As for gore or lots of violence in movies or books--no thanks. A hint of that "realism" is more than enough for me.

Sorry this movie was mostly a disappointment, but glad you walked away with a few bright spots!