The Great Debate: Should Historical Fiction Be Accurate?
Sophie McMahon, Commentary Print Editor
Ever since I bought my first book from Philippa Gregory (an English novelist and University of Sussex alumnus), the question of whether historical fiction has to be accurate has been a question I have pondered. It is a delicate and multidimensional question to answer, especially since the term “exact” is perhaps too scientific to apply to an art (it is a debate for another day).
The “correctness” of the story is questionable, given that it is (at least to some extent) a tapestry of accepted truths that has been woven from the threads of all surviving sources. Why do I feel writers owe such a duty to their readers to provide an accurate description of the person, place or time they are writing about?
Books (as well as movies and TV shows) can be a window into periods of history that you may not know much about. The problem is that some writers can mix fact and fiction in a fantastic way, making it difficult for most of us to distinguish between the two. So much so that in 2017, John Guy wrote an article for The Guardian which claimed that students were citing authors like Hilary Mantel, in applications to Cambridge to read the story. With his works “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” being among the most recognized and award-winning historical fiction books, it begs the question of how each of us are supposed to know what is right and wrong, if even the most educated young people are fooled.
To me, this means that writers have a certain obligation not to tarnish the pages of their novel with deliberate lies, or worse, anachronisms. In an age when virtually everyone has access to the Internet in one way or another, it seems that major inaccuracies are simply due to shoddy research, but are credited as a historic license.
People read or watch historical fiction rather than documentaries or history books because they like a little storytelling and a certain atmosphere, which I totally understand. It is important to stress that I am not claiming that nothing in a historical fiction novel cannot be invented, in fact that would place it in an entirely different genre. I tend to agree with Kristen McQuinn who wrote in Book Riot that “only the worst pedants would expect a totally servile adherence to historical facts in a work of fiction.” It’s about using the facts, but also making the fiction obvious.
Philippa Gregory does a great job of mixing fact and fiction in an excerpt from her book, The Taming of the Queen. In it, Katherine Parr sat down for a painting of the family she had just reunited; Mary, Elizabeth, Edward and King Henry VIII, by whom he was commissioned. When the portrait was unveiled, it turned out that Katherine had been replaced by Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour. The painting exists as “The Family of Henry VIII” and has been dated 1544, the year after Katherine became queen. There’s (as far as I’ve found) no evidence that she sat down for Jane, but that’s not exactly implausible given when it was painted. This type of artistic license makes the resurrection of the Tudor family, which is arguably the most written about monarchs, a little more exciting by creating drama but without changing any significant historical details.
In addition, the book also contains made-up dialogues, but I hope readers will know that no conversation between two people who lived 500 years ago would survive to the present day. Notably because it probably wouldn’t have been written.
The story is fascinating as it is. With the right research in the right area, a good writer can make a story with the fewest number of facts, using their imagination to fill in the gaps. In trying to make the same stories more interesting, some writers have manipulated the story or forged something that never happened. Considering the influence these books can have, not only do they tarnish the genre, but they also dangerously mark a figure or period with a particular image that is not supported by any evidence.
By reading a book or watching a movie, I want to be immersed in a world that I believe in. Without fact, a historical world does not really exist. Realism is not required, but authenticity is.
If you are a writer who is not up for research, forget about the story, try writing fiction instead.
Simon Edwards, Online Commentary Editor
Historical fiction’s inattention to accuracy is generally derided more in historically based films. From the cartoon bravado of 300 (2006) to the “Lost Cause” propagating the epic of the Civil War Gods and generals (2003), inaccurate historical feature films are easy targets for cheap laughs and tired historian rebuttals. However, precision is a complex subject, often contradictory and often exaggerated; well-documented fiction taking intentional liberties can, and does create, much more powerful emotional truths than slavish devotion to facts.
Biopics are easily cited examples of films where historiographical errors anger viewers: the majestically camp lie of Winston Churchill’s underground existential conversations in Darkest hour (2017) is a clear example. That said, some of the genre’s most powerful films are riddled with fabrications and exaggerations. that of Pablo Larraín Jackie (2015) and to come Spencer (2021) blend meticulous research with semi-fantastic narratives: The crisp recreations of Jackie’s experiences before and after her husband’s murder align perfectly with the fantastical moments, and both are central to the film’s immersive tragedy. . Some biopics go further, with films like Amadeus (1984), whose director openly declared it “fantasia” based on the apocryphal rivalry between Mozart and Salieri, representing both a powerful historical truth and a total fiction in synthesis.
The ability of historical cinema to stimulate emotional reactions to the past undoubtedly requires precision, but invention has its place. For many moviegoers, the most powerful portrayal of the horrors of the Holocaust is Spielberg’s Schindler’s list (1993). Aside from the occasional changes imposed by the narrative, the film is a faithful and powerful account of the life of Oskar Schindler and a flawless portrayal of the attempted extermination of the Jewish population of Krakow; its strength lies in its accuracy, which allows it to communicate a truth that many consider almost documentary.
There are, however, other films that courageously tackle the subject, less focused on documentary realism but a powerful fictional evocation, with equally successful results, if not more. Son of Saul (2015), a Hungarian drama set in Auschwitz in 1944, captures a level of brutality that Spielberg’s epic fails to match, while telling an entirely fictional tale that an Auschwitz Memorial review described as “Not focused on reconstructing the details but on the spirit and atmosphere of these historical events”. Conversely, the Oscar-winning film by Roberto Benigni Life is Beautiful (1997), about an Italian Jewish man protecting his family while interned in a concentration camp, provides a daringly fictionalized portrayal of the Holocaust that invokes both slapstick humor and pathos. The degree to which each of these films is “accurate” varies, but all of them leave their audiences with a truly powerful understanding of the Holocaust.
The notion of “accuracy” deserves to be questioned; the ever-changing nature of history complicates the value of slavish realism, as research can challenge even basic “truths”. A night to remember (1958) – a personal favorite – is a well-documented drama based on the sinking of the Titanic. Based on a book of survivors’ testimonies, it is both “a moving portrayal of Britishness in crisis,” according to Mark Kermode, and the most meticulously filmed Titanic ever to be screened. Titanic (1997) relied heavily on his camera work, research, but instead focused on a fictional plot of young love, diamond heists, and rejected playboys chasing Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet with a gun. .
On the surface (unintentional pun), it’s pretty clear which of the films is the ‘real’ story of the shipwreck – Remember unwavering attention to detail makes it a favorite among aspiring Titanic enthusiasts. However, the film absolutely fails to capture the truth of the shipwreck due to a fatal flaw, which Titanic gets right – in Remember, the ship sinks intact, when in truth, in agony, the hull was torn in two. The reason for this blunder is simple: in 1958, this is how official reports understood that the ship had sunk. Many dissenting testimonies were rejected and were only corroborated in 1986 with Robert Ballad’s discovery of the wreck on the Atlantic seabed.
The question is therefore: which film is more precise? The 1958 film, totally faithful to later refuted facts, or the 1997 fictional romance that captured a more realistic portrayal of the shipwreck than its predecessor, despite many young fans believing the ship to be fictional anyway. ? History is not always static and its truths are not set in stone. Rather than slavishly obeying the facts, historical fiction should focus on capturing a tone, a spirit, that facilitates a great story. Stories that last and inspire for generations are worth a few misplaced swords and glitter.