Unlock the historical genre of film and television (definition and examples)

Step into the past with the historical genre of film and television.

We all know that Hollywood has a preference for ideas based on intellectual property that the public recognizes. Well, if you don’t have access to famous books or other popular properties, you need to find stuff in the public domain. One of the easiest and most marketable items to use for movie and TV ideas is a historical event. Major historical events and people are all free to use. You can adapt their lives or singular events and turn them into hot properties. And it all falls into the historical genre of film and television.

Today we are going to unlock the historical genre in film and television. We’ll talk about biopics, events, epics, and even alternate history. And I’ll make sure you get definitions and examples for each one.

So let’s jump in!

‘Gladiator’Credit: Universal images

Unlock the historical genre of film and television (definition and examples)

Genres can be difficult to unlock. There are a lot of nuances involved. There are many types of historical films, so I’ll go through them one by one and give you some specific definitions and examples. But first, let’s talk about what classifies a film in the historical genre.

Historical definition of film and television genre

A historical film is a film or TV show centered on past events set in a specific historical period.

This genre covers movies and TV shows like biopics, costume dramas, alternate history, and epics. There are two types of historical movies and TV shows – the first deals with real events and dramatizes them. The second chooses a period of time and invents things within this period. Each will bend these lines to come up with the best narrative.

The historical genre of film and television
’12 years of slavery’Credit: Plan B

Historical Examples of Movies and TV Genres

As I said up top, many examples fall into a wide range of different subcategories. Each of these categories has its own tropes, characters, and storytelling devices. Moreover, many of these categories overlap with each other. So you could have things like an epic biopic or an alternate history. There’s a lot that writers and directors can play with here.

Let’s represent them together.

The historical genre of film and television
“Hamiltons”Credit: Disney+

Biopics / Biographical TV Shows

A biopic, or biopic for short (pronounced “bio-pick”), is a film that tells the life story of a non-fictional or historical person. Biopics use the central characters to show an important discovery, a period in history, or a dramatically relevant time in their lives to tell a contemporary lesson.

You will often see television and movies take historical figures and dramatize the events of their lives to tell us a story. Examples include Baz Luhrmannit is Elvisby Spielberg lincolnthe HBO limited series John Adamsand Netflix Quail in black and white.

The historical genre of film and television
‘Elvis’Credit: Warner Bros.

Movies and TV shows about historical events

Movies and TV shows centered around a historical event choose a very specific moment in time and then dramatize the events around it.

Examples range from Ron Howard Apollo 13 to Steven McQueen 12 years of slavery. These two films cover very different lengths of time, but both focus on one point in the characters’ lives.

When it comes to TV shows, we often see them working to extrapolate these events into larger stories. Think of a show like The crown, which takes certain events in the lives of the Royals and distills them into character arcs. Or even Band of brotherswhich uses specific episodes to talk about life during World War II.

historical genre of film and television
‘Apollo 13’Credit: Dream works

Epic Movies and TV Shows

The epic is one of the most famous subgenres of historical movies and TV shows. Epics are large-scale films and television shows that use current technology, huge production values, and emphasize spectacle in large-scale battle scenes and action sets to dramatize the things from the past.

These examples would include movies like Lawrence of Arabia, Brave heartand Gettysburg with HBO series like Chernobyl and even those of Netflix The Borgias.

The historical genre of film and television
‘Brave heart’Credit: Paramount Pictures

Historical fiction films and television

What happens when someone invents something that takes place in a specific historical time? Well, that’s how you get the historical fiction subgenre. It is defined as the the plot takes place in the past but is fictional.

Shows like Great and Peaky Blinders take place in the past during real events but are mostly fiction. movies like New York Gangs and Forrest Gump all contain real parts of the story, but fictional characters live them as they happen.

The historical genre of film and television
‘Great’Credit: Hulu

Period piece

In the world of film and television, a period piece is a film, television series, or miniseries that is set during an earlier part of history. Period pieces usually have high budgets and require extra effort to ensure audiences are transported to the past.

This is another subgenre with a lot of crossover. For instance, stranger things is a science fiction period piece. Or what about a movie like Dangerous Liaisons, which is set in the past but has a modern twist? Many period plays are also juxtaposed with costume dramas, such as Bridgertonwhich also incorporates historical fiction and almost fits into a fantasy world.

The historical genre of film and television
‘Peaky Blinders’Credit: netflix

Alternate history

Last but not least is the alternate history. This is where we track the historical events of a certain time, but key elements are changed to change the results of those events.

Quentin Tarantino has that in his world building with movies like Inglourious Basterds and Once upon a time in Hollywood. We also see the AppleTV series For all mankind do that when it comes to the Apollo lunar missions. You could even bring Forrest Gump back here for showing real past events but tweaking his involvement.

It’s also a very interesting way to subvert audience expectations and make sure you keep them guessing.

The historical genre of film and television
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”Credit: Sony Pictures

Summary of the historical genre of film and television (definition and examples)

As you can see, there’s a lot to unpack when it comes to this genre of film and TV. As you look at all the examples and definitions, I hope you can find inspiration for your next project. They’re really interesting ways to get into much bigger stories, and they have fun and exciting characters that are popular with modern audiences and appeal to a wide range of on-screen viewers.

Let me know your favorites in the comments.

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