Should we demand accuracy in our historical fiction?

I’ve experienced this thing several times in my life and I’m curious to know if it’s familiar to anyone.

When I don’t know much about a subject, I’ll have a general opinion about it. Then, the more I learn about that subject, I’ll learn nuances I didn’t know before and my opinion will take a sharp left turn. Then, as I learn even more, I mellow out and veer back in the direction of my original take.

Portrait of a Dutch woman from the seventeenth century in dark shirt and large frilled collar
She is judging the shit out of your movie. (Photo: Painting of a woman from the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands. Public domain.)

For example, historical accuracy in works of fiction. I’ve always loved and been interested in history and liked watching period dramas, but in my younger days I didn’t think about it too deeply. If I heard something wasn’t accurate, I might briefly pause to think, “Huh” and then go about my day.

Then, as I started taking more serious history classes and seeing movies and TV depicting topics I knew stuff about, the issue of accuracy suddenly became much more important to me. I felt superior for knowing when things were inaccurate. I liked nit picking all the bits and pieces and reading more into the actual history.

While I still like reading into the actual history, I don’t care as much about all the details of a story being fully accurate anymore. Stories are stories for a reason and sometimes you have to fictionalize stuff. There are a lot of reasons to introduce inaccuracies into your narratives and many of them are fine.

It’s fine. Really, it’s mostly fine.

Let’s explore.

Real life doesn’t follow a neat narrative arc

One of the big real historical reasons people and events get messed with in books and movies is that they have to get messed with to make the story work.

If you’re writing a story, you typically want it to be compelling. That means character growth and an ending following a narrative climax and a timeline that makes sense for a limited runtime or number of written pages.

Two battles actually took place ten years apart or a piece of legislation was actually signed three years after the fact or the king had five close advisors instead of two?

Well, you try cramming in a time skip that makes sense or fully developing five dudes named Thomas so the audience doesn’t get confused and then report back.

Simplifying a story is often the choice that makes narrative sense. It may be sad for the weird nerds who have studied the primary documents, but there are only so many of us in the world.

Changes that are made to help make the story work are fine with me. Unless those changes are made to make the story rote and stale, then I take issue. (More on that below.)

There needs to be a connection for the audience

History is a really fascinating and tricky subject. Learning about how people used to think and behave can shock you, either because people back then are so similar to the way people are today or some of the things people used to think are so different than the way we think now. It’s kind of a weird contrast because sometimes people will do things you totally recognize (drawing graffiti dicks on things) and then do something baffling (shun someone for a seemingly innocuous religious belief).

Because of this, sometimes the story has to fudge history a little to help the audience relate the characters. It’s why you end up with a lot of historical fiction featuring women who want to make love matches and be the equal of their husbands and then start spouting some pretty suspiciously feminist stuff.

Sometimes, also, historical stories can serve as interesting metaphors and comparisons to modern life (science fiction is the genre most notorious for critiquing the present while talking about a different time, but it doesn’t own the concept!).

Marie Antoinette is a great example of this. A lot of the costumes and events are pretty historically accurate but the important thing about this film is not exactly what happens in it. Who cares if all the actors are speaking in their regular voices and not doing accents? Who cares if there’s a modern soundtrack? Sofia Coppola is helping the audience connect by showing how Marie Antoinette and her buddies acted in a way that’s not entirely different from entitled young people in the modern day. And it’s an approach that I think works overall.

We don’t really know exactly how stuff was anyway

We know written language (sometimes) and art (sometimes) and customs (at least some of them). We have access to the artifacts that have existed to today. But not everything made it. And when you can’t interact with the people in their own setting, you can’t know exactly how everything worked.

Stone relief depicting Roman soldiers and horses in the midst of battle
“What’s up?” “Oh, you know, just wondering if this battle could have been carved more accurately.” “Cool. I’m gonna stab you now.” “Dang.” (Photo by Massimo Virgilio on Unsplash)

We have our best guesses, but we don’t know everything. Drop a historian back into the time they’ve studied for years, and they’ll immediately find things they had thought about incorrectly. (This is one of the things I love about Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. How much the historians get wrong.)

Think about all those beautiful marble statues from ancient Greece and Rome. When we watch movies and TV shows, these statues are all pristine white, just like they are today. But it’s been discovered that these statues were actually covered in layers of paint and it’s just been such a long time that most of that paint has chipped away. Are you going to watch a movie set in ancient Rome with painted statues any time soon? Probably not. People still generally think of the white statues when they think about the time. It’d probably cause too much confusion for the audience. So it’s inaccurate. Does that make it wrong?

Keep in mind too that it’s impossible to eliminate bias. That applies to the people who wrote about historical events contemporaneously and the historians who came along afterward and interpreted those events and primary sources.

All that said, I would like to say that there are still some things that stick in my craw. I’m not willing to blanket forgive all inaccuracies.

Following tired tropes doesn’t make a better narrative

Sometimes stories are changed to make more narrative sense. Sometimes they are changed to fit into a set formula. This I do not like. People are messy and complicated and putting them into a paint by numbers script doesn’t do anyone any favors.

Biopics are horrible about this. Fitting a person’s entire life or entire career into a two hour movie is really difficult without completely flattening the person out. Why do we feel the need to this? Why can’t we show certain moments or key events and then lean into the weirdness and individuality that makes people who they are?

These kinds of changes are especially egregious when the person being covered was an outside the box thinker or actor but the movie about them is being forced into a narratively traditional box. I’m thinking of movies like Bohemian Rhapsody that do the real person a huge disservice. (Also The Imitation Game. Why did I have to watch movies about queer men that only showcased them having romantic relationships with women.)

I get making changes to fit a smart and compelling narrative. I don’t get making an interesting person’s interesting life boring and formulaic. That sucks.

Sometimes the real history is more interesting than the fiction

When looking up the history behind a movie before, I’ve discovered sometimes that what actually happened was far more interesting that whatever the movie did. And sometimes I have to wonder why the more interesting, real event wasn’t included.

One of my go to examples for this is Gladiator. Commodus was a bit of a wild card emperor who allegedly dressed up as a gladiator and fought in the games. I overall think his character is done well in the movie and that Joaquin Phoenix is probably the best part of the film.

And I guess dying in the arena sort of fits with the real guy and it makes sense for the movie. But in real life? Commodus was strangled in a bathtub by his wrestling partner Narcissus. And this was after an initial failed assassination attempt to poison him.

Uh, what! That’s wild. Work that into the movie, dude!

In addition, I think it’s worth pointing out who gets their story told at all. There are so many incredible interesting historical figures out there who have never had a movie made about them because they are the sort of people that tend to get overlooked. Instead of another biopic about a white guy who did a thing, could we get more movies about awesome bisexual sword fighting nuns/opera singers? (Julie d’Aubigny ruled. Make a movie about her!)

Ultimately, is it an entertainer’s job to present historical people’s lives and historical events accurately?

I’m not convinced. While a show or movie might be someone’s only reference point to history and it can certainly warp their view of the past, popular media can also serve as jumping off points for people to dig into these subjects more.

I’m less concerned about whether a dress has the right flounces or a battle takes place the right year than I am about producers falsifying stories to the point where they can become directly harmful. (Big side eye to every story that whitewashes real people or pretends people of color didn’t exist several hundred years ago.)

In a lot of cases, inaccuracies can be annoying for someone who knows a lot about the subject, but I guess you just kind of have to get over it. Nit picking something to do death is not really the most helpful form of critique.

To crib a quote from our buddy Maximus, it’s more important whether you’ve been entertained.

Don’t worry about it so much!

Unless it’s a Mel Gibson movie. Drag him through the mud.

One thought on “Should we demand accuracy in our historical fiction?

  1. I have the same feelings about books becoming movies–especially LotR! Several characters completely left out and changing the femaie roles to be different than they were. I’ve come to terms with it in the 20 years since the movies came out but really…. Now you can laugh at me because who does it hurt if a fictional book (iconic as it is) gets messed with when made into a movie.


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