It would be great if every work of fiction set in the past had impeccable historical reconstruction, without the slightest hint of errors or inaccuracies. However, this is impossible. Every adaptation is a betrayal, and this must be taken into account when analyzing a historical film or novel.
Some time ago, Professor of Roman history Domitilla Campanile held an online lecture on Roman history in cinema. Some of her reflections merged into this article, which compares the desire for accuracy with the needs of writers, screenwriters, and producers. Because not always the latter are wrong (even though usually historical accuracy is not their priority).
Why Historical Films and Novels Must Be Inaccurate
This might sound like a strong assertion, especially considering that a big part of the blog focuses on errors and manipulations of history in films and novels. However, in the transposition of historical events into entertainment products, some changes are inevitable. Particularly, when analyzing a historical film or novel, we must always keep in mind three elements.
- Producers and publishers’ goal is not the advancement of research, but profit. Films and novels are distributed by companies that need to generate profits. They do not possess the expertise or intention to present themselves as research centres.
- Historical accuracy is expensive. This is especially true for films and TV series, as will be better understood later.
- Stories must follow the storytelling rules. A historical event cannot be transported onto the page without adaptation: this means that the moment the writer decides to create a historical film or novel, he/she is already considering modifying, at least in part, real history.
Combining historical reality with fiction entails several problems, related both to production and narration. Regarding production, two factors come into conflict with historical accuracy: the pursuit of profit and production costs.
Pursuit of Profit
For a novel or film to come to light, they must have an audience. Without an audience, there are no sales. And no sales means failure. To address this issue, publishing houses and film producers must take into account who will purchase their products. Yet, this risks becoming a chase after audience preferences and trends, disregarding historical reality in the pursuit of pure profit.
A famous example is “Quo Vadis?” from 1951, based on the 19th-century novel of the same name and set during the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. The film bears the traumatic experience of World War II, and to create a clear contrast between the good (the protagonists) and the villains (Nero and the corrupt Romans in power), it introduces an absurd anachronism: the Praetorians wear black armour, are sadistic, and perform the Roman salute. They have turned into SS officers serving the mad dictator Nero. In American films, Rome begins to be portrayed as the empire of evil, and the parallel between antiquity and Nazism/Fascism continues to be revisited in the following years. A folly, which yet doesn’t prevent “Quo Vadis?” being the highest-grossing film of 1951.
An example from “300”
Another reason for catering to the audience’s desires at the expense of historical fidelity is the epic nature of historical films. If ancient Egyptians, Greeks, or Romans are involved, the story must be dramatic and spectacular.
Such a demand affects the writing, which often discards historical coherence to create epic yet absurd scenes, as seen in the most famous scene of “300.” The Spartan king Leonidas receives the Persian ambassador who demands earth and water, a formula indicating the submission of a people. In historical reality, Leonidas refuses, and the ambassadors leave unharmed. For the Greeks, hospitality (xenia) was a sacred value, and attacking a guest, even from an enemy country, would have been a grave offence.
But a civil farewell between representatives of opposing factions isn’t interesting enough for cinema standards. So, the Persians are dramatically thrown into an absurdly wide and deep pit, which has no reason to exist other than as a spectacular backdrop for one of the most epic scenes of recent years. Is it inaccurate? Certainly. Did the film benefit from this spectacular revision? Absolutely.
Novels do not have to deal with technical and budgetary issues and can be more accurate. A detailed description of an environment that is as close as possible to historical truth requires the writer to exert more effort and spend more hours on research, but it does not entail economic costs as in films.
Two factors, in particular, contribute to escalating production costs in cinema and TV.
- Historical films are (almost always) epics. No one would watch a film featuring Julius Caesar or Ramses II with minimalist sets. Since the 1950s, the historical genre has been linked to the concept of epics, and the audience expects epic stories. More intimate and low-budget stories are passable only for some periods, such as the Middle Ages. Moreover, the medieval setting lends itself to films with a strong spiritual component and slow pacing, unacceptable for periods like the Roman Empire or pharaonic Egypt.
- Proper material reconstruction is expensive. Costs depend not only on the realistic reproduction of artefacts, sets, costumes, and so on, but also on the people working on the film, which can become an unsustainable expense. For example, stirrups are present in almost all films set in the ancient world, even though they only arrived in Europe in the 6th-7th century AD. The choice to include them despite being an obvious anachronism has many reasons, but the most significant is economic: few actors know how to ride a horse, and among them, none ride without stirrups. It is much more difficult and dangerous to shoot such scenes, and insuring the actors against potential injuries would significantly increase costs without adding real benefit to the story.
Adapting history into a film or novel implies an even more complex management of storytelling. To incorporate elements of fiction within a real historical context, compromises must be made. They can range from more to less severe depending on the situation and respect for the historical material at hand.
Hitchcock said that cinema is “life without the boring parts,” and this holds true for any storytelling. When dealing with a historical film or novel, writers must adapt to the pacing required by the narrative, which will never be the same as that of real events. Significant changes take years, decades, or even centuries, but on the page or screen, they need to be accelerated. Without reaching the extreme case of the Aristotelian rule that imposed the unity of time (where events in Greek tragedies always occurred within a single day), it will be inevitable to skip intermediate steps. Authors have to eliminate characters and situations that were important in reality, but are less functional to the plot.
Synthesizing means simplifying and thus intentionally or unintentionally introducing errors into the story. To avoid the worst trivializations, a lot of time must be devoted to describing the context in which the characters operate. Writers who are skilled at historical reconstruction often write very long books: Steven Pressfield’s “Tides Of War” has about 600 pages, Colleen McCullough wrote seven books ranging from 650 to 900 pages to tell the crisis of the Roman Republic, while Gary Jennings’ “Aztec” has a whopping 1000 pages. These novels provide a grand historical description, but this attention to detail slows down the action. Moreover, it distances a large portion of the audience too, who are intimidated by the volume and complexity of the books.
The goal of any narrative is to immerse readers and viewers in a story. The audience must empathize with characters and situations, but in a historical film or novel, the depicted world appears distant. We constantly encounter situations unfamiliar to our daily lives, which hinder immersion in the described events. To bridge the gap that arises between the audience and history, the material must be adapted; even though the risk of distorting everything is very high.
To establish a connection between the audience and the characters, these characters must behave acceptably or at least justifiably, given the circumstances of the story. This is a delicate matter because, in the past, men and women did not have our mentality. If the audience must empathize with the characters, how telling a story that is coherent with historical reality and at the same time creates a connection with contemporary audiences? We cannot pretend that the past is the same as today, but it is also bad to give the impression of justifying unacceptable behaviours.
Only very skilled authors succeed in this difficult task. For example, in Jennings’ “Aztec,” the detached account given by the protagonist of human sacrifices and the most atrocious violence committed in the name of the gods is balanced by the horror of the Spanish friars. Although they remain in the background and are not always positive figures, here they represent our point of view, which shudders at hearing stories of group rapes and cannibalism.
How to balance reality and fiction in historical films and novels
Following a historical film or novel requires more effort than usual because that world has fewer points of contact with our own. To facilitate understanding, the writer must explain, adapt, and simplify historical reality.
The historical genre, along with fantasy and science fiction, demands the most explanations. This poses a problem because a fundamental rule of storytelling, especially in cinema, is “show, don’t tell.” This rule is emphasized so much that sometimes it creates resistance from some people who feel limited in their writing. In reality, the rule conveys something very simple and reasonable: readers or viewers should understand what is happening on their own without someone within the story being tasked with summarizing. If this happens, there might be an issue with the story’s construction or characters.
However, in historical films and novels, some explanation is necessary because the audience is not familiar with the history, society, and culture of the past, or at least not as well as they are with those of today. Often, films start with an overlaying text or an off-screen voice that provides a general overview of the historical context.
If the film is set during World War II, a glimpse of swastikas and German soldiers marching is enough to understand the period and what is happening. However, when dealing with a lesser-known era, more information is required. For instance, if a film suddenly begins with a king named Desiderio cursing his son-in-law who has repudiated his daughter Ermengarda, it’s highly unlikely the audience would immediately grasp that we are in the Lombard kingdom, on the brink of war against the Franks of Charlemagne.
Explaining the historical-political context alone is not sufficient. Many normal behaviours of people from the past need to be adapted as well, as they might be shocking to us. For example, in ancient Rome, friends and acquaintances greeted each other with a kiss on the mouth. For us, it holds an entirely different meaning, and seeing friends and relatives exchanging kisses on the lips is at least strange unless someone within the story explains its significance. To avoid excessive explanations, however, it’s better to limit them to situations and behaviours that are truly crucial. In cases like these, historical accuracy can be disregarded in favour of choosing a more “normal” form of greeting.
This is not about manipulating history but making it more understandable and reducing the continuous estrangement effect that prevents the reader, and even more so the viewer, from immersing themselves in the story. It would be like watching an actor who constantly looks at the camera, repeatedly breaking the necessary suspension of disbelief required to enjoy a fictional story.
Historical films and novels demand a greater cognitive effort due to the unfamiliar context in which the stories are set. To avoid overwhelming the audience, some authors decide to simplify not only social conventions and historical events but also the plot. This often results in portraying good characters against bad characters, and complex political and social systems are reduced to power games played by evil men whose sole purpose is to annihilate the protagonist’s faction. As in the second season of Netflix “Barbarians.” Simplification is necessary, but ideological manipulation is not.
How much can historical films and novels be inaccurate?
Even though historians and history lover would prefer otherwise, writing a historical novel or screenplay require some changes to real history. However, there are two ways to do so: one is acceptable, and the other is not.
A) Enhancing understanding of history (and securing funding for its realization): Changes to real history are justified if they aim to make the narrative more comprehensible, adhere to the rules of storytelling, and avoid bankruptcy. If we are in the time of Cicero and earthenware dishes from Italic terra sigillata appear on the table a few decades early, it’s fine! Material reconstruction can never be perfect because it would require unlimited budgets, and hardly anyone would notice the difference. It’s other errors that need to be avoided.
B) Manipulating history: There are many reasons why historical films and novels are compelled to be, at least to some extent, inaccurate. On the other hand, chasing the audience or considering people too naive for any story that delves a bit deeper into complex themes cannot justify conscious historical manipulation. Especially because this type of film often want to convey a moral message. If they were blatantly trashy, like “Gods of Egypt,” they wouldn’t harm; instead, many times they claim to explain “how things really happened,” delving into historical revisionism.
Media Shape Our Perception of the Past Inaccurate historical films
Indeed, media influence the public more than serious historical research. Popular products like theatre plays, novels, and more recently, films shape the collective image of a historical period. George Mosse explains it well in his books, as I mentioned in the article linked below. The problem is that these products are never 100% faithful, not to mention when they are consciously altered for various purposes.
However, the immense power of the media doesn’t have solely negative aspects. While it can be shocking to realize that historical truth is overshadowed by the demands of a profit-based industry and the fickle tastes of the audience, it’s important to remember that the media are also extraordinary allies. How many have decided to dedicate themselves to the study of history thanks to essays and historians? Generally, the passion for history starts in childhood, and the inspiration comes from films, books, and video games. “Gladiator” in 2000 renewed interest in ancient Rome, while the Percy Jackson series in recent years reignited love for Greek mythology.
What about video games? They engage also people who are not into literature. Two of the most interesting projects related to the classical world that I know of were born just like that. Pax Augusta Game and Heroes of Bronze are a video game and a series of short films created by individuals whose academic and professional backgrounds have nothing to do with history. Yet, the video games they knew from childhood ignited a passion that drove them to independently delve into the study of the Greek and Roman world, resulting in exceptional projects.
Projects that would never have come to light if strict historical accuracy were demanded at all times and in all creative works. As a professor once said, “philological rigor is alarmingly reminiscent of rigor mortis.”
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