Well yes, of course it does, but how much does this matter? It is just a matter of context? Is it okay to reinvent history in the name of entertainment? And what about reinventing history for political ends, that can’t be good can it? Underlying all of this is the age old problem of the relationship between history and truth. To quote the X-Files “The Truth is Out There!”, but it’s sometimes very elusive and we can’t always be sure when we find it. Furthermore, historical truth is often rather less palatable than we’d like, so society has devised all sorts of ways of selective remembering and historical fiction plays a big part in this process.
When we try to make sense of the past it is normally by connecting past events as a narrative. The past can be viewed as a vast featureless ocean on which events and people float like so much flotsam and jetsam. Our task as historians is to find ways of usefully and plausibly linking together these people and events to make sense of the past. We do this by starting with an event and trying to make sense of it by seeing what other events came before and after, or by looking at a particular person or group and plotting their story through how they participated in, or were affected by, events.
Quite often historians already have something in mind when they set out to build a narrative because they are seeking to enhance or refute some other pre-existing narrative. On other occasions they plot a new course between events, finding or postulating new links. The narratives which are created in this fashion are how we make sense of the past because without paring history down to a series of digestible stories the data overload of countless random facts would just turn it into a kind of intellectual white noise. In creating narratives we are by definition being selective and this is the point at which history becomes contentious.
Fictionalised history has been with us from the beginning then. It served as entertainment, but has also formed an important part in forging group identity. These uses of fictionalised history share the common trait that they all want the consumer to believe they are true, but all also have their own agenda. This may be presenting a particular partisan view of history, or merely to make history more exciting and digestible, but in either case the version of history they present may be less than truthful.
However, there is a strong relationship between history and fiction in the style in which they are presented. The earliest stories in many cultures are histories (albeit heavily mythologised ones) and fiction and history have been inextricably intertwined from the very beginnings of civilization. Embellishment of the truth and the addition and omission of story elements over time was inevitable in an oral culture and by the time writing arrived history and myth had already become hard to disentangle.
One of the ironies of studying history is that the more we study, the more we may come to realise that our understanding of the past is quite nebulous. Histories are contested, corrupted and misremembered, and consensus is not always easy. This is hardly surprising; a look at the news reveals how reporting and interpretation of what is happening today can vary wildly between sources. If we have difficulty in sourcing a truthful version of events in our own time, what chance do we have of finding the truth about the past?
William McNeill made the point that “common parlance reckons myth to be false while history is, or aspires to be, true” going on to point out how historians always claim their own version of the past is true while rejecting other historian’s views as mythical if they differ from their own. This is a rather unflattering view of historians as it implies that they are rather petulant in dealing with criticism, but it does bring home the point that historical truth is very hard to nail down and is often bitterly contested.
Hayden White said “there are always more facts in the record than the historian can possibly include in his narrative representation of a given segment of the historical process”. History is created as much by omission as inclusion. White went on to equate historical narrative with fiction, on the basis that a narrative requires emplotment and that by arbitrarily creating a start and end point for a chain of events the historian is not realistically representing them. White believes that all stories are fictions and so cannot be real, but concedes that a story may still be true, if only metaphorically. This goes against a common belief among historians that “the distinction between history and fiction is profound”.
When history became an academic discipline in the early nineteenth century the distinction between history and fiction seemed clear. Guided by Leopold von Ranke’s source-based methodologies, historians began constructing views of the past intended to be seen as incontrovertible truth. However, over time we have come to realise that history is neither incontrovertible or always clearly distinguishable from fiction; the reality is more complex.
In the Middle Ages when Geoffrey of Monmouth published his History of the Kings of Britain, plausibility was what mattered to a medieval audience and modern boundaries between truth and fiction did not apply. History could be expediently fabricated for political ends and presented as fact. Even in his own time some of his claims went too far, causing his contemporary, William of Newburgh, to describe his work as “a laughable web of fiction” full of “wanton and shameless lying”, but his version of events was accepted for a long time because it helped justify the ambitions of the crown.
History’s subsequent transformation into an academic discipline coincided with new nation states emerging across Europe, and many developed or strengthened their own set of myth-histories justifying their existence. The standards of truth applied to legitimising national identity were often questionable. Nietzsche maintained that historians had a different kind of objectivity from scientists and judges and should “create” history in the manner of an artist. This kind of history he said might have “no drop of common fact in it and yet could claim to be called in the highest degree objective”. A similar type of “history” took the semi-mythical characters of King Arthur and Robin Hood, shaping them to create a sense of British identity, and also enabled Hollywood in the first half of the twentieth century to fashion a feeling of American destiny, by showing a Wild-West that bore little resemblance to real-life. The legacies of these semi-mythical aspects of history to some extent still exercise a stronger element of truth effect over the public imagination than much of our “genuine” history.
Furthermore, many commonly held beliefs are based on fictionalised rather than academic history. What the public knows about Henry V and Richard III is largely informed by their Shakespearean rather than historical personas. Similarly, our images of King John and Richard I are shaped by on-screen adaptions of Robin Hood stories. These are so long established in our culture that they have eclipsed the historical truth and distorted our view of reality. In eulogising Henry V and Richard I writers have appropriated their heroic aspects to create a sense of national pride and a tradition of military prowess. This imagery has been a powerful force at times (for example Olivier’s wartime version of Henry V was funded by the government as an important morale booster) but ignores the less savoury side to those kings’ personalities as detrimental to their heroic status.
If it was once common to behave as is if there was a clear demarcation between history and fiction, this is no longer so. John Demos described the line between the two as “less a boundary than a borderland of surprising width and variegated topography” pointing to the degree of overlap now in place. However, Paul Ricouer explained the difference in expectations between reading a novel and reading a history book as being antinomical. In the former we know we’re entering a fictional world, in the latter we expect to encounter an honest and truthful retelling of the past. This distinction works well when comparing a sci-fi novel with an academic tome but runs into problems when we enter Demos’ borderland.
When historians try to make their narrative come alive for the reader, they will often use the techniques of fiction writers. This might include imagining scenes for which they have no real documentary evidence or employing fictional characters to help the reader to view events from a particular angle.
Richard Slotkin, who has combined an academic career as a historian with writing a number of historical novels, postulates that far from damaging history’s truth effect, good historical fiction provides a valuable addition to our understanding of history by allowing us to explore the probable possibilities that lay just beyond that which we can actually prove. He contends that in conducting research we often find frustrating gaps in the historical record where we might be able to hazard a very good guess at what happened, but have no way of actually confirming it to academic levels of scrutiny. Novelisation offers the opportunity to explore some of these possibilities and sometimes enables us to enhance the strictly historiographic truth of academic history. In order for this to work, the research behind the fiction must be sound, but Slotkin maintains that this can help the reader to more vividly appreciate what it was like to live in past times.
This last point is problematic. Jonathan Nield pointed out that we cannot experience the spirit of bygones times because it is impossible to recreate the myriad of elements that go together to build both the individual and general experience of living in the past. Fictionalised history may supplement our understanding of the past, but may equally lead us astray and there isn’t necessarily an obvious way of telling which it is doing. One danger of historical fiction is that it underplays the otherness of history by presenting us with characters with similar morals, emotions and thought processes to ourselves, when in reality this can never have been the case.
Film dealing with historical subjects also has to be judged in terms of how far it undermines or enhances our understanding of the past. Film potentially distorts society’s view of the past more than literature because it reaches a wider audience and is multi-sensory. Visual media has a strong impact and there is a degree of truth in the saying “seeing is believing”, because if we see something on film it has a profound effect on how we visualise the past and presents our memory with something which we absorb as if it were real even though it can never be more than an approximate reconstruction. Indeed, the sheer quantity of apparent detail in films can mislead us into thinking we must be seeing something realistic and authentic, whereas in reality we can never fully recreate the complexity of sights and sounds in say, an eighteenth century Parisian market. This is partly because we have no way of recovering the full picture of what would have been there, but also because the plot of the film demands we see it in a certain way. So for example, for the birth of Grenouille in Perfume, it is important for the plot to emphasise the filth of the market place, which in turn plays up to our preconceptions of eighteenth century hygiene.
It’s sometimes possible to follow a historical narrative very closely, so that something approaching a replaying of real events takes place. Conspiracy, recreates the Wannsee Conference of 1942. Based on the surviving record of the meeting, and filmed almost entirely in one room it strives to accurately show us what took place. However, even a full documentary record can only take us so far. We cannot necessarily tell the comparative enthusiasm or reluctance of the parties, or know about any asides between them. The film relied on research into the psychological profiles of the meeting participants in order to develop an idea of how the participants might have interacted. Thus, we’re only seeing a best-guess representation of what happened.
We might argue that Conspiracy, far from damaging history’s, truth effect reinforces it by showing us a historical event as realistically as possible. However, for every film which sticks closely to the facts, many stray far away. Braveheart ostensibly tells the true story of William Wallace’s resistance to the Edward I’s subjugation of Scotland. Undoubtedly rip-roaring entertainment it won an Oscar for best film, but in the words of one reviewer “almost totally sacrifices historical accuracy for epic adventure”. Braveheart misrepresents almost every character and event it mentions, has Scots wearing woad a thousand years too late and kilts five hundred years too early, and claims that Wallace was Edward III’s father. Given that the film was billed as true and that most of its audience were not familiar with Scottish history it is probably fair to describe it as damaging to historical truth. Does this matter? Possibly not to most viewers, but locally Braveheart has been cited as influential in the resurgence of Scottish nationalism.
Films such as Braveheart sell us a misleading version of history, but ultimately if they pique our interest, chances are that we will go and investigate the subject for ourselves. As such, they damage the truth effect to an extent, but they also kindle an interest which may result in some viewers later ending up with a better understanding of the events they cover.
Some filmmakers have subverted the “Based on True Events” statement. The Coen Brothers used “This is a True Story” on their 1996 crime-comedy Fargo and two subsequent spin-off television series. The bizarre plot twists and dark comedy make it hard to mistake for real-life, but nevertheless lovingly recreates a nostalgic backdrop of the quirky pseudo-Scandinavian character of bygone Minnesota. An incident in one episode of Fargo further emphasises the story is fiction when a UFO appears. Including this clearly puts the story into the realms of fantasy, but in a way the producers are playing with us by giving a nod to the widespread belief in, and reports of, alien abduction in the American Mid-West in the 1970s.
This raises the question of fantasy and magic in fictionalized history. We recognise they are not real and so have no difficulty in realising that something like Game of Thrones is not meant to represent reality. However, as we go back in time with fictionalized history, we enter an age when the actors, and even narrators, in our stories might reasonably have believed in magic, or at least may have had some supernatural expectations in their religious beliefs. Historians usually deal with medieval descriptions of magic or miracles by applying today’s scientific knowledge retrospectively and explaining them in some other way, or by simply assuming that people in the past had somehow been deliberately tricked or misled. However, if we write fictionalized history it is reasonable that seeing things from the point of view of some characters some supernatural events might appear to be real, and this in turn might help us to understand the lives and experiences of those characters. This provides us with an insight into why religion, faith and superstition may have driven historical characters to make decisions which seem irrational to modern people.
Oliver Stone’s JFK takes a different approach, challenging history head on. Here Stone also purports to tell us a true story, but accepts that his version of events differs considerably from the historic record. Stone asserts that the accepted historical version of Kennedy’s assassination is a lie and that his film presents a truer version of events. This is a much stronger challenge to history than most; whereas a normal historical film may encourage the viewer to look into the history further (at which point they’ll probably become aware of any departures from established fact), Stone is saying “don’t expect the truth if you investigate this further because it’s been covered up”. This leaves the viewer having to accept or reject the film’s view of history as a matter of trust.
As cinematography has developed, and the censorship allowing what can be shown on screen has weakened, film has been able to provide a much more realistic portrayal of traumatic events. This does not make film a more trustworthy medium, but enables it to show things from a perspective which would once have been unthinkable. One unintentional side-effect of this is that, where a film concerns history which took place within living memory, the contents of the film can actually become confused with real memories of the event. For example, oral historians working in Australia recorded ANZAC veterans recalling scenes from the film Gallipoli as if it was part of their own war experience. It may be that this is a testament to Gallipoli’s accuracy in recreating these men’s wartime experiences, but it also points to the fallibility of human memory, and the ability of film to plant false memories into the public consciousness.
When we read a history book we expect to have the past explained to us in language we can understand, but our expectations of fictionalised history are somewhat different. Because we want an authentic and plausible view of the past we don’t necessarily expect the characters to speak like us, but at the same time we are limited in our ability to understand them if they speak in a truly authentic voice. The creator of fictionalised history is thus caught in a dilemma and has to tread carefully.
Firstly, there is the question of which language to use if the characters would not really be speaking English. Is it better to keep the original language and use subtitles, or go for a translation? The former might be more authentic, but does it really change how we perceive the drama? We don’t expect to see films about the Romans in subtitled Latin and if we watched a film in authentic twelfth century English most of us wouldn’t understand a word. On the occasions when films have attempted authenticity by working in a dead language the results often come across as pretentious and unconvincing.
Even when the characters speak the same language as us, there are questions concerning the authenticity of the turns of phrase and colloquialisms employed. We’re happy for a medieval character to speak modern English, but don’t expect to hear him say “OK” or use overtly contemporary idioms. Thankfully the mock medieval-speak once favoured by Hollywood has largely fallen out of favour, but clumsy faux-historic dialogue still rears its head in the odd line.
Modern English dates from the Tudor period onwards and this sets our expectations for dialogue in historical drama. From this point onwards English is broadly intelligible so we expect reconstructions to make an attempt at sounding realistic, but have to accept that what we actually hear is a pastiche of speech in that period, because we are often trying to reconstruct the speech patterns and dialect of groups of people for whose speech we have no reliable record. For the time before about 1500 we would not understand authentic speech anyway and so are prepared to settle for modern English. The outcome of this is that the characters in nineteenth century dramas often speak a more archaic form of English than those in films about ancient times.
Ultimately, how a character in fictionalised history speaks is secondary to what they say. We need to understand them, so change their mode of speech to make it intelligible. The important thing is that fictionalised history shouldn’t have historical characters displaying knowledge or expressing beliefs and opinions, which they simply could not have had in their own time. There isn’t necessarily a problem in creating a portrayal of Anne Boleyn say, which attempts to show her relationship with Henry VIII, but there is if the portrayal implies she had modern outlooks on issues like divorce and religion or had an understanding of feminism.
Should we also consider how reliable history’s truth effect really is? As Salman Rushdie says,
“History is always ambiguous. Facts are hard to establish, and capable of being given many meanings. Reality is built on our prejudices, misconceptions and ignorance as well as our perceptiveness and knowledge.”
Most academic historians strive for a level of objectivity in their work, but even so we know and accept that they come from a wide range of political and social beliefs, and consciously or unconsciously this impacts their work.
Furthermore, just as fictionalised history has become more sophisticated (and some at least aspires to very high standards of research and authenticity) mainstream history has come under pressures of its own. The landscape in which historians work has changed dramatically with the arrival of blogs and e-books. Published history is no longer the sole preserve of university academics and political experts. Oral and community history projects have democratised history allowing previously marginalised groups to tell stories from their own perspectives.
In a way which they could never have foreseen, what we have today to some extent follows the idea that Carl Becker and Charles Beard promoted in the 1930s that “every man could write his own history”, effectively committing an “act of faith” by choosing subjectively which facts to include or dismiss. This is echoed in Lévi-Strauss’s view that history is always written to promote some “infra-scientific aim or vision”. Assaults on history’s truth effect from sources posing as genuine history are arguably far more damaging and sinister than those from clearly fictionalised history.
Fictionalised history does not damage history’s truth effect per se; if it is well researched and executed it can increase our understanding of the past, but it has to be treated with care and should rarely if ever be regarded as factual in the same way as we treat history proper. History aspires to be more objective and less partisan than the narrative of a novel or film, but this does not always stand up to scrutiny. It is possible to cite any number of serious works of history that, consciously or unconsciously, choose to represent events with a particular bias and it is equally possible to cite works of fictionalised history that do their best to stay impartial and show us more than one viewpoint.
On the whole however, the nature of a fictionalised narrative requires that we see things from the viewpoint of a particular character or narrator and this usually means that both our view and our sympathies are consciously pointed in a particular direction. In some respects this might be seen as more honest than the approach of some historians, who also direct our sympathies in a particular direction but do so by presenting a subjective analysis of history as if it were objective fact.
Certainly some fictionalised history is very poor, but this isn’t merely because it is fictionalised, it is because it is badly written, badly researched or worst of all deliberately misrepresents the truth. This kind of work is certainly damaging, but this judgement should not be applied to all fictionalised history. Ultimately, we should always treat fictionalised history with caution, but also be prepared to judge it on the quality of the individual work and accept that sometimes it can enhance our understanding and enjoyment of history.
 If we think of works such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, or The Mabinogion all contain obviously fictionalised elements such as the intervention of the Gods but all are also assumed to originally refer to real people and events.
 McNeill, Mythistory, or Truth, Myth, History and Historians, The American Historical Review, Vol 91, No. 1 (Oxford 1986) p. 1
 White, Interpretation in History, p.281
 Zagorin, History, The Referent, and Narrative: Reflections on Postmodernism Now, p.17
 White, Figuring the Nature of the Times Deceased: Literary Theory and Historical Writing in The Future of Literary Theory, ed. Cohen (London 1989) p.27
 Bailyn, On theTeaching and Writing of History: Responses to a Series of Questions (Hanover 1994) p.72
 Bergqvist, Truth and Invention in Medieval Texts p.238
 Higham, King Arthur: Myth Making and History (London 2002) p.224
 Cited by White, Interpretations in History, p.284 from Nietzsche’s original work Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben p.57
 Barczewski, Myth and National Identity in Nineteenth Century Britain (Oxford 2000) pp.1-44
 Henry V, Directed by Laurence Olivier, Two Cities Films, 1944
 Demos, Afterword: Notes From, and About, the History/Fiction Borderland, Rethinking History, (2005) p.329
 Ricouer, Memory, History, Forgetting, (Chicago 2010), p.261
 Examples of this are Simon Schama’s use of a fictional soldier in his description of the Death of General Wolfe in Dead Certainties, (London 1991) p.3 and the use of fictional students as a way of creating composite experiences of life as a pupil at an American high school at various points during the 20th century in John J. Erickson, The Truth of Historical Fiction: Researching Osseo Senior High, The English Journal (Feb 1994) p.39
 Slotkin, Fiction for the Purposes of History, pp222-223
 Ibid p.225
 Nield, Guide to the Best Historical Novels and Tales, quoted in de Groot, The Historical Novel (London 2010) p.5
 Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Directed by Tom Tykwer, Dreamworks, 2006
 Conspiracy, Directed by Frank Pierson, HBO/BBC, 2001
 Braveheart, Directed by Mel Gibson, Paramount Pictures, 1995
 Ewan, Film Reviews : Europe, The American Historical Review, Vol 100, No. 4 (Oxford 1995) p.1220
 Traquair, Freedom’s Sword, p.62
 Ewan, Film Reviews : Europe, p.1220
 See Lin Anderson, Braveheart: From Hollywood to Holyrood (Edinburgh 2004)
 Fargo, directed by Joel Coen, Gramercy Pictures, 1996
 Fargo, Series 2, Episode 9, “The Castle”, FX Productions for MGM Television.
 Collingwood, The Idea of History cited in White, Interpretation in History, p.293
 JFK, Directed by Oliver Stone, Warner Brothers, 1991
 Williams, Mirrors Without Memories: Truth, History and the New Documentary, Film Quarterly (Spring 1993) pp. 10-11
 Gallipoli, Directed by Peter Weir, Paramount Pictures (1981)
 Thomson, Anzac Memories in The Oral History Reader – Third Edition (London 2016) p.344
 Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane (1976) features an Anglo-Italian cast speaking Latin but the difference in pronunciation between the two groups make it sound like they’re speaking two completely different languages and Jarman’s focus is really more on homoerotic art than history. Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006) was visually spectacular and used the Mayan language throughout, but was misrepresentative of Mayan culture and chronologically flawed.
 Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, (London, 1991) p.25
 Appleby, Hunt & Jacob, Telling the Truth About History (New York) 1994, p.216
 Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, cited in White, Interpretation in History pp.287-290
Lin Anderson, Braveheart: From Hollywood to Holyrood (Edinburgh 2004)
Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt & Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History (New York 1994)
Bernard Bailyn, On theTeaching and Writing of History: Responses to a Series of Questions (Hanover 1994)
Stephanie Barczewiski, Myth and National Identity in Nineteenth Century Britain : The Legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood (Oxford 2000)
Kim Bergqvist, Truth and Invention in Medieval Text: Remarks on the Historiography and Theoretical Frameworks of Conceptions of History and Literature and Considerations for Future Research, Roda da Fortuna: Revista Eletronica sobre Antiguidade e Medievo, Volume 2, No. 2 (2013) pp.221-242
Jeremy Black, Contesting History, (London 2014)
Jonathan A Carter, Telling Times: History, Emplotment and Truth, History and Theory, Volume 42, No. 1 (Wesleyan University, Feb 2003) pp. 1-27
Jerome de Groot, The Historical Novel, (Abingdon 2010)
John Demos, Afterword: Notes From, and About, the History/Fiction Borderland, Rethinking History, Volume 9, No.2/3, June/September 2005
John J. Erickson, The Truth of Historical Fiction: Researching Osseo Senior High, The English Journal, Vol 83, No. 2, (Feb 1994)
Elizabeth Ewan, Film Reviews : Europe, The American Historical Review, Vol 100, No. 4 (Oxford 1995) pp. 1219-1221
N.J. Higham, King Arthur : Myth Making and History, (London, 2002)
Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, (London 1966)
William H McNeill, Mythistory, or Truth, Myth, History and Historians, The American Historical Review, Vol 91, No. 1 (Oxford 1986) pp. 1-10
Jonathan Nield, A Guide to the Best Historical Novels and Tales, (London 1902) accessed online at http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1359/pg1359-images.html on 07/02/2016.
Christian Raymond, Conspiracy, Austin Film Society accessed online at http://www.austinfilm.org/page.aspx?pid=3341 on 19/01/2016.
Paul Ricouer, Memory, History, Forgetting, (Chicago 2010)
Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, (London, 1991)
Simon Schama, Dead Certainties, (London 1991)
Richard Slotkin, Fiction for the Purposes of History, Rethinking History, Volume 9, No.2/3, June/September 2005
Alistair Thomson, Anzac Memories: Putting Popular Memory Theory into Practice in Australia, in eds. Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, The Oral History Reader (London 2016) pp.343-353
Peter Traquair, Freedom’s Sword, (London 2000)
Hayden White, Figuring the Nature of the Times Deceased: Literary Theory and Historical Writing in The Future of Literary Theory, ed. Cohen (London 1989)
Hayden White, Interpretation in History, New Literary History, Volume 4, No. 2 (Winter 1973) pp.281-314.
Linda Williams, Mirrors without Memories: Truth, History and the new Documentary, Film Quarterly, Volume 46, No. 3 (California 1993) pp. 9-21
Perez Zagorin, History, The Referent, and Narrative: Reflections on Postmodernism Now, History and Theory, Volume 38, (Wesleyan University 1999) pp.1-24
Apocalypto, Directed by Mel Gibson, Touchstone Pictures, 2006
Braveheart, Directed by Mel Gibson, Paramount Pictures, 1995
Conspiracy, Directed by Frank Pierson, HBO/BBC, 2001
Fargo, directed by Joel Coen, Gramercy Pictures, 1996
Gallipoli, Directed by Peter Weir, Paramount Pictures, 1981
Henry V, Directed by Laurence Olivier, Two Cities Films, 1944
JFK, Directed by Oliver Stone, Warner Brothers, 1991
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Directed by Tom Tykwer, Dreamworks, 2006
Sebastiane, Directed by Derek Jarman, Cinegate, 1976