|History or Fantasy?|
The current adaptation by the BBC of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace seems to be flavour of the month, both on screen and in the newspapers, as Tolstoy’s written incestuous relationship “subtly alluded to” turns into on-screen nudity, presumably to sex up the story for a modern audience. After all, 40% of people polled by the BBC admitted they’d lied about reading the book. However, it isn’t the sexing up of body parts that brings the most shock-horror reactions, it’s the anachronisms: an out-of-politic military decoration, velvet worn on a battlefield, modern make-up, and a certain one-shouldered mauve satin dress. Ignoring the highly dubious cut, its colour didn’t exist in clothes until the 1890s.
Do we care? Should we care?
Also currently on British television screens is ITV’s Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands which was avidly awaited by this viewer and dumped after the second episode in favour of housework. Any housework. The only connection this has to the Anglo-Saxon poem is the hero's name. The howl of derision on Twitter had to be seen to be believed.
Yet what about the acclaimed series Wolf Hall, adapted by the BBC from Hilary Mantel’s novels set in the court of King Henry VIII, shot both in natural light and in candlelight? It had its detractors: an Elizabethan house used instead of a Tudor, its drab tapestries, its slow pace blamed for a slump in audience figures. Ah... audience figures. Not ‘sexed up’ enough, or not ‘dumbed down’ enough for a mass audience? I found it gripping, the double-dealing undercurrents both horrific and creepy. I’ve not read the books (I make no apology and I’m certainly not lying about it) but I know that a first-person narration, through the historical Thomas Cromwell, was used to bring an immediacy across an extended time frame.
I mention this because I’ve just finished reading The Bones of Avalon by Phil Rickman, in which is also used a first-person narration, through the historical Dr John Dee, mathematician and court astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I. As well as humanising a name from the somewhat distant past, it certainly helped to deftly convey both historical context and minutiae without getting in the way of the story.
And this, I think, is the entire point: to put across a detailed historical background without info-dumping it on the reader. If readers wanted to read the history they would have picked up a history book not a novel; if viewers wanted to watch history they would not be watching a drama but a documentary, however factionalised such have become. Yet dramas, in novel or screen form, are often the first door to exploration of a historical period. Perhaps those who live by audience ratings don’t care enough whether there is a second, but I believe writers should. I think most writers do, hence the sometimes detailed ‘Historical Notes’ to be found after the fiction has concluded.
Am I alone? How historical do you like your Historicals?