Friday, March 20, 2009

Open Discussion - Fact vs. Fiction

Since Mindy submitted this as more of a commentary than a question, I thought it would be an interesting point for further discussion. We've had a bunch of threads covering questions that arise from people reading or seeing fiction, but a more general discussion might be fun.

Mindy's comment:
This more of a comment than a question.

The "Tudors" is a made for tv for show. It does not accurately portray history. While it is good that it is getting more people interested in history, and the time frame of the real Tudors, that is about it, it has no true historical value.

The same with fiction books. While they are interesting, alot of them bend the facts around to suit the plot they have in mind.

The REAL Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, Anne, Jane Seymore, etc, were much more interesting than tv could ever make them. The events they were caught up in and lived were much more exciting than anything tv could make up.

Please read some well researched, well written historical biographies. Phd, Lara, and others have written out some nice lists of good books to read that will tell the true story. And they are more interesting than any tv show or fiction book any day of the week.

I started out seeing a live play, then I read fiction, and I am a little ashamed now of how many false ideas I had of these facinating people because of the fiction. I learn more everyday, and this website is terrific for getting honest information from.


  1. For myself, the easiest way for me to get into a non-fiction book is to first read a 'hys'terical novel. This gets me into the time period, gives a pretty good idea of the main characters, and if the story is interesting enough, then a bio or other type of informational book is read.

    Going directly into a 'fact' often times just confuses me, especially if a lot of titles and countries is used. A good example for me is Catherine de Medici. Read several 'hys' on her life so when the wonderful bio by Frieda was published I was confident enough to tackle the 'truth'...confident I wouldn't be underwater with all the lives.

    I tackle subject matter by Hollywood films the same way...although I will say that Hollywood REALLY changes most stories around. In recently seeing "Young Bess" it was realized how romanticized that story was the first time it was seen.

    When the real story was read I didn't dislike the movie. I just had a healthy appreciation for what a screenwriter will do to improve a story. But the point inspired me to search for the actual events.

  2. Why limit yourself to just one or the other? Think of academic history as the main course and heightened reality history as the luscious dessert - together you truly have a feast for the senses.

  3. I enjoy watching movies or shows because they're entertaining. It sparks my curiosity and I want to find out more behind what's on TV or in a book. Not all people feel that way, some believe everything they see or read!

    I agree, the real history can be much better. That's why I get so aggravated with the Beefeater's at The Tower for misleading people, or other tour guides for exagerrating history. A majority of the crowd will believe every word that's spit out...only a few will actually find out the real stories!

  4. I have to disagree. I've read the books and the primary sources, as well as read all this information this FANTASTIC blog has to offer.

    While Showtime's "The Tudors" is obviously not a documentary, it is by far the most historically accurate portrayal of Tudor Life. Obviously the characters are glamorized (We wish King Henry looked like this..) and they take a little bit of dramatic license, but I am surprised at how many things they incorporate actually happened with details in some cases.

    Obviously there ARE inaccuracies. Please do not think I am saying it is a 100% accurate depiction.

    But compare The Tudors to "The Other Boleyn Girl" which I watched digging my nails into furniture enraged at how practically NOTHING in that movie is based on history (and I've read other Allison Weir books... It's all fiction! I warn against them!)

    So, the Tudors is the next best thing. I think Mindy kind of gave "the Tudors" a hard time. However I can see her warning against some people (and I've seen this happen on the blog) taking it all as a primary source. So do some research on your own, but you can appreciate The Tudors at the same time...!

    Happy Watching!

  5. I agree with so many of you regarding movies and/or books of fictional accounts of historical lives and events. I have truly enjoyed The Tudors even though I know that it is not 100% historically accurate 100% of the time. I have read books by various authors who can also twist a tail or add their take just like any movie. One of the reasons I like to read the opinions of people here who enjoy and actually read historical accounts by various authors is to see the differences. And I do see differences so it just goes to show that everyone may at times see things in a different light and not always stick to the absolute. And like Tracey stated sometimes watching a good movie or reading a good work of fiction puts me in the mood to explore further and seek the real story.

    Thanks to all of you for sharing your opinions and your knowledge. I am not a historian, but I love history and I love to read. I have truly enjoyed the discussions I have read here and I have learned a lot.

  6. I would like to say something in defense of the latest Tudor movies. The feature films, like The Other Boleyn Girl, which have a much shorter running-length, simply cannot include all of the events surrounding the central stories that they are trying to convey, nor can they include all the personages of the time portrayed. We probably all differ in our opinions as to whether or not these films (Elizabeth, Golden Age, Boleyn Girl, upcoming Mary Queen of Scots) do justice to some of the characters, but they certainly would not be able to do justice to anyone or anything if they tried to cram it all into a 2 or 3 hour film. Whether I like it or not, a film must have a limited scope and plot.

    The two films starring Cate Blanchett basically ignored many events that were portrayed in the HBO series based on QE1. However, to me it was understandable, because those matters did not fit into the plotline and narrower focus of the film versions.

    I had much the same feeling about the 2008 Boleyn Girl film, as opposed to the Tudors or any of several other earlier series. The obvious focus here was on the Boleyn family members, and their personal reactions to Henry's search for an heir. Yes, it left out huge amounts of the big story - fascinating people and events for anyone who's studied this time - and that was too bad, but it didn't claim to be about all of that. It's about someone whose story is largely a mystery. I'd say it's more fair to call it incomplete, or fanciful, than inaccurate, although as in many "historical" films there were some odd omissions and twists of what is known, ie the Lady Perseverance debut, Hever vs. France, and so on.

    On the other hand, The Tudors tried to introduce many events and characters- Wolsey, Mary and Margaret Tudor, Brandon, Brereton, and others - but then (IMHO) intentionally garbled or butchered them beyond belief. There is no question mark over whether or not Mary and Margaret Tudor were one person or two, nor is there any debate over which kings the two married. As a long-running series, I had higher hopes for this series than for other celluloid versions, but I have to admit that the aim of this was to be typically Showtime splashy and sexy (in which it succeeds), and not to tell the "real story," or whatever it is that Rhys Meyers promises in the beginning (in which it does not).

  7. I think something to keep in mind is that the writers (of Showtime's The Tudors specifically) HAVE done their homework. The fact is, they do change things INTENTIONALLY based on what they know about their profession and what sells. Why should we get hung up on technicalities when they get so much of it right? Phillipa Gregory has probably read every major biography about Anne Boleyn, Katherine of Aragon, etc. That's what you do as a writer--research. Then you do what you can to tell a story that you think people would be interested in. As a writer myself, currently working on a piece about the subject, I have to admit I set out to tell a 100% historically accurate version. But sometimes for time, for amount of characters introduced, to show current and universal themes, I needed to muddle some facts. In the long run, I feel justified for making these changes. I agree that the real story is sometimes way better than the dramatized accounts, sometimes it's just plain easier in the long run to do things like mold Mary and Margaret Tudor into one character, or make Anne Boleyn a villian when you're trying to sell a story promoting Mary Boleyn as a hero.
    I think such 'fiction' often introduces people to the truth. And that is worth it. I would rather watch a false period film that half the stuff Hollywood puts out these days. My only qualm with The Other Boleyn Girl film was that I thought the book, though glaringly innacurate, was much more interesting. The movie was just dull.
    Another thing to keep in mind is that half the time, our historical writers argue on what the "truth" was anyway.
    Just my two cents.

  8. What bothers me about historical fiction and film is not just the inaccuracies put in over the much more interesting history (which also could be argued to insult the audience, as it implies they wouldn't care about or be able to handle more complex details like two Marys, etc.) but that these inaccuracies tend to propagate stereotypes, especially in relation to gender, and give these caricatures a kind of historical pedigree that people can use to reaffirm ideas that can be limiting.

    To take the Gregory novels as an example: I have read The Other Boleyn Girl in full and gotten through most of The Queen's Fool. My admittedly cursory examination of the other novels seems to bear up my assessment of the first two: Gregory employs an overly simplistic formula when creating her female characters--and there seem to be only two. Her "heroine" (or most sympathetic character) is the innocent young girl whose main goal in the story is to marry her true love and leave behind the horrible cutthroat world of politics in which she has been made an unwilling participant. The "villain" (or least sympathetic character) is the ambitious woman who often revels in this political intrigue; she is conniving and sometimes cruel and often eventually loses her power, becoming more shrill and crueler as she does so.

    These stories reaffirm tired old cliches about women and their roles in family and politics, oversimplifying situations and people that were complex and multi-faceted in a society very different from ours, while at the same time reproducing (and affirming, through the cover of being History) modern-day assumptions about the ambitious b**ch in the office and the sweet girl next door.

    So for me, its not just about the accuracy. Its that these films and novels often carve their characters into rigid caricatures based on gender stereotypes. With their widespread dissemination among the public and the assumption that these stories are in some way historical truth, these texts not only flatten out complex characters (and produce mediocre writing) but also help to reaffirm often harmful stereotypes.

    I think I have tortured you all enough with my thoughts for always, my compliments to Lara and all the contributors who make this site an important part of my day and intellectual development.

  9. Kate-
    Nice perspective. I happen to agree with you to a certain extent.
    I guess I feel that exposing the masses to "something" is better than nothing, because I believe there ARE those out there that would get lost/disinterested if given all the more complex details.
    But I do agree with what you said about Gregory (and many writers like her). They follow a formula that they know works and that is proven to sell novels. Whether or not doing so is their fault is a whole other topic. In any case, just wanted to say I thought your p.o.v. was interesting.

  10. Hey, I just wanted to reiterate that "The Other Boleyn Girl" is NOT by Allison Weir-- it's by Phillipa Gregory. While Weir is not a scholarly historian, I think its safe to say that her work consists of researched biographies (except for her novels, which are plainly identified as such).

  11. I have read some fictionalized books about the Tudor period and also some non fiction ones.If your new to the period and don't know much about it then you would beleive anything that was written or said about the Tudors.It would take someone who is known to the subject to distinguish fact from fiction.Also looking at series and films that have been made on the period some of the portrayal is factual but then some of it is inaccurate or where it has been added to make the film/series more interesting.Things are made up or added to appeal to the viewer and get as many views as possible otherwise the show/series wouldn't get as many people watching otherwise and the same goes for books too.I know that the information would be misleading to someone who isn't all that fammiliar with the Tudor period but the misleading innacurate information sells and gets lots of people interest.that being not just people who are interested in the subject like myself but also people who have never and also who aren't interested in the period.

  12. Marie,

    Thanks for the kind compliments.

    Yes, getting the public exposed to some history is better than some. But I like to think that people can be encouraged to handle more complex issues. Maybe I am being optimistic, but I always try to challenge my students, and most of them rise to the occasion.

  13. I agree with Marie - I think it is better to at least give people a chance to learn a little about these histories and stories. For many, the doings of people 500 years ago just aren't worth the effort of research and learning; however, they may be willing to indulge in an entertaining movie or book. This way, they do learn something, if not the precise details.

    Also, in Phillipa Gregory's defense, she does acknowledge that her books are ficitionalized histories, that she has made some things up for entertainment value. She does do her research, though, and at the end of each of her books she presents the reader with a long list of non-fictional resources for them to use in learning more. Thus, she encourages her readers to challenge themselves and learn more.


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