Reflection on the relationship between history, fictions, films and games

As a history teacher with strong sympathy for the Rankean tradition, I tend to see a clear demarcation between history and fiction.  History should be an accurate representation of the past whereas fiction makes no such claim.  History is concerned with ‘truth’ that is solidly based on evidence.  Fiction is bounded by no such convention.  It is in its claim to historical truth that history derives its authority.  And even if scientific objectivity is impossible in the practice of history, good historical practice should still be characterised by open-mindedness, fair-mindness and balance.  Again, fiction is bounded by no such convention.  If anything, good fiction is characterised by passionate subjectivity.

Armed with this authority, historians like Richard Evans have been able to defend history from its abusers like David Irving during the Holocaust denial trial.  As Eric Hobsbawn said (remember the trial HSC exam?), in order to defend the past, one must assume the attitude that there is a clear distinction between history and fiction.

The First Man in Rome, by Colleen McCullough

Where does 'fiction' end and 'history' begin?

Yet when you look around a bit more, the line between history and fiction really is not as clear as it first seems.  The first thing that comes to my mind is a series of historical novels by a popular Australian novelist and scholar, Colleen McCullough.  She is famous for her Masters of Rome novel series.  The novel series cover the political turmoil in Rome during the last few years of the late Roman republic.

What is interesting about her historical fictions is the amount of historical research that actually went into her work.  While her work is a collection of ‘what-might-have-been’, her speculations are in fact based on solid research of available historical evidence.  When you also consider the fact that some famous ancient historical works from ancient Rome are really a mix of facts, speculations and rumours (Suetonious anyone?), all of a sudden the lines between history and history fictions is not so obvious.

I can think of two reasons why historians should not ignore ‘fictions’.  Like it or hate it, more people engages with history through the ‘fiction’ genre than the non-fiction genres.  This is especially so when you include genres like films, plays and historically themed computer games.  Dr Marnie Hugh-Warrington pointed out that statistically more people in America engage with history through films and documentaries than they do through academic books.  It is probably similar in Australia.  This type of popular engagement with history through fictions, films and games shape public history. If historians do not ‘engage’ with how history is portrayed through these popular mediums, historians might become irrelevant.

Another good reason why historians should not ignore fictions and films is that films and fictions have strengths that academic historical work often lacks.  This is the power of fictions and drama to enable the audience to ‘feel’ history, to ‘re-imagine’ the past vividly.  A good example to illustrate this is the recent two part television drama series on HBO called ‘Rome’.

Rome, HBO

Caesar's triumph. A scene from 'Rome' (HBO).

In an interview about the drama series, the film director openly stated that he did not aim for historical accuracy but he aimed for historical authenticity.  For example, in the drama series there was only one Battle of Philippi, yet historically there were two battles.  However, the director was very careful in making sure he accurately portrayed the relationships and attitudes of the time, such as relationship between men and women, masters and slaves, Romans and Greeks and Jews, plebians and patricians, and the role of public and private religions in Roman society.  (See this clip on how the director and historical consultant have approached the portrayal of women in HBO:Rome.)  The director also paid careful attention in reconstructing Roman army tactics.  (See this clip on portrayal of the Battle of Philippi.)  One can say that the usual sin of historical anachronism is remarkably absent in this television series.  HBO:Rome shows the potential strengths of historical drama series in engaging the public with history.

Yet what does it mean for historians to ‘engage’ with these popular mediums?  There is no absolute right answer to this very important question.  Should historians be the arbiter of public ‘history’, pointing the rights and wrongs of how history is portrayed in films, drama and fictions?  This is a position that many Rankean historians are very comfortable with, because it reflects the authoritative nature of history.  A good example was the debate generated by the film ‘Troy’.  (See Mark Rose, ‘Troy Fallen’, Archaeology 14 May 2004.)  Historians nitpicked the many errors in the film, including the use of coins in funerals in the film, which did not exist in late Bronze Age, and the unhistorical focus on the worship of Apollo among the Trojans in the film.

But this kind of ‘engagement’ is quite limited, and it does not take historians beyond the proverbial ivory tower.  How else can historians engage with the popular mediums?  I think some of the more successful attempts like the work of Colleen McCullough and HBO:Rome points to some possibilities.  First of all, historians should not be afraid to get involved.  This might involve actually producing the work (e.g. McCullough) or be directly involved in the production process of the work (e.g. HBO:Rome).

Secondly, Historians should be sensitive to the fact that genres like fictions, drama and films have very different conventions from academic history.  Often compromises have been made.  Fictions and films are ultimately public forms of entertainment.  Academic historical works are usually not thought of as entertainment, unless you’re a historical nerd like me.  However, what historians can offer to fictions and films is ‘historical authenticity’.  This is the ability to re-imagine the past through the thoughts and attitudes of the past.

Thirdly, historians need to be continually reflective on the mediums through which the past is communicated.

Engagement with public mediums of history is fraught with dangers from a Rankean perspective, but is necessary to ensure the relevance of the discipline.



Filed under Nature of History

2 responses to “Reflection on the relationship between history, fictions, films and games

  1. Krewella

    Most people can only be exposed to history when they read or view historical fiction unless they actually study it. Also a lot of people have actually gotten more involved in history due to their interest from the fiction. I agree with you on the point about being able to differentiate between fiction and fact which should be not only in history but of all things. But most people are too lazy to research the facts themselves which is probably why most films are catered to the lowest common denominator. Obviously the films have to be based on historical facts to be considered historical fiction in the first place but there are circumstances which do not allow this or they want to make it easier for the audience to understand. Whether popular fiction is good for people is questionable but you cannot deny that it has increased the interest for history.

    • Oh no. I wouldn’t deny that. That’s what makes it a powerful medium, and all the more important to ponder upon the role of historical fiction in the practice of history.

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