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[Article] – How Do We Make History Work On The Big Screen?


Posted June 11, 2017 by

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The film industry, operating as one inexhaustible consumer and freshener of creative ideas, has long recognised history as nothing less than a gold mine. Historical figures and events get used and reused, often in a sequence of adaptations, reaffirming the status of the past as a favourite source of recycled originality. There is a nostalgic satisfaction, a burning curiosity and desire to experience fascinating, if all too often consciously fragmented, moments of history on the big screen.

Historical period dramas can be seen as an interactive way of learning. We want action and tension, with a violent kick. We want human drama, inner conflict and faithful decisions, which would alter the course of history. Ultimately, we crave optimum historic reliability under captivating storytelling, with a taste for drama and blood.

While the genre is widely adopted as a method of refreshing what we would call ‘dry schoolbook material,’ it can be particularly problematic in terms of what is required to go about it.

With a shaky obligation to accuracy and a purpose wavering between entertainment and education, historical period dramas represent a prospect plot hole in the industry. They might be a form of intelligent and informative entertainment, but caution must always be taken with accuracy, interpretation and exposure.

What good or harm can really come from our long standing temptation to consume history on and through the big screen?

Adaptations tend to circulate around specific, usually already widely covered, areas of the historical past, therefore sparking an issue of selectivity and repetition. It is inevitable perhaps that certain figures and events will receive more exposure, simply because they qualify for the remake. With an abundance of relevant material to source, the industry has received criticism for sticking to ‘tested’ periods. The result is a sequence of fragmentised or the same historical films, which, in their core, share the same mirrored subject matter.

Victoria and Abdul (2017) will be the latest in a series of film adaptations of the reign and life of Queen Victoria, whose disregard for convention, formidable character and lack of fear to speak her mind fuelled the interest in her private and public matters. Following Mrs Brown (1997) and The Young Victoria (2009), the upcoming adaptation has taken care of a rather neglected phase of the sovereign’s life: her most unusual friendship with her Indian servant, turned teacher and close companion, Abdul Karim. In doing so, the latest film will finish the present sequence about the monarch, opening trail to yet another.

Queen Victoria’s ‘film biography’ comes to show the fundamental problem of selectivity in historical period dramas’ production, which is far more concerned with commercial suitability, than with accurate chronology or presentation. In fact, any presentation or interpretation of the historic reality is a potential problem.

The exact relationship between the genre and reality is a particularly tricky area and there is a considerable issue with interpretation. Are historical period dramas presentations or documentations of reality?

How this presentation coexists with the representation is at the core of critique. To a large extent, it determines the attitudes towards the narrative.

Errors that may occur are lack of attention to representations and appropriations and lack of depth of exposure. They are concerned with the purpose and conveyed interpretations of the product and are most commonly present in films about historic figures.

Although the film was not originally concerned with the horrors of the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette (2006) holds a flaw. The image and imposed perception of the King and Queen of France are situated mostly within the image of the incapable, inadequate, naïve and pampered royal couple, who, with their inability to grasp the situation, condemned France to chaos. Despite the overall historical truthfulness of such presentation, it could be argued that it lacks the complexity and drama, which was applicable to both the sovereigns’ mentality. This, along with the emphasised negativity in Marie Antoinette’s represented image, contributed to the overall attitude towards the narrative and the understanding of its meaning

Interestingly, the availability of interpretations can also lead to broadening cultural knowledge and resurgence of historical or national pride. A point in favour of continuing historical period dramas has been the possibility to enhance knowledge and resurface a sense of national pride. This may be the long lost place of the genre in popular culture, though not in the fully anticipated way desired.

When The King’s Speech was released in 2010, it was a quick success. Colin Firth’s performance of the present Queen’s father, King George VI, was renowned for its authenticity and drama. The film, now having revived the memory of the man, who had become a symbol of national resistance during the Second World War, served as a dignifying salute to the past. It demonstrated what representing history has the power to do, when done right.

What is often partially neglected in terms of accuracy and nature of representation has been attributed to a desire to popularise and make the subject matter more accessible, however losing its soul in the process.

In the world of historical period dramas, meeting the demands of the genre and making it successful within popular culture is a tricky balancing act.

History has a place on the big screen, but one that does not force it into parting with its origin.


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Written by:

Asya Gadzheva
Digital Portfolio
Freelance Contributor

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