Is it important for movies and TV shows to be historically accurate?
Posted by sanityinjection on October 16, 2008
Who doesn’t enjoy a good period TV show or movie like “Roots”, “Titanic” or “Shakespeare In Love”? There are great stories to be told, not to mention the fun of period costumes. As a lifelong student of history, however, I find myself frequently irritated when presented with a scene or detail which I know is historically inaccurate, but which most viewers would be unaware of. My friends tell me I am being too picky and should be able to enjoy the show without insisting that everything be accurate.
With this in mind, I was heartened by recent comments made by historian David Starkey regarding a BBC television series, “The Tudors”, about the Tudor kings and queens of England. Starkey explains very well the essential problem:
“Historian David Starkey has blasted racy period drama ‘The Tudors’ for bringing ‘shame’ on the BBC with its ‘ignorance of the facts’. The historian, who specialises in Henry VIII and the Tudor period, told an audience at Cheltenham Literature Festival the TV series was ‘terrible history’, and complained that most of the costume ‘was Elizabethan’. Answering a question on what he thought of the film A Man For All Seasons – about Henry VIII’s lord chancellor Sir Thomas More – Starkey said: ‘It’s terrible history but at least it has a point. The Tudors is terrible history with no point. It’s wrong for no purpose. I’ve got no problem with getting history wrong for a purpose – Shakespeare often got things wrong for a reason. But it’s the randomised, arrogance of ignorance of The Tudors. Shame on the BBC for producing it.'”
I would extend the same logic to the role of special effects in movies today. We all enjoy a great visual effect. But special effects are supposed to enhance a movie – not comprise the movie all by themselves. Too many movies nowadays – especially in the “action/adventure” genre – seem to have scripts that are mere excuses for a train of special effects. Remember the explosion of the Death Star in the original Star Wars movie? That was a great use of special effects because it created a visual climax to go with the emotional climax of the film. In other words, the explosion wasn’t just visually cool, it was integrated into the total experience of the movie. Similarly, the Indiana Jones movies feature thrilling special effects sequences – but it is the themes that underlie the visuals that make the movies memorable. Though its car chases are terrific, will anyone sing the praises of a film like “2 Fast 2 Furious” – or even remember it? Yet the Lord of the Rings movies are loaded with more special effects than that film. The difference is, they serve the movie’s purpose rather than being added for gratuitous shock value.
OK, I accept that not every TV show or movie has to be an enriching experience. A little mindless drivel now and then has its place 🙂 But when the drivel starts to become the majority rather than the minority, that’s when I get cranky. TV and cinema are mediums that have great potential to bring quality entertainment to huge numbers of people for little or no cost. It is a loss to all of us if that potential is increasingly wasted.