The Lazy Historian’s Guide to Historical Accuracy on Screen

Author Hilary Mantel has been drowning in accolades since Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies hit the bookstore shelves, the stage and then the TV screen. But I found it surprising when Mantel said women writers must stop falsely empowering female characters in history, referring specifically to historical fiction authors. It’s interesting that Mantel dislikes that part about historical fiction but doesn’t mind changing up other details. See for yourself:

(I know many of these items are things that weren’t in the books but some still apply.)

I also can’t help but notice that only women writers are singled out for empowering female characters. But that’s a whole other issue.

The Telegraph article mentions bestselling author Philippa Gregory who has several historical fiction novels based within the Tudor dynasty. Her best-known novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, was made into a major Hollywood production and released in 2008.

Now, if Mantel had singled out Gregory specifically, I would have been fine with that. Philippa Gregory is guilty of the worst thing a historical fiction author can do, and it is number one on my list of pet peeves.


The Lazy Historian’s Guide to Historical Accuracy on Screen

Character Assassination

Character assassination is defined as “the malicious and unjustified harming of a person’s good reputation.” But when it comes to historical accuracy, the opposite can be harmful as well. Thomas Cromwell, for instance, is portrayed in Wolf Hall to be much more saintly than he probably was. (I say “probably” because he lived hundreds of years ago and the people documenting history are almost always bias in some way.)

Philippa Gregory’s portrayals of Anne and Mary Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl basically spit in the face of any contemporary descriptions of either of them. Gregory also had Elizabeth of York do some highly questionable things in The White Queen, another adaptation that’s made the leap from novel to screen. Elizabeth wouldn’t have been in love with Richard III—he had her two younger brothers murdered and ruined her family. He was also her uncle. And all contemporary evidence points to Elizabeth and Henry VII having a solid partnership and a good marriage.

Another example of character assassination can be found in AMC’s wonderful American Revolution series, Turn: Washington’s Spies. I love this show so, so, so much. One of the highlights of the show is the positively evil Captain John Graves Simcoe. He’s a real bastard. I was shocked to find out he not only survived the American Resolution (sorry, spoiler) but he moved north and became the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. There’s a town and a county in Ontario named after him. I’m sure his descendants really appreciate how the show has twisted his character into an unrecognizable monster. (Note: Simcoe was actually involved in an attack where his unit snuck into a house at night and stabbed people to death in their sleep… but it’s never been used on the show. *shrug?*)


Entertainment Over Education

A lot of my history-loving friends online haaaate historical fiction shows and movies because of their inaccuracies, but as a fiction author, I get it. These productions aren’t created to teach people about our past. They are for entertainment. If you want accuracy and accuracy alone, go read a book or watch a documentary.

I know it gets a lot of flack for its inaccuracies, but I frickin’ love The Tudors. I even have the complete DVD set of the whole series. The biggest inaccuracy in The Tudors that bothered me the most was the combination of Henry VIII’s two sisters, Margaret and Mary. The character of Margaret in The Tudors replaces Mary while the actual Margaret is completely erased. This was done to avoid confusion between Henry’s sister Mary and his daughter Mary. Historical accuracy is often times dumbed down for the general population. These shows and movies are way too expensive to produce just to please the historians in the audience.

In most cases, production teams will try to get things as historically accurate as possible, but entertainment is their number one concern.

With all of that being said, I wouldn’t mind if TV shows and movies put up a warning beforehand that stated just how inaccurate it is, just so everyone knows to take it all with a grain of salt.


Accents and Language

So. Many. English. Accents. EVERYWHERE.

In Versailles (Canal+), everyone speaks English in an English accent. I believe almost all the actors are English. The only character that I can think of that had a different accent was Henrietta, the wife of Philippe of France, Duke of Orléans. She was played by a French actress who spoke in a French accent… but Henrietta was English. I think they did this to make her style of speaking stand out, to show that she was a bit of an outsider at court.

The English accent seems to be the go-to for almost all English language historical productions. I’m guessing this is the case because to many viewers from North America, the English accent is the easiest one to understand while still feeling old-timey. And, generally, people avoid movies and TV shows where they have to read sub-titles so English is usually the go-to language, even when it’s not based in an English-speaking country.

And the one accent that pisses me off so very much is: Mary, Queen of Scots.

There’s been a few adaptations of Mary Stuart’s story now but she is almost always given a Scottish accent. Sorry, but Mary was raised in France. She was more French than Scottish, really. I’m feeling a little anxious about the upcoming Mary Stuart biopic (Mary Queen of Scots, coming out next year) starring Irish actress Saoirse Ronan. I originally assumed she would use a Scottish accent for it but I’m told Ronan has a real gift for many different accents so hopefully they go with the right one.


Costumes

This seems like an easy one when it comes to accuracy but many times, costumes are tweaked to appeal to a broad, modern audience. This is one of the (many) reasons I only watched one episode of Reign. French gowns in that time frame were impressive works of art… and yet the dresses in Reign looked like bad prom dresses (or, as Jezebel noted, Coachella garb).

The costumes in Marie Antoinette were diviiiiiiine but the colors weren’t true to history. The styles seem pretty close but the whole movie stuck to a stunning candy-covered pastel color palette. I think it works in this case because of the teenage dream, ultra-luxe feeling the whole movie.

In most modern productions, the costumes are sexed up. This is probably done to show how certain styles would have been considered sexy in their day. Most historically accurate garb looks boxy, heavy and frumpy to the general audience and it gets lost in the translation, so design changes are made. But there is a line when you go from semi-accurate and sexy to ridiculous.

Frock Flicks has a ton of great articles about costumes on screen. Highly recommend.


As for “falsely empowering female characters in history,” I say keep writing empowered women, falsely or otherwise. The world can never have enough. Historical fiction writers can take the time to hunt down real female badasses from history. They’re there, they just might take some more time to find.

But what if all stories set in the past featured men with their submissive female family members faded into the background? That is just about the most boring thing I can imagine.

However, ff Mantel was referring to writing historical figures into fiction and changing their personalities completely, then she’s right. That’s a no-no. Obvs.

Written by

Jillianne Hamilton is a history enthusiast, author, graphic designer, paper crafter and artist living on Canada's beautiful east coast.

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