“It’s historical but it’s not hysterical,” quips Rob Brydon in A Cock and Bull Story, a self-reflexive comedy-drama about the apocryphal adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. As Brydon and his co-star, Steve Coogan, squabble with wardrobe about the absurd placement of the pockets on an 18th century coat, A Cock and Bull Story riffs on the unrealistic expectation of costume films as both historically accurate and entertaining. Their film within a film becomes mired in the authenticity of an expensive battle scene that’s ultimately cut because “it wasn’t funny.”
The film’s razor-edged meta-narrative unmasks the sacrifices inherent to the adaptation process. Whether fact or fiction, source material is abridged, reshuffled, and reshaped to meet the demands of its new audio-visual form. Filmmakers have surrendered characters, subplots, and historical accuracy since the inception of film itself. The Private Life of Henry VIII falsely shows the king deciding the end of his marriage to Anne of Cleves over a game of cards; The Sound of Music sees the von Trapps flee over the picturesque alps (they actually escaped by train to Italy); and Argo underplays the role of Canada in the 1979 Tehran hostage crisis. The history of film is consumed by the sacrifice of history.
In a post-truth era defined by acute anxiety over the daily blurring of fact and fiction, tampering with history has become an emotive act, leaving journalists, film critics and even audiences transformed into fierce defenders of historical fact. At the 2019 Cheltenham Literature Festival, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes joked about receiving so many complaints from keen eyed viewers that, “I wanted to have a column in the Mail saying ‘Downton’s Mistakes This Week.’” Earlier that year, a fevered debate broke out about the accuracy of awards season biopics Green Book, Vice, The Favourite, and Mary Queen of Scots. Journalist Simon Jenkins went so far as to accuse such films of dishonesty—“Journalism does not deliberately lie, like Darkest Hour lied, like The Crown lied, like All the Money in the World lied”—speculating that filmmakers, “claim the right to mis-sell films as history, sexed up with invention…not because they have researched history and found it wrong, but because they fear accuracy will not put bums on seats.”
Cinema occupies an uncomfortable space between commerce and art. With a short window in which to reclaim their financial investment at the box office, films are often keenly designed and marketed. And yet, many of the cynical “hot takes” about historical accuracy appear to miss something vital about cinematic storytelling as an art form: that it works by creating patterns and rhythm, by adhering to familiar story shapes and rules (which the best filmmakers know exactly when to break) and by communicating ideas through signs and symbols. Fundamentally, they fail to acknowledge cinema’s dependency on what can be dramatized. Mary Queen Of Scots never came face to face with Queen Elizabeth I. But this invented scene in Josie Rourke’s 2018 film creates cinematic action from their dramatically inert letter-writing. Historical facts and three-act stories are square pegs and round holes: sacrifices of history are almost always necessary to build character and story.
Perhaps it should go without saying that story is the essence of narrative film. As a rule, these films don’t offer up detailed evidence or analysis like documentaries or history books. Instead narrative films pivot history around the experience of a limited number of characters—something that requires actors to plug gaps of all sizes in the historical record. The sacrifice of historical information usually goes hand in hand with this kind of invention. What we gain is not merely a film that “works” dramatically, but a new, heightened way of experiencing the past. Film operates in the present tense; it makes us witnesses to the action as it happens. And through its physical realism—sets, costume, and props—history saturates every single frame. By immersing us so deeply in human experiences—by pulling us into history as it is seen and felt by a handful of people or characters—the audio-visual medium of cinema enables us to experience the past like no other art form. Cinematic history is human history: palpable, sensual, and personal. Historian Stephen Gapps has even suggested that the very process of re-enactment and performance provides historians with valuable learning opportunities.
Yet it is exactly our natural inclination to believe what we see that fuels fears about the toxic nature of fake history on screen. And that we continue to view history as sacred, something to be revered and not taken lightly, reveals a great deal about our cultural values. Mainstream studio films occupy a lowly place in our cultural hierarchy, considered less worthy than books, theater, and even independent cinema, eclipsing only television and YouTube. Historical fiction which (as it invents dialogue and narrative description) similarly distorts and sacrifices the historical record, has not received the same level of vitriol as the historical film.
In particular, historians and critics have argued that lacking “extra-textual” knowledge about historical events could make us more willing to accept cinematic fiction as fact. The same fear has riddled the film adaptation of novels for decades and, despite being debunked by many eminent theorists including Brian McFarlane and Deborah Cartmell, this spectre refuses to be driven out of the popular debate. On a practical level, “It starts with schools,” says Alex von Tunzelmann, historian and author of Reel History: The World According to the Movies, “It is vital that the humanities, including history, aren’t neglected, for they teach the process of critical thinking.”
Of course, willingness to consider and accept the artistic direction of the films we watch lies with us, the viewers. Each film offers a distinct interpretation of history filtered through the collective experience of the filmmakers. Take Dunkirk. In 1958, director Leslie Norman offered up the broad historical context to the event. His drama follows not only the inception of Operation Dynamo, but the journey of a group of soldiers across France to the Dunkirk beaches. In 2017, Christopher Nolan approached the project from a different perspective, aiming to deliver an immersive experience of war. His film begins with the soldiers already on the beaches, the air force in the skies and the British civilian boats on route to the evacuation. There is comparatively little dialogue, the emphasis being upon the sights and sounds of war, taking advantage of the developments in IMAX technology.
That cinema relies so heavily on signs and symbols to communicate its deepest ideas and themes reinforces the need for filmmakers to deploy artistic licence. Queen Anne’s rabbits in The Favourite are not literal but figurative, each representing a child lost to stillbirth or miscarriage. Director Yorgos Lanthimos ends with a swirling vortex of rabbit imagery that sucks us deep into Anne’s grief stricken mental decline more clearly and viscerally than any conventional resolution.
As artists, filmmakers can hardly be required to bear the burden of telling the truth. But it does seem fair to ask questions about the particular artistic gains made when a film sacrifices the facts. Those films re-writing history for the purpose of glory and patriotism invite particular disdain—look no further than U-571 which depicted the Americans, rather than the British, capturing an Enigma machine. But when it comes to recent politics, the issue of historical fidelity becomes especially contentious. The greater our proximity to the events, suggests Jenkins (who criticizes the unabashed leftism of Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney biopic, Vice), the greater the filmmakers’ moral and ethical duty. Of course, patriotism is as subjective as it is emotive. Ford v Ferrari (released internationally as Le Mans ‘66) injects jeopardy into its “true” story of motorsport rivalry by twisting its Italian characters into pantomime villains. The film was rewarded with a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars but was, unsurprisingly, less well received at the Italian box office where it brought in just over $3 million.
For those worried about cinema hoodwinking audiences into their historical fictions, tone is everything. Films giving the impression of impartial historical accuracy—like Mary Queen Of Scots and Darkest Hour—lay themselves open to accusations of deception. Meanwhile, those drawing attention to their superficial recreation of the past—like A Cock and Bull Story and Shakespeare in Love—often garner significant acclaim. The obligation to entertain might give mainstream films low cultural kudos but, rather ironically, it also protects them from the most vehement accusations of fake history. In fact, the more obvious the historical ruse, the less we tend to mind it.
Adaptation theorists have questioned whether it is even possible to authentically recreate history on screen; a film’s period “quality” being inevitably artificial. Perhaps inevitably then, our continued obsession with historical fidelity has become comic fodder. In Holmes & Watson, writer-director Etan Cohen treats history with deliberate irreverence. In the background, penny-farthing exercise bikes mock the costume genre’s fixation with superficial historical details. Later, the climactic set piece of the Victorian detective spoof takes place on the very Edwardian Titanic. The film’s stars, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, poke fun at nostalgia and Britishness as seen through their American lens. This is “history as entertainment” taken to extremes, riffing on a brand of costume drama whose version of the past is, to borrow the words of adaptation theorist Robert Rosenstone, “no more than a kind of exotic realm for love and adventure.”
Indeed, the misplaced importance we give to the visual trappings of history as “setting,” is evident in the various onscreen imaginings of the Titanic disaster. In 1997, developments in technology and an estimated $200 million budget enabled writer-director James Cameron to recreate Titanic’s sumptuous interiors and eventual sinking in impressive detail. But it’s A Night To Remember—made 40 years earlier on just a fraction of Cameron’s budget—that critics widely agree offers the most accurate depiction of class.
Nevertheless, we continue to enjoy luxuriating in the visual opulence and romance of an idealized past. The evidence lies not only in the success of Downton Abbey but in the continued popularity of high production value literary adaptations—2020 sees yet another take on Jane Austen’s Emma. Often, these adaptations “strip the original text of what is regarded as unpleasant,” says leading theorist Deborah Cartmell in Adaptations: From Text to Screen, Screen to Text, “satisfying a nostalgic yearning.” In the same collection, Esther Sonnet explores the on-screen characterisation of Austen’s Mr. Darcy to suggest that literary film adaptations have “become a site of licence for female visual/sexual pleasure.” In other words, the novel’s rich historical, social commentary reduced to mere love story.
Divorcing the novel from its socio-political context—a process theorists like to call “dehistoricization”—can radically alter its original meaning. But this sacrifice need not be negative and many filmmakers have re-functioned their source material (both fact and fiction) to powerful effect. Hannah Greig, historical consultant on The Favourite, argues that the film unleashes a new story about the political agency of women in Queen Anne’s court. The film, she writes, “reflects some of the most recent scholarship in the field.”
Incidentally, it seems our knee-jerk disapproval of cinematic retellings may be based on a faulty instinct. We tend to view history as fixed, as something that can be misinterpreted. Yet, in the same period that journalists have been raging about cinema’s “fake history,” adaptation theorists have been moving in the opposite direction. The last decade has seen a shift in the field to include history itself as essentially adaptive: as something that is constantly shifting in light of new evidence and fresh perspectives. And so, as filmmakers sacrifice historical detail with one hand, they democratize history with the other—not only by making it more accessible to mass audiences, but by telling the stories of those left out of the “official” historical record.
“Outright lies about slavery and its aftermath, from Birth of a Nation to Gone With the Wind, have defaced American cinema for a long time,” writes Noah Berlatsky for The Atlantic. “To go forward more honestly, we need accounts of our past that, like the slave narratives themselves”—which were often recorded by experienced editors on the basis of oral testimonies—“use accuracy and art in the interest of being more true.” He references the first (invented) sex scene in the Solomon Northup biopic, 12 Years A Slave, which “speaks to our post-Freud, post-sexual-revolution belief that, isolated for 12 years far from home, Northup would be bound to have some sort of sexual encounters, even if (especially if?) he does not discuss them in his autobiography.” The scene, he argues, makes “slavery seem more real. But it creates that psychological truth by interpolating an incident that isn’t factually true.” Historical revisions are a small price to pay for this kind of emotional honesty.
As we adapt, revise, and refresh history, we have a habit of finding our own experience in its events. In this way, historical films often say less about the time in which they are set, than when they are made. Take Mirrah Foulkes’ comedy drama, Judy & Punch. Its feminist retelling is written right into the title, actively re-functioning the traditional puppet show for the #MeToo era. Punch is an abhorrent domestic abuser but, by the end of the film, society’s maligned women, heretics and outcasts are vindicated. Its historical setting is an absurdist mash-up of 17th century England, featuring a Victorian police constable and a primitive mob that works as a proxy for the current rise of populism. This self-reflexive film also operates as the puppet show’s (obviously imaginary) origin story. The effect is a story within a story, an infinite circle that adaptation theorist Jeremy Strong calls an “ouroboros”—a snake eating its own tail—and the film’s principle joy lies in trying to unravel it. Through invention and parody, Foulkes gives us a blistering work of postmodern historical metafiction that leaves us wondering how the violent and misogynistic puppet show has survived so long.
Just 12 months on from the hot takes surrounding Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite, it seems the debate about historical accuracy has subtly shifted. Greta Gerwig’s Little Women—modern as it is in the depiction of female agency and independence—came under the spotlight for the whiteness of its cast. For The New York Times, Kaitlyn Greenidge acknowledged the “fatigue of watching a prestigious film about white women being claimed as a cultural watershed for women everywhere,” suggesting that we need to look beyond “the conventions of narrative fiction” to the “stories that are deeper and more complicated.” A similar argument was made by reporter Amanda Parris who pointed to the need for “contemporary adaptations [to] push for deeper and wider reflections on their source material.” Gerwig’s Little Women, she argues, “could have widened the world of the novel,” opening it up to other stories existing beyond the confines of the page. The American Civil War setting of Little Women may seem, by conventional storytelling standards, inseparable from its characters and plot. But critics and audiences are beginning to clamour for new ways of thinking about classic novels and reconstructing the past on screen. Most importantly, we are reaching a defining moment in recognising that in order for historical films to say something relevant and meaningful, they need to represent all of us.
This year, writer-director Armando Iannucci reinvigorates Charles Dickens’ The Personal History of David Copperfield, with color-blind casting. “I want it to feel real and present, even though it’s set in 1840,” he told Indiewire, “and therefore I want the cast to be much more representative of what London looks like now, and I want a lot of the behavior in the film to feel current and contemporary.” His film is alive with our own experiences. Letting go of the novel’s most archaic elements, Iannucci converges on the entitlement of private school boys, the anxiety of debt and the perils of life without a safety net, all with a refreshing, absurdist tone. The meet-cute between Copperfield and his young love, Dora, could come from a 21st century rom-com, and the language of social excuses is ripped straight from modern life. What Iannucci understands is that the most powerful connection we have with history is our humanity.
Michael Winterbottom, the director of A Cock and Bull Story, shares this wisdom. The experiences of that film’s actors are mirrored, echoed and reproduced in the historical characters they play, revealing our continuing connection with the past, our common feelings and impulses. There is much to be gained by the “free exchange between literature, reading, historical moment and film,” suggest Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan in their introduction to Literature On Screen. From this we reap the benefits of emotional and psychological “truth.” For it is often when filmmakers sacrifice rigid historical fidelity that the most relevant, inventive and thematically compelling cinema comes into being.