Thursday, January 13, 2011
Historical Fiction Not Fact
The CBC recently began broadcasting a miniseries based on the novel The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet. The novel is one of my favourite historical fiction works and focuses on lives of peasants, monks, and British royalty during the 12th century.
Despite my love for this book, I am slightly weary of how this and other historical fiction tv productions are being presented. There is an increasing number of tv shows loosely based on historical fact. The Tudors, Rome, John Adams, and Band of Brothers are just a few examples of the prevalence of history themed television.
Novels by their definition are fiction. However, the distinction between fiction and fact can easily be blurred in television productions. Claiming something is "based upon a true story" can provide a production with a sense of legitimacy, even if considerable liberties are taken with the plot. It is not always clear which portions of history themed productions are based on historical record and which parts are fiction or heavily dramatized.
For example, a large portion of The Pillars of the Earth takes place in a fictional town called Kingsbridge. Despite this town being fictional the miniseries presents Kingsbridge on a map alongside actual locations in Britain. I thoroughly enjoy historical fiction as leisure reading and find history themed tv entertaining. However, I think it is important that the general population be aware that historically themed or historically based productions are not actual history.
I have had more than one individual tell me that all they know about British history they've learned from the Tudors. At which point I usually cringe and point out that just because something is based on historical fact doesn't mean it is historical fact. Historical fiction has the ability to inspire an interest in history. However, it is important that the line between fact and fiction is made very clear.