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.


D.M. McGowan said...

The Pillars of The Earth is fiction and yes, the public needs to know that. However, the public wouldn't know anything about the time, wouldn't look it up and wouldn't care if it wasn't for the mini-series.
And they probably wouldn't buy the book either.

Kayla said...

Well put. I get annoyed about these things as well, the fact and fiction of these stories are harder to identify in tv shows, especially when they are being streamed from credible places like the CBC or on the history channel. However, I see McGowan's point too that it prompts people to look further into the history. After watching a few episodes of the Tudors I went online to see where my knowledge of the events fit in with how the show was portraying them.

Krista McCracken said...

Shows definitely have the potential to inspire people to learn more and possibly teach people something about a historical era.

It's just frustrating when someone doesn't take that extra step to learn more, and takes everything they see in a historical fiction at face value. C'est la vie, I suppose.