Sunday, 7 October 2012

History v Entertainment

Now don't get me wrong;

a) My current favourite reading genre is historical fiction.
b) This is not yet another Hollywood bashing exercise (although they do necessarily play their part).

This is more about how the entertainment industry as a whole plays fast and loose with historical accuracy, to the point that sometimes it is not just inaccurate, it is plain wrong and misleading.  In historical fiction however you are at least guided by - sometimes lengthy - author's notes where they specify where they have taken license with the facts.  Movies and games do not do this.

Case 1.  Hollywood.  U571.

A US submarine discovers the code books to break the German Enigma Code wide open.  The US (again!) wins World War II single-handed.  Except it never happened.  A British warship in fact shot up a U-boat causing it to be unable to dive, and two of the British crew who boarded it found the code books onboard.  This is known fact, as two of them perished when the U-Boat captain scuttled it and they were unable to get out in time.  They could have but they chose to continue passing up the books to their shipmates outside until it was too late.

Case 2. Computer Gaming Industry.  Assassins Creed.

For those not familiar with the game it is set in Italy in either the 14th or 15th century.  You may be wondering why I'm not sure which century, and I shall explain.  The general synopsis is that a band of assassins, obviously the Creed of the title, is waging a guerilla war against the evil Pope, Rodrigo Borgia.  All fine so far.  Except the army of supporters aiding the Pope are the Templar Knights.  Here we run into a tiny problem.

i) The Templar Knights were exterminated as an organisation on the orders of Phillipe of France in 1312.
ii) Pope Alexander VI's papacy began in 1492.

Now I was never the best at mathematics in school, but I'm sure an organisation the Pope disbanded in 1312 couldn't be acting under his orders and thriving 180 years later.

[Edit: April 2017: I have been informed by a reliable source that the creators of Assassin's Creed openly state the history is not accurate, so inasmuch as they don't try to say it is they're forgiven. However the fact remains that game players in general are not the type to pay attention to that kind of disclaimer, so the point is stil valid.]


Now, the entertainment industry does get it right sometimes - Bram Stoker's Dracula was pretty faithful to the original; in James Cameron's blockbuster Titanic the ship did actually sink, apparently much to the dismay of some movie-goers but let's not go there shall we?  On the other hand that is perhaps precisely where we should be going as it is the purpose of this blog.

The entertainment industry could, if they chose to, be a force for good and for education.  For example the Lord of the Rings trilogy was broadly accurate and faithful to Tolkien's original and hopefully encouraged some who had not read the originals to give them a try (yes there were faults but that's a whole new blog - or blogs).  When entitling a movie or a game with the format '[Author's Name]'s [Book Title]' it is helpful - I would argue essential - if the content of the movie/game bearing the title at least make some attempt to be faithful to the original.  Similarly when depicting historical events there needs to be at least a solid core of accuracy;

i) Rasputin's death was one of the events leading to the Russian revolution in 1917, so how could he be depicted chasing the Princess Anastasia all over Europe after the Revolution?  Notwithstanding the fact he was a friend of the Russian Royal Family as well.  (Yes I know it's Disney but if you feed children rubbish at an early age it's harder to feed them good stuff later on.)

ii) H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds has been particularly, and repeatedly badly maligned in this respect.  With the original story being based in late Victorian England - a time when it was believed that Mars held life - it is puzzling to find the story depicted as 1950s or early 21st century America - the latter with none of the original characters surviving.

Similarly if you set a movie/game within a certain time period there ought to be at least some attention paid to accuracy of the period.

I am aware that I may be coming over as a history/literature purist and while I make no bones about the fact that I do much prefer accuracy in both, that is not the main gripe I have.  My gripe is simply this.  On one occasion I was conversing with someone from America regarding World War II and he told me, with some confidence, that Germany attacked Pearl Harbor.  Now I know many Americans and because of that I know this level of ignorance of history is not universal, nor for that matter is it confined to America.  However unless the entertainment industry in its' entirety put more effort into accuracy in their output, I fear the knowledge of history of many people will be lost among the fiction fed to them on a daily basis.

I leave you with this - often misquoted - observation:

'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it'

George Santayana (1863-1952)

and a question:  Do you know where the Manic Street Preachers' lyrics 'If you tolerate this, then your children will be next' originated? No prize just an interesting snippet.

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