The (uneasy?) marriage between fact and fiction

In the previous blog Entertainment over historical accuracy, the comments received ranged from not being impressed with the film or the depiction of Egypt and the “exodus”, the misinterpretation of information to acceptance that the film industry glosses and loosely portrays the truth. (I hope you’re not out of breath after that long sentence!) We know the main aim of the film industry is to make money. And as my colleague and fellow writer Adam Havarias pointed out, historical movies has generated interest in historical fiction.

As a writer of historical fiction/fantasy, I understand that to create an engaging story one takes creative licence with changing the setting, combining periods, to altering what happens in a certain era. I would say most people are okay with that. It is fiction after all. If the story is done well and keeps the interest of the reader (or movie goers) then the writer has achieved their goal. But is that enough?

I believe research is important; it helps to establish the scenes and immerses the reader into the period who you hope becomes invested in the protagonist and the conflicts faced. In the case of the Ridley Scott’s movie: Exodus Gods and Kings, and as Michalea Moore rightly pointed out, the pyramids were already built long before Ramesses II. Not only that the pyramids weren’t built by slaves. Is this a deliberate oversight to showcase (pardon the pun) the plight of the Jews?

Another element is the depiction of culture, such as clothing, hair styles, living standards, homes, cooking equipment, food and religion. Even if a story may combine centuries, I feel it’s important to research and at least incorporate as close to what the people did and wore during that time. I watched the series Rome, which I really enjoyed, although the costumes the actors wore were not a true representation of the Romans and Egyptians. We know the Egyptians wore kohl (eye liner) and wigs for health reasons, and I am quite sure Cleopatra did not wear sheer clothing on a daily basis, if ever. She was the Queen of Egypt. From the hieroglyphs, only the dancing girls and females who played musical instruments wore such clothing.

While the series Rome may not be entirely accurate, it did show the political agenda and secret goings on which no doubt did occur. The machinations of the senate and the elite of Rome would not be out of place today.

Storytellers have been around for thousands of years, great embellishers of the truth and lore. People have always loved to be entertained; it is a distraction and temporary refuge from stress and problems. I know when reading a good book or watching a movie, I am for that time invested in the story. It is a good mental check out and we all need to take time away from the daily grind.

What are your thoughts on the marriage between fact and fiction? Is it amicable or uneasy?

Thank you for visiting and reading. As always, your comments are valued and welcomed.

Historical fiction fantasist Luciana Cavallaro, a secondary teacher, meanders from contemporary life to delve into the realms of mythology. Subscribe to her FREE short story http://eepurl.com/bhESs1

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10 thoughts on “The (uneasy?) marriage between fact and fiction

  1. Cinema is an art technologically amalgamating all that is required from other forms of art to create a captivating visual experience for the viewer. Many of great works of fiction already have interesting visual potential built into it, and, in such cases, all that the director needs to do is to just have same translated into script and picturisation. An illustrative example is the movie ‘Siddharta’, based on Herman Hesse’s novel of same title. The movie stays true to the highly philosophical novel, even the dialogues of characters are based on Hesse’s narration. It is the same with movie versions of many of the great Shakespearean plays. There are also several movies based on great fiction, where liberties are taken to either compress the narrative or slightly alter sequence of events to build the climax within timescale demands of a movie. And in many instances, such movies were a better experience than the respective novels, the film and the book ‘Jaws’ being an example. It is the same with history; it is the director’s vision of particular sequence of events or era in history, taking due care to avoid lags and make it interesting for the audience. That said, cinematic licence while picturising history does not mean totally misrepresenting facts and events, period costumes and other paraphernalia. Such a film is bound to fall flat, as evident in the tardy response for Ridley Scott’s ‘Exodus’ in India. As always, enjoyed writing this comment for your post, Luc…best wishes…xxRaj.

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    • Yes, some books have been translated well into movies and it would be difficult to honour a novel in its entirety. I read Jurassic Park and then watched the movie. It was done well, even if it was targeted to the teen audience. Some others were disappointing. Not sure what vision the director had with those!
      Thank you so much Raj for your enlightening comment 😀 xx

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  2. Here’s an analogy: If you get the chance to climb on a scaffold to see the statues high up in niches on the walls of cathedrals, you find them disproportionate in comparison with real human dimensions. Not only are they much bigger, but they have huge heads and tapering torsos, as their sculptors realised that they would normally be viewed from far below and a bit of creative licence would make them SEEM in proportion, to prevent the kind of effect achieved in more recent times by seaside photos of members of the family lying on the beach, which portray huge feet and a tiny heads! I can just imagine the architectural overseer, the ‘expert’, tut-tutting on finding statues with abnormal proportions when viewing them close up, whilst the masses down below would see nothing to suggest that reality hadn’t been achieved. As a crime writer, I’m much less concerned with the (dare I say it?) dull procedural realities of police work and more with the impressions I create of the workings of the minds of the characters; I think it’s more about achieving the willing suspension of disbelief by avoiding those things which would snap the reader out of the trance of fiction into the hard glare of the real world. If I were to chart every single thing the police do to catch a villain, I’d have VERY long novels and no readers! Bravo for the film directors who capture us in their fiction and hold us spellbound, regardless of the truths of historical accuracy.

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    • I love the analogy, Christina 😀 The same goes for the Parthenon and the perspective of the columns and foundation.
      Not every detail needs to be included in fiction or movies but only those elements that is pivotal to the story, otherwise it would make for a very long and boring ms!
      Thank you for sharing your writing process too. Always nice to know how other writers work.
      Thanks Christina.

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  3. Hi Luciana,

    You have posed an interesting question regarding how much leeway an author or film producer has in presenting historical fiction and fantasy. One of the comments I have received in pitching my unpublished manuscript to agents is that you still need to appeal to modern audiences in which the ancient culture may not mesh with the modern sensitivities. The lifespan being much shorter in ancient times, women were often married in their early teens and young men, such as Augustus Caesar and Alexander the Great, came into power as young men. There can be some sensitivity on sexuality of young characters which may be based historical fact but may not considered suitable in the modern audience, particularly in the USA. Game of Thrones has not backed away from this which I commend. I think it is great that audiences can be exposed to some of the lessons we can learn from history even though it may not be quite historically true. I personally like the presentation of Rome as it was more realistic about presenting the differences in living conditions between the plebs and patricians and their attitude about their religion. Although they spun history differently, the twists were lots of fun. Thus, it is a balancing act between historical accuracy and fiction.

    Thanks for your sharing your thoughts.

    Best wishes,
    Linnea

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    • That is interesting feedback you received and helpful too. Though as you’ve written, Games of Thrones has gone against those suggestions and gained a huge audience-both readers and viewers. Like you, I think its great a broader audience is exposed to movies and series set in the ancient world and hopefully generates interest to read historical fiction.
      It will be interesting to see if the Game of Thrones and the likes of Vikings is the gate that gets as close to what it was like in the past.
      Thank you for a thought-provoking response, Linnea.
      cheers
      Luciana

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  4. Bella, interesting post and points of view. When it comes to inaccuracies, it seems that film audiences tend to be more forgiving than readers of fiction. The film industry does a very good job of capturing the viewer by using cinematic techniques to capture the mood and spirit of times, places and historical events depicting each movie. Texture and latitude creates moods and a sense of time and place that takes the audience on a journey that is not just informative but entertaining as well.

    There have been many debates over inaccuracies in historical films such as “Foxcatcher” and “Selma” but most noticeable was the film “Jurassic World” that had paleontologists boldly stepping forward to warn the public that a lot of the movie wasn’t true. The friction sometimes becomes its own sideshow. Yet, all these films were blockbusters. And they all had one thing in common—the filmmakers managed to get the emotional notes right.

    So, should writers and filmmakers be as accurate as scientists? My personal opinion is that it depends on the reader or moviegoer. They are the judges. I just try to keep in mind that filmmakers and authors are not scientists they are storytellers. xxx 🙂

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  5. As an author of biographies and of my Lebanese and Italian family history, I also had to engage in a great deal of research. A little different to Ancient History of course, because some of the people I wrote/write about are still living, or if dead, their descendants are. I agree that you have to ensure that readers want to continue reading, even if the story lines are at times very confronting. It is a question of how far to go and how much minutiae to include without boring the reader to death. I concede that I may not always have managed to get the balance right. Some of my memories and those of others sometimes had to be embellished to enable the reader to become emotionally involved in the story. The fiction involved was the recreation of scenes/backdrops where memory wasn’t all that reliable, or perhaps the chronological sequence of events had to be changed in the interests of flow, because of the sheer amount of information that needed to be included.

    Having said all that, I haven’t always enjoyed the ‘Hollywood’ interpretation of the stories behind movies but now realise that that is part of the art of movie making (or story telling); centuries or even just a few years of events have to be condensed into two or three hours, or into one book!

    Even though aspects of movies about Ancient Greece or Rome may not always be factual, they certainly help me to visualise better, life as it was then while I am reading books of those eras, including your wonderful books, Luciana.

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  6. When it comes to Historical Fact or Fiction it is certainly a difficult enough concept without Hollywood getting involved. So much of a historical account is based on the writer’s perspective as well as which accounts the writer chooses to embed in their story.

    I agree with you in indicating that from the Hollywood account having the film at least represent the story in accuracy in regards to clothing, architecture and so forth is essential in drawing the viewer into the time period. After that it becomes important to draw the audience (which may involve some creative writing/embellishment of fact) into the story and as you indicate it can raise the political or social dilemmas of the time. Hopefully bringing enough interest to the viewer that they will examine/research/read/ more about the topic.

    As with the couple of your books I have read you tell a story about a ‘Myth’ which makes one think about the believes of the culture during that time frame. One becomes interested in the character and as I have done with your blogs or books I read more and try to understand and relate these stories to the historical past or apply to current political dilemmas. It is what makes historical fiction an important medium as it can offer a doorway for those people who won’t read ‘Fact’ based a doorway into learning about history.

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    • Thank you for the kind comment, James. I do hope through my stories, it interests people enough to read and learn more about the mythologies and ancient history.
      There will always be crossovers in the storytelling process which lends to the creative element and a license to explore the past which will tell a great story. It is interesting from the various comments how for the most part people don’t mind the exaggerations in movies. Then again, if it brings more readers to the genre, that is great. 😀

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