Does Historical Accuracy Matter In Storytelling?

Does Historical Accuracy Matter In Storytelling?

No story can be perfectly accurate, but misinformation can be harmful.

We see it on movie posters all the time: based on a true story (or, in the case of ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats,’ “More of this is true than you would believe”). Of course, if you look into the basis for any historical fiction, you’ll find that it’s not entirely accurate.

There are plenty of reasons why historical fiction deviates from reality. First and foremost, it’s important to tell a good story, not to simply educate the audience. This means details must be left out for simplicity’s sake, real people are mixed to form composite characters, and most of the dialogue and character development will be artistic license. Total accuracy is the realm of documentary and nonfiction, and a film, novel, etc. bound strictly to the facts wouldn’t be particularly appealing to most audiences.

Some stories deviate from history for dramatic purposes, because real life rarely provides the high stakes and clear-cut conflict that fiction can. Frank Miller’s graphic novel ‘300,’ and Zack Snyder’s film adaptation, goes to great lengths to characterize the Spartans as heroes, while demonizing the Persian invaders (although the depiction of Xerxes as a violently narcissistic tyrant is pretty fair). No matter how barbaric the Spartans could be, they make for compelling underdogs with a few factual adjustments. However, while many of its scenes are total fabrications and the costumes are especially inaccurate, the story actually covers the events of the Battle of Thermopylae relatively well.

‘Gladiator’ is an even more extreme example of historical inaccuracy used to create more compelling drama. While there was undoubtedly plenty of research poured into the film, the story makes no attempt to follow history. The film’s iconic protagonist Maximus is fictitious, but the villain Emperor Commodus was a real person. Though he did actually enjoy fighting in rugged gladiator games, as the movie depicts, he was not killed in the arena in an act of vengeance. His advisors conspired against him and hired a wrestler to strangle him while he was taking a bath. Even as someone who loves history, I can admit that the fictional version is simply a more entertaining story.

That doesn’t mean that storytellers should simply change whatever they want. First of all, the ambiguity and complexity of history may very well make for a better story than the same rehashed formulas that Hollywood typically falls back on. When dealing with true events, storytellers do have some level of responsibility regarding what information they distribute to the public. Like it or not, much of that people think about history is influenced by stories, and historical fiction can easily function as propaganda in disguise.

The revisionist epic ‘Birth of a Nation’ romanticized the Ku Klux Klan as heroes protecting the Post-Civil War South from freed slaves. The film was widely popular, and proved to be an effective recruitment for the KKK in real life. Inspired by the film, some white audiences formed gangs and committed hate crimes, including murder. All fiction is essentially a lie, but historical fiction in particular has the potential to be a malicious lie.

Modern Hollywood no longer has the audacity to do something so blatantly racist, but that doesn’t stop prejudice from creeping into popular versions of history. The film industry has an ugly habit of removing diversity from history, something particularly noticeable in its treatment of Ancient Egypt. During Europe’s obsession with Egyptology in the 19th century, it was widely assumed in the western world that ancient Egyptians were ethnically white, in large part because the racial science of the day insisted that other races were incapable of building such an advanced society. While such pseudoscience has been dismissed as absurd, popular media continues to depict ancient Egyptians as predominantly white (in the recent ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ and ‘Gods of Egypt,’ for example).

It’s hard to determine exactly what they looked like in reality, but Greek historian Herodotus does refer to them as dark-skinned with wooly hair. Considering that he was alive at the time, we should probably take his word over the theories of 19th century racists. In later centuries, Egypt probably became something of an ethnic melting pot as it was conquered by the Greeks and Romans, and more recently by the Arabs and the English. The problem with modern depictions of Egyptians is not simply inaccuracy, it's the fact that they implicitly promote outdated prejudices.

Some historical inaccuracy is acceptable and even necessary in storytelling, but disregarding the facts can also promote outdated or even harmful misconceptions. Major inaccuracies will also break the suspension of disbelief for audiences that are well-versed in certain historical topics, the very people who would be most attracted to historical fiction.

The best example of historical fiction that I’ve encountered is easily Robert Graves’ ‘I, Claudius’ and its sequel ‘Claudius the God.’ The two books are written as the lost autobiography of the Roman emperor Claudius, turning a lesser-known historical figure into a compelling character. The books are exhaustively researched, to the point that they’re actually decent sources of information regarding first century Rome. However, Graves used artistic license to create a great deal of character development and drama, essentially using fiction to fill in the gaps of history rather than contradicting it outright. It may not be the stuff of swords and sandals blockbusters, but it is infinitely more interesting.

Accuracy matters when it contributes to a more complex and believable narrative, but can be a drawback if it results in convoluted plots and weak pacing. After all, if stories were exactly like real life, we wouldn’t bother telling so many stories. Stories shouldn’t be judged primarily on accuracy, but that doesn’t mean storytellers have a blank check to promote damaging falsehoods either.
Cover Image Credit: DreamWorks

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8 Reasons Why My Dad Is the Most Important Man In My Life

Forever my number one guy.

Growing up, there's been one consistent man I can always count on, my father. In any aspect of my life, my dad has always been there, showing me unconditional love and respect every day. No matter what, I know that my dad will always be the most important man in my life for many reasons.

1. He has always been there.

Literally. From the day I was born until today, I have never not been able to count on my dad to be there for me, uplift me and be the best dad he can be.

2. He learned to adapt and suffer through girly trends to make me happy.

I'm sure when my dad was younger and pictured his future, he didn't think about the Barbie pretend pageants, dressing up as a princess, perfecting my pigtails and enduring other countless girly events. My dad never turned me down when I wanted to play a game, no matter what and was always willing to help me pick out cute outfits and do my hair before preschool.

3. He sends the cutest texts.

Random text messages since I have gotten my own cell phone have always come my way from my dad. Those randoms "I love you so much" and "I am so proud of you" never fail to make me smile, and I can always count on my dad for an adorable text message when I'm feeling down.

4. He taught me how to be brave.

When I needed to learn how to swim, he threw me in the pool. When I needed to learn how to ride a bike, he went alongside me and made sure I didn't fall too badly. When I needed to learn how to drive, he was there next to me, making sure I didn't crash.

5. He encourages me to best the best I can be.

My dad sees the best in me, no matter how much I fail. He's always there to support me and turn my failures into successes. He can sit on the phone with me for hours, talking future career stuff and listening to me lay out my future plans and goals. He wants the absolute best for me, and no is never an option, he is always willing to do whatever it takes to get me where I need to be.

6. He gets sentimental way too often, but it's cute.

Whether you're sitting down at the kitchen table, reminiscing about your childhood, or that one song comes on that your dad insists you will dance to together on your wedding day, your dad's emotions often come out in the cutest possible way, forever reminding you how loved you are.

7. He supports you, emotionally and financially.

Need to vent about a guy in your life that isn't treating you well? My dad is there. Need some extra cash to help fund spring break? He's there for that, too.

8. He shows me how I should be treated.

Yes, my dad treats me like a princess, and I don't expect every guy I meet to wait on me hand and foot, but I do expect respect, and that's exactly what my dad showed I deserve. From the way he loves, admires, and respects me, he shows me that there are guys out there who will one day come along and treat me like that. My dad always advises me to not put up with less than I deserve and assures me that the right guy will come along one day.

For these reasons and more, my dad will forever be my No. 1 man. I love you!

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From One Nerd To Another

My contemplation of the complexities between different forms of art.


Aside from reading Guy Harrison's guide to eliminating scientific ignorance called, "At Least Know This: Essential Science to Enhance Your Life" and, "The Breakthrough: Immunotherapy and the Race to Cure Cancer" by Charles Graeber, an informative and emotional historical account explaining the potential use of our own immune systems to cure cancer, I read articles and worked on my own writing in order to keep learning while enjoying my winter break back in December. I also took a trip to the Guggenheim Museum.

I wish I was artistic. Generally, I walk through museums in awe of what artists can do. The colors and dainty details simultaneously inspire me and remind me of what little talent I posses holding a paintbrush. Walking through the Guggenheim was no exception. Most of the pieces are done by Hilma af Klint, a 20th-century Swedish artist expressing her beliefs and curiosity about the universe through her abstract painting. I was mostly at the exhibit to appease my mom (a K - 8th-grade art teacher), but as we continued to look at each piece and read their descriptions, I slowly began to appreciate them and their underlying meanings.

I like writing that integrates symbols, double meanings, and metaphors into its message because I think that the best works of art are the ones that have to be sought after. If the writer simply tells you exactly what they were thinking and how their words should be interpreted, there's no room for imagination. An unpopular opinion in high school was that reading "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne was fun. Well, I thought it was. At the beginning of the book, there's a scene where Hawthorne describes a wild rosebush that sits just outside of the community prison. As you read, you are free to decide whether it's an image of morality, the last taste of freedom and natural beauty for criminals walking toward their doom, or a symbol of the relationship between the Puritans with their prison-like expectations and Hester, the main character, who blossoms into herself throughout the novel. Whichever one you think it is doesn't matter, the point is that the rosebush can symbolize whatever you want it to. It's the same with paintings - they can be interpreted however you want them to be.

As we walked through the building, its spiral design leading us further and further upwards, we were able to catch glimpses of af Klint's life through the strokes of her brush. My favorite of her collections was one titled, "Evolution." As a science nerd myself, the idea that the story of our existence was being incorporated into art intrigued me. One piece represented the eras of geological time through her use of spirals and snails colored abstractly. She clued you into the story she was telling by using different colors and tones to represent different periods. It felt like reading "The Scarlet Letter" and my biology textbook at the same time. Maybe that sounds like the worst thing ever, but to me it was heaven. Art isn't just art and science isn't just science. Aspects of different studies coexist and join together to form something amazing that will speak to even the most untalented patron walking through the museum halls.

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