Yes, but it’s not everything.
I love historical fiction, it’s one of my favourite genres. There is so much to love about it: intriguing storylines, beautiful costumes and extravagant houses and castles we can only dream of living in… but I also love history, so I’m known to nit-pick every time a show deviates from the past. This brings me to the ever-present question: how important is historical accuracy? And when is it okay to exercise some artistic licence?
I’m not ashamed to admit it: ‘Reign’ and ‘The Tudors’ are two of my favourite tv shows. Do they offer a true account of the lives of Mary, Queen of Scots, or King Henry VIII and his six wives? Absolutely not. In fact, ‘Reign’ makes little attempt at even some accuracy until its fourth and final season (and we’re not even going to discuss those costumes that are clearly twenty-first century designer gowns). These notorious royals become caricatures of themselves, and their real-life counterparts are barely recognisable. These shows are not all bad however, because they are highly entertaining, and act as a gateway to introduce viewers to history, hopefully leading them to learn more about who these people were, and how their lives shaped our past.
The problem with these two shows, and many others, is that such artistic license is usually unnecessary. The lives led by Mary Stuart, or Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I, are fascinating in their own right, and don’t need improving upon. Many of the changes made are for gratuitous violence or sex scenes, with fictional characters who only grace the screen for an episode or so before disappearing or being brutally hacked to death. If these shows truly invested us in the story and the lives of the incredible figures they’re portraying, there would be no need for such changes.
Particularly in the last decade, television has witnessed a rather perplexing paradox when it comes to historical fiction. History has been gaining popularity, yet the tv shows presenting it seem to be continuously distorting and trivialising it. These embellishments have led people to believe that the truth just isn’t interesting, or entertaining, enough, when this couldn’t be more wrong.
Historical inaccuracy isn’t always bad, though. One recent show I loved that got it right was ‘The Great’, a retelling of the life of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, and her quest to overthrow her frat-bro husband Peter III. The show is well aware of its own inaccuracy, beginning each episode with an asterisk on the title card, stating: “an occasionally true story.” Created by ‘The Favourite’ co-writer, Tony McNamara, the script is witty and over-the-top in a brilliant way, and sometimes feels like it’s going to entirely rewrite Russian history. I don’t usually agree with the sentiment that the story is more important than the history, but in the case of ‘The Great’, it works.
There’s an obvious difference between shows like ‘The Tudors’ compared to shows like ‘Outlander’ or ‘Peaky Blinders’. While the latter shows adapt true events into their storylines, they are highly fictionalised; characters like Claire Fraser and Tommy Shelby never actually existed. This allows for more artistic licence as the actions of these characters have no basis in history, and thus do not distort any facts.
So, this leaves us with the question: is historical accuracy really that important? Yes, but it’s not everything. You can dramatize the life of a famous figure while still showing respect towards their history. You just need to find the right balance.