Ex Urbe: “The Borgias” vs. “Borgia: Faith and Fear”: Accuracy in Historical Fiction: Noted for July 30, 2013
I said before that I am not evaluating these shows for their historical accuracy. Shows ignoring history or changing it around does bother me sometimes…. The superb HBO series Rome, which does an absolutely unparalleled job presenting Roman social class, slavery, and religion, nonetheless left me baffled as to why a studio making a series about the Julio-Claudians would feel driven to ignore the famous historical allegations of orgies and bizarre sex preserved in classical sources and substitute different orgies and bizarre sex. The original orgies and bizarre sex were perfectly sufficient! But in general I tend to be extremely patient…. I have learned to relax and let it go.
I remember the turning point moment. I was watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with my roommates, and it went into a backstory flashback set in high medieval Germany. “Why are you sighing?” one asked, noticing that I’d laid back and deflated rather gloomily. I answered: “She’s not of sufficiently high social status to have domesticated rabbits in Northern Europe in that century. But I guess it’s not fair to press a point since the research on that hasn’t been published yet.” It made me laugh, also made me think about how much I don’t know, since I hadn’t known that a week before…. There are bits of period clothing whose functions are utter mysteries. There are entire professions that used to exist that we now barely understand. No history is accurate, not even the very best we have.
Envision a scene in which two Renaissance men are hanging out in a bar in Bologna with a prostitute…. I, with my professional knowledge of the place and period, notice that there are implausibly too many candles burning, way more than this pub could afford, plus what they paid for that meal is about what the landlord probably earns in a month, and the prostitute isn’t wearing the mandatory blue veil…. But if I showed it to twenty other historians they would notice other things: that style of candlestick wasn’t possible with Italian metalwork of the day, that fabric pattern was Flemish, that window wouldn’t have had curtains, that dish they’re eating is a period dish but from Genoa…. So much we know. But a person from the period would notice a thousand other things…. All historical scenes are wrong, as wrong as a scene set now would be which had a classy couple go to a formal steakhouse with paper menus and an all-you-can-eat steak buffet. All the details are right, but the mix is wrong….
A real historical piece… would be unwatchable…. The audience would be constantly distracted by details like un-filmably dark building interiors, ugly missing teeth, infants being given broken-winged songbirds as disposable toys to play with, crush, and throw away, and Marie Antoinette relieving herself on the floor at Versailles. Despite its hundreds of bathrooms, one of Versailles’ marks of luxury was that the staff removed human feces from the hallways regularly, sometimes as often as twice a day, and always more than once a week. We cannot make an accurate movie of this--it will please no one….
Communication can be more important than accuracy. Even costuming accuracy can be a communications problem…. Want to costume a princess to feel sweet and feminine? The modern eye demands pink or light blue, though the historian knows pale colors coded poverty. Want to costume a woman to communicate the fact that she’s a sexy seductress? The audience needs the bodice and sleeves to expose the bits of her modern audiences associate with sexy, regardless of which bits would plausibly have been exposed at the time. I recently had to costume some Vikings, and was lent a pair of extremely nice period Viking pants which had bold white and orange stripes about two inches wide. I know enough to realize how perfect they were, and that both the expense of the dye and the purity of the white would mark them as the pants of an important man, but that if someone walked on stage in them the whole audience would think: “Why is that Viking wearing clown pants?” Which do you want, to communicate with the audience, or to be accurate? I choose A.
Thus, rather than by accuracy, I judge this type of show by how successfully the creators of an historical piece have chosen wisely from what history offered them in order to make a good story…. If some characters are twisted a bit, made into heroes or villains to make the melodrama work, that too can be the right choice. If you want to make King Arthur a woman, or have Mary Shelley sleep with time-traveling John Hurt, even that can work if it serves a good story. Or it can fail spectacularly, but in order to see what people are trying to do I will give the show the benefit of the doubt, and be patient even if poor Merlin is in the stocks being pelted with tomatoes….
I am not meaning to pick a fight here with people who care deeply about accuracy in historical fiction. I respect that it bothers some people, and also that there is great merit in getting things right…. I am simply saying that, while accuracy is a merit, it is not more important to me than other merits, especially entertainment value in something which is intended as entertainment. This is also why I praise Borgia: Faith and Fear for what I call its “historicity” rather than its “accuracy”. It takes its fair share of liberties, as well it should if it wants a modern person to sit through it. But it also succeeds in making the characters feel un-modern in a way many period pieces don’t try to do. It is a bit alienating but much more powerful…. Richer characters, more powerful situations, newer, stranger ideas that challenge the viewers, these are the produce of B:F&F‘s historicity, and bring a lot more power to it than details like accurately-colored dresses or perfectly period utensils, which are admirable, but not enriching.