History in the Making

Reading the Book Behind the Movie

Every year, there are a handful of movies released that are based on books. We see countless listicles of “Books You Should Read Before Seeing the Movie” all over our Facebook pages, and booksellers everywhere urge us to read the books on our screens. As an historian, there is always one or two historical films a year based on books, and I ask myself, should I read the book behind the movie? Does it improve my reading experience or hinder it? Well, today I am chatting about why I think you should read the book behind the movie!

Historical movie posters and the history books they are based on

Claire from Hisdoryan was so kind enough to let me write a guest post for her this past week, and I had to ask the hard question of course. I chatted about historical accuracy and if it actually matters in media. Spoiler alert- I very much think it does. When it comes to historical figures who were real (rather than created), I think “juicing up” their lives to suit a future agenda is unnecessary and doing a disservice. This very much influences my view of movies based on historical studies!

Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart

If you have somehow avoided it for almost a year, there is a new movie coming out about Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I, titled Mary, Queen of Scots. (The trailers emphasise that both Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie have been nominated for an Oscar- that isn’t relevant to the history, though…) It is based on John Guy’s Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart. Guy’s biography of Mary is one of my favourite books, period, history or no. It is a balanced and detailed study of the enigmantic queen’s life, drawing on countless sources and avoiding the dramatic pitfalls of most other Mary biographers. This book, like any other Mary study, emphasises that the two queens never met face to face.

Well, what do we learn almost immediately from the trailer? That in the film they will meet face to face. DAMMIT, GUYS. Was that really necessary? No, no it wasn’t. Mary, Queen of Scots is one of the most fascinating and compelling historical figures in existence, and has more sex, scandal, and murder in her life than we could ever imagine, and that’s without making huge changes. I will most likely go see it in the theatres if it is showing here in Winnipeg, but once again I am left wondering why exactly this needed to be changed.

Mary, Queen of Scots: The Life and Times of Mary Stuart by John Guy

The Historian Behind It

As an historian, it breaks my heart to think that there is someone who has dedicated years of their life (if not decades) to writing this book, only to be swept aside by a movie. Realistically, most historical studies that end up being made into films are not phonebook length. They also tend to be fairly interesting reads for both trained historians and lay people. And I truly believe that you should know the history and research behind a period, event, or person before viewing something on film or television. I find for myself at least, it is difficult to shake a first impression. I can logically know that something is false, but my mind will always flicker to my first impression of something.

People go out of their way to read novels when they are made into movies, but the same consideration is rarely given to historians! I think that non-historians tend to think of that boring high school history class they were in and assume that all history books are as boring as their textbooks. Historians publishing books tend to be at the top of their craft, and are strong writers. We need to do a better job of encouraging fellow readers to give history more of a chance!

KNOWING the History Behind It
I completely recognise that there are many people out there who can watch a film and just enjoy it for what it is- entertainment on the screen. I however can’t seem to do that. I always wonder about the whos and the whats of it all, and it usually distracts me from what is happening on the screen. That isn’t to say that I need the film or television show to match the research exactly. I love watching The Tudors and Reign although they are incredibly inaccurate! I can enjoy them because I know what is a difference and what isn’t though. I’m not wondering, “was that random bastard child who plays a huge role a real person?”. I know they aren’t, so I can watch the drama for what it is!

The bedroom of Mary, Queen of Scots

Reading Lists

This is only going to appeal to a very limited number of people, but I wish that period dramas and historical films came with reading lists. Before the end credits roll, the producers could share two to three different books that highly influenced the show or film. John Guy’s biography is an obvious choice for Mary, Queen of Scots. They could suggest To Marry An English Lord for Downton Abbey, and Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch for The Crown. They could even include books that are produced specifically for the series or film as well, like The Crown: The Official Companion. Something to fill the needs of us historians out there, and to give people a fighting chance of knowing what really happened rather than an ultra-dramatic and sexed version of history that a producer felt was needed!

The official companion book to the Crown

Now that there is a new Robert the Bruce film on Netflix, and Mary, Queen of Scots releases in December, will you be doing some reading before you view them? Or diving in fresh? Are you a fan of reading the book behind the movie?

The Historian
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10 thoughts on “Reading the Book Behind the Movie”

  • I have been really looking forward to the “Mary, Queen of Scots” film, but like you, it really irritates me that such a major detail of the book its based on/actual history is being changed for entertainment value (I can only assume that’s the reasoning). I’m not against taking creative liberties with historical adaptations – like taking rumors surrounding Louis XIV and his court and fleshing them out for entertainment purposes, like what was done in “Versailles” – but changing that detail in “Mary, Queen of Scots” seems much more like a terrible blunder than an interesting thread through which to learn about or analyze these historical figures.

    I’m definitely one of those people who should give historian authors more of a chance. 😬 I’ve encountered more dry non-fiction than engaging non-fiction, which makes historical fiction much more enticing. I do feel like it’s then my responsibility to research how much is true and which parts are entirely made up, but that doesn’t always happen. Your message has certainly worked on me; I’m definitely going to give historians and their books more attention in 2019 (and hopefully beyond).

    • I won’t actually be able to see it until home release (thank you movie theatres for not releasing Mary, Queen of Scots or The Favourite in the city I live in argh), but from all of the reviews that I have read, they were VERY liberal in changing it. I don’t mind when period pieces take general rumours and create a story out of it, but when the entire marketing premise is that it is based on this BIOGRAPHY, maybe try and stick a litttttttle bit closer…

      I would always recommend people try reading historians like Lucy Worsley- she has a PhD, but very much writes for the everybody, rather than other academics. I get that I am a weirdo, though- I find a lot of fiction dryer than non-fiction, and poetry makes me want to never read again. Sometimes history is so much more exciting than anything we could create!! (The Tulip craze in Holland was just NUTSO haha)

  • Oh okay. In that case I think some people do still view historical books as dry & wouldn’t necessarily want to read the book behind the movie.
    I think you did accomplish that though but I was just sharing my view.
    I brought up the anthropology book as an example that I shouldn’t judge a book based on its genre b/c then I’m excluding the books that are actually good. Sure there are boring historical books but the same can be said about fiction books as well. I should read Queen of Scots to show myself that historical books can be interesting.

    • Haha, I completely recognise that this is a very strong bias of mine but I’ve been thinking I might write a follow up post on history books! I feel like I didn’t elaborate as much as I could have on the side of the books 🙂

  • I can’t say that I specifically read the book before the movie but I do read articles and watch documentaries (ex: the BBC ones) on the person or event in question. And I am the same way, I don’t mind a few alterations here and there (ex: Francis fathering a bastard child with Lola – yes, I am a Reign fan! Hihi) But going as far as saying that Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I met in real life is too much. When they change an event that could have ultimately changed the course of history, I can get angry at the screen. Haha!

    I am not a historian. I saw the trailer for the new Mary/Bess movie. It was filled with inaccuracies. I’m glad I fell upon your article because I will definitely read the book before going to the movies!


    • That is exactly it- there are a lot of writers that are changing things that would have changed the course of history, and I think that does a disservice to the past. I am still torn on the Mary, Queen of Scots movie. I will definitely go, but I’m trying my best to keep an open mind…

  • I do often read the books behind movies, but I like to do so afterwards because I usually enjoy the books more and want to avoid disappointment! I don’t have the same degree of knowledge about what’s historically accurate, but I feel that you can explore the characters and their motivations/relationships much more in the books. The film will inevitably leave some things out, and sometimes I think that distracts from our overall understanding of the event or those involved.

    • That is fair- I can totally understand not wanting to feel “left wanting” after watching a film! My frustration with films isn’t so much when things are left out but rather when everything is sexed up and events and people are invented. I don’t think that that is necessary!

  • I try to read the book before watching the movie, but with historical movies it’s not something I do b/c first off I wouldn’t know what book to read since historical movies often do not have the same name as the book (like you recommended To Marry an English Lord for Downtown Abbey) & there’s normally tons of books written about the same topic like Mary, Queen of Scots. With fiction it’s much easier since the book & movie often share the same name (like Harry Potter) or the movie posters & trailers will say it’s based on this book (like Love, Simon & Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda). Another reason why I avoid historical books is b/c they’re often seen as long, dry & ultimately boring. I know that’s not always the case (like I was dreading reading this book for my anthropological perspectives course about child rearing in herding villages in Peru since I thought it would be dry & boring, but it was surprisingly easy to read & rather interesting), but I still can’t help thinking that about historical books.

    • I meant more on movies that are specifically based off of one book- in the case of Mary, Queen of Scots it has been all over the marketing materials that it was based on that one specific book. I wouldn’t expect people to do months of research to see a movie, but when it is based on a specific book, I hate to think that fiction authors are always given the benefit of the doubt and non-fiction authors are left to out to dry.

      Haha, the whole reason I wrote this post was to show people that they aren’t dry and boring but I don’t think I have accomplished that 🙁

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