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!
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.
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!
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!