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Does Accuracy Matter in Historical Drama?

By Alex Hudson at BBC News

A controversial mini-series about the Kennedys is now being screened in the UK. It has been criticised in the US over its historical accuracy, despite being labelled as fiction. So how much does accuracy matter in historical dramas?

From the day of John F Kennedy’s death, the story of his life has been played out on screen too many times to count. But in new television series The Kennedys, the former US president is presented in a different way from the great American hero he was often portrayed as in the past.

Based on his life but labelled as fiction, the series has been controversial. It was originally scheduled to run on the US channel History but was cancelled earlier this year. In a statement executives said such dramatic interpretation was not “the right fit” for the channel.

In the end the series was shown in the US on the digital cable station ReelzChannel and has just started on BBC Two.

‘Patronising’

So where do you draw the line drawn between fact, rumour and fiction in such dramatisations?

Critics have been very vocal about the series right from the start – even before filming began. Leftwing filmmaker Robert Greenwald told the New York Times it was a “political character assassination”.

He even made an 11-minute film calling for the programme to be banned. In it author Nigel Hamilton questions: “Why mix [personal affairs] in with serious history if you’re not going to treat the history seriously?”

The Kennedys is however trailed as fiction. Some supporters question whether anyone would watch a drama without any dramatisation.

The show’s producer Joel Surnow told the LA Times he believed the series would have been aired on the History Channel if it had been produced by the likes of Tom Hanks or Steven Spielberg. He said his personal politics – he is a donator to the Republican Party – affected views of the programme, but he “never had a political agenda”.

The New Yorker agreed that it didn’t come across this way, but had a “dramatic agenda” that was bound to offend some.

Some television critics argue such shows would be “pretty boring” if it kept entirely to history. Gareth McLean, writer-at-large of the Radio Times, says audiences are sophisticated enough to understand that some dramas are a mix of fact and fiction.

“Audiences aren’t stupid. I think it’s a little bit patronising to assume that the audience takes everything at face value. They can make up their own minds and if they want to find out more then they can do a bit of research around the subject.”

This is something echoed by Sue Deeks, the head of BBC programme acquisition.

 

“All historical fiction has a primary duty to engage the audience with a compelling narrative whilst not distorting historical truth. The very best historical drama will inspire the audience to investigate the fact behind the fiction.”

The interpretation of history in dramatisations has always been hotly debated. From Shakespeare through to the present day, liberties have been taken with actual events to make the characters more interesting and the stories more compelling. Back in 1922 a New York Times critic argued that the absolute truth was “wholly irrelevant” to drama.

‘Emotional accuracy’

Often, it’s theories that question the history around legendary figures that can cause the most problems. In 2004, Greek lawyers threatened to sue the makers of Oliver Stone’s film Alexander because it suggested the protagonist was bisexual. They wanted a disclaimer at the start of the film warning audiences that it was not historically accurate, but the case was later dropped.

Some say this is the problem with The Kennedys – that the former president is seen as almost untouchable and anything to the contrary is met with a stern response.

“Nobody is 100% perfect all the time, but showing legends and heroes in anything but a positive light is always criticised,” says McLean.

He says it will be interesting to see what is done in Peter Kosminsky’s forthcoming film about Nelson Mandela, who “is one of those people who is never criticised now”. The filmmaker has promised to tell the story of the former South African president up until his imprisonment, when Mandela was part of the military wing of the ANC.

But this, along with many other dramas, is believed to be as much about the time it is written in as the time in which it is set. What some say is often overlooked in these dramas is how they are viewed at the time they are released.

“It’s important to note the difference between emotional accuracy and historical accuracy,” says McLean.

“What most of these dramas are trying to do is shed a light on something happening in the present by using historical events. If they can do that successfully – and in an entertaining way – then why not?”