History vs Fiction: How the Quest for Historical Accuracy Is Ruining Entertainment

What happened to that sense of wonder, that leap of faith we used to take when starting a book, watching a movie or a TV series? When was it replaced by our know-it-all, nitpicker, consulting Wikipedia at all turns attitude?

It all began with the honest and pure search for more inclusive representation in entertainment. Is it possible that no one was black in New York in the ’90s in Friends? Are we supposed to root for Pocahontas and John Smith’s romance? Can you believe Sex and the City‘s Carrie Bradshaw could afford that flat in Manhattan? No, of course we can’t. So we couldn’t help but wonder what else was entertainment lying about?

And it all went downhill from there.

Shondaland’s Bridgerton is just the most recent piece of writing going through this inexplicably harsh scrutiny. The Regency era TV sensation is an adaptation of Julia Quinn’s book series. So, we’re talking about an American author setting her purely romantic and escapist love stories in 1800s London.

You see, this is the first clue of a lack of concern for historical accuracy. And what’s wrong with that? Quinn had surely done her research before creating the mesmerising world of Bridgerton, as any author should – but that’s it. You need a believable setting, reasonable societal restrictions and a lot of imagination. What else? Why should a romance writer strive for historical accuracy? People read her novels for that bubbly, lovely, unique sensation of being projected in another world. They go back home from a long workday, or close their bedroom door after exhausting hours of parental activity and couldn’t care less about the exact date in which a particular palace or dress style or carriage was in fashion in London. They want an escape.

And isn’t it what we all ask of entertainment? Whether it’s reading, watching a movie or following years and years of a TV series, we want to leave our world of responsibilities and duties and boredom. We want to dream with the characters, laugh and cry and smile and be moved by them, with them. We want to feel what it’s like to be part of a world, be it centuries ago or years into the future or in a mysterious land which doesn’t exist. Don’t we? So why do we watch The Crown with our Wikipedia page open and ready; why do we constantly check if everything is correct? Why do we write angry essays about glitter not existing in 1800? We want both the truth and the narrative fabrication, and it’s just not possible.

Also read: Sometimes, the Movie is Better Than the Book

“Life doesn’t make narrative sense” is a line from one of the most beautiful songs – ‘The End of The Movie‘ – of the musical TV series Crazy Ex Girlfriend. And that’s completely true. Life, real life, can be exciting and marvellous, frightening and romantic, magic and tragic. But it can’t have the narrative rhythm a screenplay or a book require. There are rules in fiction writing, even when the story is inspired by real events. Every professional writer will tell you so: you can’t just take a good story and write it as it is. Well, you can, but it won’t make for a compelling piece of literature. A screenplay or a novel requires a certain pace in the narration, it must follow different characters at different times in their lives or gloss over events that are not interesting enough. It can even change an event or a character in order to create a more elaborate story.

This also happened with Bohemian Rhapsody. The Oscar-worthy movie about Freddie Mercury and its worldwide successful band has been criticised for this kind of inaccuracy. Case in point: the scene in which Queen collectively writes ‘We Will Rock You’ a couple of years before it actually happened. That’s not the right year, enraged fans cried out all over the world. But the remaining members of the band had been involved in every step of the process. Surely they knew when they had written one of their most famous songs? Maybe it just wasn’t a big deal to put it back a couple of years in order to enhance the pace and make the movie better? The overall result is more important than a single detail. Most of all, when it comes to writing, the story is the most important thing there is.

A fictional writer knows that. A fantasy writer knows that. A horror writer knows that. Why shouldn’t an historical fiction writer? Every time we put that label “historical” on something, we demand perfect conformity with the real events. But we also want to be transported by an electrifying, unexpected story. How can we have both? The answer is pretty simple. Just stop. Stop insisting on a perfectly real and at the same time perfectly unreal story. Enjoy the good writing, get lost in the marvellous storylines, laugh and cry and get as emotional as you want when reading a book or watching a movie.

Then, when it’s finished, go see a documentary or read an academic writing about the elements you found interesting. Was Queen Charlotte black? Let’s see. When was ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ written? Go check an official biography. Was John Smith a paedophile? Well, yes, educate yourself. Both versions can co-exist in your mind. Franz Joseph is both the attractive Prince Charming of the 1950’s trilogy about Sissi and the main villain of Italian War of Independence I studied much later. And that’s fine.

Giovanna Errore is an Italian freelance writer.