Historical fiction brings history ‘to life’ by fictionalising the past. This is the definitive factor: it is fictionalised history, reflecting a specific time period; sometimes done by reconstructing and even revisioning characters, events and the spirit of a bygone era.
A ‘good’ historical fiction, be it a book or film or tele-serial will borrow actual moments in time-related to shifting economic and societal issues, revealing an uncanny way of resonating with the present, hundreds of years later. In doing so, it might be more helpful in making sense of the current world. Historical fiction doesn’t just tell us what happened; they make us feel, see and relive that world. It humanises history and historical characters, often creating empathy for what other people went through in different times, in a way that is divorced from our own political baggage.
It is definitely something bigger than a simple reconstruction of history. It transports us into a new world, a new and de-familiarised version of the past -- becoming an immersive story that brings interesting characters to life, while simultaneously capturing something essential, not only about the historical setting but also about the deeper truths of human existence. The fact is that any contemporary historical fiction – be it a book or film – must, to some extent, reflect upon contemporary values and preoccupations, and setting it in the distant past can give us a uniquely clear-eyed perspective on the present.
Does Historical Fiction Distort Truth?
Yes, it does, as it is fiction, not history. It is a dramatisation of a historical event. So, is it okay to reinvent history in the name of entertainment? Again, it is creative fiction, not a history textbook. Also, how much of history is fiction? What about reinventing history for political ends? Fictionalised history or historical fiction? Underlying all of this is the age-old problem of the relationship between history and truth.
There has been a strong but contentious relationship between history and fiction in the style in which they are presented. Fictionalised history has been with us from the beginning then!
Our understanding of the past is quite nebulous. Histories are contested, corrupted and misremembered, and the consensus is not always easy. Which makes historical truth very hard to nail down to be often bitterly contested.
History is created as much by omission as inclusion. The creator of fictionalised history is thus caught in a dilemma and has to tread carefully. It is no easy task, then, for an author to undertake the writing of this tricky genre. Any writer who tells a story set in the past must traverse the fine line between history and fiction, between contemporary readers’ sensibilities and historical accuracy.
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If there’s the history of the historians, then there’s the history of the artists too. Be it through stories ballads, TV serials or movies. We see a largely jingoistic type of “history” of our kings and princesses, shaping them to create a sense of national identity, and also enabling Bollywood to fashion a feeling of a grand and great Indian destiny, by showing an era that bore little resemblance to real-life. But it still exercises a stronger truth effect over the public imagination than much of our “genuine” history. Writers, especially for movies, have appropriated the heroic aspects to create a sense of national pride and a tradition of military prowess while ignoring the less savoury side of those kings’ personalities as detrimental to their heroic status.
There is a difference in expectations between reading a novel and reading a history book. In the former we know we’re entering a fictional world; in the latter, we expect to encounter an honest and truthful retelling of the past. This demarcation between history and fiction is no longer so.
Films are said to potentially distort society’s view of the past more than literature because it reaches a wider audience and is multi-sensory. Visual media has a strong impact and there is a degree of truth in the saying “seeing is believing”.
But there are some good historical films, who far from damaging history’s truth, reinforce it by showing us a historical event as realistically as possible. However, for every film which sticks closely to the facts, many stray far away, almost totally sacrifices historical accuracy for epic adventure.
Given that such films are billed as true and that most of their audience lap it up as historical fact, it is probably fair to describe them as damaging to historical truth. Does this matter? Possibly not to most viewers, but locally they are influential in the resurgence of provincialism showing the ability of film to plant false memories into the public consciousness.
Films accused of distortion, sell a misleading version of history, but ultimately if they pique our interest, chances are that we will go and investigate the subject for ourselves. As such, they damage the truth effect to an extent, but they also kindle an interest which may result in some viewers later ending up with a better understanding of the historical character and event covered. Historical Fiction invites us all to think about the past as yesterday continues to impinge upon today.
So, here the fiction part is crucial in historical fiction. Check the fiction in the history: historical fiction is not history.
(As told to Prateek Sur)
(Views are personal)
(Kavita Kane Is a mythological-fiction writer and former journalist)