Factual Freedom, an Epidemic?

PicMonkey Collage

Left image from BBC’s Atlantis; right image from Xena: Warrior Princess.

A couple of years ago British television and computer screens were abuzz with the BBC’s own addition to the horde of classical adaptations and reinterpretations to make it onto the ‘little’ screen. If you have been living under a rock, or perhaps actually living, you might not yet have heard of Atlantis; the epic saga of Jason, born in 2013 only to find himself in the yet to be submerged city of Atlantis living in a flat-share with Pythagoras and Hercules (or Heracles) during some unspecified period of ancient Greek history all because his submarine accidently stumbled into what was presumable a wormhole in the fabric of time, and reality, under the sea.

This show took ancient philosophers and mythological heroes, however questionably heroic they may be represented, and blends them together against a factually uncomfortably backdrop. The abandoned facts need not be historical; no objections to the show have insinuated Jason and Hercules were genuine historical figures but that does not mean ancient writers have given us any less established (f variable) stories of their lives. As television screenwriter’s everywhere run in fear from the confines of the original tales offended historians and classicists have crawled back out of the woodwork to once again object on the behalf of antiquity.

Television and film for a long time now have been great lovers of antiquity and the rich story-bed that it provides. As much as they love ancient history and mythology however no one seems to love it quite the way it is. Even if Suetonius’ Life of Nero was not enough to satiate our desire for drama surely the original story of Jason’s legendary quest for the Golden Fleece and his ill-fated love affair with the sorceress Medea makes for exciting television in itself; Jack Donnelly could still have spent the majority of his screen time in the buff.

How would first year university ancient history classes have been different if delivered to us by television networks and screenwriters anyway?

We would have learned that the Trojan War and the life of Julius Caesar both fell within the time frame of one woman’s life (namely Xena: Warrior Princess); Xena being an earlier example of classics based television’s aversion to the original information. Even if we ignore the inconsistent casting of Cleopatra in Xena as two different actresses both of different ethnicities it might be a little more difficult to overlook the replacement of her entirely as the lover of Marc Antony (Xena again). Note that Xena was also in the arms of a besotted Ulysses on the verge of leaving Penelope for our ancient enchantress not long before.

The same writers of Xena do however perhaps deserve a pat on the back for acknowledging Hercules’ strained relationship with his step-mother in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys rather than going down the Disney route of deleting his illegitimacy all together and instead having him fawned over by a rather luminous pink depiction of Hera. Nor do they have him attending an Americanized high school in ancient Greece with Cassandra, the seer, and Icarus, the boy that did not listen to his father (although Disney has him only mildly scolded rather than incinerated from his altercation with the sun).

Should shows that present themselves as ‘based on history or mythology’ take artistic freedom to such an extreme? Or should the ‘based on’ in that statement be an indicator that audiences should be prepared for utter freedom from the ‘facts’ when viewing. In fact ITV’s comedy ‘Plebs’, set during the early Roman Empire, may be the most accurate antiquity ‘based’ show for any budding historians and classicists. With its eerily accurate nod to the ever popular ‘dirty’ vase painting in antiquity and the successful absence of the Colosseum before its time, a common television mistake.

There is certainly no lack of exciting stories provided by antiquity so why do we need to alter and muddle the originals to such an extent to inspire interest in modern viewers? Or is it perhaps this sheer abundance of material that results in scriptwriters typing themselves into complicated, nonsensical knots desperately trying to squeeze as much of the classics as possible into one episode of a television show?

All jokes aside, should this freedom from the facts really offend? Although unnecessary are they necessarily negative? Maybe the BBC is contributing to the misinformation of young minds or maybe it is inspiring the next generation of classical archaeology and ancient history students. Sure they will get a shock when they sit down in their first lecture only to discover Theseus slayed the Minotaur and Atlantis was not an Ancient Greek city-state. But maybe just maybe they will be pleasantly surprised by what they do discover because despite the artistic liberties taken by television they definitely got one thing right, the stories antiquity has to offer are certainly not disappointing.

Note: This feature is a revision of a piece I wrote for my undergraduate student journal ‘Retrospect’. 

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18 thoughts on “Factual Freedom, an Epidemic?

  1. Hi Jean, I’m writing this as someone whose knowledge of ancient history comes from what’s taught in school. I do believe that screen-writers have to romanticise the reality in order to make it appeal to the audience. Not only that but certain facts have to be simplified as there’s no space to focus on background stories that could explain why certain things are the way they are. However, romanticise and simplify a share of history does not mean changing it completely. This is the line that screen-writers often cross, and I find it quite frustrating. I’d like to be able to watch something and learn from it instead of having to look up the facts and correct the information that has been presented to me. Although I don’t mind researching further about a subject that I am not familiar with, I am aware that many people – especially those who rely on television and cinema to learn about historical and cultural facts – will not bother to check their sources and will take what’s been presented to them as the absolute truth. I often see films twisting history and placing people who belong to different eras together, or using technology that wouldn’t be invented for many years to come. I think I’m ranting here, but the point that I’d like to make is that it would be better to focus on one share of what the writers want to tell than to squeeze in information misguiding the audience to believe in a story which the result ends up being very far from the original.

    Would you mind if I borrow this topic to dicuss 19th century film adaptations on my blog?

    Have a lovely week!
    X Anna

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    • No! I would love it if you wrote about this topic in regards to other periods – I would have loved to but antiquity is the only one I can really comment on with any knowledge :). And I think you’re right there is a line – although I do wonder if there is another line on the other side for such extreme differences that it is ok again because it really isn’t pretending to have any reality in there. x

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      • Thank you!
        I agree about this other line. I intent to mention on my blog what they have done with Penny Dreadful, for instance. Although it’s not supposed to be necessarily historically accurate, it does feature characters from famous gothic novels, but because it’s an original story it is not expected to remain true to the plot, which is fine as the story they have created makes it clear to the audience that the existing characters used have been modified in order to interact with each other. I think that when the story created based on an event, historical period, or on an already existing story or character makes it clear that it’s only based on something and doesn’t mislead the audience to believe that what they are portraying is true, then it makes it ok to do so. The problem is when they try to make their made up plot as real as possible so people take it as the ultimate truth on that subject.
        X Anna

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  2. I’m all for retellings and reimaginings, regardless of how far the source material is pushed. For people who know the stories it’s interesting to see how the writers incorporate myth and history in different ways, and I suspect, a lot of fun to criticise the myriad ways in which these representations are “wrong”! And for people who don’t know the stories, shows like this may as you say, spark an interest in the original material, and if not then I don’t see the harm in simple enjoyment.

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    • I agree – as long as it is made absolutely clear that this is ‘nonsense’. I love retellings especially of specific stories but sometimes especially in cinema and tv it isn’t all to clear and I don’t see why people who watch just for fun, like I did for many years, shouldn’t be expected to be able to handle the real history :). With classics as well, unlike a story like Cinderella where most people know the story, lots of people don’t know the history and myths to the same level and unfortunately classics is still quite exclusive and elitist and it sometimes feels like we’re not sharing all these fantastic original stories or facts with other people. Although like you said I am too all for retellings and re-use of the originals.

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      • I recently read a really good children’s retelling of the minotaur myth, where the story has been recast with a teenage protagonist- it does deviate from the original quite a lot, but it was done really well and was very clear that it was a retelling. I’d definitely recommend it if you’re interested in retellings of specific myths- it’s called The Double Axe and it was written by Philip Womack, who I believe studied classics at Oxford before becoming a writer/journalist. You’ll probably still be able to get an arc if it interests you at all– I think it comes out next month.

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  3. I do like Xena and a few other historically inaccurate series, and sadly, sometimes I even read books like that, but I make it very clear that they are historically inaccurate and they are not based off of the legends or stories, but rather left to the creator’s imagination. There should be a disclaimer on books/series/films, stating it is not accurate so that people do not use it on their debates. (I have actually heard people use things like this in class, even if they are wrong, luckily some people call them out on it.) Lovely piece!

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  4. This was an amazing article, I enjoyed it very much. I found the topic of adaptions really interesting. For me it was fascinating to watch Hollywood get all big on Bible based movies, without actually basing them on the Bible. (as a theologian this is the field, I’m more familiar with) And although I’m not sure if this is the problem with myth retelling shows, I feel as in movies/shows produced by mass media and in some way dealing with the concept of god/gods, the fear of taking sides results in historical innumeracy and some absurd additions. For example in the movie Noah, God was depicted as a whiny child, and believe me this is the most positive way I can describe the child appearing in the movie. Not to talk about the fact that throughout the whole movie there are hints on Noah being delusional due to being hit by a rock. (not once, they play this card twice!). And it is not the way in which they tell the stories I’m confused about, it’s much more the question why do you make a series/movie about something you don’t have a knowledge/interest/opinion in? (I am serious, when I tell I would’ve been more happier with a negative depiction of Noah, but not this kind of a “saint, but actually crazy person”.
    As about making it clear that it is absolute nonsense – big issues of mine. I enjoy watching this kind of movies, but I do have a background knowledge and I can say what is just imagination and what is actual fact. But I believe as long as you don’t have the background information, especially as a child, it provides them with such a wrong picture of the world, historical information and etc.
    Ok,I apologize for the rambling, I may have got carried away. 😀

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  5. Hi. Nice to stumble onto the blog from Twitter. Well written, Jean. About retellings, i am in two minds. I love reading about fairy tale retellings (not if highly deviated). I also enjoy movies based on fairytale re tellings. However, when it comes to classics I prefer it to be set in the exact time period when it was written. For example I cannot imagine a modern Mr. Darcy wearing T-shirt and jeans but I am okay if the movie portrays the picture of Darcy that Austen has created. Adaptations often trigger interest in those who are not aware of the actual piece of work. Perhaps it will make them go back to the original work. However, wrong information is definitely going to affect the perspectives of new viewers/readers.

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  6. Love love love this! I’m studying Classical Civilisations at uni, and I’ve stopped myself from watching these stories to not get confused in exams, aha. Maybe I’ll give them a go now, just with a massive pinch of salt 😉 xxx

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    • Definitely ! I the really crazy ones are probably even better cause you’re less likely to get them confused with reality. I avoid the ones that act as if they’re reality or historically based but often have mistakes and colourful fictionalisations because I don’t want to make a mistake haha. x

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  7. I used to watch Hercules with my kids when they were little. Yes, I am old. I thought it was a fun mix. There was something Dark Ages about all the barbarians. The aristocratic women all flounced around in chiffon and had access to amazing hairdressers and bucketloads of make-up. It was about as authentic as Game of Thrones. Xena was great for my two daughters and I think they even saw themselves a bit like the two protagonists. The script-writing was fascinating because it went back and forwards between the fantasy story-telling and the fanbase a bit like Buffy did later with vampires.

    I am pleased to see that nobody is getting all prudish and straight-faced about these series in the comments, and I entirely agree with you about being drawn into a discovery of the originals: reading is reading is reading.

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