The Hollywood Historical Perspective

Hollywood always has a spin and an influence on everything – from politics to fashion – and especially history. Historical entertainment has roots going as far back as William Shakespeare’s historical plays and the Greeks’ heroic epics. Hollywood has continued the trend, with movies like The Other Boleyn Girl and 10,000 B.C. and TV shows such as John Adams and The Tudors. Historians and professors have seen both negative and positive aspects to adaptations.

Eleanor Herman, historian and author of Sex with Kings and Sex with the Queen, found The Other Boleyn Girl fairly accurate, with few mistakes. The Other Boleyn Girl is about Anne and Mary Boleyn, sisters who competed for the love of the King of England, Henry VIII. Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson and Eric Bana portray the historical figures.

“When it comes to movies or TV, (filmmakers) have to condense everything that is going on,” Herman said. “And from The Other Boleyn Girl, you might get the impression that the whole story lasted a year or two before he married her – it was actually seven years. The medium of film is limited in terms of the information it can provide.”

A television show also based on the life of Henry VIII is The Tudors on Showtime. Though the show allows more time to tell the story, it has more inconsistencies, Herman said. The show had unaccountable factual errors, she said – for instance, the name of the pope at the time. When she watched the first episode, she said she became too irritated to finish. Tamara Zwick, assistant professor of modern German history, also has a problem with watching movies based on historical events.

“This genre can’t quite pick what to be,” she said. “It (dabbles) with history without being too historical.”

American history professor John Belohlavek said he has seen parts of the John Adams miniseries. Starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, the show is based on a biography by David McCullough.

“I think it is very well done. I think it is wonderfully produced,” he said. “It is clearly done by professionals who pay attention to historical detail.”

Julie Langford-Johnson, assistant professor of ancient Roman history, said movies and TV shows serve the history profession a great deal because they can spark the interest of the general public.

“It reaches an audience that otherwise we might not have reached and gets them to start asking questions,” she said. “And perhaps they become more incquisitive and they actually pick up one of our books and start to read it.”

Langford-Johnson shows an episode of the HBO’s Rome in her Roman Empire class. She said the show had great historical consultants even though some things were exaggerated for American taste.

“I will not take issue with things like Gladiator or with Rome or so forth,” she said. “I am very grateful that Hollywood is pumping these things out because it means that at least we are thinking, at least we are talking, at least we are looking at the past.”

History is made and remade all the time, and this is especially true about Rome because its history is so ancient, Langford-Johnson said. She said it is hard to find historical truth, especially in ancient history – it is about what story remains.

Darrell Slider, professor of government and international affairs, faced the problem of historical perspective when choosing movies for his Russia Through Film class.

“There are so many (Hollywood films) that are simply taking a story – whether it is an adventure or love story or car chase – and putting it in a different historical context and turns out that is just the background. There’s really not much content as far as the history,” Slider said.

He and his colleague selected no Hollywood films, but instead chose Russian films they felt were more likely to be accurate.

Hollywood is planning to bring more historical entertainment to both the big and little screen. Leonardo DiCaprio is working again with director Martin Scorsese (Gangs of New York) on the film The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, scheduled for release in 2009. Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada) is starring in The Young Victoria, about the early years of Queen Victoria, which will be released later this year.

The Other Boleyn Girl is now in theaters, and The Tudors‘ second season airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Showtime.