Sunday, March 09, 2008

Adapting History

As the adaptations of the adaptations of history go... The Other Boleyn comes across quite enjoyably. Though I'm certain our viewing last night was made far more giggly by the inclusion of the back row who seemed determined to laugh at every inappropriate bit of dialogue or act in the script. Although no one was laughing when Henry, having offed Catherine of Aragon (and worse, annulled the marriage through the exciting decision to take the English church in a very different direction from the... er... real church), charges into Anne's chambers and forces himself upon her from behind.

No one was laughing then. Least of all my historian friend mumbling beside me, "That never happened."

But of course, this isn't history. It's melodrama at the English courts, Tudenders for the 1500s. We can't expect the course of history to run as smoothly as it did in real history (not that it did at all).

I've previously spoken of my disdain for works such as Becoming Jane in which the writers and filmmakers made the rather dim decision to take Jane Austin's fiction as a jumping board for the fictionalisation of her life simply because they felt their was a market for it. My wife and I only managed to get 30 minutes in before stopping the film in disgust - why watch a wholly fake representation (no one really knows Jane Austin's true life story), when her books and their film and tv adaptations are so much better?

Anyhoo, Boleyns. Where this fictionalised history really starts to ramp up the falsities is long before I noticed, but that's behind the point, I grew bored of history at A-Level. But, everyone who's anyone knows that Henry was in a hunting accident that left him lame. Henry never stayed at the Boleyn's house to go hunting there, and it certainly wasn't while pursuing Anne, who refused to give up on pursuing a stag, that he had the accident.

Further in the annals of irregularity, Anne is tipped is the elder sister and thus top on the affections list, giving rise to conflict when Mary is chosen by Henry (after Anne's actions leave him lame), and yet Mary was the elder in reality. I guess the filmic people felt that the public wouldn't believe that the younger sister would ever have delusions of grandeur and be so ambitious.

Note that I said the filmic people. Philippa Gregory's novel, though ambitious in its own liberties with the facts or suppositions, isn't as blase as the film. Anne, for example comes back from the French court at the beginning, she isn't sent there midway through for her crimes. The girl who would be Elizabeth I was never taken away by Mary at the end to go live with her (as heir to the throne she'd stay in the royal creche).

And, to imply that Anne was the one who decided that Henry should annul the marriage to Catherine, AND split from the church, AND start up the Church of England, AND AND AND... is completely crazy!

He was led by his manhood and his need to secure a male heir, and Anne did become a serious power behind the throne, but she wouldn't have had such power before.

Internationally renowned novel critic Dr. James Higgins (who has a PhD in Historic Literature from the University of Australia) said of Gregory when he reviewed The Other Boleyn Girl:

"Philippa Gregory has created a mesmerising work of fiction, seamlessly intertwined with historical fact. While her list of sources may give some reason to believe her novel contains more fact than fiction, it is quite clear to me that Gregory has gained a knowledge of the basic storyline, as well the culture and customs of the Tudor Court, and embellished and dramatised it even more (if that is possible). She hints that she does indeed believe that Anne Boleyn was innocent, but changed her story in order to create a more shocking and scandalous situation. At the end of The Other Boleyn Girl one cannot help but feel sorry for Anne Boleyn, and one gets the feeling that Gregory feels the same way, as she attests to in a later book (The Boleyn Inheritance)."

So, even Philippa made up some stuff, but that, my historian friend could stomach. I think she wanted (even after the film) to like it more than she had, but she admitted that she loves the book and if anyone wanted to borrow it they'd have to prise it out of her cold dead hands. So, even historians love fictionalised accounts.

Given the rise in the misery memoirs... several of which are now being outed as mostly fake, should we be surprised that history is constantly given a shake up? Does it make it any better when we are already told it is ficiton? Certainly in the bookshop you can't mistake Philippa Gregory as a fiction novelist... but this is harder for the mass audience to assume in a film (even the Elizabeth films weren't entirely accurate). We are told the the truth is in the detail. Does it matter that this is constantly being smudged?

No comments: