Historical Honesty

0003 Funny how things bubble up in the news that reflect something we're already thinking about. I saw an article that touches on what's on my mind again lately, writing-wise … the question of historical accuracy vs. historical honesty in fiction.

Mel Gibson made a new comment on William Wallace, all these years after the film "Braveheart" (1995 – woh, has it been that long??) … he was quoted in the UK news saying that in reality Wallace was not the hero depicted in the film–but a "monster" and a berserker, and that the film was not historically accurate.

Not accurate?! Not too surprising for those interested in medieval history, or for those who've seen the film — the writer and filmmakers made stuff up about Wallace, basically. It's a necessity in creating historical fiction — enhancing the historical record, speculating, extrapolating, obscuring fact or inserting fabrication. And it's a constant dilemma for writers of historical fiction (books or films) — to tweak, or not to tweak?

Braveheart is beautifully done, with enough basic facts in place to powerfully evoke character, emotion, a pulse-pounding story with heroics, complexity, a deeply romantic side and a solid sense of authenticity. It masterfully evokes a historical era and a powerful cause in history.

Wallace sword But Gibson's comment, and the kerfuffle over whether or not the film accurately depicted Wallace's life and times, raises an interesting question. Should we expect total accuracy in a book or a film about a historical subject? Sometimes we do want the facts — and some historical novels provide all the grit and the nasty stuff, the ugly truths, major and minor, the long gaps in the actual timeline, the complexities of history intricately interwoven with the elements of story. These are rich novels and big reads, for the most part. The pitfall in a book like this tends to be pacing, and the risk of information overload.

Sometimes, though, we want a galloping, rollicking good story that informs and entertains –  even if it is history streamlined, dynamic, distilled to its most essential facts and qualities. Historical fiction does not always have to account for every truth in the scope of the subject and the story — it is uniquely capable of evoking and conjuring the past, even if that means taking shortcuts and bending truths here and there.

Lady Macbeth paperback cover I'm a stickler for accuracy in my own historical writing and I will go a far way to make sure the details of what I'm describing are right. But I am not always a stickler for historical truth in every aspect of the book. Story and character come first: I am a novelist before I am a historian. 

Does it matter if the movie was accurate to the real Wallace? We know only a few intriguing facts about Wallace. True, he was probably never the hero in his own day that he's become now. With or without the film, Wallace is half legend in Scottish history.

Braveheart Yet he committed some heinous acts (he flayed the skin from the English treasurer killed at Stirling and made a purse of him; OK, so he had a sense of humor…). It's accurate, but did it belong in the movie? Wallace had his bad moments, but he wasn't a monster – he had good moments, too. As a rebel and a freedom fighter, he initiated an effort that eventually helped liberate the Scots from English oppression at the time. The situation was far more complex than could have been presented in a two-hour film.

There have always been quibbles about "Braveheart" — the kilts aren't right (the kilt we know wasn't worn then, but they were using plaids as cloaks and wraps) and Wallace was more Lowlander than Highlander, so he would have worn chain mail armor as a minor knight rather than a Highlander. Princess Isabella was a child; Wallace was possibly 6'7" (Edward I was 6'6", so of course the Scots claimed Wallace was bigger, yet there is some evidence to support it); the battle of Stirling was fought at a bridge, not on a field; what about that blue face paint…and so on.

My guess is that historical accuracy was never the point of the film in the first place.Christine de pisan There's accuracy. and there's authenticity. A writer often must decide between what will improve the story and what will detract from it. Story must be folded in with facts, but ultimately the result is fiction.

Here's my favorite Mel Gibson/Wallace story… Several years ago in Scotland, I met a historian who had met Mel Gibson during the filming of the movie. This older gentleman did not know who Mel Gibson was as he answered questions about Wallace, Bruce and the Scottish war of independence. He learned that Gibson was making a movie about Wallace, and directing the movie. Then he asked who was playing Wallace, and Gibson answered, "I am."

Wallace_statue The historian paused, looked him up and down, lowered his glasses to the end of his nose, and said tactfully…"Did ye know Wallace was a big man?" 

Ah, but there are camera angles. And there is the skill of evoking. There is authenticity over accuracy. And sometimes we learn more, and find more substance, through characters, plot and emotion than we do with just the facts.

How important is accuracy in historical fiction to you? Is less more in a good historical read — or do you find a detailed read more successful?

Susan

P.S. Book giveaway! I'll send an autographed copy of my historically accurate yet judiciously fictionalized novel, LADY MACBETH, to one of the readers of this blog — post a comment and add to the discussion of historical fiction before midnight on Sunday, Nov. 8, and you'll be entered in the drawing!