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Fact & Fiction

Our fascination with history is not new, but the inundation of contemporary media productions (whether books, film or television), their scale, scope and detail mean they are now subject to greater expectation – and critique – than perhaps ever before. This is heightened by the fact that information on these periods, insofar as we have any at all, is more widely accessible than ever before, although the quality of said ‘information’ on the internet varies greatly compared to a reliable, well-researched academic text. Needless to say that in order to bring history to life, writers, producers and their ilk need to make it accessible, palatable and above all entertaining, and frequently some degree of accuracy and historical integrity has to be sacrificed to make that possible.

It frequently surprises me when there is so much outcry when it’s perceived that a book, a show or a movie doesn’t achieve the right ‘balance’ between fact and fiction, intentionally or otherwise (especially since it’s fair to say that we don’t even represent modern ‘real life’ accurately in contemporary media, it’s all high drama, bottomless resources despite never working and improbable revelations).

Don’t get me wrong, as a fact-lover, bibliophile and out-and-out pedant it makes me literally cringe when narratives play fast and loose for no apparent reason. But, and it’s a significant BUT, as a lover of fiction the imperative of the story – where it’s a good story – is often a valid enough reason, particularly where it’s so immersive that you’re not conscious of any dissonance or discrepancy at the time (only to be barraged by an army of a nitpickers after the fact). It’s in the greatest tradition of bards and storytellers to embellish, entrance and invent so as to better enchant their audience, combining both information and imagination, ensuring the stories were/are remembered and passed on.

More than that, where it’s suitably engaging and engrossing it has often been the springboard that’s led me to go out an really get involved in a topic for myself, to look at the academic works, the analysis, the theories, the mysteries and really try to understand it myself rather than simply accept what either the proponents or critics are trying to tell me is the ‘truth’.

So as with everything else, I’d encourage you to make up your own minds, judge things on their own merits based on your own interests and preferences; don’t be told what you should or shouldn’t enjoy and always try to take the opportunity to expand your knowledge and horizons, even if it means having to do some of the homework and hard thinking for yourself!

Notable Caveat: I want to be clear here that I’m talking about discrepancies and inaccuracies in historical or cultural observation, in narrative or in character. Instances that perpetuate, normalise or even glorify unacceptable themes, stereotypes or behaviours are a very different thing, and not justifiable purely in the name of entertainment (nor do they tend to qualify as good storytelling) – but that’s another topic all of its own!