28 December 2007

Isn’t history another story?

The criticisms showered by historians on historical films (see my previous posts) is an interesting subject. Mostly, criticisms are directed at inaccuracies in representation of facts, as well as the interpretations and enhancements that film directors make liberal use of ‘as technique’ to tell their stories. Hence, I find Oliver Stone’s allusion (about himself as a historical filmmaker) to a dramatist along the lines of William Shakespeare a fascinating analogy.

William Shakespeare had taken ample liberties in writing his historical plays (Richard III, Henry V, etc.) and his tragedies (Macbeth, Hamlet, etc.) – changing facts, dramatising history and historical characters (even inventing a few) to make his plays more attractive to his audience. Nobody finds anything wrong in this, of course. After all, this is literature; this is fiction. And, we all like a good story, well told.

But, isn’t history fiction too? Isn’t history a narrative constructed by men and women to serve a particular academic/cultural/social purpose and, therefore, holding much in common with literature of the fictive kind?

Yes, it is true that what historians construct are based on material evidence from the past (archival sources, archeological pieces found at digs, etc.). But they also have to construct a narrative out of these diverse sources. And, while they try to be objective like scientists, these narratives are inevitably biased by their ideas, ideologies, opinions, and their desires to tell a good story.

In that case, are historians really all that different from authors and filmmakers who do historical research in order to construct a good era-based fiction? And present history to us as another story?

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