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Bewildering Stories

Gary Inbinder discusses...

Time in Historical Fiction

Continuing the discussion from “What Does a Writer Owe to History?” in issue 240.

I. Time

Consider historical time in the popular HBO series Rome. This was a big-bucks production, with good writing, excellent acting, authentic looking sets, and big name Executive Producers including John Milius. I found it quite entertaining.

The whole series covers a period of about twenty years, from the end of Julius Caesar’s campaign in Gaul (49 B.C) and his crossing of the Rubicon with his legions, until Octavian’s defeat of Antony and Cleopatra and his triumphant return to Rome as sole ruler and future Emperor.

However, when it comes to time compression, the writers took great liberties with the years between the assassination of Julius Caesar (44 B.C.) and Octavian’s defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium (31 B.C.)

Of the characters who survive the entire twenty years, only Octavian seems to age. In fact, the series uses two actors: one playing Octavian from approximately age thirteen to age eighteen, and another playing him from about age twenty to his early thirties, with what seems like two lost years in between.

The shift between actors playing Octavian is abrupt, and is accomplished in one episode. Details like his first two marriages and his campaign against Pompey the Great’s son are omitted. At the end of the series, Octavian’s mother, Atia, is shown attending his Triumph. In fact, Atia had already been dead for approximately ten years. And so it goes.

Finally, I won’t get into things like Atia’s long-term affair with Mark Antony, and Octavian’s sister Octavia’s affairs with Brutus’s mother Servilia — yep,that’s right, Brutus’s mother — and Octavian’s right-hand man Agrippa, both of which have no historical basis, but do work dramatically and make for some steamy sex scenes.

II. Characterization

One of the most egregious examples I can think of, i.e. changing a historical character for dramatic purposes in speculative fiction, is in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Inferno.

In that novel, Benito Mussolini takes over the role of Virgil as the narrator’s guide through the underworld, and toward redemption. I suppose Niven and Pournelle figured even Mussolini could be saved. The novel is quite good, but imagine the stink if they had used Hitler.

Copyright © 2007 by Gary Inbinder

Thanks, Gary, very informative!

Mussolini cast as Vergil? That’s an eye-roller, all right. I have to borrow a line from O. J. Anderson’s “Overkill”: it’s “like a bad pun at a proctology convention.” Niven and Pournelle’s novel will have to be damned good (eye-rolling pun intended) to overcome that one.

Rome appears to be marginally more informative about Roman life and history than A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and neither Phil Silvers nor Polly Walker — as Rome’s Atia — can be recommended as crib material for term papers.

A few esthetic rules of thumb seems to be emerging from the discussion. Writing is one thing; stage and film productions are another. Readers have a right to expect more accuracy from print simply because the author has more latitude. A dramatic production operates under tighter financial and logistical constraints. Use your cast for all they’re worth and overrule your historical consultant when you have to.

As long as the audience knows the ground rules, they can curl up with a nice book and, at the movies, pass the popcorn.


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