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10 March 2010

Movies & History


I spent most of Sunday happily curled up in front of the tv watching the Academy Awards--the preshow, the red carpet, the awards themselves, the post show. (I did work on various projects while watching, though not during the actual awards). From the time I was a preteen, I’ve been glued to the television for the Oscars. When I first started watching, the awards were on a weeknight and often coincided with the end of March Madness. My father would kindly surrender the television to me when the awards started, but not too long after he gave me my own tv for my birthday.

Now that the awards on a Sunday, there’s practically a whole day of fashion details and movie clips to revel in. How could I not love an event that combines movies and fashion, two of my favorite things? But watching the awards this year, I realized there's something else I love about them. History. There's movie history that's made each year with the awards themselves. There are the montages (like this year's salute to horror and the lovely John Hughes retrospective) that capture movie history. And there are nominated movies which recreate historical events and eras, like this year's Invictus, Young Victoria, An Education, and A Single Man.

Thinking about this aspect of the awards this year made me realize how much my love of history grew out of my love of movies. As I've mentioned in prior posts, the roots of the books I write now are in two old movies I saw with my parents as a child, Pride and Prejudice and The Scarlet Pimpernel. The Keith Michell Henry VIII series and the Glenda Jackson Elizabeth I series started my fascination with Tudor history. The Richard Lester Three Musketeers movies sent me seeking more information about Louis XIII, Anne of Austria, the Duke of Buckingham, and Cardinal Richlieu. A Lion in Winter introduced me to the Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and their brood (well, building on what I knew from the Errol Flynn/Olivia de Haviland Robin Hood, not to mention the cartoon version with the foxes and other animal characters).

Of course the historical accuracy of film adaptations of historical stories various widely (from say the meticulously researched Henry VIII and Elizabeth series to Robin Hood which is inspired by legend). Timelines are compressed, characters combined, villainized or heroized. But my response to a historical film was almost inevitably to ask my parents "what really happened?" which would lead to pulling out the encyclopedia and then to trips to the library. So I fairly quickly learned that the Olivier/Garson Pride and Prejudice is set twenty years later than the book, that there are other views of the French Revolution than that presented by the Baroness Orczy, that (even before A Lion in Winter), it's a bit more complicated than evil Prince John and heroic King Richard.

Now historical films about events I'm not familiar with tend to send me googling. Recently I came home from An Education, and read an article by the writer whose memoir the film is based on (and learned the film is remarkably faithful to the memoir). And though as an historical novelist, I'm more likely these days to spot plot or setting details that diverge from the historical record, I still love the power of movies to transport me to another era.

Have historically set movies sent you researching an historical character or era? Any particular favorites that sparked your interest (or inspired your writing)? Did you watch the Academy Awards? What were your favorite movies this year?

p.s.

On a completely unrelated noted, the picture above is my new author photo.

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21 Comments:

Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

The David Rintoul version of P&P got me started on my fascination with the Regency period and Austen (and yes, it's still my favorite version). There’s a scene where Lizzy is at Pemberly and Darcy’s dog emerges from a shrubbery. As a teenager it was riveting. You’ve already seen the dog at Rosings, and when it shows up again, it adds just the perfect moment of terror and hope. No other version has the glorious little moment, and it just sings for me.

Amazing Grace got me on a kick about finding out more about the abolitionists and the lives of free blacks in England. Which has somehow semi-taken over my WIP (I had no idea why the hero’s mother’s servants were all free blacks, I just knew she’d told me very firmly they were, so I had to figure out the whys and hows, LOL!).

The Wind and the Lion was what first made me want to visit Morocco, and watching it always makes me want to set a book there. I’ve got a kernel of an idea, that someday might make a book.

7:19 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I love Scarlet Pimpernel! And I'm always ready to watch a new version of a Jane Austen novel. I recently wrote a post that combined my love of Austen/Regency Era and food. I had been dreaming of creating an Austen themed cupcake, but after some research I updated an antique recipe for the modern kitchen.

http://agirlinherkitchen.blogspot.com/2010/02/iron-cupcake-earth-romance.html

8:14 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Kalen, I remember the scene with the dog. I confess that version isn't my favorite, but the scene with dog was lovely. I still haven't seen Amazing Grace--I missed it in theaters and really need to rent it. Your WIP sounds more and more fascinating! I haven't scene The Wind and the Lion either, but I love the idea of a book of yours set in Morocco!

9:07 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Elizabeth, what a wonderful idea to do a post on Austen and food! Thanks so much for sharing the recipe!

9:09 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

You've never seen The Wind and the Lion!!!! You must rent it NOW! It's soooo wonderful. The verbal sparing between the Rizuli (Sean Connery) and the kidnapped American woman (Candice Bergan) is simply wonderful. It's extremely romantic, without being a romance.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Sounds wonderful, Kalen--thanks for the recommendation!

2:23 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I highly recommend Lynn Barber's wonderfully written memoir, upon which An Education was based. Especially because it puts the astonishing episode in the context of a whole life.

Because it was worse! The parents far more clueless! And there was never any touching reconciliation with Dad.

Barber did get her Oxford education (things were never hopeless on that score), but she also got an education in people acting badly that affected her life and personality in ways that went beyond reconciliation, to create those indigestible bits of the pure mystery of human behavior that we all carry around inside of ourselves.

The movie is lopsided and anticlimactic outside the context of the life (quite a happy one, I'm happy to say). Barber says it took the screenwriter many tries to deal with that problem; I don't think he ever entirely solved it.

I loved the movie in many ways. I'm a huge fan of Carey Mulligan but I was also blown away by Rosamund Pike as Helen, Olivia Williams as the teacher, and even the tiny appearance by Sally Hawkins. I ordered the book from Britain because I was so curious about how so wonderfully acted and often so wonderfully written a film could feel like such a deflation in the end. Anyway, I recommend the book bigtime -- and by now maybe it's available in the US.

4:50 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for the recommendation of Barber's memoir. I read a fairly detailed article by her after I saw the movie (can't remember where, I think it was a British newspaper or magazine) so I had some sense of how the movie did and didn't diverge from the reality. Perhaps it's a measure of how much historical events are often distorted in fictional retellings that I thought the movie was surprisingly close to the events she described. I can't remember how much the article talked about the differences in her parents' role in the events.

I loved the film, and I wouldn't say I found the ending anticlimactic, though I did have a moment of "oh, it's over" (mostly I think, I was sorry because I'd been so enjoying the film). I thought her voice over at the end managed to quite effectively convey both that she'd been permanently affected by the events of the story and that she'd come through those events and would go on to have a happy life.

6:57 PM  
Blogger Katharine Ashe said...

Tracy, I love this topic.

I'm a history professor and teach a course on film and fiction about historical Europe. We talk about why filmmakers and authors represent history in the ways they do, to what purpose, etc. It's so much fun, and so many of my students who take the course because it looks like an easy A (they get to watch movies and read novels, after all) end up so enthusiastic about studying history because they've entered it through such an appealing door.

Lion in Winter is one of my all-time favorites. So is Scarlet Pimpernel. In fact, my upcoming release from Avon has strong shades of the Scarlet Pimpernel. "They seek him here, they seek him there, those Frenchies seek him everywhere..." Love it!

Kalen, yes, love Darcy's dog moment in that P&P.

12:38 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Katharine, your course sounds fabulous! In my Western Culture year-long history course at Stanford we watched Becket (I actually think A Lion in Winter captures the period much better; I suggested they switch to it in my course evaluation and the next year they did, though it may have had nothing to do with me) and Danton.

What's the title of your Scarlet Pimpernel-influenced upcoming release? Sounds wonderful!

3:31 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Yes, Katherine, do tell! And email me if you'd like to do a guest post with us when it comes out.

hoyden_ish @ hotmail.com

5:04 PM  
Anonymous Tinky said...

I love the photo; your friends are adorable.....

5:37 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Tinky! They were really good about the photo shoot (especially considering it took three different batches of pictures--with breaks in between to view the pictures and correct for light, pose, etc...--to get the photo right).

5:54 PM  
Anonymous Valerie L. said...

Danton is a little touted film about the French Revolution that had me absolutely riveted. I watched the French version with subtitles to get the full force of Gerard Depardieu's performance. It is amazing. I'm a fan of historical films as far back as my childhood in the 1950s. Ronald Colman's Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities got me hooked on history. And I always want to know what happened next. It fired my passion and got me reading and reading. And every year I watch the Oscars (and Fashion Police the next day as well). Thanks for this post.

2:52 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I saw Danton as part of a history class in college as I mentioned above, Valerie, riveting is a great word for it. Really brought the period to life. I love the Ronald Colman Tale of Two Cities too. Even though that story leaves me the frustrating sense that she ends up with the wrong guy...

4:18 PM  
Blogger Saba Igbe said...

I wish Bright Star had gotten a few more Oscar nominations. It was such a beautiful film. I did a few of John Keats' poems (and the other Romantic poets) in college but I never got to learn much about his life, so I started reading up in Keats and his love story with Fanny Brawne after watching Bright Star. I was amazed at some of the things that were either left out, or altered in the movie.

11:19 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I really want to see Bright Star, Saba. Why don't you think those details were left out or altered? To make a "better" story? Did knowing the real events change what you thought of the movie?

11:23 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Tracy, I have the identical passions -- and watch the Oscars for the same reasons. Even before it was all about "Who are you wearing?" one of my favorite awards has always been the Costume Design category.

This year's winner (For "The Young Victoria" -- and it was her her third Oscar) made an intelligent and appropriate comment: she mentioned that the costume design winners (herself included) are often those who had done the big period films -- but it takes equal skill to create periods more contemporary to us than corsets and crinolines. It's ALL historical research and the 1920s or 50s are no less worthy than the 1820s or 1850s when it comes to the amount of research and creativity it takes to fashion those drool-worthy period-accurate garments.

Period films have always sent me running to the history books (or the costume books) and perhaps more than any other stimulus, encouraged my passion for historical fiction as both a reader and a writer. Who could not swoon over (as Tracy mentioned) the Errol Flynn "Robin Hood", the Antony Andrews "Scarlet Pimpernel," the Olivier/Garson "Pride and Prejudice" [with a screenplay by Aldous Huxley!] -- and Keith Michell who still holds my personal award for Best Henry VIII (as sustained over a series -- meaning that we see him in action from age 18 to 47).

Not only does Michell LOOK like Henry VIII but he really gives viewers the tall, strawberry-blond boyish, hopeful, ambitious studly young king all the way through the bloated autocrat.

6:04 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Leslie, I loved the Costume Design winner's comments as well. I think the costumes on Mad Men are brilliant (and perhaps even trickier to get right, because people watching can remember the era, and other like me know it from family photographs).

9:13 AM  
Blogger RosieP said...

So I fairly quickly learned that the Olivier/Garson Pride and Prejudice is set twenty years later than the book


Yeah, but "PRIDE AND PREJUDICE" is not a historical novel. Also, it was originally written some twenty years before its final publication.

4:23 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Good point, Rosie P. Pride and Prejudice was a contemporary novel when it was written, but the film version and later the book helped spark my interest in the early 19th century and ultimately my becoming an historical novelist. I do think it's interesting that Austen wrote the first draft twenty years before the book was published (I often think that's one reason there's no mention of the Napoleonic Wars, which people often comment on). The most recent film version uses costumes closer to when she wrote the first draft than to when the novel was published.

1:44 AM  

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