The Great Film Debate Mk 3 – Historical Inaccuracies


This is always a controversial point, and a huge thing of contempt for myself, so let us delve into some of the most blatantly inaccurate films ever made…

First off –

The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas (2008)

It’s a goldmine! An enjoyable film, yes, and very readable book, but to get properly ‘in’ to it, it would have been a lot more believable has it followed what really happened. According to at least one of my contemporaries, the idea behind the film was to show the innocence of the youth of the nation, and how ridiculous this made Nazi Germany and the policies of the Third Reich. But surely you can do that in other ways than re-writing history and offending a lot of people along the way? The main character, Bruno (pictured), although being 8, would have known what a Jew was. And Shmuel, the friend he makes in Auschwitz, would, I am very much afraid to say, have been culled on first arrival. He was 8! Nearly all children and those under 15 years of age went straight to be exterminated. Fact of life. (Also, in the film, the actor playing Shmuel did not look like he belonged in a concentration camp, and was a weak actor – bad casting maybe?) Aside from these first two foibles, the film also made a huge mistake in that Bruno would not have been so close to such a place. If, indeed, the camp was Auschwitz (it is never really stated, just assumed), security would have been higher, no? The language John Boyne (author of the book) uses is infuriating sometimes – surely the ‘nicknames’ of ‘Out-With’ (instead, one presumes, of Auschwitz), and ‘the Fury’ (The Führer) only work if the characters are speaking English. But they wouldn’t have been, as they would have been speaking German! That, surely, is one of the most obvious downfalls.  I found the most believable parts of this film was when it was suggested that Bruno’s mother has an affair with Lieutenant Kurt Kotler, and the arguments the situation causes. Not the politics, never the history. I do not see the point in using such a huge event in history and then changing it to tell the story. I believe the Holocaust does not need to be changed to emphasise the horror and atrocities and contradictions behind it. Enough.

Gladiator (2000)

This film I enjoy greatly, but I am led to believe it might have something to do with the fact that I know less about the Roman Empire, and therefore am just happy to enjoy the story. However, twisted history does not do well for good teaching. A great deal of history is, confusingly to me, based on opinion, but there are still facts there. Yes really.

So! What’s wrong with Gladiator? Well, mainly, most of it’s quite wrong. But again, an enjoyable watch. Mild amounts more of respect than that for Striped PJs, although obviously you can’t even really begin to compare except on a very rudimentary and crude level. Historical advisors were even hired for this film, one taking a step back from the project, and one withdrawing his name from the credits altogether, after such huge changes were made. In short, and very briefly:

– Marcus Aurelius died of plague, and was not murdered by Commodus.

– Commodus had his sister, Lucilla, murdered.

– Commodus is reportedly killed in the bath (strangled), by a wrestler. Not Maximus, and not at the Colosseum.

– A Roman usurper called Maximus did exist, but 230 years post-Commodus.

And this is just a selection of the huge inaccuracies that basically means Mr R Scott completely wasted his time trying to make the film accurate. Others include idiosyncracies of the characters (Commodus’ thumb up/thumb down routine is myth), costuming, which is never accurate, and the fact that Rome is founded as a monarchy. Possible my personal favourite… However, it still makes for a good story (or so I think). Perhaps because I first saw it so long ago means the historical inaccuracies do not mean a huge amount to me.

Amadeus (1984)

Another example of exacerbating a story to make apparently more engaging and watchable material. Some directors seem to be terrified that history alone will not make for a good story. The two major flaws with this very enjoyable film is that a/ Mozart was most definitely not American (it still baffles me he is allowed, or even as an actor, uses, his regular accent) and b/ there may have been mild rivalry between Mozart and Salieri, but there is no evidence to state that the latter was the catalyst of the demise of the former. They were even on good enough terms to write pieces together. At one point in the film, Mozart is commissioned to write an opera by the king, and it is stated it should be written in Italian. But Amadeus protests and insists on German – and if his language is German, why are the characters not speaking German? Or Italian? Indeed it is an American made film, but there is no reason, other than the ‘common tongue’ currently appears to be English, for it not to be in the language they would have been speaking. This also goes for Striped PJs and Gladiator, incidentally. Actually any film that is set in a county that doesn’t speak the language they are using in the film. Although there are some blindingly obvious ones in this, it is a very enjoyable watch. Especially once you get past Mozart’s accent and laugh. Perhaps the director wished to make it as melodramatic as one of Mozart’s operas.

Pocahontas (1995)

This one is my personal favourite as the Disney version plays on the separation of Pocahontas and John Smith as the saddest part. It would seem that Pocahontas was actually about ten when John Smith (who, I assume, would not have been a 6 foot buff blue-wearing ponce with blonde flowing locks) rocked over on the boat, settled, and then needed to be saved by her. As history goes, there is only his story to support what happened, and not a huge amount suggested they were ever in love or to get married. Said native American does, however, marry John Rolfe, travels to England with him (in a bid to show two communities can get on), and then dies just before the return to England. It would appear her immune system was not hardened enough against the many, many diseases that our shores had to offer her. She was around 21/22, although seemed to have some form of influence so it was not a total loss I suppose. But really Disney, what were you thinking? I am mortified to learn that Christian Bale lent his name to the Disney version. What were YOU thinking, Bale?


The questions being:

– Is it morally correct to be historically inaccurate when telling a historical tale?

– Which is more important, the tale and the meaning, or the accuracy?

– Is it ok to bend the truth for a better story, even if it shows lack of respect for some things, maybe even the dead?

– Do you not then just fall under the category of The Sun Trash?

Why use actual events but fictional stories? It makes no sense to me. I am adamant that stories do not need to be twisted to emphasise a point. Life can be as devastating or as exciting as it is, like it is. Artistic license not needed!

The Great Film Debate, Mk 2.


Adapting Words To Film

Is it ever a good idea to change the medium of a story to retell said story? How much of the tale gets lost and is there an optimum format to digest the initial tale through?

Now our first example, for want of a better adaption in the last 100 years since celluloid has been around, I give ‘The Lord Of The Rings’.

(Totally not just an excuse to insert marvellous pictures of some of the most awesome characters ever)

This, I feel, was a successful slide from book to film: I read the book(s) years ago, after ‘The Fellowship Of The Ring’ appeared, and I’m not going to lie – I did not enjoy them. At all. Tolkien takes so long to say anything he might as well have been one of the Ents he was writing about. And boring! So very dull and boring. Who thinks they can get away with writing a 60 page chapter about some people sitting around talking? Fair enough, it was deciding the Ring’s fate (Council of Elrond, another hideously dull character), but he could have made things just a little more exciting.

There was such little motivation to find out what happened that it took me ages to finish the books, and I was rather unimpressed by this hefty slice of Tolkien’s work. It is a good thing, then, that the film is actually amazing. Top Ten easily, an absolute feat of film-making, direction, costuming, acting, stunt-creating… Really it baffles me how the operation took place. But I am exceptionally glad it did, or else I wouldn’t know about this marvellous world that Tolkien had created. So the world I love, but his initial medium and story telling abilities have a lot to be desired (in my opinion – bear in mind I really don’t like Shakespeare). But the films are incredible and in this case, I feel, that method of story telling was more appropriate as Tolkien’s work needed bringing to life. Which is easier – so much easier – with visuals, when you are missing the words.

For our second example, we are featuring ‘American Psycho’, another film I can watch again and again and again. And again. Lots really, I find it hilarious most of the time. More so than the book actually. Now I think this is a case where  both mediums are well-chosen – the book is brilliantly written, and it’s one of those rare ones that I’ve actually really enjoyed (much like ‘The Road’ and ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’), but similarly I don’t think the film does the book any injustices. I saw the film first – which obviously has the potential to sway my ideas – but the book gives you everything, it leaves nothing out and you don’t have to use your imagination for it. It’s all there for you to read, and so readable it is too! The film, however, is more one of those “films for intelligent souls” (other than something like ‘Love Actually’ or ‘Bring It On’. I cannot believe I just mentioned the latter…), in that it hints at various things, and the more times you watch it, the better it gets. Had I read the book first then seen the film, I would have felt a little cheated, and to the film’s disparagement, it is irritating and pointless when screen writers change names and situations for, what feels like, the sake of it. I think the film relies (or rather utilises extensively) a lot on its medium – it uses the visuals for all they are worth but this is good. I’m not sure if I could cope with a 180 minute epic about a serial killer who may or may not actually BE a serial killer.

(This picture comes from one of my favourite scenes in the film, where Christian Bale is about to take an axe to Jared Leto’s face but insists on discussing the merits and demerits of Huey Lewis And The News before hand. It’s genius!)

Our next example features (dare I say it) HARRY POTTER. Mainly because these really were written for children (or adults with no sense of decent literature), and it is a prime example that if the story is terrible to begin with, the film direction awful with cringe-worthy acting and a sickening script, the book so badly written it literally is like “wading through treacle” (thank you Mr Fry), then there is nothing you can do and you end up with a massive franchise that was based on TALENTLESS DRIVEL. Oh wait, that’s what happens nowadays anyway. One does really feel like it is a poor man’s Lord Of The Rings, and what’s the point in making a film that big if you’re not going to do a proper job? Also, to be fair to every film director that’s lent their name to the HP world, it’s not like you’re starting off with an epic book that is actually well-respected in the world of words so it’s not like they have the easiest job. But as we have proven above, there is an awful lot to be gained out of film adaptations, and you can attract a great many people who are just not interested in books: but they completely failed to do this and the films are on the same very low-level as the books. On the plus side, at least they kept a decent trend going. If it was not so clear that JK Rowling had pilfered everything from every fantasy novel ever written before hand, she may have got on better… Obviously everyone learns from what has come before them but you don’t need to be so blindly crude about it.

In essence, a lot depends on how good the author is at story telling, as I feel unless the film has a terrible script and many other things besides, then it is so much easier to sit absently mindedly in front of a screen for a few hours. So the author needs to grab your attention as it is so very easy to throw a book down in frustration (has been done frequently). I also feel the art of reading is being lost, or at least has been on the decline, so it is difficult to appeal to the average person – going to the cinema makes for a pleasant evening out, reading seems to be more something to do if there is not much else to do. It is a time filler more than the premiere of a new film is. I am of the opinion that film makers have it easier than authors, but they could still miss out so much detail from the book. They have the power to make a story much more exciting though, and that is an encouraging thought.

To Watch:

‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ (1962)

‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’ (I sincerely hope the film is an improvement: how can it not be with James Mason!)

To Read then Watch:

‘Moby Dick’

All Thomas Hardy novels I’ve missed out (the only decent ‘classic’ around, clearly)

‘Brighton Rock’