We all love a good historical movie or tv series. Theatre C was filled with those that love The Crown, Redbad or just historical movies and series in general. Sven Meeder and Dennis Kersten gave lectures about the historical correctness of the movie Redbad and Netflix-show The Crown, respectively. Sven Meeder is historian at Radboud University and co-writer of the book Redbad: Koning in de Marge van de Geschiedenis (2018). Cultural scientist Dennis Kersten also teaches at Radboud University and focusses in his research on popular shows and movies. In their lectures, they addressed the underlying question: How much can we fictionalise history in series or films? The Crown depicts the life of queen Elizabeth II, starting with her marriage with prince Phillip. It is quite popular, while Redbad, focussing on the life of Frisian king Redbad in the 7th and 8th century, disappointed at the box office. It is in movies and series like these, that fact and fiction meet.
The historical truth in Redbad
Redbad, Sven Meeder began, is about the internal struggle of a leader. Four characters are shown that have really existed: Redbad or Radboud (not the one this university is named after), Aldegisel, Pippin II of Herstal and Charles Martel. All other characters are fictional. The movie directors have chosen spectacle or “cool-ness” over historical correctness, which is shown by the many scenes in the movie where characters sit or talk in the rain. In that time, they knew as well as us, Meeder said, that one should not be standing in the rain unnecessary. This is symptomatic for the a-historicalness of the movie.
Asking for truth in historical matters is impossible, since all we have is perspectives given to us by various sources. Historians, therefore, talk of validity: does the interpretation match the sources we do have? The movie Redbad, however, seems to fail at this point. Redbad struggles with questions that do not fit either its time or his personal history. For instance, in the movie, Redbad has a clear black-and-white image of his friends and enemies. The Frisians are his friends, the Franks are his enemies. However, from other sources we know that Redbad married his daughter off to the Frankish royal family and that his grandson would rule the Franks.
Then why are these questions introduced into the movie, if they are historically incorrect? So it speaks to the audience, Meeder stated.Current dilemma’s and questions are put into history. He called this actualisation. Then why not make it completely fictional? Because the historical facts render ownership. We feel it is our Redbad, and our common history that is shown. That helps us to empathise with the characters in the movie. Unfortunately, Meeder concluded, the historical facts do not line up. Therefore, the movie would perhaps be better off being completely fictional.
Interpretation in form in The Crown
Dennis Kersten has done research into the historical facts shown in The Crown. Overall, The Crown is less fictionalised than Redbad, especially season one. The goal of the makers of the show is to depict the reign of Queen Elizabeth II in ten seasons. Season one educates both Elizabeth and the viewers in the basic principles of democracy, integrity and what it means to be a queen. Instead of appealing to escapism, these themes allow us to make a connection between the show and our own lives. Elizabeth herself is the least layered character in the show, but this is done intentionally, Kersten said, since the show is about ‘the crown’ and not ‘the Queen’.
How we see the characters
The intimate scenes out of the lives of the royals are written by the writers of the show. Some of the more impactful quotes from the show, such as Elizabeth’s “I can look the other way” when she suspects Phillip of adultery, are fiction. Nonetheless, these quotes have a great influence on the way we see the characters. Various conversations between Elizabeth and the prime ministers, for instance, depict Elizabeth as a paragon of integrity and the protector of good democracy.
Fictionalisation is most prominent in the way the story is told, Kersten continued. By showing different events happening at the same time or related to one another, the makers of the show try to show us the connections between these events. An example is when we see Elizabeth and her sister Margaret playing, while we hear her uncle King Edward VIII abdicate. This indicates the difference between Edward and Elizabeth, the latter being innocent and willing to make sacrifices for the crown. Scenes like these are not completely made up, since both events really happened, but their immediate connection is fictionalised.
Little room for imagination
A few things are added by the writers of the show. Elizabeth, for instance, reprimands Churchill for not telling her of his heart problems. However, Elizabeth only learns from these problems much later and therefore this moment never happened. On top of that, the show introduces fictional characters to facilitate the development of the main characters. The main example of this is Churchill’s secretary Venetia Scott, who enables us to see Churchill as a sympathetic yet politically strategic old man. Creating a fictional story about national symbols, especially royals, is difficult, Kersten concluded. Because historical sources tell a lot about these figures, there is little room for imagination and fictionalisation. The fictionalisation, then, happens mostly in the way the story is told.
Should we watch Redbad and The Crown?
Historical tv shows and movies are the crossroads of facts and fiction. To strengthen the story or to attract more viewers, histories are, to some degree, fictionalised. Sometimes, entire characters and events are added and sometimes the fictionalisation happens in the form the story is told. The question that surfaces here, however, is when the fictionalisation can no longer be considered supportive of the story. This was the case in Redbad. The Crown seems to have done a better job, for that matter. Do Meeder and Kersten think we should watch Redbad and The Crown, respectively? Yes, and looking at the shows with these questions in mind, we might even learn something.
This report was written by Jan Werkman as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.