Well, It’s Not a Documentary…

oakgroveSomething that I have written about often is historical fiction and, in particular, how history is portrayed in film.

But something that has bothered me is the attitude that, when confronted with a film (or book or play, for that matter) that is grossly exaggerated or blatantly wrong, historically-speaking, the filmmakers are excused because well, it’s not a documentary.

Putting aside the fact that documentaries can be just as biased as fictional accounts, this attitude is problematic in some cases. It is a worthwhile attitude to have regarding small changes, such as compressing the timeline of events, making a composite character, or dramatizing an incident to make it more exciting. Depending on the event in question, there might be no historical evidence about what exactly happened, and thus the writers can tell their own version of the story and invent some details to fill in the gaps. We may not know what exactly was said between two historical figures, but we know they met and had a conversation that had consequences. Inventing dialogue for the film for this scene, drawing on the known facts, is perfectly fine.

While some changes and inventions can be annoying to those who know what would be historically accurate, and especially frustrating when the change seems pointless, they are understandable and indeed vital for good storytelling.

However, historical fiction is indeed how most of the audience learns about a person or event. Films are especially powerful, being that they are realistic, visual, and designed to appeal to visceral emotions. Even if we read non-fiction accounts or watch documentaries about a topic, we are far more likely to identify with the film.

Thus, a good historical film should aim to entertain and tell a compelling story while not misrepresenting its subject and being true to history as much as possible. (Unless it is specifically meant to be alternate history, fantasy, or satire.)  Viewers are not stupid, but the impression left by a film will be felt long into the future, no matter how accurate it was. Even when told otherwise, we feel that what we saw in the film was more real than the facts that we read in a book or on Wikipedia.

History is about real people who did real things. Those real people deserve respect, as do their families. Real villains are not one-dimensional, but usually men and women who cared deeply about their cause or felt that they had been wronged in life. Real heroes had bad habits. Both “heroes” and “villains” very likely just thought that they were doing their job, or just doing what they thought was right at the time. Attitudes change and what was normal and even laudable in the past is considered downright horrible now.

No, a film may not be a documentary, but it should not portray a historical character as a pure villain merely to fill a whole in the plot. It should not make a whole group of people out to be monsters just to make the hero seem stronger. The more recent an event, the more accurate the film should be, as there should be more evidence to work with. A writer can plead ignorance regarding the private lives and thoughts of medieval kings and peasants, but not of twentieth- or twenty-first century people.

Even before films, Shakespeare’s portrayal of King Richard III of England influenced how everyone thought of that king, and to this day, historians have had a hard time changing Richard III’s popular image. Shakespeare’s play involved an actor in a minimal costume on a relatively bare stage in a theatre full of people. Modern films involve actors in realistic costumes (some more painstakingly researched for accuracy than others) in the purported setting of the story with no audience. Still, people “remembered” Richard III as a weak, scheming, hunchback. We likewise remember historical persons as they appeared onscreen in our “memories”, not in the still photograph or the portrait/drawing that accompanied their Wikipedia article.

Whole populations have likewise been maligned due to being primarily understood from fiction. Cultural groups are seen as jokes, terrorists, sexual objects, or combinations thereof. This does not promote respect. This does not promote cooperation. It is not worth the lasting consequences to demean a whole ethnicity merely for the sake of one dominant group’s enjoyment. Sure, our predecessors were not all angels. But they are all deserving of human dignity.

No, historical fiction films do not have to be documentaries, but they need to be respectful.

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016)


With seven books and eight films, the Harry Potter series took up a decade of my life. I really enjoyed the story, the characters, and the fantastical world that J.K. Rowling created. Thoroughly enjoyed, in fact. The series took Harry from eleven to eighteen (not counting the epilogue), and it took me from 15 to 25.

However, with the release of the last film in 2011, I felt that it was done. That is, I could live without Harry Potter in my life, barring the occasional reference and reread. Harry Potter became just one of the many series in existence and the characters just some of the many pantheon of fictional characters. One might say that the magic had faded somewhat. I moved on to other stories.

So I admit that I was initially sceptical when I heard that there was going to be a sequel story – albeit in play format. As far as I was concerned, while Rowling had left a lot of dangling threads, she had nonetheless finished a beautiful tapestry that didn’t need another panel.

But I decided to get the book from the library, unable to resist the curiosity.

That the story is not entirely written by Rowling is just fine. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is not a novel like its predecessors, but a play. It is filled with a lot of descriptions of sets, stage directions, and dialogue, only the latter of which recalls Rowling’s vivid prose. There isn’t really room for prose is theatre, but there is enough in the book for the reader to visualise the stage and the action. I love plays (having written some and read quite a few) and thus I had no problems taking the script and imagining it playing out on the stage, although I admit to having had some trouble with some special effects.

I am glad that they decided to tell a further story after the epilogue of the seventh book. While finding out what happened in the intervening 19 years between the end of the action and the epilogue would have been nice, the fact that we already know about the epilogue lessens the suspense. Better to let that missing time be told through occasional short stories from Rowling!

But this isn’t just a school story redone, focusing entirely on the new generation of Hogwarts students. Harry Potter is still the title character and truly the story is about him, even if his son takes centre stage for a large part of it.

Instead, we have a story that focuses both on teenage characters and on our favourite characters as forty-year-olds. Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and Draco are not much older than the original fans of the books, seeing as the first book came out in 1997. Quite a few thirty-somethings started reading the books as preteens or teenagers, after all, and have now moved on from school stories to books where the main characters are juggling careers and parenthood. We can still see ourselves in Harry and his compatriots, while reminiscing of school days watching the Hogwarts scenes.

The story (which I won’t spoil much of) turns on its head the idea that everything is fine for Harry after the defeat of Voldemort, even if it appears to be so at the end of Deathly Hallows. (After all, that book ends with “All was well” – which is just crying out for something to happen!) Yes, when we last see him, he seems to have his life together: he is happily married, he has three lovely children, and he seems successful and well-adjusted in his career and home-life. He is an adult, which is especially jarring for us readers when on only the previous page, he was just shy of eighteen.

The central conflict of the story is between Harry and his second son, Albus. While Harry is an adult, there are many things he wishes that he had done differently. He is still grappling with his identity and his past, just as most adults do. He is also coming to terms with his children, who are growing up in a safer world with their parents alive. Harry never had his father in his life and is thus at a disadvantage when it comes to fatherhood. While it is not dwelt upon in the play, it is clear that Harry relates better to his elder son, James, because they have similar interests and James adjusts better to school than his younger brother. James is everything that Harry wanted to be as a teenager – popular, athletic, and decent academically. Albus really only has one good friend, hates Quidditch, and is all right at his subjects, but does not really apply himself. Except for Quidditch, Albus is actually a lot more like Harry was, but not how Harry wants to remember himself.

For Harry, Hogwarts was a wonderful place where he felt like he belonged and had a family. For Albus, Hogwarts is a boring, lonely place where he feels like he doesn’t belong. Obviously, conflict ensues. The rest of the plot is just how that conflict plays out.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t get to enjoy seeing familiar characters again or going back to Hogwarts. This story brings back the magic and makes Harry Potter relatable again. The adventure continues – not grand battles, but everyday battles. Harry Potter has indeed grown up.

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Humans (2015)

humans_series_intertitleSet in an alternate reality present, Humans explores what it could be like if we had the technology perfected to create super-intelligent human-like robots. As it is an alternative reality, the show is very realistic, with the only exception being that there are robots to do menial labour, household chores, specialized tasks, and dangerous missions. That contributes to how scarily close to normal this series feels. We can easily see how useful such robots would be – they could collect garbage and answer phones; clean and cook; look after senior citizens; or determine the safety level of a crime scene, for just some of many examples. Robots are considered to be merely machines, which for the most part, they are.

Except, inevitably, inventors keep inventing and perfecting. Once we created humanoid robots, it would only be a matter of time before trying our best to make them conscious and as human as possible. That is because humans have a tendency to anthropomorphize things – and if we can do it with cars, boats, and animals, we would definitely do so with robots that look human. This is explored in the show: some owners get attached to their robot (call a synth) and refuse to replace it like a worn-out computer; others treat their synth like a pet, such as wanting to take their synth to public outings like plays and movies (although, unlike a dog or cat, I really can’t see why this is a problem, especially if the owner paid for a ticket for them); and still others feel a strong attachment to their synth that they are hurt and disappointed, even if they understand why, when their feelings are naturally not reciprocated.

Of course, the natural next step would be for a robot to be at least able to mimic human consciousness. However, what we find out is that the inventor went much further than that: he created sentient robots with full consciousness. Separate lifeforms, in other words – that naturally would compete with humans.

Because the robot characters are generally fit and lovely – idealized forms of people – the actors playing the human characters are especially normal in their appearance. The main characters really are “the family next-door”. Everyone, from the teenagers to the elderly, look rough-around-the-edges and not like they are out of a catalogue. That also lends to how scarily normal and relatable the story is. The characters act like one would expect them to, or even how one would expect oneself to act or react to a given situation.

I really enjoyed this show, not just because of its implications, but because the characters were compelling. The human characters were relatable, but also the synths were fascinating. The conscious ones were human-like, but still exhibit characteristics that would not be human: they had little regard for long-term self-preservation, for example. They also are children in adult bodies, but also wise from all of the information in their central processors. If information is not in their central processor, they can wirelessly connect with computers – perform the equivalent of an advanced Internet search simply by closing their eyes momentarily. They do not have to eat or drink – only charge, which is something like eating and sleeping at the same time. They have distinct personalities, so some of them are more human-like than others.

Of course, humans do have the right to be afraid. These robots are designed to be superior to people. If they had the ability to reproduce themselves, it would mean they were no longer under human control. Over the course of the series, they discover a computer program that could indeed give more synths consciousness. The next question: will they use it? How?

Like a good British series should, it is only eight episodes and tells a complete story, leaving open some plotlines while closing off others. There will be another season, so it remains to be seen if the computer program becomes a tool for good or evil.

And that will largely depend on your perspective – is it truly evil to want to reproduce, to give free will to others? Is it evil to enslave something that is alive, even if it is a machine? After all, saying that you built and programmed it is not much different than saying that you gave birth to and raised a child – you still do not control or own said child, so why should you control or own a sentient, conscious humanoid machine?humans_series_intertitle

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Disney’s Cinderella (2015)


“Have courage and be kind.”

With that mantra, Disney’s live-action remake of Cinderella goes from a mere retelling of a fairy tale about a young woman who goes from lowly commoner to queen by marrying a prince, to being a story about having a good character and not letting adversity serve as an excuse for evil.

It is still a saccharine sweet story about virtue rewarded – Cinderella gets her prince, after all. But we see her struggle under the abuse of her stepmother and stepsisters. She is not always sweet and smiling. And although not all of us can marry a prince, the story isn’t trying to convey that we can. It is not about Cinderella getting married, but about her rising above her stepmother’s pettiness and the world trying to crush her spirit.

In this version, Cinderella’s backstory is elaborated. We get to see her mother (almost always only mentioned in passing, if at all, in most retellings) and her father. We get to see her happy home life that gave her such a cheery and steadfast character. We get to see where she got her strong faith – from her mother, who was a strong believer in magic and fairies. Since this story takes place in an alternate universe of sorts, “magic” serves as a religious allegory. Thus this version has strong parallels with the Slavic Vasilisa the Beautiful (sometimes called Vasilisa the Brave), whose heroine also has strong faith inherited from her mother, usually represented by a magical doll. In both stories, it is faith that saves the heroine and earns her a better life.

We also get to see that happy home life disintegrate – not with the death of Cinderella’s mother, but with her father’s eventual remarriage to the Lady Tremaine. Her father is hopeful and kind in his desire to marry again, but his new wife is the opposite of his first. Lady Tremaine has no faith in anyone but herself. She is bitter about how life turned out for herself and wants better for her daughters, who are petty, incapable, and reflecting of her bitterness. They compete for her attention and affection, but she is bitter even about them. Therefore, it is inevitable that Cinderella would become a mere servant at the loss of her father. Her stepmother wants to “teach her how the world works” and cannot comprehend how strong, kind, and not bitter her stepdaughter is.

Also, the character of the Prince is elaborated upon – he gets a name, a depiction of his relationship with his father, and eventually a crown. He is every bit about finding a woman who can be his partner in his lonely role at the top. It is obvious that Cinderella fits that role not for her beauty, but for her faith, love, and patience.

Neither the Prince nor Cinderella are particularly smart, at least not in their depictions. They are not constantly matching wits, nor are they vapid. If anything, Lady Tremaine is far more intelligent than her stepdaughter (especially moreso than her daughters!), but she has failed to use this gift for any good. She has not passed it on to Anastasia and Drusilla, she has underestimated Cinderella, and she has spent through a fortune on frippery instead of investing wisely. This is not to say that it is wrong to be intelligent, but that it needs to be matched – if not exceeded – by courage and kindness, or, in less Disney terms, faith and love.

There is nothing of the crazy animal antics that appeared in the original Disney animated classic, but that is to be expected in live-action. Instead of wild mouse chases, we get actual backstory and character development! Lucifer the cat is depicted as a normal cat, albeit one that is bitter like his owner, while the mice and other creatures are depicted as unusually intelligent but ordinary animals. They are kind (in their own way) because Cinderella shows them kindness. She is the one who anthropomorphizes them by setting them little tea tables. It is almost as though the mice are humouring her! It seems that the same family of mice has lived in the house as long as Cinderella’s family, so they have been conditioned throughout the years to accept her. [As an aside, I don’t think that they are long-lived so much as they have a family resemblance and Cinderella just names them the same based on their shared characteristics. The father-mouse is always Gus-Gus, the mother-mouse is always Jacqueline, etc. But I digress – they could be magical mice, after all.]

There are still crazy antics, but much more within the realms of reality. These do not distract from the important message of the film: have courage and be kind. Have faith and be loving. You may not marry a prince, but you, and those around you, will have rewarding lives – eventually. Do not embrace cruelty with bitterness. Fight it with lovingkindness instead.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Midsummer Night's Dream

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has aged relatively well, but I find that it is the silliest of all of his comedies. I enjoyed it, but it is almost too silly. Humour is fickle – what one person finds uproaringly hilarious is to another simply amusing and to another disgusting. Most of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is indeed hilarious, but it feels disjointed.

After all, this is a play about fairies romping in the forest, love potions getting mixed up, and silly commoners trying to put on a grand play for the elite. It goes well because the King of the Fairies gets what he wants. Yes, nearly everyone is happy in the end, but it is a bit uncomfortable to watch. Also, magic is too much of a plot device to be enjoyable. Most of Shakespeare’s comedies are not dependent on magic at all – they are usually just based around misunderstandings. This was clearly a stretch from Shakespeare’s comfort zone.

As a result, the “serious” plot – that of the lovers – feels out of place. The characters are too serious for the otherwise silly play. Their predicaments are indeed dire. It is not as though they are talking about something serious while in a silly situation. There really isn’t anything funny about it anymore. (Indeed, I’m not sure how funny it would have appeared to Elizabethan audiences either.) Hermia is running away from a death sentence to marry Lysander – once she is in the woods, she can’t go back – and her beloved suddenly spurns her in favour of her friend, who turns on her because she thinks that she is mocking her. Helena’s reputation has been ruined by being spurned by Demetrius in favour of Hermia, which also wrecks her friendship with Hermia, and she follows him into the woods in the hope of getting him back. She has nothing to risk by running off in the woods with a man. Then she feels that both Demetrius and Lysander, as well as Hermia, are mocking her. Both of the men nearly come to blows over Helena.

None of their dialogue is particularly funny, and neither is the situation.

That said, the rest of the play is hilarious and it is one of the few Shakespeare plays that feels genuinely fun. The actors playing the mechanicals and the fairies can ham it up immensely. The characters can interact with the audience without detracting from the play. We are all left with a feeling of having had a jolly good time and a restful dream.

The fantasy genre is not Shakespeare’s forte though. I can see why he didn’t write very many plays like this one.

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Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar


My class seems to have been one of the few that didn’t read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in high school. Because this play contains a lot of famous lines, I knew how it went (not to mention that I had at least a Wikipedia knowledge of Roman history). Therefore, I admit that I found the play somewhat lacking in depth.

The plot is very exciting: Julius Caesar is conspired against and then killed; the conspirators are then drawn into a civil war with Caesar’s supporters and those who want to exploit the power vacuum for themselves; and we are left with a bit of a cliffhanger that Shakespeare would resolve in Antony and Cleopatra.

Furthermore, the motivations of the characters are intriguing – which is undoubtedly why this play is studied so often. Some are motivated by the need for personal gain, some because they are jealous of Caesar, and still some because they genuinely find Caesar’s growing tyrannical popularity to be worrisome.

Shakespeare wrote at a time when monarchy was absolute and few questioned it as the best form of government. Yet Elizabethan England also held up Ancient Roman leaders like Julius Caesar as heroes. Ancient Roman and Greek culture were being revived and reintroduced, but with Elizabethan morals. Thus this play ultimately reaffirms the common sense notion (of the time) that a strong state needs a strong ruler, as otherwise the society will fall into warring factions and the people cannot be trusted to make good decisions. At the same time, it was introducing ancient Roman political figures to a wide audience.

Unlike his comedies or tragedies, Shakespeare’s historical plays have not aged well. We have grown used to portrayals of history in the media that take liberty with the facts for the sake of a good story, but we have improved upon our expectations of accuracy. We have created better plays, books, and films about Rome in the past four hundred years. Furthermore, the moral of Julius Caesar is somewhat lost on modern audiences. Are we supposed to sympathise with Brutus, who kills Caesar out of a sense of duty for the state? Are we supposed to sympathise with Cassius, who feels that Caesar is no better of a man than himself and thus refuses to submit to him? Are we supposed to sympathise with the confused common people? With Caesar?

I enjoyed the play and it was fun to finally hear popular lines in context. Compared to Shakespeare’s historical plays about more recent history, it was fairly accurate. But as it was history, it also didn’t really finish properly. We are left with the conspirators dead and Octavian being proclaimed the new Caesar, much to the consternation of Marc Antony. We know what happens next (or we could check Wikipedia if we don’t).


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By the Water

copyright 2016

Peaceful and quiet
The sun sets behind the hills,
Reflecting off the waves
That lap softly onto the shore.

Alone upon the rock,
She gazes up into the sky.

Here, now, she sits.

There is nothing of the past,
Of the future – it is unknown,
It is timeless by the water.

What brought her here
No longer matters,
For this could be a fitting final resting place.

The flames dance up to the sunset,
Fire joining its mother in the sky,
Keeping her light shining as the night falls,
Keeping vigil as the darkness takes hold,
Leading into a world unknown,
A world of dreams and memories.

This is home.


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