What happens to history by putting it on the page has been made, I understand, into a discipline of its own. I'm sure it's fascinating to those inclined. For me, good history as written has almost as much to do with how well it is written as the truth of it, who wrote it and the rest. I am not a serious student of history. I am just a reader of it. So for me, bad history is badly written history, however potentially informative or interesting the subject. As in biography, a glorious life, badly told, is as nothing. I am done with reading the well researched but dull book. I am less worried than I was of my own ignorance of fact. Tell me a story and tell it well. Facts I can find anywhere, history is what I want to read, not the materials from which it is made. The story can be familiar or strange, older than than the pyramids or only as old as yesterday's newspapers, of good people or bad, just tell it well.
Novels, movies and television can tell me good stories that have history in 'em. Historical settings and characters, movements, migrations and events, can all be made to serve entertaining, even important narrative ends, but to learn history from fiction is not a sound undertaking. To read Tolstoy in the hope of better understanding Napoleon's invasion of Russia is to misunderstand both the author's purpose and his achievement, It would be like watching Swan Lake so as to study more closely the behavior of water fowl. History has her own muse.
So much of contemporary historical fiction is so loaded with fact, researches strung so densely and in such profusion as to weigh the whole enterprise down until the very virtues of fiction; its easier narrative, its adaptability, its focus, its inventive character, are lost. What is made then is neither good history nor good fiction, neither fish nor fowl. When I think of these huge and ungainly hybrids I wonder their authors simply missed their calling. Some should have been happier, I should think, working as cataloguers, tour guides, archivists, even, in rare cases, as actual historians, even popular historians, and good ones too, like David McCullough, or Christopher Hibbert. Instead we get the bloated civics of James Michener, or, more ridiculously the speculative romances of Diana Gabaldon or the endless diorama dramas of Jean Auel. In fact, I've come to think of this sort of misguided inclusiveness, or rather failure to discriminate, as "Auelism," best defined as the the inability to not repeat anything learned in a library, no matter how irrelevant to one's narrative, and at length. That woman never read a word about wheat she didn't think worth sharing.
My standard for television and film is lower, taking up as they must less of my time and attention. And here the problem is seldom that I will be told too much, but too little, and sometimes told lies when the truth would have been better in every sense; better history, better stories, better entertainment. Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth was great fun the first time, even if he did keep his pace at the expense of seriousness and history, but by the time he came back for a second go, all the faults of his first movie quite overwhelmed his second, making not only his Queen ridiculous, but everyone around her even more so. The results were lavishly, laughably bad. I can not think of Cate Blanchet now but astride that war horse, armored like a Valkyrie, a long red braid down her back, twenty years at least too young, and given both thunderstorms and a terrible dog's breakfast of a speech to overcome, when the real story, with the real speech, could have been so good. The bad taste of the whole thing only made the silliness sillier and more obvious.
With television, which also means with more time, there really isn't any excuse for such nonsense, as Helen Mirren came close to proving in the same role. Now though, I come to my confession. I can not help but watch The Tudors on Showtime, even as it continues from overheated to feverishly idiotic. What started as a bit o' romping with Henry VIII, as played by the exquisite Jonathan Rhys Meyers, hot for his Boleyn, has continued after the poor girl lost her head and now, with Henry working his way presumably through all later wives, the show has taken on something of the ghoulish fascination of a vampire soap: Henry does not age, everyone is years too young and lovely, even poor Anne of Cleves! It was bad enough in the first season that Woolsey should be slim and handsome Sam Neal, and that in this season the dashing James Frain should be Thomas Cromwell when Cromwell actually looked more like the Napoleon of Orwell's Animal Farm, but to have Henry enter middle age still looking like a sadistic angel rather than a ruined footballer, well... that's just embarrassing. And Jonathan Rhys Meyers, bless him, while perfectly acceptable as a frustrated young husband and father, if more a spoiled brat than a king, grows increasingly absurd as an all powerful, paranoid and ruined hulk of a tyrant. True, they've given him a walking stick and a pained expression, but he still looks better suited to playing Caligula than Henry. The whole thing is shading into something almost too weirdly wrong to watch.
And yet I do. Having recently read The Last Days of Henry VIII: Conspiracies, Treason and Heresy at the Court of the Dying Tyrant, by Robert Hutchinson, I am reminded every time I watch the TV show of just how far from reality the creators of the drama are now straying. Hutchinson's Henry is a bloated, venomous, old toad. Showtime's Henry, already entering his decline, is still a fawn, a surprisingly nasty fawn, but still no more than that. Rhys Meyers hasn't the age, size, gravity or regality to continue in the part, and yet I wonder I would watch it if, every week, I could not count on seeing the boy's ass.
So, that's my confession. Whatever my standards for reading history, as to accuracy and art, I am only too willing to watch a travesty, so long as an exquisite male actor, and in truth, not even a particularly good actor, is regularly stripped and laid across satin sheets.
I mean, really, who cares if history, in the person of a truly nasty, stinking old tyrant, is being done a disservice? That boy's ass is a work of art. (I only hope they can keep him out of rehab for another season. There's still Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr yet to go. Perhaps Lindsay Lohan may be available. She needs a comeback vehicle, that girl.)