On Historical Fiction & Guilty Pleasures

First off, I should say that I am a proud historian. I may also be a proud English teacher, a proud archaeologist, a proud editor, and a proud writer, but I am also a historian. Other than maybe “writer,” being a historian was the first professional label that I got, and one that I am still very fond of.

Of course, there are problems with being a historian. The main one, I think, is that it kind of warps how you see things. Not only are you supposed to look for cause and effect, you are supposed to analyze things.

And at some point, you find yourself knowing way too much about a certain topic.

For example, my thesis looked at the railroad during the 19th century and a little bit forward (1800-1920, though the actual dates I was looking at in-depth were 1880-1930). Now, when I watch anything about the railroad or America during that time period, I know how things actually went.

Basically, I find myself nitpicking and being annoyed about the historical inaccuracies.

Which is a problem in historical fiction, since it is, in fact, fiction. When you’re writing, you have to take certain liberties with your setting and world(personally, I write in alternative timelines or in fantasy, just because of that. Someday, I will write a Western, and it will be gloriously accurate and boring as beige). These changes are put in place to make the story stronger, and this can be done very well, appealing to even the most nitpicky of historians, or very badly.

There are some historical fiction authors and films that I love. Lauren Willig is a historian who has done mountains of research for each book and manages to capture the spirit of the people and the setting. She’s like Michael Crichton, only for history (and with some scandalous moments). To me, that is quite high praise, fyi.

Other great historical things I love include “Hell On Wheels,” which looks at the building of the transcontinental railroad. HBO also has some fairly wonderful (though violent and graphic) shows that are accurate (ish).

So there are the positive historical fiction works. However, as you may have guessed from the title, there are some historical fiction pieces that I like, in spite of myself. I think of these as guilty pleasure films or books. They’re not historically accurate and I know I should hate them on some level, but I just can’t help but love them.

Here are, in no particular order, six of my Historical Fiction Guilty Pleasures.


1. I want to point out that I have a soft spot for Westerns, so they are all included in this list in one place. This is because some are accurate, some are not, and even though I have an in-depth knowledge of that particular time period, I have decided that Westerns are okay, regardless. I love most of them, television or movie, new or old, accurate or not, this is one genre of film or show that I’m almost always interested in watching. Westerns can be cheesy, but they are also, in my opinion, fantastic (though there are some that make me roll my eyes at times).

2.”Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”-This one is obvious, mostly because it makes no real attempt to be historically accurate. Right there in the title, it tells you everything that need to know about the movie. Abraham Lincoln becomes a vampire hunter. Also, I have to say it, slavery was not the main cause of the American Civil War. This film plays hard and loose with history, lifting the characters, costumes, and settings from history, but I’m 99.99% sure that “historical accuracy” was not something that crossed the mind of anyone involved in the making of this film. It’s ridiculous, cheesy, and quite wonderful.

3. The History Channel’s mini-series, “The Sons of Liberty”-This one should really offend me. It was produced by the History Channel, and that gives it a certain air of respectability that other productions on this list might not have. It gets the basic timeline correct, and Boston was the powderkeg that started the American Revolution, but Sam Adams was not as attractive as Ben Barnes. Sorry, man. There are quite a few historical details that got mucked up. The team justifies their changes to history in the “Making Of” special, but still, these changes are kind of a big deal. Really, this mini-series should be really annoying-Sam Adams is a ninja? What?-but it’s really just cotton candy for the brain. Just, if you study the American Revolution, be prepared to be annoyed.

4. The Books of Lori Wick-Specifically, I want to mention her “Kensington Chronicles” series and her “The Californians” series. Lori Wick’s biggest problem seems to be that she writes these gorgeous settings and costumes that are historically accurate, but then drops modern characters into the novels. Basically, you have these locations that prove that she did her research, but the characters. Oh, the characters. In “The Kensington Chronicles,” set in Victorian England, the characters act and talk in ways that is much more modern than Victorians. It kind of drives me nuts at times. All of her books are still delightful and the characters are still engaging, but they are not historically accurate, putting them on this list.

5. “A Knight’s Tale”-Look, I know. This one really shouldn’t even count, since it seems to be pretty self-aware. But, as a Medievalist (I wear many historical hats), I’m aware of the flaws here. I have heard enough people tell me how awful this movie is. Actually, there were quite a few liberties taken with the story, and most of the costumes were also not accurate. That’s why it’s on this list, really, because it falls into the trap of using historical settings and then not quite following through on the whole accuracy thing. There are things that, in any other movie, would cause me to hate it. In this movie, it doesn’t work like that. I love it anyway, I just remember that it’s not supposed to be taken seriously.

6. The Books of Gilbert Morris-Specifically, I’m talking about his “House of Winslow” series, forty books that follow a family from their arrival to America on the Mayflower to the end of World War Two. Like Ms. Wick, Morris seems to be more interested in the settings. Although he sometimes manages it, this series has a tendency to feel like modern characters have been put into different historical contexts and left to deal with things in the past. Some of his characters act like people in that time would, but most of them don’t and it can be very frustrating at times. It’s Christian fiction that is clearly more interested in the setting than in being historically accurate.

And there you have it, my Top Six Historical Fiction Guilty Pleasures. These are mostly things that are set in the eras that I like most, so now I’m curious, do you have a historical fiction guilty pleasure?


Narnia A-Thon!

There are a few things that I very nerdy about. King Arthur, Sherlock Holmes, history (particularly the West), trains, tall-ships, the works of Tolkien, animation, Robin Hood, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, and the works of CS Lewis.

Obviously, there are more things I nerd out about, but this is the core group. Sad, right? This post, however, is devoted to one particular facet of my nerdy core- The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis. As an aside, I’m very curious and intrigued by the reboot that will be done soon, with a lot of input from the Lewis Estate.

Fingers crossed.

I decided the other day (well, it’s been a few weeks now, these things take time), because I am a nerd like that, that I was going to watch the versions of the Narnia Chronicles that came out in the 2000’s, but also watch the older BBC versions, to see how they compare. Because I’ve read the series so often, I feel like I can compare them to the book as well.

the dawn treader fox and walden media
The Dawn Treader Photo: 20th Century Fox & Walden Media

Basically, I love to watch movies based on beloved books, and compare them to each other and to the book. It’s my idea of fun.

So, without further ado, The Narnia Chronicles!

First of all, if you’re going to base this on sheer accuracy, the BBC versions would win any contest, hands down. In many places, the dialogue is ripped right out of the book.

If you ask any bookworm, we will tell you that this is how we prefer our film adaptations.

The only way that the new Narnia movies might possibly win any contest is when you compare the Lucys and Edmunds. Don’t get me wrong, I love both characters in both adaptations, and they are my favorite characters in the series, and both for different reasons (but that’s another post). Even in the last two movies (ugh, so bad), they made it bearable.

Queen Lucy the Valiant
Georgie Henley as Lucy      Photo:Disney & Walden Media

I loved Georgie Henley’s wide-eyed innocence and the wonder she was able to convey; she just seemed like Lucy to me (also, I loved that the kids were all different ages. In the BBC one, I kept thinking Susan was the oldest and Peter and Edmund were twins).

I also really loved the way Skandar Keynes played Edmund. I can’t think of any other way to say it other than that it seemed like he stepped off of the pages of the book. His early, bratty behavior, his redeemed self, the undercurrent of snarkiness…all of these are things were present and great.

Even when things were different than the books, he was still the character. Same with Georgie Henley as Lucy. I felt like they got it, and that was neat.

new pevensies walden media disney
The Disney & Walden Media Pevensies Photo: Disney & Walden Media

In the BBC versions, the actors were great too, but they didn’t quite match up with what was in my head, and I do like the actors in the new version as well. In the BBC version, Peter and Susan more on point, but the Lucy and Edmund fell a little flat for me.

The first movie, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, looks pretty good on both sides. I mean, the story feels better adapted in places in the BBC one, but the new one isn’t bad, and it gets points because of the new Lucy and Edmund, as well as the special effects.

Prince Caspian and Dawn Treader, however, are a different story. The new ones, I watch and find myself annoyed. There are parts I like, of course. I was disappointed to not have the “Sorcery and Sudden Vengeance” chapter in there, but I liked what they did with it, particularly in relation to the character of Edmund. He has the best lines.

king edmund the just king of sass
Skandar Keynes as Edmund Photo: Disney & Walden Media

My problems with the new ones were as follows: I wish that Caspian had been younger, I hated the love story (the Star’s Daughter! Plus, book Caspian would have fallen for Lucy. Nothing against Susan, that’s just what I think), and that stupid fight in the castle was out of place. Susan fighting didn’t bother me too much (any irritation was due to the fact that in the books, it was Lucy who would fight with the archers, not Susan, but I’ll give them that one).

However, Peter Dinklage is wonderful as Trumpkin, and the BBC Trumpkin is also wonderful. Basically, that’s another character that I love equally in both films. Both men are able to convey the correct level of skepticism that makes Trumpkin such a wonderful character.

peter dinklage as trumpkin walden media and disney
Peter Dinklage as Trumpkin Photo: Disney & Walden Media

When it comes to Prince Caspian, for a blockbuster action movie, the new one is good. For a Narnia movie, it feels s a little out of place. The BBC version, however, old-school effects aside, is fantastic and follows the book wonderfully.

For the BBC productions, I appreciate  how Caspian and Dawn Treader were on the same disc. Since Caspian  is, I would argue, no one’s favorite book in the series, pairing it with Dawn Treader, my personal favorite, was a stroke of genius. I also like how in the beginning of Caspian, they are headed to their respective adventures in Treader. It’s a nice cohesive move. Well done, BBC, well done.

the pevensies and the mr beaver bbc
The BBC Pevensies, Mr. Beaver and a Faun Photo: BBC

Overall, I love the BBC Prince Caspian. Caspian is a better age in this version, and they do a better job, I think, of setting up the story of Caspian. Not to say Ben Barnes didn’t do a good job, but this kid had, I think, a better script (at least when you compare it to the books. Which I do). Plus, Sorcery and Sudden Vengeance!

When it comes to Dawn Treader, the BBC film is long enough to put all the wonderful things that got cut out of the new movie (rant points pending below). The only thing is, I really don’t like the BBC Caspian in Dawn Treader. His acting is good, but he never looks like how I pictured Caspian to me.

Two of my favorite parts in the book are the Deathwater Island scene and the Dragon’s Island scenes, and although I thought both the new and the BBC versions of them got the spirit of both scenes, I wasn’t thrilled with either.

In the BBC Deathwater scene, Lucy got involved in the fight and it actually becomes a fight. I did like the Deathwater scene in the new one, because even though there were differences from the book, I thought it was acted in a way that conveyed the spirit of the scene. However, it also turned into a fight.

The scene also continued in the trend of the new films to make conflict between Peter and Caspian (Prince Caspian), and Edmund and Caspian (Voyage of the Dawn Treader), over leadership roles. Another thing added with the stupid subplot of trying to find the missing swords to save the people from the green mist, but that’s another story.

lucy stops the fight 20th century fox and walden media
Lucy Stops the Fight at Deathwater Photo: 20th Century Fox & Walden Media

However, while the dragon scene was good enough in both, the BBC one had a better representation of the transformation, but the new one had a better dragon. Despite that, I missed the interaction between Edmund and Eustace, and had looked forward to seeing the transformation of Eustace from dragon and back to boy. On the other hand, at least the BBC Dawn Treader had things in order. The new one just moved things around and changed things. I was equally disappointed in both versions.

Also, the new Dawn Treader had that stupid thing with the green mist and the swords, and, honestly, I stopped paying attention after a while because there was so much new stuff. I got annoyed, I just wanted to see stuff from the book that I loved, so I decided to read the book instead.

This is how you tick off fans and lose the rights to your story.

I get that they were trying to make the story flow together in a more cohesive way, but the book was tied together in a cohesive way; the search for the seven lords and the adventures that they had while searching. There was no need for an added conflict; Lewis wrote conflict enough in the book already. Combined with the adventure, it remains a wonderful book.

Having never seen The Silver Chair before, I was really excited and, like all the BBC Narnia movies, the only way it disappointed was in the outdated special effects and Caspian’s hair. I’m just impressed that they got to make The Silver Chair, less people probably call it their favorite than Prince Caspian.

puddlegum bbc
Puddleglum the Marshwiggle Photo: BBC

Overall, both series have their good points (one is better at story and one is better at special effects). While I realize that the BBC version was groundbreaking in it’s day when it came to special effects, the new movies just look so good! Except for Dawn Treader. No amount of special effects can make me like that movie.

I want to take the script from the BBC version (or something similar to it) and have it made today, with the same special effects budget that the new versions had. This is what I’m hoping we get in new films.

repicheep 20th century fox and walden media
Reepicheep Photo: 20th Century Fox & Walden Media

Fingers crossed.