Monday, February 1, 2016

More on Bad Historical Fiction

Just so you know, this post is going to end up in the Renaissance even though it doesn't start there. I will begin with a rant against films that exploit history to make a case that concerns their creators' own historical moment, focusing on one particular example.

It's not that I didn't like Ron Howard's In The Heart of the Sea (based -- I'm guessing loosely -- on Nathaniel Philbrick's nonfiction book by the same name). Shipwreck dramas are among my favorites, and this one was kind of fun to watch. The idea had great potential. Around 1850, a young Herman Melville visits Nantucket to interview the last living sailor from the Essex, a ship that was sunk in the 1820s by an angry whale. He's looking for material. So far, so good. The excellent English actor Ben Whishaw plays Mellville, and the no less brilliant Irish actor Brendan Gleeson plays the haunted old sailor who served as cabin-boy on the Essex (and who looks way older than he should look thirty years after early adolescence, but maybe that's what nightmares do to you). The visual details of period and place are well rendered in both the Nantucket and the ocean scenes. The story is mostly portrayed through flashbacks, which center on the experiences of the boat's first mate Owen Chase, played by Chris Hemsworth, who -- despite the hideous Australio-Boston accent he comes up with for the Massachusetts-born Chase -- showed talent playing Thor and hosting SNL and is not so bad here, apart from one thing. There's only so much you can do with a crappy script.

What made this script bad was either the screenwriters' intentional abandonment of any attempt to make its characters speak like New Englanders did two hundred
years ago, or their erroneous belief that the occasional throwing in of an oldy sounding phrase was sufficient to generate the illusion of "period" conversation. I will never understand why so many filmmakers invest millions in perfecting details of dress and other aspects of visual atmosphere for their historical dramas, yet, so far from studying texts that would give them some idea of how earlier people verbally expressed themselves, won't even run their scripts by a history or literature professor. Come on! Academics come so cheap, you could probably get your scripts vetted or even written for free. If realism (not to be confused with reality, of course) is what's desired, what is the good of attending to surfaces while ignoring the heart and soul of the subject, which are, of course, the language?

I knew this script was in trouble from the narrative introduction, which noted that by the early nineteenth-century the price of whale oil had risen because of  "global demand." My heart instantly sank, like the Essex would an hour later. It's not that this claim wasn't true. It's that "global demand" is a contemporary phrase, and I knew more of these were sailing our way. I wasn't disappointed (meaning I was).  "Not a chance," snaps First Mate Chase in response to a question from a sailor, about twenty minutes in. His summoning of the cabin boy -- "C'mere, kid!" -- sounds like it's snarled by Humphrey Bogart in a detective film. Gleeson as this same cabin boy, now (quite astonishingly) aged, remembers how in the months after the Essex wreck, Chase returned to a desert island to rescue a shipmate who had chosen to stay there. Too late, because "he had passed." What? Did anyone use this annoying euphemism for "died" before 1985? I think not. "Passed away," maybe. "Departed this vale of sorrows" -- sure. Not "passed"! Such phrases-out-of-time had me cringing every other minute. (It is not fun to watch historical dramas with me. Ask my husband or my sister. When they're on TV, I mock the dialogue out loud.)

In In The Heart of the Sea, these language inaccuracies were part and parcel of a general lack of interest in what was truly different about the time period represented. In fact, anachronistic language is nearly always a sign that a writer isn't interested in history, while the reverse is also true: a studied attempt to make the language sound real signals a writer's fascination with the time represented. For Ron Howard, the interest clearly lies in the present. He uses nineteenth-century Nantucket -- and the nineteenth-century Atlantic -- as an elaborate stage set to play out a twenty-first century morality tale. It wasn't too hard to figure out what tale it was. The early references to "global demand" for whale oil gave a clue. The true story that influenced Moby Dick becomes in Howard's hands something very different either from the initial accounts of the Essex's sinking in the newspapers, or from Melville's tale of the white whale (which includes references to the Essex) published thirty years later. It is now a story about rapacious corporations exploiting and ruining the environment to profit from oil resources. "We are oilmen," say the Nantucket whaling firm representatives (read: Shell executives) near the close of the film, as they conclude that they can never tell investors how dangerous it is out there on the high seas or it might threaten their industry. Other historical elements are molded into shape to emphasize this modern moral, resulting in a kind of fantasy nineteenth-century Nantucket with an alternate historical reality. As the crew board the Essex, black-clad American Protestants (are they Quakers? Congregationalists? Does Howard know the difference?) are seen down by the dock, not bearing witness against the slave trade -- now, that would have been realistic -- but praying for expansion of the oil business and the advance of global conquest to enrich Massachusetts and manifest the nobility of man. What? Who brought these Renaissance humanists to New England? Nobility of man? What Would Calvin Say? And these folks don't sound like Unitarians, either. I am not sure where Howard found them. I think he just told some actors, "Okay, dress in black and sound greedy. Mention the Lord."

Then we go to sea, where the clash between man and nature rendered so magnificently by Melville in Moby Dick is recast according to the ethics (or some folks' ethics) of 2015. Hawthorne's sly argument was with the New England Transcendentalists, who, in a Wordsworthian way, saw Nature as benevolent and healing, a soul-charged universe to which man belonged as to a family, or a greater self. But Melville had not just been on country walks, he had been to sea, and he thought, in contrast, that Nature would swallow a man whole and then just burp. That's why Darwin's Origin of Species, published nine years after Moby Dick in 1859, illuminates our reading of Melville far more than do twenty-first century warnings about global habitat. Consider this passage from Moby Dick, where Melville mocks the sailor who "takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; seems to him the embodiment of . . . the soul" . . . . That is, until his "enchanted mood" is broken by the loosening of his drowsy hand on the rigging. He falls into the ocean and "in horror" is brought back to himself, as he drowns. "Heed it well, ye Pantheists!" warns Melville. Either Ron Howard missed the warning or misread this passage, because he chose to present his whole film from the deluded Pantheist's perspective. Howard's moral is underscored in a late scene, when Owen Chase has the chance to spear and kill the whale who's been pursuing his longboat. He hesitates, then lowers his harpoon as he catches sight of the whale's giant eye, which looks deep into his own. A mystic mammal bond is forged. Chase realizes the error of his ways. He's been invading the whale's biome and denying his own connection to the universe. Right then the whale should eat him. But this isn't Melville, so instead the whale swims pleasantly away.

Well, so what? We are indeed destroying the ocean, and over centuries of existence the whaling industry has managed seriously to endanger the whale population. Furthermore, this is fiction, and a twenty-first century film. One of the friends with whom I saw the movie stated plausibly that a contemporary writer shouldn't be faulted for adapting an older story to current concerns. Is it bad to do so?

To that I say, only if you want to learn something about where we came from instead of where we are. Or, more accurately, only if you believe that studying where we came from -- or who we came from -- gives us a clearer understanding of where and who we are. Along with the richly exotic reading or viewing pleasures that flow from the realistic presentation of an earlier period, when people saw and experienced a different world, comes a deeper understanding of our place on the historical "map." We see what led to what. When I read Melville and Darwin and Hawthorne, I begin to understand many earlier Americans' fear of their environment -- their sense that it was a savage beast, and their use of it as a metaphor for the brutality of the human heart. I understand what led many to sympathize with business interests which would battle and tame the environment, to turn its treasures into lights for their homes, wood for their houses, and clothing for their children. Not to think like they did, or to approve of them, but to see the roots of the present, which lie in the past, and not just the branches which make up our now.

What's a fictional work that does this kind of thing well? For Melville's time, I'd recommend Serena Jeter Naslund's novel Ahab's Wife, which manages to be feminist in a completely believable way, featuring a heroine who (in contrast to Melville) embraces Emerson's ideas of the Oversoul without casting them as anachronistic repudiations of the global economy. Her Una could be a disciple of Mary Godwinson, that green-spectacles-wearing English advocate of women's rights who took a back seat to no man. (Oops, car metaphor.) And there's the PBS series Sherlock Holmes, which, in its latest episode, shows Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) brilliantly alternating between his imaginary late-Victorian and his actual twenty-first century self (he's on drugs), so that when, while in a Victorian sitting room, someone slips into an anachronistic expression, the script has him do so deliberately and markedly." ("There's a virus in the data." "Where do you pick up these odd expressions?") Coincidentally, this Holmes episode was also about women's rights, which is quite appropriate for the era of the suffragettes. Victorian Sherlock concludes the case by proposing that Watson title his account of it "Monstrous Regiment of Women," the title of the sixteenth-century pastor John Knox's prose diatribe against Queen Elizabeth. (I told you we'd get there.) This line would have won my heart, if the show didn't own it already.

Another example of historical fiction by a writer who is actually interested in history is the brilliant new novel Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth, set in eleventh-century "angland." Ninety-eight percent of Wake's vocabulary is drawn from Anglo-Saxon English words spelled in Anglo-Saxon ways. The result is a "shadow tongue," somewhere between modern and Old English, which cannot help but manifest the concrete, lived experience of the Anglo-Saxon protagonist, threatened by those French invaders who have just arrived with their effete castles and sissy shaved faces, led by William the Bastard.

The writer of historical fiction who genuinely tries to make her characters speak as early characters spoke -- or in a reasonable facsimile of their idiom -- will find that accurate(ish) language does much of the work of creating the historically distant world. As Kingsnorth writes in an afterword to The Wake, "Our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes -- all are implicit in our words."

So that's what I shoot for. My own newest novel, Gunpowder Percy, represents an attempted act of early seventeenth-century religious terrorism, the Gunpowder Plot, when a group of disaffected English Catholics attempted to blow up the House of Lords, with lots of Protestant aristocrats and also the royal family sitting inside it. The parallels with our twenty-first century world would have been embarrassingly obvious had I tried to stress them in my narration, or in my characters' dialogue. I don't. If I had wanted to write about modern religious extremism, I would have set my novel in my own day. Instead, describing with as much sympathy as I could both sides of this English Jacobean event, including the desperation which led the conspirators to attempt mass murder, I hoped to lead myself and my readers toward some understanding of this root of modern terrorism, this seminal attempt to use modern technology to restore a culture to an imaginary past. If the behavior of some in our own day has a living link to this historical event, that can best be seen by examining the phenomenon, not obscuring it with an overlay of "now"ism.

What I'm saying is: don't expect my protagonists to call Protestant England "imperialist Satan," or to inveigh against the government in terms which make them sound like members of the Michigan Militia. I found it much more interesting to have them talk their own talk. And I hope you will, as well.


  1. Oh, and to give another layer to Sherlock's comment--"A Monstrous Regiment of Women" is also the title of one of Laurie R. King's Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes novels.

    I'm of two minds about your comments on dialogue...I agree that it shouldn't sound too modern and slangy. But sometimes having it be TOO period-appropriate might sound affected and artificial. Case in point: Dennis McKiernan's "Once Upon A Winter's Night" and sequels. He tries to make it sound like an epic legend, and uses "forsooth"-ish language, not just in character's dialogue but in the narration as well. But it tends to sound a bit ridiculous.

    Or there's the case of the HBO show Deadwood. The creators wanted to show how lawless and outside-the-norm Deadwood was, so they filled the dialogue with profanity. At first, they tried period-appropriate profanity--which was more focused on blasphemy than sexual or scatological slang. But when they tried it out, they realized everyone sounded like Yosemite Sam! So they went with more "modern" profanity (cluster F-bombs, that is), so the audience would get the idea of how rough Deadwood was. It may not have been time-appropriate, but it got the point across to a modern audience.

  2. Oops, thanks for catching that (first comment)! Fixed now.
    I somewhat agree with what you say in your second comment. What annoys me the most is dialogue which conveys the impression that the script-writer thinks he is being period-appropriate but clearly didn't bother to do the homework -- like using Victorian language for Elizabethan characters. That is just lazy. Not so lazy if the writer makes a deliberate choice to go modern, or (as you really have to do if you're going back as far as the Renaissance)to use a kind of simplified older language and avoid the terms readers wouldn't understand at all. But, though I don't watch "Deadwood," I think the modern dialogue would immediately make it seem unreal for me. I think if the characters sounded like Yosemite Sam in their first try, they must not have been doing it right! Yet that show's very popular, so they must be doing something right.