I surprised a friend recently by admitting that I did not like the Vikings television show. I had tried watching the first series, or season as they say in America, and just could not get into it. The same was true for the Musketeers, which was aired here on the BBC, despite the fact that Alexander Dumas’ book is one of my favourites. My friend could not understand why I did not like these shows seeing as I was such a fan of history but that was actually the problem; I know too much history!
I was quite looking forward to the airing of ‘The Last Kingdom’ based on Bernard Cornwell’s books, again by the BBC, but I lost interest the moment that the Saxons went into battle against the Vikings carrying rectangular wooden shields!
Now I am aware that I could be accused of being excessively pedantic in this matter, after all, a suspension of disbelief is necessary for enjoying film and television. I mean, I can quite happily watch Luke Skywalker zipping through the universe in his little X-Wing, dashing from one solar system to another without any firm reference to how space ships bend the laws of physics. Perhaps that is the point; there is a difference between reality and fantasy. The more a fantasy moves away from reality the less demanding it becomes on your intellect. When I watch the Lord of the Rings movies I have no problem whatsoever seeing Saxons fighting on horses because they are the men of Rohan and the Saxon heritage was Tolkien’s point of inspiration for his story. It is a fantasy and therefore they can fight however the author wants them to.
It is a question of authenticity I suppose. In the historical genre authenticity is actually valued. I have touched on this subject previously but it is worth repeating I think. Just setting a novel in a particular period, such as 1066 for example, does not make it a valid example of the historical fiction genre; that comes from the detail woven into the text by the author. Readers of historical fiction like their books to be accurate, at least to a reasonable degree, and there is logic to this, it helps create a world in the reader’s imagination that is believable, satisfying, and engaging. Too many historical inaccuracies become bothersome, they suggest that the writer did not do their homework, or, perhaps even worse, that they do not even care.
I know that when someone who makes movies attempts to transfer a book to that medium that the process demands changes, I accept this as long as the film-maker makes every effort to both limit those changes and, just as importantly, make the changes credible. Peter Jackson was, I think, largely successful in doing this with his Lord of the Rings trilogy, and woefully poor with the Hobbit afterwards. When someone makes and adaptation change for changes-sake is a bad thing. It usually means that the adaptor does not have that much respect for the source material and that they are also trying to push themselves in front of the originator. Bernard Cornwell honestly admits to taking the money and running when it comes to adaptations of his work, and he is entitled to do so. He has explained how he feels that getting involved with the adaptation and the arguments that this inevitably gives rise to is, in his opinion, a waste of his time. J. K. Rowling took another approach and I would say that the adaptations of her work have been far more successful, both artistically and commercially.
Of course no one has offered to make movies out of my books and I do not know how I would feel about such a thing yet. I do know that I have invested a lot of time and work in learning about the culture of 1066 and that I would not be happy to see a film or television version of The War Wolf in which the Saxons took to the field of Fulford Gate looking like they had stepped out of a Warcraft game. It would feel like I had abandoned my creative integrity, which actually means something to me. Of course that is the very reason why I cannot enjoy historical films and television shows that claim to be authentic and prove not to be so. I suppose you cannot have it both ways? That is probably why I watch ‘Once Upon a Time’ instead!