One of the most irritating phenomena in contemporary entertainment is how exceptionally good production values are combined with thoroughly juvenile, idiotic, inaccurate, and historically ignorant screenplays. It is true there has always been “poetic license” to fabricate things presumably in the interests of some “larger truth.” However it becomes problematic when it is distorted to the point of creating an outright lie, because producers can count on the widespread historical illiteracy of contemporary audiences. Some examples:
The film Titanic depicts its subject very well but has a thoroughly ridiculous storyline. Worse, it mixes in some people who really existed and sullies their reputations. Most egregiously, in the film, the First Officer, William Murdock, is shown shooting passengers before shooting himself. Nothing of the sort ever happened and in fact the real man heroically went down with the ship. To libel his memory in this way is simply outrageous and there is no possible justification for it.
In Gangs of New York, which grossly distorts history in an otherwise good production, Horace Greeley, editor of the NY Tribune is shown collaborating with Tammany Hall figures; the complete opposite of what the man actually stood for. One of the most egregious cases occurs in an obscure film titled Hoodlum, wherein a character says they have to pay off Tom Dewey, which is preposterous. Thomas Dewey was in fact an excellent prosecutor, Governor of New York, and a two-time presidential nominee who was known to be incorruptible. To slander him in this way is inexcusable, but few now remember the truth. There are many more examples, but the point is that there is too often a gross dereliction of responsibility and decency, made all the worse by purporting to be telling a true story. Even dead people deserve to be treated fairly.
However, it is more prevalent to find a great job being done depicting the background with an over-the-top portrayal of real characters, doing things that never happened, accompanied by people that never existed. This happens a lot in fiction, but it matters when it goes beyond trivial matters and portrays things of consequence in a totally misleading fashion, A good example is current series about Renaissance characters, such as The Medici, and The Borgias. The former is somewhat better, but the latter is totally warped by a completely fabricated screenplay. The real Borgias have a grossly exaggerated reputation for evil, even in 19th century novels, but this show uses that as a starting point along with rumors and innuendo from their enemies as a basis for an endless series of awful events that go much further, are completely made up, and devoid of any historical foundation. Anyone who thinks this is history is being played. (This is the Showtime series; the other Borgias series on Netflix is much better). But the most preposterous show being currently aired is Marco Polo, which has virtually nothing to do with the real Marco. The producers of this series have clearly never even bothered to read Marco Polo’s journals, which actually contain enough interesting material for drama, but none of it appears here. They simply have taken a real figure and period and then run off into a kung-foolery universe.
It is possible to do a credible job with historical situations, when carefully produced, as in the History Channel’s Vikings series which uses some historical, some mythological and some fictional characters in a way that, while sometimes fanciful, nevertheless does not seriously deviate from overall spirit of the source material. Real figures can also be faithfully portrayed successfully, such as in the HBO series John Adams, (although an old PBS series titled The Adams Chronicles was even more accurate). Rome, on that network was also not bad, if you ignore the excesses. But apart from these, the best are from the BBC or PBS. Unfortunately the excellence of the UK productions does not extend to continental Europe, which has gone Hollywood with previously mentioned shows.
Even the greatest have done both. Shakespeare was surprisingly accurate in some of his dramas based in ancient Rome, since he largely relied on Plutarch as his source, and it is actually his depictions that largely inform people today about these characters. However, when it came to more recent characters from British experience, Shakespeare wrote in a way that frequently glorified the Tudor version of history. Further back even Virgil did this in the Aeneid, a second-rate epic that grossly flatters Augustus, and which Virgil himself actually wanted destroyed, At least in those days it was excusable in order to keep one’s head. However in an age when far more people get their information from movies and TV and sadly far fewer people read, entertainment producers have at least some responsibility to tell the truth.