You can’t change history, not one line

This advice from the first Doctor Who in 1964 remains relevant to writers today. The historical novelist Phillipa Gregory recently reported that she has a clause to stop adaptations of her work changing the basic historical facts. As a trained historian I am constantly amazed by the writers who sacrifice reality to suit their own interpretations of the past. The 2009 Quentin Tarantino film, Inglorious Basterds, is one of the worst offenders. I thought it was a brilliant piece of cinema, until Adolph Hitler was killed.  America likes to pretend it won the war without assistance but this never happened. Hitler killed himself in a bunker.

I have since encountered people who seriously believe that Tarantino’s depiction was correct. Others continue to assert that Jack the Ripper was a member of the British royal family, or a mason, solely on the basis of cinematic representations. Films that invariably depict Inspector Abberline, the man in charge of the investigation, as a drunkard and womanizer, when this is factually incorrect.

Does this matter? I believe it does. Apart from insulting the dead. If we rewrite the past to suit ourselves, we surrender our ability to learn from it. We also create options for despotic rulers, who often exert control over the media, to remove or edit the things that upset them. Attempts have already been made to deny the holocaust.

As writers we have responsibilities to present the past accurately. Of course there are exceptions for genre, clearly not intended to depict reality. In worlds noted as alternative versions of reality we can speculate about what might have happened and many good films are set against the backdrop of historical facts. Some of the best Doctor Who stories, for instance, deal with the reactions of time travelers unable to prevent a known tragedy occurring. Good writers forge a story around established events, without contradicting them. Lazy ones change the events and should be discouraged.


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