Friday, 24 February 2017

Types of historical fiction


I'm at the Historical Fictions Research Network conference this weekend, presenting with Tony Keen on our ongoing project looking at screen representations of Roman Britain. While sitting here listening to very interesting papers and wishing I wasn't going to miss the panel on counter-factual history, I got to thinking about the distinct types of historical fiction and how they relate to each other.

Defining what historical fiction is probably seems like a pretty simple job - it's fiction set in the past. But several of the works being discussed at the conference aren't technically historical fiction, but science fiction. Alternative history stories draw on history but are set in alternative worlds where things turned out differently, like The Man in the High Castle, set in a north America where Germany and Japan won World War Two. Another SFF form of historical fiction becoming popular is retellings of real events with fantasy elements added, like Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

I wonder if there's another category that should be included under 'historical fiction' as well. In our project on representations of Roman Britain we'll be thinking, however briefly, about the Wall in Game of Thrones. I'm also looking at a new project on Classical reception in the works of Terry Pratchett, and have been discussing whether the Discworld novels set for a substantial section in a fantasy version of an ancient world (primarily Pyramids, and to a lesser extent, Small Gods, parts of Eric, and The Last Hero) belong in a different category to the Classical references found more generally in Pratchett's work. George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (the book series behind Game of Thrones) presents a pseudo-medieval world rooted in real medieval practices and including events, most notoriously the Red Wedding, based on real medieval incidents. These are works set in a secondary fantasy world, but clearly drawing on specific periods of real history. (We could even throw in pseudo-medieval retellings of the stories of King Arthur based on medieval literature rather than Anglo-Saxon history, though that's something else again). Aren't these also forms of historical fiction?

This ties in to our understanding of ancient literature as well. I have often pointed out to students that the Homeric poems are works of historical literature, though they are clearly also what would in modern terms be fantasy (I am sure the Greeks did not regularly encounter talking horses or battle rivers). For the most part, these of the type that puts fantasy elements into historical events, though the ancient definition of 'historical events' (e.g. the Trojan War) is a bit different from the modern one! Secondary world fantasy and portal fantasy are rather rare in Greco-Roman literature, perhaps because real world fiction so often included fantasy elements, though underworld narratives might be considered an exception there. 

The biggest advantage of writing secondary world fantasy inspired by history rather than historical fiction with fantasy in it, of course, is that the author is released from any need for historical accuracy. All historical fiction takes liberties with history, but in this century, there is an expectation that it will be reasonably, largely, accurate to the current interpretation of what happened (this was not the case when either the ancients or Shakespeare were writing, of course!). I think Martin has actually discussed this though I can't remember where - but writing fantasy inspired by history gives the author so much more freedom to ignore potential objections from modern readers who are inclined to complain about inaccuracies in historical fiction. It also, of course, introduces doubt as to the outcome and allows the author to surprise the reader with events like the aforementioned Red Wedding.

In terms of reception, the clearest difference between these and more traditional historical fiction is that people are less likely to learn all they know about a period of history from these stories (though it might still happen!). But in terms of the way the author uses their material, they clearly exist in the same general sphere. And even audience/reader reception may be similar in some ways, for although the events may be different, where aspects of an historical culture are clearly represented, something of that representation is bound to stick in the reader's mind and colour their idea of that historical period.

This isn't a comprehensive summary of types of historical fiction, and one step further on from historically inspired fantasy must be historically inspired secondary world computer games like the Fable series, though the 'history' might become increasingly set dressing more than anything else in those cases. But it is perhaps a neglected area in research on historical fiction which, if it embraces alternative history (which is, essentially, secondary world fantasy or science fiction) should surely embrace historically inspired secondary world fantasy as well.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2 (dir. Chad Stahelski, 2017)

He got a new dog!

This weekend I ended up, through a combination of timings, movie length and the preferences of my companions, going to see John Wick: Chapter 2 and The Great Wall at the cinema, despite the many other impressive movies I still haven't seen! I am a big fan of Keanu Reeves, who I think genuinely think is under-rated as an actor (OK, there's a certain similarity to his performances, but they work) and John Wick: Chapter 2 was by far the better of the two films.

Spoiler alert! I'm about to discuss the film in detail, including the ending.

The film is, of course, ridiculous. In interviews for the Empire Podcast Spoiler Special on the film, both director and star described it as such, with Reeves accurately describing it as 'ridiculous but fun'. It is over-the-top, totally amoral (enjoy watching people kill each other for money and/or over mafia business!) and, generally, nonsense. But it does what it does well and is an entertaining ride.

It's also a film make with genuine care and attention, regardless of how daft the plot and setting may be. That applies to the care taken in the depiction of guns, cars and martial arts, and the artistic choices made throughout the film. Director Chad Stahelski talks enthusiastically in the interview about his love for Greek and Roman mythology (he even uses the word 'plebeians' in everyday conversation!) and the film is jam-packed with references to Classical literature and ancient history.

These include but are not limited to: the names of Ruby Rose's mute assassin (Ares, the Greek name of the god of war, Mars in Latin), Bridget Moynahan's dear, departed wife (Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world) and Lance Reddick's concierge (Charon, the ferryman to the underworld); the death of Claudia Gerini's Gianna D'Antonio (slashing her wrists in a huge Roman-style bath in the middle of an ancient ruin, rather than allowing herself to be executed, the traditional method of execution/death for disgraced or condemned Roman elites); the setting for the middle act of the film, in Rome with a strong focus on the ancient forums and Trajan's markets between the 19th century Victor Emmanuel II monument and the Colosseum, and the basic nature of the plot, concerning Italian organised crime (which has its roots in ancient Roman culture) and the eternal cycle of violence and vengeance.

It's the eternity and inescapability of this cycle that is main theme of the film, and one of the reasons for the substantial use of Classical allusions. Underneath all the cartoon violence, the film is about the difficulty of escaping a destructive spiral once in it. Unlike the personally motivated revenge story of the first film, in this case, John Wick is pulled back into the cycle of violence by a prior commitment he has no strong feelings about, into a situation with no way out (since the first rule of assassination is to kill the assassin). He tries to break the cycle by getting rid of Santino D'Antonio, but the rules he breaks in order to do so only drag him down deeper.
Hercules and Lichas, by Antonio Canova.
Ironically, the original is actually in Rome.

This is especially emphasised by my favourite Classical allusion in the film, one repeated several times. In a museum in New York City, several conversations take place in font of a series of sculptures of the Greco-Roman gods, with, front and centre, a late eighteenth-century sculpture of Hercules killing Lichas. In Greek mythology, Hercules (or Heracles in Greek) is dying from a poisoned cloak sent to him by his wife, who thought it was imbued with a love potion. The cloak makes him feel as if he is on fire as it slowly kills him. In agony, Hercules catches sight of the slave, Lichas, who brought the cloak to him from his wife. He grabs him and hurls the unlucky slave into the sea.

The statue is a perfect summary of the film itself. John Wick refuses to give up and die, fighting for survival, but he is dying nevertheless; he has lost his home and all traces of his life with his wife, and turned his back on his life as an assassin, and while Winston gives him a stay of execution at the end of the film, it cannot last forever. However, he is determined to take down those who condemned him as he dies, refusing to go quietly but creating as much suffering for those he blames in his rage as he is able to do. It's a dramatic, moving sculpture and nicely lends the weight of ancient myth to the film.

I enjoyed the film a lot, even if sometimes it was for the wrong reasons (I could not stop laughing at the Matrix reunion between Reeves and Laurance Fishburne). John Wick belongs very much to a particular genre, but that is not an excuse for careless film-making, and everyone involved in this is well aware that however silly the story, it still needs to be produced in a way that creates a satisfying experience. Reeves clearly loves what he's doing - I'd recommend listening to the Empire podcast interview, as well as his interview on Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo's film review podcast, which are both a joy. It's that love and care that make this a thoroughly solid example of the genre and a good night out.

P.S. The Great Wall was pretty much the opposite of this film. Historical objections about the real reasons the wall was built are not really the point - it's fantasy, so of course the wall was built for different reasons in this alternative reality. The thing is, it's silly and reasonably entertaining, but displaying none of the love and care of John Wick: Chapter 2, and featuring millions of the green snot monster from outer space from a particularly poor episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Though Pedro Pascal was funny, and I did like Tian Jing's kick-ass commander Lin Mae.

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