ROME and The Tudors – Historical Fiction on TV

The top post of this blog is Tudors – Historical Fiction. I am thus publishing here my article on the same subject – Historical Fiction on TV — Rome and the Tudors. This was published in Mr. & Ms. magazine, Supermonthly of the Body, Mind & Spirit, in October 2007.

This year (2007), Showtime Productions had its highest TV series debut in three years with the historical fiction The Tudors, starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Henry VIII. Meanwhile, Home Box Office (HBO) with BBC aired Season 2 of Rome, another historical fiction based on the life and times of Julius Caesar.

THE TUDORS

In its opening credits, the narrator says: “You think you know the story but you only know the end. To get to the heart of the story, you have to go to the beginning.” But whose beginning? The Tudor dynasty began with Henry VII not Henry VIII.

The title is a misnomer. The series is about a segment of the life of Henry VIII and not the Tudors. Henry VII, the first of the Tudors, was not even included in the film and so were the other Tudors – Henry VII’s other children – Arthur, Margaret and Mary. It also does not include the reigns of Henry VIII’s children — Mary I (Bloody Mary) and Elizabeth I.

In the third episode, Margaret, Henry VIII’s sister appeared out of nowhere. She is played by Gabrielle Anwar. To my shock, the Margaret character was set to be sent to Portugal to marry the old King of Portugal and to be escorted there by Charles Brandon, the first Duke of Suffolk. There was no such person in history! It was a fictional composite of the real Margaret and Mary Tudor.

Historical inaccuracies kept on compounding as the series developed.

MY INTEREST IN THE TUDORS

While still in grade school, I saw the film Anne of a Thousand Days. It starred one of my favorite actors, Richard Burton as Henry VIII and Genevieve Bujold as Anne Boleyn. From then on, I was fascinated by Henry VIII, with his six wives and his split with Catholicism and the Papacy.

Later, I saw Mary, Queen of Scots with two of my favorite actresses playing opposite each other – Vanessa Redgrave as Mary, Queen of Scots and Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth, Queen of England. The masterful portrayal of the actresses and the riveting story stuck in my mind. I also had a childish crush on Redgrave, who was Guinevere in the musical Camelot.

Young as I was, I pondered upon the fates of Mary and Elizabeth and related it to a question of Karma (Destiny) or Choice (Free Will). Mary, the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor was Queen of Scotland by birth, Queen of France by marriage, and Queen of England by right. On the other hand, Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII by Anne Boleyn, was born illegitimate yet ended up ruling England in a long and glorious reign.

In high school, I read one of my mother’s books – a historical novel about Margaret Tudor. I was so taken by the trials and tribulations of Margaret and her fight to insure that her son would be James V, King of Scotland. Margaret’s life had a lot of similarities with her granddaughter Mary, Queen of Scots.

Through Shakespeare’s play, I learned of the Wars of the Roses (the civil war between the Houses of York and Lancaster). Henry VII ended the Wars of the Roses and started the Tudor dynasty.

THE TV SERIES

With the choice of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Henry VIII, the producers must have been eyeing a younger audience. If so, why did they start with an already mature Henry VIII? If I were the producer / director, I would have started with a teenaged Henry, hopelessly in love with the elegant Spanish beauty Catherine of Aragon.

Catherine was no ordinary princess. She was a daughter of fiercely ambitious and victorious parents — Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille — who united the Spanish territories and defeated the Moors. Ferdinand and Isabella were the “superstars” of Europe then.

For proper motivation of Henry VIII, the beginning of his marriage must be shown. A 17-year old Henry awed and in love with a regal princess, who was briefly married to his elder brother, who died without consummating the marriage. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers could be made up to look younger while a younger Spanish actress would play Catherine (perhaps Paz Vega).

Their love for each other must be shown because these would determine their future actions. This would also provide the necessary sexy scenes, required by the producers.

Henry’s insistence on divorce was not because of lack of love but because of a lack of male heir to the throne. He did not want to be the second and last Tudor.

SUPPORTING CAST

Sam Neill (Cardinal Wolsey), Jeremy Northam (Thomas Moore), Natalie Dormer (Anne Boleyn) and Maria Doyle Kennedy (Katherine) gave good performances. Rhys-Meyers is a good actor. But somehow it seems Henry VIII’s shoes are literally too big for him.

HBO’s ROME

In 2005, HBO with BBC produced a 100 million dollar 12-episode TV series titled Rome. The setting of the story was Rome at its grandest, during the rise and fall of Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. The main protagonists of the series were Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, fictional characters based on real Centurions Vorenus and Pullo mentioned by Julius Caesar in his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars.

The best thing about the series is the magnificent production design. The setting is realistic and the costumes look authentic. The main stars (Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson) are “lovable” in their roles as lowly soldiers in the time of great men like Caesar, Anthony, Brutus, Cassius and Cicero. The supporting cast of Ciarán Hinds (Caesar), Polly Walker (Atia), James Purefoy (Antony), Tobias Menzies (Brutus) and Lindsay Duncan (Servilia) gave great performances.

Rome won Emmy Awards, was nominated at the Golden Globe and was quite a hit so HBO and BBC decided to continue the series in 2007.

ROME 2

Rome’s first season focused on the lives of Vorenus and Pullo, which revolved around the fortunes of the political leaders of the time – Ceasar, Anthony, etc. The second season was focused more on the battle between matriarchs – Sevilla of the Junii and Atia of the Julii. Sevilla was the mother of Brutus and mistress of Caesar while Atia was the mother of Octavian and mistress of Anthony. How interesting!

But of course, the stories are fictional and quite far from the truth.

MY INTERESTS IN ROMAN HISTORY

Films are a big part of my life. While still in grade school, I saw two versions of Julius Caesar – the one that starred Marlon Brando as Anthony and the one that starred Charlton Heston as Anthony. I liked the Brando starrer better and I admired the dignity and strength of character of Cassius and Brutus as played by John Gielgud and James Mason respectively. And then of course, there was Cleopatra with Richard Burton, Rex Harrison and Elizabeth Taylor.

In a Westernized society like the Philippines, it would be hard not to be interested in the ancient Greco-Roman world, the wellspring of Western civilization.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY

Novels, by its very definition, are fiction. Films, however, are not as clearly defined. Many films are claimed to be based on true stories. Some are even filmed using documentary methods like Blair Witch. And of course there are the bioflicks. People watching movies about say, Muhammad Ali, expect to see actual people and events. If the film will have a scene say, of Muhammad Ali fighting Joe Louis, the 1940s champion, the viewers will not like it because it simply did not happen.

The movie U-571 (2000) which purports to be based on true accounts got the ire of the British. The film claims that the Americans captured the Enigma machines which led the Allies to break the German code and eventually win the Second World War. The British protested and declared that it was a lie. US President Clinton had to make a statement saying the movie was a work of fiction.

Yet when it comes to historical people, filmmakers get away with murder, so to speak. The TV series Rome and The Tudors have very little to do with historical facts.

DRAMATIC LICENSE

Filmmakers may invoke dramatic license for their distortion or simple ignorance of historical facts. But dramatic license should be used to enhance the story not destroy it.

In Rome, by its very title, the viewers are forewarned that the city-state is the prime protagonist of the film and not the characters. Thus, the essence of ancient Rome is more important than the historical accuracy of the characters. And since the two leading characters (Pullo and Vorenus) are not well-known historical figures, the viewers are again notified that the story is fictitious. And what is more important, the distortions in historical facts created a more interesting story.

In The Tudors, the viewers get all the wrong signals. First, the series claim to let the viewers know “the beginning”. Yet the series did not start from the beginning of either the Tudor dynasty or the life of Henry VIII. Second, Henry VIII is a well-known historical figure. Several movies were already made about him, not to mention books. Third, Henry was big and fat not slim and fit when he was in his mid-30s. Fourth, the other historical figures in the show are also well-known like Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Moore.

Dramatic license should make a story more interesting not less interesting. The lives of Henry and the people around him were full of passion. The historical facts are much more interesting and relevant to today’s audience than the story contrived by the series’ writers.

If a writer or artist uses dramatic license, s/he expects the audience to acquiesce, tolerate or willingly suspend one’s disbelief. The audience, of course, can reject the work as unworthy.

2 thoughts on “ROME and The Tudors – Historical Fiction on TV

  1. Thanks for the comments on historical veracity. Lack of it disgusts me, because movies are how our society learns history.. versus reading those book-things.🙂 The producers of these faux-history works are money whores. I spit on them. (Can U tell that history is important to me? :))

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