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Fact or Fiction - or Both? Historical Facts as Source for Fiction

Published: 29.08.2012, Updated: 04.03.2017
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Many people enjoy historical novels. It gives an extra thrill to a story when we know it is based on historical facts, in the same way as films that are “based on a true story” seem to have a stronger impact than film plots that are pure fiction. However, writers who base their fiction on historical material must tread carefully because history is an established science and historians will certainly frown upon amateurs who set out to rewrite history.

Three Approaches

Looking for Facts or Fiction?Looking for Facts or Fiction?History is an interesting and at the same time difficult subject. Researchers spend their time studying source material, and then draw their conclusions after having presented theories and discussed with colleagues. Our knowledge of history is based on extensive and collective research by historians and archaeologists. So an author of fiction has to respect what these scholars have established as historical facts.
One way for the author to go is to “fill in” what history does not tell us, that is, to create a story about what “might have happened”. As long as the author steers clear of established historical facts this might work, but as soon as a character or a setting can be identified as factual history, he cannot tamper with it. For example, changing the fate of Napoleon or Hitler, or introducing hand guns in the Middle Ages would simply be a falsification, even if it is presented as fiction.
Another approach for writers of historical material is to use a factual setting and create one or more characters who take their places in a plot developing against a historical backdrop. This will give the author a framework that will be historically correct while his character(s) are purely fictional; they may even relate to and communicate with historical and factual characters. This has been done successfully by the Norwegian writer Kjartan Fløgstad in Grense Jacobselv where he creates a plot about how ex-Nazis were so smoothly re-established as clean and respectable citizens after the war. Another prime example of this approach is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables which is the story of a failed insurrection during the French Revolution.
Still another interesting approach was the American feature film Forrest Gump (1994) starring Tom Hanks. The director (Robert Zemeckis) has inserted black and white clips showing the protagonist in historical settings, for example shaking hands with President John F. Kennedy and being present at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington DC. It is a bit confusing in a fictional feature film, but it works to give the plot a documentary effect and historical authenticity. It is done quite skilfully, and the viewers are manipulated into thinking that this must be real.  


The Kindly Ones

The Kindly Ones by French novelist Jonathan Littell was published in 2006 in France and became a huge success internationally, and was also acclaimed by historians. In an introductory note the author states, “This book is a work of fiction. References to real people, events, establishments, organizations, or locales are intended only to provide a sense of authenticity, and are used fictitiously. All other characters, and all incidents and dialogue, are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.” Littell’s voluminous book is dedicated to “the dead”, and the first lines read: “Oh, my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened.” It is the story of former Nazi officer Maximilien Aue, a learned and cultivated intellectual, and at the same time a cold-blooded murderer serving the Reich. We follow him through the horrors of the Second World War and the genocide of the Jews. He is there in the Ukraine and the Caucasus, experiences the Battle of Stalingrad and lives through the chaotic final days of the Nazi regime in Berlin. His tale is a disturbingly precise and detailed narrative where the atrocities are calculated and necessary for a new world. Maximilien is a high ranked Nazi officer and bureaucrat, and he meets and communicates with factual Nazi leaders such as Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Goehring and Reinert Heydrich. And, like Fløgstad’s main character, Max Aue reinvents himself after the war as a respectable middle-class man leading a decent life with his family. It is a study of how fiction deals with factual human evil, and it raises the intriguing issue of history and fiction – where do they meet, and where do they separate? It is a difficult fusion, but Jonathan Littell seems to have found the formula for credible fiction set in a historically correct context.

History and Fiction

Reading stories set in history gives us a feeling of truth and authenticity. Such books (and films) may also bring about a sense of unification with the past and a rooting in our national identity. This is why historical novels were so popular during the Romantic Period. Stories about national heroes, chivalry and bravery would spark the feeling of national pride and the urge for independence. Good examples are the historical plays of German playwright Friedrich Schiller and Scottish Sir Walter Scott’s stories about Rob Roy and Ivanhoe.
Historical material may be an excellent source for fiction as long as the writer knows how to deal with it respectfully.

 

 

Tasks and Activities

Comprehension

  1. Mention some reasons why historical novels are so popular.
  2. What effect does it give when a film or book is “based on a true story”?
  3. Why will historians usually be sceptical of historical fiction?
  4. What problems would be raised if “The Kindly Ones” was to be turned into a feature film?
  5. What do you think it means when a film is presented as “semi-documentary”? Why is this a somewhat questionable genre?
  6. Why was historical fiction so popular during the Romantic era?

Research

You may have seen the film “Forrest Gump” (if not, you certainly should, or you may check YouTube for certain scenes). What do you think of the “authentic” effects used in the film? Present some clips in class and discuss whether this works or it is falsification of history.

Can you come up with examples of books or films where historical facts have been misplaced or used in a false context? Go on the net and find examples and present them in class.

 

Vocabulary

These words and expressions appear in the article. Explain them in English or find a suitable synonym. (If you don't know them, you may be able to figure out their meaning by finding them in the text and studying the context they are used in.)

  • impact
  • genocide
  • steer clear of
  • collective
  • falsification
  • to tamper with
  • backdrop
  • atrocities
  • chivalry
  • insurrection

 

Suggested Answers
  • impact - effect or impression (in this context)
  • genocide - murder of an entire people
  • steer clear of - avoid
  • collective - in cooperation, joint or combined
  • falsification - fake, forgery
  • to tamper with - to meddle with, change
  • backdrop - background, setting
  • atrocities - brutality, cruelty
  • chivalry - heroic or gentlemanly behaviour
  • insurrection - rebellion, revolt
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Grammar

Change the sentences below from direct speech into reported speech. (Example: "I can't come", he said. / He said that he could not come.)
  1. "Avatar is my favourite film," he said.
  2. "Don't take him seriously," she said to me.
  3. "Do you want another cup of tea," she asked me.
  4. "Please turn the volume down," he said to me.
  5. "Can you come over tonight?" he asked her.
  6. "We can do it tomorrow;" they said.
  7. "Wipe that grin off your face," she said angrily to him.
  8. "You can't park here," the officer said to me.

 

Suggested Answers
  1. He said that Avatar was his favourite film.
  2. She told me not to take him seriously.
  3. She asked me if I wanted another cup of tea.
  4. He told / asked me to please turn the volume down.
  5. He asked her if she could come over that night (tonight).
  6. They said that they could do it the next day.
  7. She told him angrily to wipe that grin of his face.
  8. The officer said that I could not park there.

Note that in reported speech the tense is changed, which is logical since the reported phrase refers to the past. Note also the other small changes (here-there, tomorrow-the next day) and how imperative and interrogative sentences are reported.

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