books, movies etc. that play with history

I don’t mean how historical fiction gets facts wrong…makes things more dramatic…warps history into a lesson of some kind…and so on.

*I mean fictional stories that deliberetly play with something real. *

This occured to me when I was watching “Some Like it Hot” the other day. In which the Valentines Day Massacre (certenly a serious event) was inserted into a farce. And beyond that while it was in some ways historically accurate (Northside vs Southside) it had the perpertrator names Spats and had him killed at a banquet rather than indited for income tax.

And then that got me thinking of “Tales of the City”. I saw the PBS series some years ago and so bought the book series when I ran into it at a book sale. And was rather surprised to find one of the books included Jim Jones. And a rather different story line for him. A bit off putting I thought, given the nature of the books.

But anyway…any other interesting confluences?

Well, I think Forrest Gump would be the most famous example of this.

Do alternative histories count? “Fatherland” by Robert Harris was an interesting look at a Germany that won WWII.

“Ragtime” by E.L. Doctorow would probably fit your bill. It’s chock full of historic events and real-life people – Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, etc.

I’m currently reading “The Odessa File,” which deals very realistically (apparently) with the level of infiltration of former SS men in West Germany in the 1960s. One of the main characters is based off a real person, and Simon Wiesenthal makes an appearance. The book also opens with the news of JFK’s assasination, which was pretty interesting.

What about the to-do surrounding The DaVinci Code? It purports that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and that he procreated, and that his decendants are alive today.

I’m not religious by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve seen where some religious groups are very upset about this.

If alternate history counts, I like 1632 and it’s sequels by Eric Flint. The West Virginia town of Grantsville is dropped into 1632 Germany, in the middle of the 30 Years War. It involves lots of real world historical figures, like Cardinal Richelieu, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, Count Tilly, and many others. Good stuff.

Titanic weaves a story of fictional lovers into a quite factually accurate retelling of the famous ocean disaster.

Gone With the Wind inserts Scarlett O’Hara and her supporting cast into true Civil War campaigns, most notably Sherman’s march through Atlanta.

Dick fictionally inserts two teenaged girls into the pivotal events of the Nixon administration.


It doesn’t touch Zelig, though.

There’s an entire genre of alternative history that deals with historical events and “what if” scenarios. Harry Turtledove is perhaps the most successful of those working the genre, but there have been hundreds of others.

If we talk about historical events that follow the general outline of what we know, there’s Tim Powers’s The Stress of Her Regard, which takes the general outline of the lives of the romantic poets (Byron, Shelley, and Keats) and gives it all a supernatural twist. What’s great about the book is that Powers stuck with the actual events of their lives and gave them an extra meaning (for example, explaining why Keats’s epitaph was “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”).

He did something similar with On Stranger Tides with Caribbean pirates (the real ones), though I didn’t know the history well enough to appreciate it. (Powers is great in stitching together connections and meanings from real events to put into the plot.)

The straight historical novel has a long history and brushes with historical figures are common. The Three Musketeers, for instance, used actual characters like Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII, and his queen. The Indiana Jones films were set in a historical background (and Indy got Adolph Hitler’s autograph).

The excellent film Max is about Hitler’s aspirations as an artist.

The list can go on for a very long time.

The first Blackadder series was premised on Richard III winning at Bosworth field, contending that Henry VII rewrote history when he finally did get the crown. The writers also monkeyed with Shakespeares later account of the events, having Richard state, “Now is the summer of our sweet content.” Clever.

Shakespeare in Love is a good example of the genre: most of the characters are real people, but most of the events in the play are clearly fictitious. However, it does give a pretty realistic picture of late 16th century London. even if it’s unlikely that the first draft of Romeo and Juliet was about Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter.

All the Flashman books, of course.

The Untouchables had nominally real-life characters doing somewhat fictional things. The TV show had Eliot Ness (the greatest self-aggrandizer since Buffalo Bill) nabbing gangsters who, in real life, were nabbed by the FBI (J. Edgar Hoover is said to have conveyed his displeasure to series producer Desi Arnaz). The movie showed Frank Nitti getting killed while working as a torpedo for Al Capone circa 1933; actually, he lived for another decade and became a crime boss in his own right.

O Brother Where Art Thou was wholly fictional, but had a mix of real (Baby Face Nelson), roman-a-clef (the guy who was supposed to be Robert Johnson) and whole-cloth fictional characters. Almost Famous had a complex melange of real-life personalities (Lester Bangs, Ben Fong-Torres), roman-a-clef rock stars (Stillwater was an amalgam of The Allman Brothers and the Eagles), dropped names, and actual rock stars and Rolling Stone staffers as minor characters.

Baldwin beat me to it. George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman series sets the bar for this sort of book.

What’s the bit about Jim Jones that you find odd? I haven’t read the books, but Jones’s history in San Francisco started out quite well, until he got exposed.

The backstory for Paul Quarrington’s Home Game might sneak in there.

It’s set in the late thirties, and the protagonist, Nathaniel “Crybaby” Isbister, is on the skids when we meet him. He used to be the world’s greatest baseball player, until his near-hysterical emotional nature brought him low, because opposing teammembers could easily throw him off his game by relating sad stories to him. He becomes an object of ridicule when fans make a game of trying to get him to cry why he signs their autographs. He’s forced to retire, and starts a new career as a newsreel sports reporter. He fails at this, too, because even the sort of drama found in a boxing ring makes him become terribly maudlin, which makes sports fans uncomfortable. He’s reassigned as a “Society” reporter, with the idea that the kind of stories he’ll be covering are by their nature exceedingly superficial and have nothing at all to engage the emotions.

(The payoff is vaguely spoilerish, although not for any diegetic elements.)[spoiler]His first assignment is a totally “safe” piece. He just has to go to New Jersey to document the arrival of the luxury airship Hindenberg. You know, just some quick shots of the mooring, followed by some fluffy shots of the wealthy, attractive transatlantic passengers talking about how nice the trip was and what they thought it meant for the future of intercontinental travel. Piece of cake.

Now when I watch that footage, I really have to struggle to hear Herb Whatsisname – it’s always poor Nathaniel trying futilely to keep it together.[/spoiler]

It’s that Jim Jones IS such a real part of SF history that I found what Maupin did with him a bit off. One on his characters joins the Jim Jones groups…so good so far, could certainly happen. But one of the latter books takes as a major plot point

that he’s still alive, that it was a double of him that died in Guyana. And that he has a relationship with one of Maupin’s characters that makes him think of her children as his own and therefore kidnap them. And, ultimatle, that he’s not dead in Guyana but buried in a garden in SF.
Oh, and before that he also becomes another character’s boyfriend.

Not that Maupin does deal with real things, like AIDS, but given the tone of the books, somehow a real sociopath in the midst of the wacky adventures was a bit weird.

I guess it’s that weirdness, which I also thought about watching Some like it Hot that promted the thread.

Neal Stephenson’s books Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle have a lot of this kind of thing. He has real people and real events mixed with fictional characters and events. So, for instance, he imagines Newton and Leibniz meeting with Princess Caroline of Ansbach and how their conversation, at the height of the calculus debate in the early 18th century, might have gone. OrNewton’s death and resurrectionfor a more fantastical example.

Tim Powers also did his same trick in Declare and Earthquake Weather. And in Last Call. It’s his schtick I guess.

Also add Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander to the list, it has fictional characters involved in documented historic events as well as characters that did exist in real life.

In Frank Herbert’s God Emperor of Dune mention is made of a few well known historical figures.

The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove.

Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld books and stories are chock full of historical figures, even though the background is futuristic.

John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor uses historical figures (including the main character and the title poem) to weave a delightfully twisted narrative.

Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot by Grendel Briarton – a long running series of short stories collected in The Complete Feghoot – has Feghoot meeting up with all sorts of historical figures.