Choose a Rock to Stand On

At the beginning of the film Hans Christian Andersen there’s a little text crawl which announces that it’s not history, but rather a “fairy tale about a great teller of tales.” Which, when you get right down to it, is true of all historical fiction.  It’s story first and history second.  I was thinking of this because a friend mentioned Christopher Hitchens’ critique of The King’s Speech: that in pursuit of its story it glosses over, or rejiggers, a good bit of known history.

I understand the complaint; I know a good deal more about 18th and 19th century British history than I do 20th century, and even I noticed some of what Hitchens complains about (Churchill wasn’t initially as chummy and encouraging to the incoming George VI as the film suggests).  But the narrative of the film, the story the writer and director wanted to focus on, is a very familiar, old-fashioned story of a person overcoming a disability to meet a challenge.  It’s also a buddy-story about the bond between George VI and his speech therapist, Australian Lionel Logue.  What would adding Churchill’s support for Edward have added to the story?

When you’re writing about history or historical figures, you have to choose a place to stand.  For example, I have a lot of sympathy for the Prince Regent, later  George IV. He was a lousy king; but I think he was set up, situationally, by fate and by family, and it would have been hard for him to be a better one by the time he finally attained the throne.  Or take Josephine Tey’s wonderful mystery The Daughter of Time. Reading it got me reading about Richard III; Shakespeare took a side in that story, but with all respect to the Bard, I believe real history tells a different tale.  That doesn’t detract from Richard III as a hell of a piece of fiction.

The minute a writer takes a stand, decides on the story she wants to write about an historical event, the project takes on a Heisenbergian quality. The process of writing a story with a distinct viewpoint means that other viewpoints will, necessarily, get short shrift.  The minute you take a stand, someone’s going to take issue with it.  So you should have a reason. Why that stand.  Why that rock?

In The King’s Speech, writer David Seidler decided to portray Churchill as sympathetic to George VI.  Would it have changed the story if he had been–as he was in life–a supporter of King Edward? Would that have been a distraction from the Our-Hero-Overcomes-Adversity storyline?  A more interesting question is: what did writing it this way add to the film?  It supports the film’s view (borne out by everything I’ve read about him) that Edward was a petulant, self-involved man who would have made a poor king.  Churchill, even now, is a name to reckon with. If the film’s Churchill supports the film’s King Edward VIII rather than his brother, that might erode the faith the viewer has in the rightness of George VI’s rule.  Which might have made it a more politically nuanced film–but the nuances the storyteller was most interested in were not political, they were personal.

So, yes, I think there was a reason Seidler and director Tom Hooper choose that particular rock to stand on.  I might have done it differently.  But choosing a rock and standing on it allowed them to make what I found to be a very satisfying film.

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Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone WarPoint of HonourPetty Treason, and a double-handful of short stories which are available on her bookshelf.  She has just finished The Salernitan Women, set in medieval Italy, and is now working on the new Sarah Tolerance novel, The Sleeping Partner.

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About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books

Comments

Choose a Rock to Stand On — 7 Comments

  1. The other problem with historical characters is that they were real people. The creators of THE KING’S SPEECH waited until the Queen Mother passed away before moving forward with the film — heaven knows what she would have made of it.
    When I was writing REVISE THE WORLD I had a dream about Titus Oates — the real one. I got the distinct sense that he wasn’t well pleased about the hijinks his fictional avatar was getting up to.

  2. Apparently the current Queen liked the film very much–it is rather hagiographic (and God knows that family has not had much saintly about it in the last couple of decades) and makes both George VI and his queen very admirable characters. Still, habits of privacy, particularly in a life that is all fishbowl and no rock, would probably have made the film hard for the Queen Mother to watch.

  3. Imagine the vitriol I churned up when I portrayed King John as an excellent governor, despite being a lousy king. In order to do this I also had to show Robin Hood with flaws. More vitriol.

    In this case, as with Richard III, the myth has become more real than history.

    The greater the distance between the reader and the history, the more room for facts to slide under the table. I’m glad the Queen Mum did not have to deal with this film.

  4. One thing I love about setting my fantasies in secondary worlds is that you can file off the serial numbers and then laugh in the face of anyone who calls it inaccurate.

  5. But there’s a certain pleasure to be had in taking the Real World (so called) and looking at it slantwise, too.

    Phyl–I once got into an argument with a guard at the Tower of London when I suggested, sotto voce, that Richard possibly might not have been responsible for the death of his nephews…

  6. It’s interesting that I’m only *now* getting around to reading Connie Willis’s BLACKOUT, after having seen THE KING’S SPEECH.

    Gives me a whole different perspective on any mention of the King and Queen than I would have had otherwise.