Tweaking History – Uncle Abe has Vampires and the Founding Fathers were pure

I went and saw Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter this past week. Not too bad. I like the films of Tim Burton generally and I’ve become fascinated by the era of the Civil War, so this just promised to be a fun romp for a couple of hours. Buttered popcorn too, if you please. Afterwards I read a few reviews and comments, and found that many disliked the movie because they disliked the notion of history being adjusted to suit a fantasy. Fair enough. But there is a difference between tweaking history for a movie or book and altering it to suit a political need.

Let me start by saying, if tweaking (aka altering history for artistic reasons) the facts surrounding an historical person or event was a bad thing, I wouldn’t be doing it myself. The Volcano Lady series is full of historical persons/events, but I’m sure we’re all clear that there were no atomic submarines or helicopter-airships in 1880s Paris. So, I just wish say that I find “alternative history” to be fun, so long as everyone is clear that it is “alternative.”

First, I’d like to send the nay-sayers to a few states in our current Union that do this on a daily basis with history books and call it all facts. Tell them how much you dislike history being rewritten to suit a fantasy. Removing details, such as George Washington owned slaves, because it makes our Founding Fathers look bad is ridiculous and seriously insensitive to humanity’s worst atrocities against itself: slavery and racism. In this case I would say that altering the facts of history is detrimental and intolerable because it encourages wanton ignorance for political ends. There were no Founding Mothers; Thomas Jefferson never said Church and State should be separate; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a communist … the hideous list goes on and it is being touted as fact by those who wish it was factual. This isn’t being done to entertain; it is being done to manipulate the education system into promoting a political or religious agenda. To this I say “Pooh!” (And a few other words I shall not print here.) Let history speak for itself. Why can’t the Founding Fathers be imperfect? They lived in an imperfect world, and no human is faultless. “He who is ignorant of history is doomed to repeat it.” Let me add that purposeful ignorance is unacceptable in a maturing, civilized culture. But I’m probably preaching to the choir, right?

Now when it comes to movies or novels, I’m completely of another mind. Let’s start first with the notion that no one should believe the things they are seeing/reading are cold hard facts. We know, at least in theory, that a movie is fantasy and a novel is fiction. Unless otherwise told, we know that these are the creations of a vivid imagination. Even when they say “based on actual events,” you see the word “based’ and know there will be some changes. OK. I believe in honesty in advertising. As the line from the Indiana Jones movie said so well, archeology (history too) is about facts – if you want truth, go to the philosophy course down the hall. You do know Indiana Jones is fiction, right?

So Abraham Lincoln has a movie that says he was a Vampire Hunter? Fine. No one is saying this is absolutely true, fact based history. It’s a fun story and a fun movie. No harm done to text books or causing 11th graders to think Mr. Lincoln was an axe-wielding avenger. Period.

Alright, I know some of you who know me are wiggling a finger at me: yes, I had trouble with the Elizabeth movies, starring Cate Blanchet. Again, what harm? Well … Love the actress; want to strangle the director who insisted that the real history was too boring for the screen. Um … okay … this one goes in the first pile – purposeful misdirection (in more ways than one.) Here the movies suggest accuracy and then don’t deliver. But they don’t exactly claim to be accurate and therefore could be (should be) taken as fiction? I’m of a mixed mind here – and it is perhaps because I feel a special affinity for Elizabeth I. I am so very happy with all the shows and movies about her, but to hear a director exclaim that this extraordinary life needs to be changed to make it more extraordinary just makes my blood boil. And to leave it as “potentially accurate” is dishonest. If you’ve changed history, say so. Or work in a medium where there is no doubt that this is fiction.

So where is the line? Where do we say it is okay to tweak or not to tweak? I don’t think I know yet beyond a vague comprehension. In the world of Steampunk, this is the norm and each person seems to have their own delineations around where you can and can’t bend history to suit. With Steampunk, my chosen genre, there really is no ambiguity surrounding authenticity. It seems the more important question is, is the technology sufficiently plausible and can you buy into the history tweak for the sake of enjoying the story?

Perhaps the best thing this blog can do is make you aware of history and alternate history, to distinguish as you feel best, and to know that there are differences in how (and more importantly WHY) these changes are made. I leave it to you to decide. But, and I’m sorry if this is a spoiler for you, I should warn you that Mr. Lincoln did not fight vampires in history – don’t let that fact stop you from enjoying a fun movie fantasy.

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