Historical Accuracy

Apr 08, 2019

Historical Accuracy

Netflix shows like "The Crown" or "Versailles" have us thinking about whether or not a film has an obligation to be historically accurate. When making a film about George Washington, does the filmmaker have to present the facts as they happened, or can the filmmaker insert sex, drugs, and rock and roll to add intrigue to our founding father's life?

There are two schools of thought when it comes to making a historical film/tv series. One is to tell the story as accurately as possible with few deviations from absolute fact. As you may have guessed, this creates a bit of a problem, since "just facts" don't translate well to the silver screen - it would be pretty rough to watch a two-hour movie on Gerald Ford without some sort of romance or exaggeration added (no offense, Gerald). That's where the other school of thought comes in - taking the backbone of the story from history, but weaving in some fictional plotlines to make for a better film.

Legally, it's fair game to take a little creative license. As we discussed in another post, once you have a life rights agreement, you have the right to tell whatever story you see fit. The real question is "should you?"

You might remember a few years back, "The Imitation Game," starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, dominated awards season. It told the tragic tale of Alan Turing, a mathematician during World War II who cracked German code by creating what would eventually become a computer.

Though well done, the film received some heat from fans. The film strayed from history by exaggerating the complex love story between Cumberbatch and Knightley's characters, as well as misrepresenting Turing's social awkwardness and work. Nevertheless, the film was a hit, and was praised for its message and its portrayal of accomplishments within the LGBTQ community.

Other historical films have received harsh reviews by historians and fans; "Selma" was blasted for its hugely inaccurate portrayal of former president Lyndon B. Johnson, specifically with regards to his relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr. Still others, like Disney's "Pocahontas," receive criticism for essentially not even trying to be historically accurate, yet remain classic hits.

In essence, how historically accurate your film needs to be is largely determined by your fan base and how you think they will react. While you may not have a legal obligation to stay true to history, your fans will call you out when they deem appropriate.


Jon Pfeiffer is an experienced entertainment and copyright trial attorney practicing in Santa Monica. Jon is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California where he teaches Media Law. His class covers First Amendment issues as well as copyright, defamation and privacy.

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