02/28/2013 05:09 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

Historical Fictions: Stranger than Truth?

This awards season, several movies that contended for Best Picture prizes came in for an unusual degree of scrutiny regarding their historical accuracy -- or lack of it. Almost everyone seemed to agree that Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty are well made, sharply written, and persuasively acted. But many also strongly condemned their failures to be faithful to the historical records on which they are based. Argo alters the biographical details of its characters, and adds a photo-finish finale that director Ben Affleck concedes is pure fiction; Lincoln not only rearranges the order in which the crucial votes on the 13th Amendment were cast, but even changes some "yeas" to "nays"; Zero Dark Thirty heightens its female protagonist's institutional isolation and portrays torture as an effective weapon in the CIA's arsenal. (Django Unchained, while set in a recognizable historical era, doesn't claim to portray actual events, but has faced different denunciations. Les Misérables, as a movie of a musical of a novel, is already so many steps removed from reality that criticism of its inaccuracies seems somehow beside the point.)

Critics and history buffs alike have been quick to call foul, accusing Hollywood of selling out historical accuracy in the name of selling more tickets. But playing fast and loose with history is nothing new. Shakespeare's plays are famous for their anachronisms: Julius Caesar's Roman conspirators consult a clock that wouldn't be invented for many centuries, and Hamlet attends a university (Wittenberg) that wouldn't be founded for another decade at least. If nobody seems bothered by these inaccuracies today, this may be because they are clearly of little importance to the plays' larger plots.

Of course, Shakespeare's plays literally stage their own artificiality: nobody attends the theater expecting to see a historical re-creation when the curtain goes up. When the novel genre began to vie with drama as the preferred entertainment of the British middle classes, at first the same expectations held. Although Daniel Defoe frequently presented his prose texts as true-life, first-person accounts, most 18-century readers seem to have had little trouble recognizing that Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders were fictional creations rather than real people. Later in the 18-century, Gothic novelists like Ann Radcliffe generally didn't strive for historical accuracy when they set their fictions in distant times and lands.

Some novelists were already taking history more seriously when Sir Walter Scott published his first blockbuster historical novel in 1814. But Waverley was different: even its awkward subtitle, 'Tis Sixty Years Since, announced Scott's intention to treat his historical setting with care and attention to detail. Following Shakespearean precedent, Scott used history not just as a backdrop, but as a narrative blueprint: the core of Waverley follows closely the chronology of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, in which an insurrectionary force led by Charles Stuart -- aka "Bonnie Prince Charlie" to his followers -- started in the Scottish Highlands and got within 50 miles of London before ultimately being defeated at the Battle of Culloden in April 1746. Scott even included copious endnotes which provided more details of dress, weaponry, geography, and tradition than he could fit into the novel itself.

The format was a hit: Scott wrote more than 20 novels, all best-sellers, and all but one set in the past. Yet from the start, he never felt bound to history. Recreating the run-up to Culloden in Waverley, for example, Scott combines some incidents and reorders others to streamline his narrative and achieve maximum dramatic effect. The novel is also filled with fictional characters who lend realistic energy and emotion to the historical plot. Although Bonnie Prince Charlie makes several key appearances, he is not even the main character: that honor goes to Edward Waverley, an entirely made-up Englishman who joins the rebellion early but abandons it in time to return home.

Waverley is not always the bravest or smartest character, but he is a protagonist with whom the average reader can readily identify. And that is precisely what Scott wanted. His goal was to bring the past to life, not as it actually was -- an effort, he rightly concluded, better left to the historians -- but as it would look, sound, and feel most alive to present-day readers. In other words, Scott created what literary critics call "a useable past": a historical narrative that, while not "true" on all counts, gives audiences a version of past events that resonates with their current interests, needs, or fears. Done poorly or with bad intentions, such fictionalized histories can be misleading and even dangerous. Done well, as in the works of Scott and many of his successors -- including James Fenimore Cooper, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, and Patrick O'Brien -- it can help audiences make sense of the present as well as provide new perspectives on the past. In which of these camps do Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty belong? Perhaps only time will tell.