August 11, 2014

A Complex Simplicity

specifically miscellaneous
Back in May, I mentioned being in the middle of a three- (or was it four? Hazy on that already) week course on Elizabeth I, Philip II, and the Spanish Armada.  I suppose that might sound rather dull; I was uncertain going into it, as Tudor England is not my favorite period (haven't forgiven them for Bosworth), but I charged in anyway on the strength of the professor.  Since the time span was so limited, we had to fit a lot into the days: three-and-a-half hour mornings of discussion, reading, presentations, research, the occasional lecture, and a great many movies.

Somehow movies never formed a large portion of my home school experience.  I remember watching PBS as a young kid, and I have particularly fond memories of "Theodore Tugboat" and some show featuring lion puppets, and less fond memories of "Teletubbies."  But after a certain period (maybe when we no longer had cable), TV-watching was limited to after five o'clock in the evening.  It always felt slightly wicked to begin watching something at four-thirty.  At any rate, watching movies for a class is a new thing for me; but since the main thrust of the Maymester was not so much the historical facts as it was the media portrayals of events like the defeat of the Armada, films played a key role.

In particular, we watched parts of the two recent movies starring Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I.  They were very inaccurate.  They were very over-the-top.  They had beautiful cinematography, beautiful lighting.

They made me writhe.

It was not so much what Rachel calls the OSSs (obligatory sex scenes), or even the gross liberties taken with historical events and historical people.  It was certainly not the acting, since the films starred actors and actresses like Cate Blanchett (" shall have a QUEEN!"), Geoffrey Rush ("It's a pity the law doesn't allow me to be merciful."), and even my favorite Watson.  It was the fact that all those OSSs were filmed and liberties taken in order to water down history into a simplistic storyline: a pretty, naive girl is thrust into the role of queen and must overcome her insecurities (and all personal feelings) in order to rule her kingdom.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with a simple plot: there are only a few to pick from, after all.  What frustrated me was the complete lack of any nuance, any intricacy, any subtlety.  All Catholics are traitors.  Elizabeth is either completely incompetent or talking back like a skilled politician.  Robert Dudley is either Elizabeth's lover or plotting with the Spanish.  The story itself rode as much on the music and the relative scale of lighting as it did on the characters and their interrelationships. 

Folks.  Folks, this is not good storytelling.

People enjoyed the films.  Though my classmates and I mocked them, I think in the end everyone but myself was willing to shrug and excuse its faults because it was "entertaining."  Entertaining, however, isn't the same as good.  It isn't the same as worthwhile.  It isn't the same as saying that the director and screenwriter and all the many people involved in the production did their job with skill.

A skilfully-wrought story, whether historical or fantastic or literary or whatever, must have intricacy.  If what you see on the surface is all there is to find - if a girl becoming a queen is all there is to it - then the writer has failed.  Life is nuanced.  Life has grey areas.  Art should reflect this subtlety and depth, rather than loudly drawing attention to itself (as films do with exaggerated cinematography, or books do with meaningless but gorgeous prose) and lacking substance in the end.

The leopard in the picture above has very little to do with the substance of my post, but I chose it for a reason.  It's a very simple picture: the profile of a big cat against a washed grey backdrop is all you get at first glance.  But look closer and you see the fur blurring in the foreground, becoming clearer, more detailed, soft enough to touch along the neck.  You notice the tufts from the cat's ears and can count the whiskers.  You see the rim of light along the nose and the bristles along the milk mustache, and the contemplative, possibly malevolent look about the eyes.  Storytelling should be like this, from the Winnie-the-Poohs to the Bleak Houses of the literary world: making its point (leopard!), but also drawing in the attentive reader to notice the details.


  1. Thank you. Excellent post.

    I'm having a similar experience at the moment actually--I began reading a novel I got for free off Kindle, and was so bothered by its very black-and-white, indiscriminate treatment of a historical period (this time, the American War Between the States) about which I knew very little apart from the fact that the received narrative has some often-missed complexities...was so bothered, I say, that I am now halfway through a 650-page history book with a few more tomes lined up just so I have some way to know if what I'm being told is accurate or not, and how much it's leaving out.

    1. Ah, those free books off Kindle. You can never trust 'em.

      Honestly, though, it does warm my heart to know that your suspicions led you to actually hunt down reliable sources of information. Most people watch a film like Elizabeth or read a book like the Kindle Freebie and assume what they're reading is true - especially when the film starts out with a nice solid date and ends with an epilogue-like wrap up, which seems to me like blatant double-dealing on the part of the film makers. If you're going to take liberties (and usually some liberties are necessary), I think you ought to include a disclaimer or author's note to explain what you chose to add/not to include and why.

      ...Not to be quixotic or anything.

    2. I do feel like there's a way to be true to the spirit of the time and person without necessarily telling the strict historical truth. Elizabeth was terrible, but I loved The Young Victoria. That hewed fairly close to the actual historical events that I'd read about, and even though the climax was more or less fabricated, you know the real Alfred would have done the same if the need had arisen.


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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