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Should Historical Dramas be More True?

Updated: May 13, 2021

The Hubster and I are watching the "Atlantic Crossing" series on Masterpiece, a historical drama about an apparent romance between FDR and Norway's Crown Princess Martha during WWII. "Atlantic Crossing" is a well-done and entertaining production, but many details turn out to be halfway true or pure fiction.

As a Masterpiece subscriber, I receive a weekly e-newsletter in which Masterpiece separates fact from fiction regarding this series. Masterpiece also provides updates on its website at a Fact or Fiction page. (Link is current through Episode 6, the most recent at this writing.)

Agreed, "Atlantic Crossing" promises only that it was "inspired by true events" and does not promise "a true story." As an author, I understand that writers have to dream up scenarios to convey what they know, while also entertaining viewers with what they don't know, such as what characters said or did. Problem for me is, so-called historical dramas like these often result in fiction becoming fact in viewers' minds.

Picture an avid fan who does not receive Masterpiece's fact/fiction updates. This viewer might teach a WWII history class and tell highschoolers that Crown Princess Martha of Norway caused FDR's secretary Marguerite LeHand ("Missy") to have a stroke. Wrong. Martha was not present when Missy tragically fell to a stroke, although Missy allegedly was distraught by FDR and Martha's relationship.

Another set of "facts" Episode 6 inaccurately conveyed that a German submarine surfaced directly offshore the Crown Princess's Long Island summer home, after a house staff member flashed the sub an all-clear signal. In this episode, Martha and FDR were the German's targets. FDR's security teams locked Martha and FDR in the basement, saving the day. Again, wrong. According to Masterpiece, the submarine actually surfaced "not far" from the princess's summer home, but an FBI website says the Germans managed to elude a U.S. Coast Guard lookout and took a train to New York City. (There's more about this Long Island war story at this link.) As for FDR, he was in Hyde Park during this landing, so his security detail was not even at Martha's home.

What do you think?

For years, Hollywood film makers have interpreted facts as they see them. For example, Oliver Stone's film JFK was severely criticized for its skewed facts and point of view, and yet fans who enjoyed the film might swear his version was the truth.

Another example might be My Week With Marilyn, a film that chronicled the making of The Prince and the Showgirl, in which Laurence Olivier acted with and directed Marilyn Monroe. Although the story's basic facts are true, the scenes, the action, and all character interactions were imagined from what the writer gleaned from 40 years of biographies about Marilyn. In fact, NPR did a "Fact vs. Fiction" article separating the two.

In my view, I think producers of historical works have a responsibility to tell the truth about events and real-life characters that appear in their works. Some film makers do this by rolling credits at the end. Masterpiece takes its production off the hook with a weekly fact/fiction newsletter and by also posting the facts on the Masterpiece website. But those who don't stick around for film credits, or take time to review website updates, might think these stories are historically accurate.

Which begs the question ...

Does truth matter less than what makes a good story? I welcome your comments.

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