While it’s not required reading, I have previously covered some elements of this topic in my article about how knowing history can undermine the plot lines of historical stories. It might be worth reading that article before you read this one.
Dracula Untold is out in cinemas this weekend. As I have already mentioned, the film looks like it will sit somewhere between genuine history and straight-up fantasy. This makes it a prime example of a ‘counterfactual history’; a ‘what if…’ scenario where we tweak one or two facts and see what happens. ‘Dracula Untold’ asks ‘What if vampires actually existed at the time of Vlad Țepeș?’ and then draws the logical (but also bat-shit crazy) conclusion.
This new release is just the latest in a wealth of counterfactual films, games and TV shows that have come out in recent years. Now, media producers tend to tweak facts in almost every single historical story. For example, that classic Braveheart is riddled with historical inconsistencies, from the tartan kilts to the people who were present at the battles. This is done for convenience, rather than to twist the course of events, so these examples don’t really constitute counterfactual histories.
One of the early big hitters in this list is 2004’s ‘King Arthur’, which took the titular myth and twisted it to fit a Roman/Saxon theme. Arthur himself became a Roman; Guinevere was now a Briton, and Lancelot and the other knights were Sarmatian auxiliaries. The story itself was within the realms of possibility, and was definitely grounded by the manly camaraderie between the knights. The love triangle is played down, and the whole thing works pretty well. The only slightly unbelievable area is when the audience is supposed to believe that there is a peaceful transition to a Romano-British kingdom under Arthur.
It’s not as if they had Boudicca riding an elephant into the Forum Romanum.
‘Ryse: Son of Rome’ is a major counterfactual leap away from reality. In the game, Nero has two sons; ‘Basilius’ and ‘Commodus’, who incite a rebellion in Britain that sweeps all the way back to the streets of Rome. The player goes on to kill those two sons, and also Boudicca, and finally Nero. None of these things actually happened. In combat games, there is a need for boss battles. But over a limited period of time, it is hard to introduce new characters and give them a detailed back story. Ryse cuts corners here by using historical figures out of context; ultimately, the story suffers for it.
But let’s move away from Romans. Another game series that relies heavily on counterfactual history is Assassin’s Creed. The premise of that series is that Earth was previously inhabited by a race of aliens who left artefacts of immense power, which two rival secret societies are fighting over. The series then posits that several significant historical events have been used as a cover for these conflicts. As far as counterfactual histories go, this one is pretty high maintenance.
But what if we go further than that? The eminent History Behind Game of Thrones blog argues that the entire premise of Game of Thrones might be based on counterfactual questions. For example, several female leaders, from Anne Boleyn to Lucrezia Borgia, have been accused of incest. What if those rumours were actually true? What if Richard III really didn’t murder the princes in the tower? Would the Middle Ages have been a less bloody time period if chivalry hadn’t existed? Sure, Game of Thrones is a fantasy, and as the seasons progress, I suspect the dragons and white walkers will have a bigger part to play, but without those historical questions it would be a lot shorter.
Ultimately, counterfactual histories are a way to have some fun with history, to engage with it, and ask *why* things happened the way they did. If you change one detail, what subsequent events also would have been altered?