Why historical media is the best genre at portraying death

Caesar's Assisnation HBO ROME

Pirates of the Caribbean suffered, right from the very start, from the fact that none of its characters would stay dead. One of the most successful franchises of recent years is the Avengers series. But if it has a flaw, it is that death isn’t taken seriously. Yes, one guy died in the most recent installment, but given the sheer amount of world-ending jeopardy invoked in both major films and the individual installments, the actual threat is fairly minmal. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was pretty similar. Only three significant characters died in the whole trilogy; Boromir in Fellowship, and the two kings in Return. Considering all that vague ‘one ring to rule them all’ threat, the good guys get off waaaay too lightly.

But if we’re talking about Sean Bean, one series that bucks the trend, is Game of Thrones. Major characters die ALL THE TIME in that series. In fact they do it so often that new major characters have to be introduced to keep the action going. Game of Thrones is an anomaly; most TV series will only offer one or two token deaths every so often. So much is invested in characters that their creators are reluctant to off them. GRRM has no such qualms.Ned's execution Game of Thrones

On the other hand, historical media has to confront death all the time. People, factually, are mortal. All of the historical people who have ever existed, have all died. What’s more, historical characters tend to die at the most inappropriate times – Richard III springs to mind. As a result, death is one of the major plot features that history, as a genre, focusses on. Saving Private Ryan is a classic example; that film is all about Death Vs Life. Yes, it’s ostensibly about war. But in reality, death is a lot more familiar to us. The central characters almost all die, just so that Ryan can live. And they do not go gentle into that good night. They go out kicking and screaming, in a pool of their own blood, desperate to finish their business.

Saving Private Ryan

TV is rapidly catching up. HBO’s ROME featured a large number of deaths. The two heroes Pullo and Vorenus carved their way through a hugh number of fighters without so much as a backward glance, but there were also a large number of deaths that the show spent a lot more time on.  For the sake of variety I have included a still from the death of Julia; Caesar’s daughter and Pompey’s wife. Her death was the catalyst for the split between the two men, and it is an emotional affair. HBO’s focus on death in all it’s complexity is a major part of what saved this series from being just a blood-n-sex-fest.Julia's death HBO ROME

Video games, by comparison, have a long way to go. Enemies are dead as soon as their last health point is hacked away. They fall to the floor, and (sometimes after a few seconds) fade into invisibility – leaving you just enough time to loot their body. This totally avoids dealing with things like the twitching, gurgling enemies on the floor, who grab at your heels as you march over them, or just how tricky it is to strip armour from a corpse.

The historical genre leads the way when it comes to portraying death. It is emotional, paradigm-shifting, and very, very final. And that is how it is portrayed.

Are we cool with portrayals of religion? It feels like we’re not

assassin's creed church

This article will be picking up where my blog about magic left off. Magic is, by its very nature, open ended, open to interpretation, and really kinda fun as a concept. In contrast, religion is just something we have to deal with if we’re going to portray history accurately. The trouble is, I’m not sure we’re doing it right.

Ben Hur

Back in the golden era of Hollywood, we couldn’t get enough of religion. It was a major feature of films like Ben Hur, or El Cid. Maybe studios weren’t conflicted about showing it. They loved them some piety, and they weren’t afraid to show it. Contrast that with modern films about religion, like Kingdom of Heaven. There’s that classic one-two:

Balian: “I will burn it to the ground. Your holy places; ours. Every last thing in Jerusalem that drives men mad.”

Saladin: “I wonder if it would not be better if you did.”

Kingdom of Heaven

Films are not alone. In almost every TV series, religion has a minimal role. In the BBC’s Robin Hood, Friar Tuck rarely visited a church, and even less often to commune with God. in HBO’s Rome, religion was just another way for the series to go ‘look how weird everything was back then’. Day-to-day lives seem to be divorced from the spirituality that was almost certainly a much bigger deal.

Similarly, games really haven’t figured out a mechanic for religion. What’s the point of it? Is it just a tag that defines allegiances, like nationality? Or is there something more? Many games do have churches and religious buildings as part of their architecture, but you can’t actually go *into* them. Why would you want to do that?

assassin's creed

Somehow, we’ve really gone off religion. We’re now almost scared of it.

Studios are trying to redress the balance. They’re attempting to build historic worlds where religion plays a suitably active role. But they are taking their sweet time about it.

On This Day: Are Retrospective Time Jumps Useful?

A week from today will be the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. This is, apparently, a big deal. And yet, objectively, there is little difference between 18 June 2015 and ANY OTHER DAY. So why is this one day such a big deal? I appreciate that we have to celebrate centenary sometime, but… Actually, do we have to celebrate centenaries?

Scotland Forever

Because, here’s the thing, some events are more celebrated than others. The anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne has two automatic entries in my phone’s calendar, and I’m not 100% clear why. Or, another case in point, We always mark 15 March as the ‘Ides of March‘, even though that date is way off, thanks to the mismatch between Julian and Gregorian calendars. Digressing here, but the Julian Calendar was only invented in 45BC (oh, and FYI, we’re not entirely sure when that year actually happened, either), do we reckon the seer was up to date with their calendars?  ides-of-march-quad-poster

‘On this day’s have become a quick way for the media to provide us with snippets of information. But can’t they do that anyway, without having to have the date connection as the hook? After all, most interesting historical snippets are devoid of any particular date context. This is that old meta-history/micro-history debate all over again. Date links only work if you understand what the significance of the event is. Millions of eventful things happen every day, but because they are part of everyday life, they don’t make it into ‘on this day’. So can we get more of those?