“I think there is a merit in history based drama, but anyone watching should be doing it for the entertainment value, not for the historical record,”said Sandy MacMullen, a Hopkins history teacher.
John Roberts, Assistant Head of School, agrees: “I would say that historical accuracy requires a level of commitment and discipline that precious few film producers or director would be willing to commit themselves to, given that the restriction and limitations of accuracy might get in the way of the story as the want to tell it.”
On the other hand, classics teacher John Anderson prefers shows with scrupulous attention to detail. This way, “I still know that the creators have a deep understanding of the period and presumably sympathy for the historical characters themselves,” he commented.
History teacher David DeNaples said that the test of historical television’s value is based on the balance between educating and entertaining: “Mad Men was the perfect balance of soap opera entertainment combined with a deep insights into America during the 60’s. With everything from cigarettes to cars, from race to patriarchy, with JFK and Vietnam in between, the show did a wonderful job deconstructing the romanticized version of the 60’s as portrayed in earlier films and television.”
Mad Men received excellent reviews from other members of the Hopkins community. “It appeals to me and I think to others because it is just a show about people and life,” said Claire Abate ’18. “There aren’t really any ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’; they’re just people. And even though the show takes place fifty years ago, we can still relate to what the characters go through.”
Even if not completely accurate, historical series do have an underlying purpose, no matter what the content. “Given that Salem and Underground describe events that humanity would not want to repeat, witch trials and slavery, they serve the purpose of keeping society aware that these events did once happen and of keeping people vigilant so that they do not happen again,” Josh Goldstein ’18 explained.
For some the appeal of these shows goes beyond serving as a reminder of the past. Penny Ratcliffe, an English teacher, said, “What is most interesting about these shows is the way in which they illuminate truths about our own culture and time by offering up a comparison - particularly in terms of social taboos that no longer operate.”
In a way history textbooks don’t, historical dramas bring real or fictional characters to life to create historical empathy. “I showed excerpts from John Adams mini-series to my AC1 students a few years ago precisely for that reason - so that they would see John Adams as a person and not just another bolded term to ID from their reading,” history instructor Jessica Dunn commented.
Narcos, set and filmed in Columbia, tells the story of a drug kingpin, Pablo Escobar, who makes his fortune in the production and distribution of cocaine for twenty-five years. Martin Tipton ’17, gave high praise for the series. “I appreciate the way they integrate Spanish into the show, and have Spanish subtitles in all the places in which Spanish would normally be spoken, which is different from many American shows,” he commented.
Hopkins drama teacher Michael Calderone provided yet another insight on historical adaptations: “Maybe the best reason to produce and watch historic dramas are for the lessons they teach us about ourselves. The piece has to be relevant and connect to us, today, or it simply becomes a museum piece: nice to look at, nothing much more.”
Whether they are faithful interpretations of the past, or create a rosy distortion for today’s audience, historic dramas evoke opinions, discussion, and controversy in the classroom or at home.