Tuesday 9 April 2013

American Downton Abbey?

authentic firearms are good...

by Caroline Lawrence

Good historical fiction should do five things:

1. Show the world the way it was.
2. Have something to say about that world.
3. Have something to say about our world today.
4. Introduce us to compelling characters.
5. Put it all in a gripping story.

great characters are better
This is a tall order, but the best historical fiction achieves it. This is what I aim for in my Roman Mysteries books and my P.K. Pinkerton series, even though they are for kids.

One of the best historical dramas in recent years was HBO’s Deadwood. It depicted the gold rush town of Deadwood, South Dakota in an eye-watering, jaw-droppingly real way. It touched on themes of order without law, corruption and greed. The story was utterly gripping and the characters – like Calamity Jane (right) – were unforgettable. It is arguably the best Western ever made.

Downton Abbey also meets the criteria. So does Band of BrothersBoardwalk Empire and even the mega-popular Game of Thrones, where the world is so meticulously depicted that it could almost be historical drama.

Last month I watched three episodes of a new historical drama, this one set a hundred years before Deadwood and two thousand miles east. Courage, New Hampshire takes place in the eponymous fictional town in the year 1770. Its aim is to depict the tumultuous years leading to American Independence. The creators like to call it the "American Downton Abbey".

My husband and I are both historians. We are also purists about period firearms, furniture, food and clothing. We watched the first episode with a running commentary such as "Ooh, a clay pipe!", "Nice brown teeth!", "Excellent wig!", "Pewter!" and "Chickens!"

Authentic dinner in Courage, New Hampshire is not enough to satisfy

But those are the sort of comments you should be making on the second or third viewing. The first viewing should be so riveting that you forget to take notes or even comment. The story should grab you by the scruff of the neck and toss you into a world from which you don’t emerge until the final credits scroll.

Courage, New Hampshire is produced by a team with strong Christian and patriotic values. I don’t mind if film-makers have an agenda, in fact I believe story-tellers need an agenda. But I do mind if it's dull. My biggest quibble with the series is that the storytelling is glacially slow and often incomprehensible.

Here are notes I jotted down as I watched: Nice titles, great music, authentic looking faces, confusing setup, great attention to detail, esp. colors, costumes, artefacts and vocabulary. Can’t understand dialogue. Very slow. Confused. 

Great hats, buttons and bows do not a great period drama make

So kudos to costume designer Mary Johns and set designer Jim Mullally. They get five out of five for the period detail. But a period drama is not all about buttons and bows, authentic though they may be. Director, writer, actor, producer Jim Riley would do well to tighten the editing, add captions to tell us where we are and delegate the writing to someone who will make the stories more profound and exciting.

Courage, New Hampshire... get thee to a script doctor!

(My thanks to the Colony Bay who generously supplied the photos and encouraged me to tell it like I saw it!)


Ann Turnbull said...

I haven't seen most of these. But I think generally films often focus too much on details like correct costume. Some novels do this too, of course. But the best ones take you into the heart of how people thought and behaved in the past.

Theresa Breslin said...

Do you know who edits scripts Caroline? My editors frequently supply insight. PS I'd love to be in your house when historical drama is on TV!

michelle lovric said...

Deadwood is extraordinary! I found it compulsive viewing - though the death of the pastor and the kidney stone were very hard to watch.