So you’re watching 1612, as one does when one wanders into Russian historical drama marathons that are happening at one’s house, and you’re soaking up the atmosphere—the battles, the weaponry, the costuming, revelling in the attention to historical detail that goes into making an accurate and powerful period movie… and suddenly, there’s a unicorn. A symbolic unicorn, of course, just wandering about, representing the strength and purity of the Mother Nation they’re trying to protect… or, something. The point it, it’s a bit of a shock. And definitely not accurate.
Then again, they may have had unicorns in 17th century Russia. I’m not up to scratch on the history of it. What I and most people are sure of is that Jay-Z wasn’t around producing music in the 1920s, which is a beef a lot of folks had with Baz Lurhman’s Great Gatsby. If you went in expecting luxurious boppy jazz as the soundtrack to lay the historical scene-setting foundations for one of the most famous 20s novels of all time, you were very and possibly not pleasantly surprised. There’s some jazz in there, oh yes, but more prominently is there rap, hip hop and dance music.
To everyone beating sticks against his door protesting the anachronism, Baz declared that he used rap and party music in place of jazz for some of the major scenes because rap is now what jazz was back then—it originated with a similar group of people, it brought them power and let them speak out, it united everyone in a new, upbeat mess of popular music and captured the partying spirit of the time. So when Nick’s walking into Gatsby’s party for the first time and we the audience hear Fergie playing, what Baz is saying is that it’s not necessarily Fergie actually playing, but what Fergie feels like to us is what the music at the party, whatever it is, feels like to Nick.
People are perfectly entitled to mutter about that artistic decision, but I’ve made my peace with it. Gatsby is in fact old as balls, and it makes sense that keeping the classic story fresh in the minds of a new audience would be a concern of the movie creators. It goes beyond that, though—it was a bit jarring initially, but maybe on some level it’s supposed to be: once again we are Nick Carraway, getting swept up and bowled over by the confusing sensory overload that is Gatsby’s New York. Period-inappropriate music only serves to heighten the disorientation, and makes a connection that we modern folks can on some level understand.
And if you do know the book, you have to acknowledge that you couldn’t really do an adaptation of it that wasn’t heavily stylised in some way. They try for it, but they can’t make Nick narrate everything, so they have to create a visual and sensory equivalent to Fitzgerald’s lush prose. The entire film is brightly coloured (except when everything is terrible and crash, suddenly it isn’t) and highly saturated and whizzes from scene to scene sometimes in a literal whirlwind (or sometimes in weirdly placed slow-motion). It’s dizzying and can make you feel amazed and annoyed at the same time. So yes, they have captured the essence of Nick’s experience.
The same way rock music is used in the biopic Marie Antoinette, and Versailles is a never-ending parade of pastel colours and bright shots: it feels like a teen movie more than a dark historical drama, which is, while preserving the story as much as they can, what the creators were going for. People, again, have pointed out that elements of the story aren’t entirely accurate, and while I agree that misrepresenting someone’s life on film is a true cinema sin, for a biopic like this somehow it doesn’t feel like you need every miniscule detail to match up as long as overall the story is told and, most importantly in what Marie was going for, the spirit of the queen herself is captured.
Who was, in fact, just a teenager for the first act of her rule—she was fifteen when she moved to France to marry her equally young and awkward husband Louis, and because the teenager is a 20th century concept and kids just had to grow up quicksmart for most of history, often historical pieces can’t entirely highlight how young and unprepared their ‘characters’ are. Well, they can, but Marie Antoinette used an informative shorthand that proved to work rather well: the music, the colours, the overall atmosphere of it, and hiding a pair of Converse All Stars in the back of one shot. These are all things we recognise as a modern audience, little symbolic cues that we connect with youth and teenagers, to remind us in our modern context how much our queenly heroine was still just a kid.
Again, no, the sneakers are not accurate, in fact their appearance (and the soundtrack) probably made many decent historians cry, the same way people are tutting over the inaccuracy of the Gatsby soundtrack and the catwalk stylisation of a lot of the outfits. Now, to a certain extent these are excellent points, but it hits a roadblock where we have to accept that these are films. A degree of accuracy is needed to the time and the source material for it to have any credibility, but you also have to acknowledge that these are art pieces rather than documentaries, and can run away with atmospheric details to enhance the emotional outcome of the work.
With the foundations of the story (the ever-important story, don’t change that, whether it’s Gatsby’s or Marie Antoinette’s) in place, and a story that by this point many people know, new writers and directors can play with how we see it and use the stylistic and symbolic tools they have at hand to draw certain aspects to the surface and make it an interesting piece of pop art in the meantime.
Like Anna Karenina’s theatre motif, which has the characters in the 2012 film moving around set pieces and watching one another on stage. Weird to some people, and raises the valid question of why they couldn’t just tell the story, but really, they are telling the story (as much as they can, given how enormous that book is), and they’re telling it in a new and interesting way that highlights the essence of the drama: the world is a stage on which everyone is stuck, being constantly watched and judged, and whether or not the stark colours told you, one story is going to end up playing out like a perfect classical tragedy.
And will the world think of Anna once her curtain has fallen, or will they move onto the champagne and nibbles in the lobby tutting about what a poor show it was, and leave her reduced to that? That’s an extra punch of tragedy, put like that. And they could afford to play around with the presentation of it like that because it was Anna Karenina, a story people already knew and loved, and for each new adaptation and retelling we need to say something new that reflects and connects with the spirit of our time as well as the spirit of the story, otherwise they’d all be copies of each other, wouldn’t they?
So that being said, I can deal with ‘No Church in the Wild’ playing in my 1920s establishing shots and unicorns in my military drama as long as they serve an artistic purpose. Accuracy in content is still important, but if you want to sacrifice historical detail for getting across an appropriate air of disorientating wackiness that’s true to the story itself, hey, be my guest. Just don’t overdo it on the slow-mo.