I am a reporter and am looking into a possible story: With the rise in historical TV shows and miniseries (Rome, The Tudors, John Adams) that sometimes take liberties with the facts, do history teachers worry that students might be using these to learn about history and getting it wrong? Or, could this be a way of getting them excited about history and another tool for learning?
Both - I am excited about their teaching potential and worried about their Hollywood liberty with the historical facts. Today's student is visual, and the accurate on screen creation of the Battle of Gettysburg, for example, sticks in their heads a lot more than a lecture or chapter reading would. That being said, directors are usually not historians, they are entertainers, as are the actors that play in their shows and movies, so the temptation and tendency to play fast and loose with the history is sometimes irresistible for them. As a result, I spend a decent amount of time debunking the myths these shows perpetuate.
I am happy to see these historical series become so popular even though they are highly fictionalized. I think it is great that so many people have become more interested in history because of these series. These series can be very good tools in the classroom, but the inaccuracies should clearly be pointed out to the students!
I definitely believe historical films and miniseries are valuable tools - and sometimes they're valuable because of just how poorly the facts are portrayed. When Braveheart came out, it really got my brother interested in our family's Scottish heritage. It was a great chance to see him get excited about something that he normally wouldn't have cared less about, and also an opportunity to explain the many historical errors in the film. In addition, I took him to see a performance of Macbeth, which definitely deviates from the historical information about that king (as well as Duncan), and it was a great opportunity to discuss why Macbeth was written in the first place and the fact that Shakespeare wasn't writing history - he was writing to please a king and entertain audiences. Anything that will ignite interest in people previously bored by history is valuable, in my opinion! :)
I think that these types of mini series can be a great tool to engage learners and enhance their learning with certain visuals, but its always important for the teacher to have a discussion with his/her students about facts and drama. It would be a great teaching tool to have the students do research on a historical event or person by reading different secondary and primary sources, and then watch some clips from a movie or mini series, as an assessment the teacher can have the students anaylze the video and point out the facts and point out what is fiction or "played up" for dramatic effect. These movies and miniseries serve their purpose and if done well they do enhance our understanding of history, but it always is important to discuss with students that these videos are not completely factual. Also you can discuss why the producer of a particular historical film would add certain things in that are not completely factual.
As a history teacher I must admit as I've sat and watched 'history' interpreted by 'hollywood' (or T.V. miniseries) and there were times I"ve had an almost uncontrolled desire to get up and make corrections !!!! That being said, of course I understand the value that programs having to do with history can have among young people today. For example, when my daughter was younger she would ask me not to give a 'history' lesson everywhere we went. Now as a college student she accidently came across 'The Tudors' miniseries while up at school and before long many on her floor were watching it, and awaiting her commentary based on her mother's expertise !!! I tell this story because I understand the power of the media in our society. Frankly, I'd rather see young people tune in to programs such as 'The Tudors' and 'John Adams' in weekly installments with gaps in historical validity than have them glued to a television program that glorifies meaningless shallow psuedo relationships, as if that is what a young adult should aspire to.
History, if properly taught, is the most exciting of subjects. Showing what conflicts individuals had to grapple with and resolve can only stimulate interest to discover how little has really changed. I think always of movies like Saving Private Ryan which can show students today what their grandfathers had to endure. Even if the facts are wrong, the fact of studying the event is paramount. Good students (and teachers!) of history will work hard to dig through fact versus fabrication, and where fabrication is found, present fact.
I'm generally in favor of anything that gets kids interested in history. When I find out that kids have been watching something like one of the shows you mention, I try to make sure they are distinguishing between factual information and fabricated dialogue. If the show is decently made, the factual information seems to be largely OK. The John Adams series, for instance, brought out some things about his role in the aftermath of the Boston Massacre that are usually left out of the history texts. When there are mistakes, it can be a good basis for classroom discussions.
I wholeheartedly agree that anything to get kids interested and excited about history should be used. Most of the historical TV shows out there are decently accurate- at least to the point of that they can be used and the students learn something from them that actually happened. For example, I have seen the complete HBO's John Adams series, and I personally love it. It is very accurate and I actually retained more historical information from it than I have in multiple years of learning about it through textbook.
Unfortunately, people do perceive things they see in films as God given truths and there is perhaps little we can do about it. This doesn't only refers to history.
If I watch a historical film which I happen to like, I always go and explore about the historical facts and the context of the time. So, I think films can be used as a teaching aid, and you can always contrast them to facts in a classroom.
Playing with history to spice up a drama is OK if you tell people you are doing it. But if you don't make it clear you are being dishonest. 'Based on true events' is the most suspicious heading in a book or movie.
I think Mel Gibson is bad at this. For some reason he makes movies appear 'historic' but they are wildly inaccurate. And people remember the movie as though it is true. In 'Patriot' he justifies the main character's violent killing spree by showing British troops locking settlers in a church and burning them alive. This never happened, but it was presented as 'historical'. People believed it happened.
Basically people prefer good stories to hard facts, and 'history' as remembered by the public is mostly exaggerated, simplified stories. This is not a problem until you reach crunch points and the public need to make important choices. So, for example, nowadays, instead of remembering that Muslims were the most civilised and advanced group for a thousand years and have a history which contains many examples of tolerance, learning and peace, AND that Christians for centuries were savage by comparison with a history that contains many examples of brutality, slaughter and intolerance, the public forget this and conclude that 'All backward muslims are mad intolerant killers and all Americans are tolerant angels' from bad TV and movies.
Historians must teach history better than we have up to now.