Artistic License – History
aka: You Fail History Forever

http://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/artistic_license_history_xerxes13.png
King Xerxes: Hair vs. Nair.

Bluto: Over? Did you say "over"? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!
Otter: Germans?
Boon: Forget it, he's rolling.

Ah yes, history, written by the victors, with all the eyewitnesses lost to time... Some say it's one of those mysteries that man cannot know... That in the end, all known history is subjective and therefore useless as a source of knowledge...

Not so. Large chunks of history are well-documented, with many living traces in contemporary life — roads paved on pathways carved by ancient civilizations, languages and slang that evolve from a particular regional starting point, architecture from various eras, fashions plucked from various times, materials used for tools and production, etc.

But all of this is secondary to telling a good story. In most cases, historical works focus on a particular event taken out of context, revolving around a set group of individuals and depict the events with the pictorial and narrative structure as per the fashions of the year of its exhibition. Real history is filled with Loads and Loads of Characters with plenty of Hero of Another Story. In addition, many writers commit what's called the "historian's mistake", which is the idea that historical characters acted and made their decisions with full knowledge of the future — including the repercussions their actions would cause (like for example portraying Churchill as saying his Darkest Hour Rousing Speech with knowledge that Nazi Germany was going to be defeated in 4 years).note  Likewise, works of art are not so cheap to create. It costs something in time and money to properly research, find and create the material needed to portray a given period with some degree of accuracy. There are also the limits of the medium to contend with. To play a famous painter believably, casting another famous painter is usually not considered a smart rule for casting. The best of actors will struggle to believably render genius convincingly. There are limits to the illusion cast by a work of art in portraying a historical reality, even in the best scenario. This also applies to writers who would struggle to render the thoughts and dialogues of the distant past in a manner that is convincing to the reader, that gives a believable impression of a past where society and values were different from the present, but not so different as to be unrelatable. In cases where the given period has very few records available, most of it has to be fictionalized anyway. Likewise, where history does lean on records, there is still room for interpretation and ambiguity, so in these cases historians and artists share common ground.

In most cases however, historians and artists don't really have the same job. A historian's job is to relate the facts, and update it as and when new information comes to life. An artist's job is to reflect on history, showing why certain individuals and events were important and remain important decades and centuries later. Even when history is Written by the Winners and censorship dominates cultures (as it did for a long time in human history), artists tend to be drawn to particular events and figures more than others. Whether its the Folk Hero, the Founder of the Kingdom, the iconic Rebel Leader, certain people and events are interesting because they are more relatable to people than others. This often leads to a sense of distortion, where thanks to constant references in history, the impact of some historical figures looms larger than the facts would allow and in some cases, greatly exaggerates the given person or event's relative importance.

Still, while artists and historians have parallel jobs, in cases where the former doesn't keep up to pace with new research you can see the persistence of discredited information, decades and even centuries after being academically debunked. See Dated History for those rare cases where new evidence or insight actually does change the historical record. Compare Anachronism Stew, where the inaccuracies are not fictional inventions, just details drawn from different eras; Hollywood History, where the facts are mostly right, just caricatured and stereotyped, subject to Bowdlerization and Nostalgia Filter; and Future Imperfect, where characters in a speculative fiction story set in the distant future get history horribly wrong. The Historical Hero Upgrade and Historical Villain Upgrade sometimes fall into this.

This trope is NOT for speculative history stories, which get a pass simply because they're supposed to be alternate history stories, unless they reference these events as parts of "actual" history.


Examples:

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    Comic Books 
  • Chick Tracts. Where to begin? Dinosaurs lived into the Middle Ages, Allah is a moon god and the existence of the Inquisition is apparently almost completely unknown.
  • Astιrix, for Rule of Funny reasons (the aim was to be like how children imagine the history they learn at school).
    • This is so omnipresent that it doesn't really deserve breaking down further, but it's interesting to see historical accuracy flop back and forth depending on how seriously we are supposed to take a part. For instance, most of the times we see writing in the series, the characters carve it into tablets, even for disposable things like memos or personal letters or teaching to children — mostly because it's really funny imagining a Roman bureaucrat having to carve twelve huge slabs of rock just to induct a new legionnaire. However, in one scene where Asterix is planning a bank robbery and makes a diagram of their plan of attack, he does it on a diptych wax tablet, which is what someone in his time period would actually have used for making notes that would have to be quickly disposed of later.
    • Historical inaccuracy in Asterix comes in a few flavors — Purely Aesthetic Era anachronism for humour, deliberate Hollywood History, fudging dates for the plot to work and occasionally just total mistakes. It was extensively researched by the creators, who both visited museums to speak with expert historians and read primary sources, and then all of the research was ignored so they could do something they found funny instead.
    • Some fudged details and dates. Pompey is still alive (although without any power) but Vercingetorix is dead (in reality, Vercingetorix was being kept in prison for several years and Pompey was assassinated during the military campaign we see take place in Asterix the Legionary, leading the English translator to assume he was dead). Cassivelaunos's troops lost to Caesar and Britain was occupied (in reality, his troops won, twice, with Caesar's successor Emperor Claudius instead finally conquering Britain). The Colosseum appears and/or gets mentioned numerous times; it was commissioned by Emperor Vespasian more than a century after Caesar's death. Cleopatra and Caesar are husband and wife (Caesar had a different wife and Rome did not recognise marriages between Romans and non-Romans, although the upshot of this was that Cleo and Caesar's relationship was not considered adulterous)...
  • Disney comics had this one story where the Ducks travelled back in time to the year 1000. On the site of Duckburg (an American city, and located on the Pacific Coast at that!), they found a medieval European town. Fortunately, when the story was published in the United Statesnote , the translator changed it so that they only travelled back to the 1700's, though of course this leaves all the characters they meet with anachronistic clothes and names.
  • Tintin was guilty of this in its first few issues — and then became famous for averting it.
  • Medieval Lady Death takes place in the Novgorod Republic and shows Teutonic knights serving as local authority under Pope Paul V. Novgorod was an Eastern Orthodox state and as such as a Catholic order such as the Knights Teutonic would have absolutely no jurisdiction over it. To top it off, Honorius III was the correct Pope during that time, while Paul V would only be born two centuries afterwards.

    Comic Strips 
  • In September 2009, a character in Tank McNamara was said to have researched the Vandals (the name of a college sports team) and found that they were part of Norse mythology. The Vandals have nothing to do with Norse mythology; they were a historic Germanic tribe, or perhaps Slavs, who invaded the Roman Empire. This misinterpretation comes from the old Swedish kings' style as "Suecorum, Gothorum et Vandalorum Rex" Vandalorum being the Wends (or the Vends), not the Vandals. This is however somewhat of a Real Life example, since the "Vandalorum" was meant to be (mis)interpreted as "Vandals", which were remembered as exercising impressive military force — not unlike the impression one in the 20th century could have derived from "King of the Vikings"note . That the Swedes started using this particular title (in 1540, a good 300 years after the Wends disappeared from history) is mostly as part of a pissing contest with the king of Denmark and Norway, who similarly claimed to be the king of the Wends and Goths.
  • This Bizarro strip.

    Films — Animation 
  • Titanic: The Legend Goes On proudly states on the back of the DVD that "they embarked on the real adventures on board the Titanic.'' With talking geese, a rapping dog, and no deaths.
  • The Legend of the Titanic has a mouse who sneaked aboard the Titanic named Top Connors tells his grandchildren the "real" story of the Titanic where a giant octopus named Tentacles saves the ship and actually threw the iceberg at the Titanic.
  • The Anastasia film feature is plagued by this. Granted, it was directed mainly at children but still:
    • Rasputin was a monk summoned to the court by the Tsar's wife herself, because he was believed to be capable of alleviating the Tsarevitch's severe hemophilia;
    • Rasputin died before the Russian Revolution at the hands of a few young aristocrats resentful of his influence over the Imperial family;
    • Although he wasn't even remotely a saint by any means, he considered himself a Christian and would never deliberately indulge in any occult practices (he was a monk too, as mentioned previously). Furthermore, as far as we know, he was also a monarchist who never harbored any ill will towards the Tsar nor his family;
    • Anastasia's bones were found in 2008. After the film was made, but still...
    • The main plot is that Anya/Anastasia is trying to get to Paris to see the Dowager Empress (her possible grandmother). In Real Life, the Empress lived in her native Denmark after the Revolution.
      The Nostalgia Chick: I think it was mainly for recognizability and aesthetics. And "Together in Copenhagen" doesn't quite have the same ring to it.
  • The Secret of Anastasia is worse than the Don Bluth version. For one thing, the rest of the royal family didn't get turned into talking musical instruments in order to continue looking after Anastasia. That being said, however, it doesn't try and pretend that the Russian Revolution was caused by a sorcerer who wanted revenge on the Czar and his family.
  • Everyone's Hero could have been a good movie about Babe Ruth's called shot in the 1932 World Series... if they had not gotten EVERY SINGLE historical fact wrong in that movie. The list of historical inaccuracies in the film would take up this entire page (for example, the 1932 World Series did not go into seven games or have a 3-4 home field advantage format).
  • El Cid is very loosely based on the life of the Spanish knight Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar and rife with inaccuracies such as the circumstances of his exile, his real-life political rival being turned into an romantic false lead for his love interest and softening Rodrigo's character a great deal; he is very (in)famous for having murdered his own father-in-law for insulting his own father, while in the film, he inadvertently kills him in self-defense after Jimena's father tried to get rid of him for disrupting her arranged marriage.

     Music 
  • The first line of "Sink the Bismarck" is "In May of 1941, the war had just begun." World War II had actually been going on for about two years prior to that, and no country first started getting involved in the war in May of 1941. (Britain, for example, had been trading air strikes with Germany since the second half of 1940.)
  • Steve Martin's One-Hit Wonder song "King Tut" uses the rhyme "Born in Arizona / Moved to Babylonia" which is a great rhyme, though Tutankhamun was neither born in Arizona nor ever went to Babylonia. Because the song is G-rated and catchy, some kids grew up singing it and then had to think about it.
  • Neil Young's song "Cortez the Killer" describes the Aztecs as being a peaceful people and "war was never known". The Aztecs often went to war with their neighbors, enslaved people, and practiced human sacrifice.
  • Played for Laughs in "Purple Toupee" by They Might Be Giants, which is about the narrator's fractured recollection of history during The '60s.
    I remember the year I went to camp
    Heard about a lady named Selma and some blacks
    Somebody put their fingers in the president's ear
    And it wasn't too much later they came out with Johnson's wax
  • U2's "Pride (In The Name of Love"): "Early morning, April 4/Shot rings out in the Memphis sky." Martin Luther King Jr. was actually shot at 6:01 P.M.
  • Invoked and Played for Laughs by The B-52's in "Mesopotamia". The band consulted an encyclopedia when writing the song just to make sure they got everything wrong.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Witch Girls Adventures seems to be written under the premise that Vlad Dracul and Vlad Dracula are the same person, and not in a Beethoven Was an Alien Spy or Julius Beethoven da Vinci sense. For reference, this is the same as writing a story under the premise that George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush are the same person. They just seem to have not realized they were not only two different people, but father and son. A hint is that "Dracula" roughly translates to English as "Son of the Dragon", with "a" being the "Son of" part.
  • Grave Robbers from Outer Space. Subverted with the Re-interpreted Historical Figure Who Probably Wasn't As Evil As All This.
  • FATAL's creator Byron Hall claims that the game is absolutely historically accurate—when he's not claiming that some hideously offensive magical item was included for controversial humor. In practice, "historically accurate" in this case means that he just looked up stuff that people used to believe at one point or another, and treated it as though it's actually true.
  • Swashbuckling adventure game 7th Sea tries its best to justify this by being set in a world which is not explicitly Earth ("Theah"), but instead has nearly-identical geography (except for lacking the Americas), and is made entirely of Fantasy Counterpart Cultures with Significant Names. The result is a world much like our own, circa 1560 (the Queen of "Avalon" is a clear Elizabeth I expy...) through the 1700s (... while a Shout-Out to Louis XIV is at the height of his power and a Napoleon expy is making an Early-Bird Cameo). Woe betide the GM who tries to use its books for anything set in the real Cavalier Years.
  • In Arkham Horror, one of the Arkham Asylum encounters in the Innsmouth Horror expansion has you sneaking into a finger-painting session. Finger-painting is indeed used as a component of mental therapy at times, so that's done right. The problem? Art therapy in general dates only to the late 1940's, with finger painting as a later addition to the milieu. Finger painting itself dates to prehistoric times, but it wasn't part of art education until the 1930's.

    Web Animation 

    Web Comics 
  • In Educomix, World War II was fought between Ireland and the South Pole, and one of the combatants was Jesus.

Alternative Title(s): Artistic Licence History, You Fail History Forever

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ArtisticLicenseHistory?from=Main.YouFailHistoryForever