Historical Villain Downgrade

"Caligula was no Boy Scout; he did things we can't even talk about."

Of course, we all know what an Historical Villain Upgrade is: that's when you take an Historical-Domain Character who is generally notable for being not a nice person (or at worst, an opponent of whoever your hero happens to be) and transform them into full-on Hollywood-style villain.

But there are certain characters in history whose actions can't be depicted realistically on, say, a children's TV series. Sometimes not even on adult series.

That's where the Historical Villain Downgrade comes in. You don't need to dwell, for example, on the fact that Adolf Hitler was responsible for a systematic genocide that resulted in almost twelve million deaths; it is enough for audiences to know that he was a Very Bad Man. Likewise, you might present Emperor Caligula as a lech with a god complex. No need to get into the squicky details of his life.

Basically, this trope occurs whenever an historical villain's evil actions are either glossed over or reduced in severity, in order to make them palatable, even as a villain, to mainstream television audiences. Sometimes it's because Reality Is Unrealistic — there are a few cases of real people displaying such extreme levels of evil that if you put it in a movie script, the audience would just roll their eyes at your obvious exaggeration.

Compare Lighter and Softer, Politically Correct History. Contrast Historical Villain Upgrade. If a villain indulges in self-downgrading within the story, that's Evil Is Petty; if downgrading is all a villain does, that's Poke the Poodle.


Examples

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    General Media 

    Comic Books 
  • Astérix plays Caesar's campaigns for laughs and generally makes life in 52 BC Europe palatable to everyone.
    • Caesar is a rather complex case in this comic. On one hand, this being a comedy most of his crimes against Gaul are downplayed-there are Gauls who seem to be no worse for wear, living in Roman land and he often makes peace with Asterix as it is in his best interests. One the other hand, he is often played as a vindictive and hateful Big Bad who would love nothing more than turn the Gauls to toast, a Bad Boss who will reward any failure with a free ticket to the Circus Maximus and a megalomaniacal whose ego will never accept the village's independency.

    Film 
  • In Conspiracy, which revolves around the 1942 Wannsee Conference where prominent officials of Nazi Germany met to discuss the implementation of the Holocaust, SS Major Rudolf Lange is given this treatment. Given the subject matter, it is not surprising that all the people portrayed in this film are unambiguously evil. Major Lange, however, is depicted as almost sympathetic, possibly to better contrast with the even more brutal figures sitting at the table such as Reinhard Heydrich and Heinrich Müller. He is clearly haunted by the atrocities that he has overseen in Latvia, expresses contempt at Heydrich for insisting on euphemisms during casual discussions of organized genocide, and shows a philosophic bent. In real life, the guy was an unrepentant anti-Semite, mass murderer, and ruthless careerist.
  • The SS camp commander Amon Goeth in Schindler's List is a prime portrayal of a sadistic monster who loved murdering people during the Holocaust. The real life Goeth was even worse: Spielberg had to tone down the man's senseless cruelty because his crimes were so horrible and numerous (which included a frequently used torture dungeon built under his house, feeding prisoners alive to his starved dogs, shooting playing children with his sniper rifle, personally killing five hundred people, and more) that an audience simply wouldn't have believed it on screen - some had trouble even grasping that a lunatic such as the one shown in the movie could keep his job, even in the S.S. (in fact, he didn't. He was so bad that the SS relieved him from duty in 1944, accusing him of embezzlement and maltreatment of prisoners. Yes. Imagine what you have to do to get accused of maltreatment of prisoners by the SS).
  • Kingdom of Heaven has various Historical Upgrades and Downgrades abound. The film's portrayal of Reynauld de Chatillon, however, was if anything too mild. He's portrayed as Guy's dragon, whereas in real life the two men hated each other, and the film leaves out the fact that he led a Pirate fleet that threatened to burn down Mecca and that he flayed the Patriarch Of Antioch alive. This is one of the most common criticisms by critics, since these elements could've made it a much more interesting story.
  • Goodfellas is told through the eyes of Unreliable Narrator Henry Hill, who implies that for all the bad things he does in the movie (theft, assault, drug dealing, drug taking, etc.) he had never personally murdered, with the closest he gets being to lock the door while Jimmy and Tommy beat Asshole Victim Billy Bats to death and helping them cover it up (though this would still make him culpable legally). In Real Life he is known to have murdered at least two people. Jimmy and Tommy, though, while each portrayed accurately as extremely ruthless and violent gangsters who murder countless people throughout, were actually even worse in Real Life: Jimmy Burke (Conway in the film), in particular, would sometimes lock children in refrigerators, murdered or had murdered even more people, and really did screw nearly everyone out of the Lufthansa heist. The killing spree was partly prompted by the others asking for their fair cut; Tommy De Simone (Tommy De Vito) was also more murderous and was killed not just for the murder of Billy Bats, but because Paulie found out he had tried to rape Hill's wife Karen while Henry was in prison (Henry didn't find this out until the trial shown at the end of the movie). Paul Vario (Paulie Cicero) was also much more violent in reality: what disdain he had for it was pure Pragmatic Villainy as violence drew attention and was bad for business. He was also having an affair with Karen, hence selling out Tommy for the Billy Bats murder.
  • While the gang itself is correctly portrayed as a bunch of vicious morons in Pain and Gain, individually speaking, Adrian was much more of an unstable lunatic in real life.
  • Birdman of Alcatraz portrayed Robert Franklin Stroud as orders of magnitude gentler than his prison records show. Of course, it would be very hard to buy the idea of a world-renowned bird scholar also being a murderer and child pornographer, even if you did want to vilify him.
  • Black Mass portrays Steve Flemmi as considerably more conflicted about his role in the Winter Hill Gang than he actually was, and according to many people who knew him, including former associate Kevin Weeks, he enjoyed murder.

    Literature 
  • Happens sometimes in the Dear America series, due to the fact that it's made for children. A very obvious example of a whole group being downgraded is in My Heart is on the Ground by Ann Rinaldi, which makes the white men who took Lakota children to be "reeducated" in the ways of white people seem only like misguided missionaries.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Sabrina the Teenage Witch's aunts met Caligula in one episode. While the true extent of the real Caligula's madness is debated it's generally agreed that he was at least rather unstable, but the Sabrina version appears a bit quirky but harmless.
  • Uday Hussein's sadistic nature is toned down quite a bit in the House of Saddam Mini Series because the producers thought that the audience would just have trouble accepting that a human being could be as wantonly cruel as he was in real life.
  • The Borgias:
    • Juan Borgia is depicted as a stupid lech whose actions can be explained away by insecurities. And he really does love his family. The real Juan was sometimes referred to as a sort of idiotic sociopath: he was once chided for killing cats.
    • His older brother Cesare is The Dutiful Son who also loves his family and would do anything for them. The general consensus is that the real Cesare Borgia was all but a sociopath: the only person he loved in the world was his sister, Lucrezia (the show does get that right, but he seems to have never felt the loyalty to his parents that the series implies). While he falls madly in love over the course of the show, he all but stated in reality that the only woman who had any worth in his eyes was Lucrezia. Though the first season is set up as his Start of Darkness, he was already dark by the time these events occurred, so dark that he would stand on a balcony, shooting at prisoners for target practice (with little sis by his side, of course). The writers may have downgraded him for now due to the fact that few would believe that someone could be that bad that early in his life. Also remember that all these accounts of the Borgias were by their enemies, who of course can always be relied upon to give unbiased descriptions.
      • However, by the end of the second season, both of these become more historically accurate. Overall, this is a shtick of the show, making characters less-evil than their counterparts TEMPORARILY so they can have some Character Development to go around.
  • Being a kids' show, Horrible Histories has to do this occasionally; though they do talk about death and violence frequently, some historical figures still have to be downgraded or at least simplified. Hitler is rarely used at all, and a lot of things are omitted from the segments about people like Caligula or Henry VIII.
  • Deadwood: The real Al Swearengen's whorehouse was a sexual slavery racket in which he lured young women and forced them into prostitution through abuse. The Swearengen on the show is a cutthroat and at times abusive to his prostitutes, but he isn't nearly so systematic about it, and he gets several Pet the Dog moments.

    Theatre 
  • Hugh Spencer the Younger in Marlowe's Edward II is undoubtedly an opportunist who's happy to accept the rewards Edward showers on him for his support against the barons, but the Compressed Adaptation leaves no room for him to engage in the historical Hugh Despenser's land-grabs, extortion, and general exploitation of his relationship with the king.

    Videogames 
  • Command & Conquer: Red Alert Series:
    • The first game gives what many accounts would consider an accurate depiction of Stalin's regime, but in the next two games they're just a joke. This might be partially explained by the fact that between the first two games the USSR was apparently a western puppet regime, which only broke free thanks to Yuri's influence.
    • The Empire of the Rising Sun in RA 3, who are clearly modeled after Imperialist Japan, which in real life was infamous for its war crimes, which include pointless mass murders by the hundreds of thousands, enslavement of tens of thousands of women as sex slaves, and performing medical experiments on prisoners from their colonies that killed thousands of people. Even the whole honor aspect that's presented as a joke in the game was a scary thing in real life: they considered surrender dishonorable and would execute enemies who surrendered or use them as slave labor, and fed their civilians propaganda about the Allies that drove them to commit suicide by the tens of thousands when America invaded the Japanese home islands. All of these thing are of course never brought up in the game and the Empire is simply presented as an over-the-top comedic organization, though interestingly it is brought up in an in-progress mod called Red Alert 3: Paradox where in the mod's version of RA 3 events, the Empire butchered a major Soviet city.
  • Civilization's Civilopedia generally glosses over the boatloads of terrible things its various civilization leaders did. The general trend appears to be that only leaders famous for warmongering and being all-around jerks like Josef Stalin or Attila mention their crimes. Others whose crimes are not completely confirmed, were Fair for Its Day (e.g. slavery before the ~1500s) or were somewhat balanced out by good acts generally receive little to no badmouthing in the Civilopedia.

    Webcomics 

    Western Animation 
  • As the page quote suggests, this is lampshaded by Pinky and the Brain while discussing Caligula in one episode.
  • One episode of Captain Planet and the Planeteers has Doctor Blight and her future self go back in time to sell a nuclear bomb to Adolf Hitler, who is only called "the Fuhrer". The good guys react to him with horror, and he's so hateful that his gaze actually hurts Captain Planet, but the show never explains to its young viewers who exactly he is or what makes him so evil.
    • Also, they redesigned his mustache so they could avoid really showing him.
  • One episode of Histeria! indicated that the World's Oldest Woman had met Hitler. Granted, the scene showed her shouting down to him in what was clearly Fire and Brimstone Hell.
  • There's an in-universe example in the South Park Halloween episode in season 1, arguably a parody of this trope as well. Cartman dresses up in a Adolf Hitler costume for Halloween, so the principal shows him a classroom video about how Hitler was a bad person. Because it's made for 8-year-old American children, it only says that "Adolf Hitler was a very, very naughty man!" and merely shows him speaking to a bunch of parading soldiers, which Cartman can't understand because of the language barrier. note  Based on that, the children are supposed to learn An Aesop that dressing up as Hitler to school is not acceptable. Things like the Holocaust and other war crimes couldn't be shown of course, because it's directed towards children. Cartman finds Hitler very cool instead, and imagines being in his place.
  • Nero appeared on one of Sherman and Peabody's segments of The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle, where he was presented as Not Evil, Just Misunderstood. His music teacher started the Great Fire of Rome in this reality.
  • Nero also appeared in an episode of Garfield and Friends in the legend of the cat who invented lasagna. While he was depicted as a Villainous Glutton who has been known to have bad cooks executed, none of his real atrocities are mentioned.


http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HistoricalVillainDowngrade