At least in the US, Benedict Arnold, who is considered a vile, cowardly traitor, but started out as a very capable American commander during the American Revolution. However, he had made himself powerful enemies (many of whom were in congress) during the war, and it all ended when they managed to convince the congress and the upper brass that he would not deserve or need any of the promotions or additional wages for his military service (while he deserved them, there was often not enough money that the government could spare). To evade dishonourable consequences, he even attempted to resign, which Washington did not allow. In retaliation, he tried to sell the fort at West Point to the British, and now monuments that would depict him as a hero in the US only depict his boot, the foot that was injured in a major battle he had fought in for America.
Vlad Tepes aka Dracula was a particularly ruthless warrior-prince remembered for impaling his Turkish enemies as psychological warfare. Today, however, he's far better known for being the inspiration for Bram Stoker's vampire villain, a supernatural monster of pure evil. Colored by that impression, public perception of the actual historical figure in some circles often amounts to little more than an evil overlord.
One of the most well-known examples is the composer Antonio Salieri, contemporary to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. History records that he was Mozart's friend and collaborator. Various works of fiction, going back at least to the mid 19th century, portray him as Mozart's rival and discreet murderer. The most famous example is the play Amadeus by Peter Shaffer, which was adapted into an Oscar-winning film. This has created a bit of Reality Is Unrealistic. Salieri's talents as a composer have also declined in public perception due to the character's inferiority complex toward Mozart. While Salieri might not have been quite as good as Mozart by most reckoning, he was still a fantastic composer. This is, of course, part of the tragedy of the character in Amadeus. The scene in which he's shown examining Mozart's sheet music and listening to the composition in his head is actually quite a feat of musical ability in itself, which Salieri did indeed possess.
General George Armstrong Custer is a curious case. For a long time (in large part due to the efforts of his widow, who wrote three popular books about her husband), he had a Historical Hero Upgrade as a doomed hero. Later books and movies tend to paint him as a flamboyant, cowardly, and idiotic bigot who spends more time curling his hair for the camera than fighting. Sometimes he's a lucky idiot at the right place at the right time. In other portrayals, he's actually a megalomaniac Creepy Crossdresser(!) who cheerfully orchestrates massacres of Native Americans and gets exactly what he deserved at Little Bighorn. The general historical consensus is that Custer was a capable, if somewhat flamboyant, cavalry commander who let his ego override his judgment in attacking a force that vastly outnumbered his. Some specific works:
In "History is Made by Stupid People", a song by The Arrogant Worms, Custer gets off pretty easily — he's described as "very dumb" and "not knowing when to run", but never actually evil.
The morality of some of his various actions was controversial, even in the standards of the time. He had in the past used human shields of women and children to win against superior numbers, which he had planned to do again in his last stand (but was repulsed).
Sort of in Quest for Glory considering there's another character in that game called Ja'far who's a good guy.
Rasputin The Mad Monk is generally considered nowadays as a relatively harmless and eccentric religious figure, but during his life he was thought to hold the imperial family in thrall via strange supernatural powers. (This was more of a polite fiction among the aristocracy, as it allowed them to shift the blame onto him for all the bad decisions made by Nicholas II, who could not be criticized directly.) Therefore, in media he is usually depicted as a raving madman at best, an Evil Sorcerer at worst. The fact that he was apocryphally described as supernaturally resilient didn't help his reputation either. The original account of his murder was written by Prince Felix Yusupov, who supposedly organized the assassination; it was deliberately inaccurate (and changed whenever Yusupov was short on funds), but it's the one that everyone remembers.
In Don Bluth's animated film Anastasia, Rasputin is a mad undead sorcerer with animal sidekicks. The revolution that gets the heroine kicked out of the palace is given no other explanation than a rather poorly motivated sorcerous attack on the family. Most of The Nostalgia Chick review of the movie is dedicated to mocking this.
The second Shadow Hearts game casts Rasputin as an evil wizard who has fused his soul with a demon lord's, taken over a secret society of magic-users, and is manipulating the Russian royal family in order to raise said demon lord's invincible Doom Fortress in St. Petersburg.
In the Marvel Universe Rasputin was a mutant, which explains his Rasputinian Death. Furthermore before he died, Rasputin had transferred portions of his soul into each of the many women he impregnated and illegitimate children which would be passed on to their offspring. As part of a plot to escape death, as the number of his descendants decreased those that remained would accumulate a greater portion of his soul, and when there is only one left that person would effectively become Rasputin reincarnate. In the present, he only has a few descendants left — two of them? The X-Man Colossus and his Dark Magical Girl sister Magik.
Played with in Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army, in which Rasputin does appear as a villain, except this Rasputin is actually an android sent from the future who drops the "evil incarnate" shtick after his mission is complete.
The HBO movie Rasputin: Mad Monk of Destiny tries to be as fair as it can with him. He's portrayed sympathetically, but is clearly a bit nuts. The fact that he's played by Alan Rickman helps make him more likable.
Neither of Rasputin's two operatic portrayals is flattering. Einojuhani Rautavaara manages a more rounded characterisation — his Rasputin is a religious ascetic corrupted by power, who despite his faults has a ring of Faustian poignancy. Jay Reise's Rasputin is downright sadistic and depraved.
In the Hammer Horror film Rasputin: The Mad Monk, he is a con man with Hypnotic Eyes who gets into the good graces of the Tsarina by Brainwashing her lady-in-waiting to push her son off a balcony so that he can be called upon to heal him. Being played by Christoper Lee pretty much seals the deal.
The portrayal of Rasputin by Lionel Barrymore in 1932's Rasputin and the Empress inspired a 1933 Warner Bros.. cartoon, "Wake Up The Gypsy In Me," in which "Rice-Puddin' — The Mad Monk", carries off the cartoon's heroine, until he is blown up by the peasants in "A revolution!"
Deconstructed in the Doctor WhoPast Doctor Adventures novel The Wages of Sin, where the time travelling heroes go back to pre-Revolutionary Russia and, upon encountering Rasputin, find their attitudes towards him coloured by the modern presentation of him as some kind of satanic monster, only to find him a lot more sympathetic and likeable in person.
King John of England, villain of the Robin Hood stories. While John certainly deserved some of his reputation (he was a bad general and very good at alienating the nobility), he was far from the craven usurper depicted in the later legends. He also wasn't an illiterate lackwit, as some popular folk lore depicts him, having written many books on law and was considered one of the premier legal minds of his age, so much so that his judgement had often been sought prior to his kingship in regards to legal disputes. He is also recognized as the founder of the modern British navy. There's also the fact that he could never get away from being in the shadow of his brother, Richard I AKA Richard The Lion Heart. Richard I was seen as the pinnacle of knightly chivalry and a charismatic leader, but a decent peacetime leader he was not. When he was captured by the scheming Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, who wanted to make himself look impressive after the death of his great father, Frederick Barbarossa, Richard was freed after only paying a huge ransom that left England bankrupt. Also, his being at war all the time left the nobles with too much free rein, so that when John came to power they were hostile to his attempts to take control again. There's a lot of evidence that John had an inferiority complex thanks to Richard; Richard was a military man whilst John was a bookish scholar, and when John learned of Richard's death he wept, not due to the loss of his brother, but because he didn't want to step into his shoes.
Doctor Who plays with this by portraying the real King John accurately and revealing that the stories of the villainous King John arose from when a shapeshifting android was impersonating him.
Lampshaded when the Doctor and Tegan get into an argument about King John's legacy; at one point, Tegan (rather snottily) points out that she knows her history, only for the Doctor to take some rather quiet pleasure in expanding on just all the ways in which she's wrong and how King John was a much better ruler than the history books make out. Lesson learned for Tegan; never try and claim you know more about history than a time traveller.
King John in the Robin Hood parody The Zany Adventures of Robin Hood actually points out his status as a Historically Upgraded Villain, claiming that he did pretty good while Richard was away by balancing the budget and making peace with Ireland.
This might be a bit too sympathetic to John, although he was truthfully more useless than evil, he was still a very Greedy and Ambitious man, who increased the taxation to incredible levels, to fund wars that his own commanders deemed hopeless. He was also quite lazy as one several occasions he demonstrated great skill, but he rarely put the effort in unless it was necessary. He also had a habit of making Enemies, he caused England to get excommunicated by ignoring the Pope, despite running to him on many occasions (he got the Pope to denounce the Magna Carta, although admittedly this was afterwards) and was forced to pay tribute for several years so the Pope would reduce this. He lost a good amount of his territory to the Welsh, not to mention all of England's Empire in France. Not to mention he betrayed both his father and his brothers on several occasions to further his own goals (one of the reasons Richard had to cut the Crusades short was John had broken his promise and was trying to take over, despite Richard giving him control of the wealthy lands in Ireland as a gift). All in all John wasn't as bad as he's sometimes made out to be, but he still always put himself first, and would kill anyone who got in his way.
Richard himself has suffered from Historical Villain Upgrade. His image as a poor peacetime leader has been the subject of considerable scholarly revision. Richard's ransom could hardly have bankrupted England, inasmuch as Richard was able to plunge immediately after release into a largely successful five-year military campaign in France. Richard can hardly be blamed for being kidnapped by Leopold of Austria, who handed him over to the Emperor Henry VI for a share of the fee for reconciling Richard with Philip of France ― an act condemned even by Richard's critics.
Richard is also often seen as warlike, arrogant, stupid barbarian by modern audiences. Although warlike (he was a warrior first, and a noble second) and arrogant (he once almost got killed trying to take a hawk from a peasant, because he believed only nobles should own hawks) portraying him as a barbarian or stupid is highly inaccurate. Richard was a highly cultured man, who spoke Latin and French, wrote poetry (two of which survived) and had a similar taste in music to his rival Saladin. Likewise, although brutal and ruthless, he was generally a honourable man, who kept the majority of his promises, led his men through example, and wouldn't go into battle if he felt it would cause unnecessary loss of life (one of the reasons he didn't attack Jerusalem was he was worried to many of his men would die), his skills as an organiser and a tactician are equally impressive, he quickly organised a much more successful invasion plan, focusing on areas were there had been failures in the first two Crusades, such as having the invasion by boat, and having supply ships close by to keep his men equipped. He was also the first man to defeat Saladin, in battle on his home turf, while out numbered, and was able to successfully carryon the campaign even after falling out with his allies and them leaving.
Leopold V and Henry VI also received upgrades, as Richard had deeply insulted Leopold during the Third Crusade (ripping down his banner and throwing it into the ditch of Acre and kicking him), while Henry's grievances included Richard storming Henry's city of Messina despite promising to travel through his territory in peace, the murder of Henry's cousin Conrad of Montferrat, and various other acts. So what is generally portrayed as a "kidnapping" by the English was seen as a lawful arrest by the Germans - Richard was actually put on trial in a Diet under Henry VI. So yes, Richard was not very smart to choose a route through the territory of one of the people he had done so much to turn into his personal enemy.
Richard III. He probably didn't betray his elder brother Edward or murder any of his family members, and he definitely wasn't nearly as deformed as he's generally portrayed (though exhumation of his skeleton in 2013 revealed pronounced scoliosis, so his hunchback wasn't a complete fabrication). Who really killed his young nephews, the "Princes in the Tower" is unclear — Richard definitely kept them in a Gilded Cage before their disappearance, and had them declared illegitimate in order to claim the throne, but Henry also would have had motive to remove them from the line of succession when he repealed the Act which claimed their illegitimacy.
The main culprit for Richard's smear campaign is William Shakespeare's play about him, which was written over 100 years after his death and was basically created for the benefit of the direct descendant of the guy who overthrew him — Shakespeare based his play off a published 'history' that was written by one of Richard's deadliest enemies, who was then made Bishop of Canterbury after Richard's death by Henry Tudor.
Subverted in the Big Finish Audio drama The Kingmaker, while Shakespeare gets the trope.
Subverted by the first Blackadder. The first shot shows Richard as a hunchback approaching his nephew with a knife... only to reveal that it's a toy knife and he has a pillow up his back, and they are just playing. Richard himself is portrayed as rather kindly (though his ghost is a Deadpan Snarker). The story takes place in an Alternate History where he actually defeated Henry Tudor's forces, only to be accidentally killed by his sniveling grand-nephew Edmund, whose father ended up ruling for 13 years (after which Tudor rewrote the history books to portray himself as the winner and Richard as a monster all along).
China's first emperor Qin Shi Huang gets this a lot, owing to his historical reputation as a brutal tyrant (albeit an effective one). He's the Big Bad in Bridge of Birds, in which he is also immortal and has magic powers. Additionally, the Emperor in the film Hero is based on him, and is sort of an uneasy mix between this trope and Historical Hero Upgrade- he wins, and many thought the film had the odd lesson of "an imperfect government is better than civil war."
While Empress Dowager Cixi is hardly a saint, the traditional view of her is of an Evil Matriarch thanks to the media. There's still a lot of debate on how much of this is true and how much of this came from Chinese politics using her image as a scapegoat: more than one biographer depicts her as an Iron Lady who could be very cruel or selfish at one moment (like amassing a huge personal fortune in times when Imperial China was falling down, and being the number 1 suspect behind her nephew's death by poisoning) and very kind at the other (like thanking a nurse who took care of her when she was ill by releasing her from footbinding and making sure she healed completely).
In films featuring Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I gets this treatment. If the film is about Elizabeth, Mary, Queen of Scots, Mary Tudor, and/or Philip II of Spain will be treated this way.
Queen Elizabeth: The Golden Age bombed in Spain precisely because of this trope. Spanish audiences were insulted with its depiction of Philip II (a remarkably pious man) as — quoting one critic — "a cackling, Spanish Doctor Doom." And its prequel, Elizabeth, certainly followed the formula insofar as both Mary, Queen of Scots and the Catholic Church at large were concerned.
This trend stretches back to Schiller's play Mary Stuart (1800) and even earlier, making this Older Than Radio.
The 1940 German film Das Herz der Königin ("The Heart of the Queen"), viewed by many critics as an anti-British propaganda movie, portrays Mary (Zarah Leander) as a beautiful saintly martyr (she sings, too), while Elizabeth is a bitter malicious dried up spinster who will stop at nothing to make her cousin miserable and eventually murder her.
The BBC miniseries Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot treated Mary far more sympathetically than Elizabeth. Ironically, it portrayed James I, the main character, as quite a Jerk Ass. (It should be noted that depicting James I as a Jerk Ass may be more Truth in Television than it is this trope. Still, John Donne seems to have thought well of him.)
Louis XVI of France (king during the French Revolution) is generally seen as a tyrant, and few media will ever depict him as anything less. His actual problem was that he was too weak and indecisive a ruler, while a stronger one might have been able to prevent the revolution.
His wife Marie Antoinette also got a hefty dose of this trope. Depictions of her tend to vary from an airhead who does not realize that cakes and bread are made of the same grain, to a decadent noble who spends all her time and state money on partying and dresses while callously ignoring the suffering of the people. In reality she most likely was a kind young woman who was unprepared for becoming a queen, and tried to cope with things the best she could. The royal couple during the French Revolution overall got a lot of this as the widespread problems in the kingdom were projected to be their personal fault.
You'd think her mother Maria Theresa would try to teach her all she knew, herself having learned how to be a queen the hard way.
There are several conspiracy theories surrounding the Illuminati, who are often portrated as a group trying to take over the world and create a Big Brother-style dystopia. However, in their time (end of the 18th century, not before, not later), they weren't really all too different from your regular Brotherhood of Funny Hats. Their New World Order was in fact referring to republican form of government and legislation based on fundamental human rights (think of the French Revolution). Indeed, this is how the conspiracy theories on them got started-in 1798 a royalist wrote a book blaming the French Revolution on Masons and Illuminati, which then grew steadily over the years. Examples of these in fiction include:
Historical Illuminatus Chronicles turns Count Cagliostro, historically a mountebank and fraud into the leader of a murderous conspiracy that would one day swell up to become the Illuminati.
In the same vein, 19th Century Freemason Albert Pike also gets this. In real life he isn't really well known outside of Freemasonry circles, but once again works of fiction and conspiracy theories portray him as the man who planned and engineered the concepts for the two world wars and a apocalyptic third one—all in the 1870s, all of wars which will bring about a Satanic One World Empire, all of these plans being recorded on a letter. The reality is that the letter was forged from an unknown source, through anti-mason Leo Taxil seemed to be the most likely culprit.
The Marquis de Sade was little more than an S&M enthusiast and pervy erotic fiction author, but he's often remembered as a shadowy, villainous rapist.
In Waxwork he's called "one of the most evil men who ever lived," apparently beating Hitler.
The skull of Marquis de Sade is called that of "the most evil man who ever lived" in the 1965 horror flick The Skull.
Much of the point of Quills is to avert this, showing the Marquis more as a liberated antihero who is brutalized by his intolerant times.
The 1932 novelization of the Mutiny on the Bounty, and the 1935 and 1962 film adaptions, depict Captain William Bligh as a ruthless autocrat. For his day, he would have been considered fairly strict, but fair, and not as strict as he could have been. Modern historians place the blame more on the crew's long vacation in the tropics, causing them to become overly sensitive to discipline. The 1984 film version, The Bounty, took a revisionist and more historically accurate view of Bligh, depicting both his good and bad points, along with the part most depictions completely omit-his almost 4,000 mile long voyage to safely reach Timor in the boat he and the loyal crewman were set adrift on, a remarkable feat by any standard.
Kenesaw Mountain Landis, first Commissioner of Baseball. Firstly for the allegation that he had dealt with the Black Sox scandal in a ham-handed and unfair manner (aided by pro-Black Sox portrayals in films like Eight Men Out or Field of Dreams). This ignores how hated the participating players in the Scandal were at the time, and the implications the scandal held for all of baseball. Secondly, it's often been claimed that Landis was the sole reason for baseball's "color barrier", even to the extent of claiming the Ohio-born-and-raised Landis was an old-school Southern racist. Landis himself stated that the question was up to the owners (most of whom at the time were against integration), and invited black sports reporters to make their case to them. There was also the rather important (up until Branch Rickey said "screw it," and all the other owners followed suit) question of what compensation would be due to Negro League teams in exchange for drafting all their best players; the Negro League teams were profitable business entities in their own right and at the time of integration were predominately owned by African Americans.
Just about any film made about the sinking of the RMS Titanic is sure to portray the relatively blameless J. Bruce Ismay, the president of the shipping lane, as an arrogant, bullying prick who forces the Captain to run the ship full speed into an ice field and then act like sniffling coward who hops aboard the first available lifeboat. While it's perhaps easy to see where this reputation comes from — jumping into a lifeboat to save yourself while there's still hundreds of women and children aboard the ship is perhaps not going to cast you in the bravest or manliest of lights — the truth is a bit more complicated, with eyewitness accounts suggesting Ismay was diligent in helping load and lower the lifeboats and only took his seat in one after making sure that there were no women or children there to take it instead.
Richard Nixon is an unusual example- he gets this treatment in many, many works but rarely ones that deal directly with his original term of office. We say "original" because the upgrade tends to occur in Bad Future alternate timelines where America has become a Dystopia (such as Watchmen or Back to the Future II). We know they are dystopias because one of the features is that Nixon is still President, usually on his totally unconstitutional third, fourth or fifth term, implying he's running a de facto dictatorship. While he's rarely the Big Bad of these settings (in fact he's usually The Ghost), it still fits this trope that the writers thought that Nixon would a) so much as attempt something like this, and b) use his Presidency as further evidence that the setting is a Crapsack World (they are Crapsack, of course; its just a bit much to think that Nixon is one of the main reasons for it). Played for Laughs in Futurama where in the distant future he's a Head In A JarLarge HamCard-Carrying Villain (and once again, President, though this time via Loophole Abuse rather than outright corruption).
Oda Nobunaga has basically become Japan's go-to guy whenever a series needs an Evil Overlord. While Nobunaga was clearly not a very nice man in Real Life, it is very unlikely that he was ever literally the king of Hell like many series like to claim.
As alluded to in the Literature section, almost any adaptation of The Three Musketeers will dump the original novel's moral ambiguities and do this to poor Cardinal Richelieu.
The Norse and other Germanic tribesmen tend to suffer from this, with the media often depicting them as brutish, bloodthirsty and violent raiders, plunderers and killers. Sometimes even in media in which they're meant to be the protagonists! In reality, they were no more savage or prone to violence than any other people at the time, with a very sophisticated culture. Most media fails to acknowledge that the "vikings" are not even a culture of their own, but a specific profession (that is, pirates-which is roughly what "viking" in Old Norse actually means).
However, since pirates were typically "brutish, bloodthirsty and violent raiders, plunderers and killers", the depiction of vikings is not too far off.
With the polarized view of American foreign policy worldwide, as well as the backlash as said foreign policy it is not uncommon to see this trope applied to every single one of the US presidents in countries with an extremely negative view of US foreign policy. And that is all that will be said.
Thomas Edison often gets this in works about Nikola Tesla. While Edison was indeed a Jerkass in Real Life, he is often given sole blame for Nikola Tesla's never getting his inventions out, even the ones that genuinely didn't work or that Tesla never actually intended to be used.
The entire country of France gets depicted this way in the context of World War II, with the Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys and French Jerk tropes being combined. Partly in reaction to the myriad stories of French maquis (resistance fighters) bravely defying the Germans, a "black legend" of sorts has arisen claiming that most French people not only didn't put up a fight, but actually welcomed the Germans and became Nazis themselves. The truth is somewhere in between: those relatively few French who did oppose the Nazis were at best passively resistant; but most French people, whether resistance fighters or not, were not happy about being occupied. Also, most of the French who cooperated with the fascist Vichy government during the war had held fascist beliefs to begin with, and were to some degree using the invasion as a pretext.
Anime and Manga
Le Chevalier d'Eon turned several real life historical figures (including the title character) into heroes and villains of a life and death struggle for control of the world. The Big Bad of the series ultimately turned out to be King Louis XV.
Likewise, Rose of Versailles turned some historical figures (like Madame du Barry) into series antagonists, which result in some God-awful moments for people who actually know a thing or two about those characters.
In Vision of Escaflowne the Big Bad is eventually revealed to be Isaac Newton. Though to be fair, the real Newton was said to be kind of a dick and Dornkirk's ultimate goal was making everyone's wishes come true. He thought the ends would justify the means. One of his interests historically was Alchemy.
In Drifters, the so-called drifters are dead heroes from our world. They are sent to other worlds to battle the Offscourings: Also heroes from our world, but decidedly anti-humanity. Amongst the offscourings are people like Jeanne d'Arc (a Pyro Maniac) and Anastasia Romanova (An Ice Person). It's implied that Drifters are generally less-than-stellar paragons of humanity who died as they lived (Oda Nobunaga is a drifter), while Offscourings are people who were noble and good in real life but died unjustly (explaining why they've obtained a violent hatred of humans). The leader of the Offscourings is implied to be Jesus.
Souten Kouro's Zhang Rang, leader of the 10 eunuchs. He manages to rape Shui Jing despite not having the necessary instrument.
One Piece has many characters named after real pirates. Blackbeard for example is similar to... Blackbeard, except that One Piece's Blackbeard has the abilities of unholy darkness and earthquakes that can sink entire islands, and he is being set up as the most probable Big Bad of the entire series.
JoJo's Bizarre Adventure Part 1 turned Jack the Ripper into a vampire working for the Big Bad, Dio Brando. It also explains why he disappeared, The main character, Johnathan Joestar disintegrated him. To top it all off, he fights by shooting scalpels embedded in his muscles!
In a similar vein, Black Butler turns Jack the Ripper into Grell (a clumsy butler who is actually a sadistic chainsaw-weilding Shinigami) and Madame Red (the protagonist Ciel's aunt and an abortion doctor, who was angry that her victims could get preganant when they didn't want children and thus chose to get abortions, when she herself wished to get pregnant and could not).
In Vinland Saga, the danish chief Thorkell the Tall who was one of the commanders in the occupation of England, is turned into a larger than life Blood KnightPsycho for Hire who will work for almost everyone when it promisses to get him into lots of brutal battles.
Pretty much all of the villains in Read or Die are this where they are given weapons based on what they created. Though they are actually clones of said historical people.
Atomic Robo also depicts a heroic Tesla (creator of Robo) as the opponent of a supervillainous Edison who, among other things, uses the ghost of Rasputin in an attempt to murder Tesla and nearly blows up Manhattan in an attempt to contain the "Odic Force."
Swedish superhero parody comic Kapten Stofil does this fairly regularly. For example, one issue features Jules Verne as an evil superscientist inventing a Mecha Queen Victoria to exploit colonial India, until it is defeated by Indra and Ganesh.
In Neil Gaiman's Marvel 1602 ("Marvel superheroes in 1602 AD"), several historical characters suffer from this, most notably King James VI of Scotland and I of England, whose Burn the Witch! tendencies become his main character trait in a world filled with superpowered individuals.
The Red Menace has Roy Cohn as a supervillain, the eponymous Red Menace (who doesn't appear until late in the series).
Chester Brown's biography of Louis Riel turns Sir John A MacDonald into a Machiavellian schemer who provoked Riel in order to raise publicity for his railroad project.
In Jonathan Hickman's SHIELD, the immortal Isaac Newton seems to represent Bad Science, in contrast with the time-traveling Leonardo da Vinci, who represents Good Science. Newton, in addition to torturing Nostradamus to get details about The End of the World as We Know It, which he then seems disinclined to prevent, also murdered Galileo to take his place as leader of SHIELD. The SHIELD Infinity one-shot reveals he even has his own Supervillain Calling Card — in the Marvel Universe Newton's rivals Hooke, Flamsteed, Pascal and Liebniz were all found dead with an apple beside them.
The Chilean comic book 1899 paints the Peruvian Manuel Grau as a mad scientist and cyborg, while it can be argued that he was not heroic it cannot be argued from a Chilean perspective; he was a traitor to Peru's cause because his gentleness lead him to rescue his adversaries from the water in which they had fell. Conversely there is a hero upgrade in Chilean characters. Furthermore, Chile was the invading army and Peru had involved itself in the war only to defend Bolivia, which then left the war early when Peru could no longer avoid the continuing conflict.
The Marvel Comics version of Louisiana Voodoo Priestess Marie Laveau was initially a victim of circumstance but as time went on she developed into a villain desperate for immortality and later still for employing assassins.
Similar to Chick (and on the exact opposite end of the political spectrum), Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff does this to many figures from recent history. For instance, while George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Tony Blair, Ariel Sharon, and the nation of Israel as a whole are polarizing topics and likely always will be, it is highly improbable that they ever personally machine-gunned civilians For the Evulz, committed Prison Rape, seek to Take Over the World, or bathed in human blood. Many political cartoonists portray their ideological opponents as ignorant buffoons, but Latuff is one of a select few to portray them as Bond-style supervillains.
Films — Animated
Governor Ratcliffe from Disney's Pocahontas. The real John Ratcliffe seems to have been more foolishly trusting than villainous. By the way, he was tortured to death (flayed alive, actually) by the Powhatan Indians, who seem to have received a bit of a Historical Hero Upgrade in the movie.
Granted, the Huns weren't all that nice, but Disney's demonic portrayal of them in Mulan (complete with inhuman yellow eyes) is pretty extreme. They shouldn't even have been Huns. The tribe that Mulan fought against were the Xiongnu, a similar but distinct tribe
Fitting in with the other depictions of Prince John, listed above, Disney's Robin Hood portrays the guy as an effeminate Large Ham who is prone to childish tantrums upon mention of his brother and always begins sobbing at the mention of his mother. He also taxes Nottingham until most of the citizens are in jail because they invented a song that insulted him and plans to have Friar Tuck hanged to lure out Robin Hood.
In Don Bluth's Anastasia Rasputin is an undead evil sorcerer who sold his soul in exchanged for a demon powered reliquary, and sparked the Russian Revolution to kill the Romanovs, and is out to kill Anastasia. In real life, he was an eccentric but staunch ally of the Romanovs, and is revered to this day in his native Russia.
Films — Live-Action
Cinderella Man depicts heavyweight boxer Max Baer as a brutish thug who brags about having killed two men in the ring. In reality, Baer is remembered for his lighthearted personality and was celebrated as an American hero for his defeat of Nazi Germany's champion Max Schmeling while wearing a Star of David on his trunks. Although one of his opponents did die in the ring with him, the incident haunted him for the rest of his life. He regularly gave money to the man's widow. Baer's son, Max Baer, Jr., who later became famous on his own account as Jethro Bodine on The Beverly Hillbillies, was outspoken in his criticism of the portrayal.
It should be noted that Max Baer, Sr., an aspiring actor, contributed to his image problem by playing the blood-thirsty Buddy Brannen, a character supposedly based on himself, in Humphrey Bogart's The Harder They Fall. In the film, Not!Baer is angry that the gentle fraud Toro is getting the "credit" for killing another boxer when it was actually the injuries sustained in a previous fight with Brannen that did him in and decides to prove it by nearly killing Toro in another match. Considering this, it's doubtful Baer would have been that upset over Ron Howard's unrealistic portrayal.
Tavington from The Patriot. While Banastre Tarleton, the historical Colonel Tavington, was notoriously ruthless (cf his actions at the Waxhaws Massacre and his fervent support for the Slave Trade as an MP), the film greatly exaggerates his actual misdeeds. Some of the worst atrocities presented in the film were in fact inspired by the ones committed in World War 2: erasing entire villages, locking all the townsfolk into their church and burning it down.
A perfect example of this is Dan Devine from Rudy. In the film, he was the jerkass Notre Dame head coach who wouldn't let Rudy play at all, only relenting after the entire team threatened to walk. In real life, he was the one who suggested that Rudy play! Dan Devine was a consultant on the film, and was actually ok with having himself portrayed this way, as they needed a villain, it was felt.
Tom Norman, who exhibited Joseph Merrick at his freak show, was by most accounts fairly humane — he was conflated, both in the David Lynch and Bernard Pomerance versions of The Elephant Man with a different manager (identity unclear) who robbed him and abandoned him in Belgium.
The old Universal horror film The Mummy 1932 and its later The Mummy Trilogy does this to Imhotep. The historical Imhotep was a priest, official, and architect mostly known for inventing the pyramid, not for messing with Pharaoh's mistress and being buried alive to torment meddling Westerners thousands of years later. However, since both film versions also lived approximately 1300 years after the time of the historical Imhotep, it's possible to interpret this Imhotep as just a different guy with the same name as the historical figure.
The third film turns China's first Emperor Qin Shi Huang into an immortal Evil Sorcerer who seeks to conquer the world with his Terracota army.
In reality, the Persian Empire was one of the most cultured and progressive civilizations of its era. In the film they're a numberless horde of Faceless Goons, containing an elite faction of monster ninjas, a Giant Mook cannibal ogre, and a demonic executioner with sawblades for arms, firebomb-flinging sorcerers, and a bevvy of unwholesome diplomats covered in gold piercings.
Xerxes himself is reimagined as a nine-foot androgynous Scary Black Man covered in gold chains, who calls himself a god and spends his spare time in a smoky harem tent / opium den full of mutated freak show performers, amputee concubines and pot-smoking goat demons. The real guy just had a tall hat and a funky beard. Compare this◊ and ... this◊.
The Spartan Ephors are transformed from the equivalent of five Senators who run Spartan government into deformed molester priests who betray their people.
Even in the Muslim accounts of the war, Guy de Lusignan was never portrayed as the foppish, racist douche-bag he was shown as in Kingdom of Heaven. Certainly, the historical Guy most likely held many of the views concerning Muslims he expresses in the film, but then so would have the vast majority of other figures, including those the enlightened heroes of the film were based on. Raynald de Chatillon, on the other hand, (by Muslim and several Western accounts) apparently was a bit of a mustache-twirling supervillain, although probably not quite as outright Ax Crazy as the film makes him out to be.
The Patriarch of Jerusalem, who is portrayed, as a cowardly, self-absorbed jerk, blinded by his faith, and mostly spending his time on spreading prejudice against the Muslims. In reality, while almost everything we know about him comes from the writings of his rivals, we still know that it was him along with Balian who negotiated the surrender of Jerusalem and they rounded up the money to ransom the citizens who couldn't afford to ransom themselves. As for his cowardice, he along with Balian offered themselves as ransom for those who they couldn't afford to ransom, which Saladin declined.
Word Of God said they actually downgraded Reynald to make him believable, and Guy hated Raymond in real life (leading to the disaster at Hattin). Guy also tried to make Reynald apologise to Saladin in 1187. It didn't work. Balian is more of an enigma, though he tended to be pro Raymond, the real Balian was prone to taking power where he could find it, and his dynasty fathered most of the royal families of Europe. Despite his actions at Jerusalem in real life, he was no Saint.
The East India Company in Pirates of the Caribbean in so many ways, the first being that they had no authority to do anything in the Caribbean (here's a hint, their name). The company in the movies is called the East India Trading Company, not the real-life East India Company which the EITC is based upon. It has been confirmed by Word Of God that the PotC universe is an alternate universe, and that these two companies are not the same. Still; to make it clear it is not the historical East India Company, they take that name and add another word to it, instead of, say The WEST Indies Company?
Its pretty obvious from the start that Cutler Becket is overstepping his authority; Governor Swan immediately calls him out on it and is only forced to back down when he waves signed warrants for Will, Norrington and Elizabeths' arrest. Given that said Governor is thrown in jail for trying to leave Port Royal, his messenger to the King intercepted and murdered, Port Royal itself taken over and Swan himself eventually killed, its a fair bet that whether or not they had the "authority" to do what they did was largely irrelevant. This was a criminal enterprise; intentionally, they were worse than the pirates they were hunting down.
In the original script Beckett mentions that Parliament appointed him to the East Antilles Trade Commission and granting him authority to fight piracy as he saw fit. This dialogue obviously was cut from the film. Thus Beckett's initial actions (arresting Will and Elizabeth) are technically legal though morally dubious.
Blackbeard himself in the same series is depicted as 'the pirate whom all other pirates fear' and an evil dick, and while he was definitely feared, the real Blackbeard tended to avoid violence if he could and went out of his way to take care of his men. While he did apparently shoot and wound his own first mate, it is sometimes theorized that he only did this to save the man from dying in an upcoming battle.
Among various other historical inaccuracies in U-571, the film portrays a German U-boat crew gunning down defenceless sailors that are stranded in the North Atlantic. Never mind that in Real Life such an instance had only occurred once throughout the entire war and it was far more common for German sailors to assist all survivors. (Which was only good sense: A captured enemy can be interrogated, used as a bargaining chip, or sometimes even convinced to switch sides; a corpse cannot.) Such a courtesy only came to an end when it became apparent allied forces would attack U-boats on sight, regardless of whether they were carrying rescued merchant men.
It was hard not to see this scene as a Take That to the similar scene in Das Boot where the German sub commander is openly distraught that the Allies aren't rescuing their own seamen.
Interestingly, Hitler had issued standing orders that all U-boat crews were to gun down survivors of sunken enemy ships. However, many high ranking U-boat officers ignored this order or conveniently forgot to pass it along, or downgraded it to a suggestion to be taken with a grain of salt the size of one of those blocks they give horses to lick, since they were afraid of their own crews being treated badly in the event of capture. There are also stories of how U-boat crews would assist survivors by giving them supplies and navigational aids.
Comparatively mild case in The Young Victoria, where King Leopold I of Belgium is portrayed as a pushy manipulator trying to use his nephew Prince Albert to gain control over the eponymous Victoria. In reality, Leopold was Victoria's favourite uncle.
Also, while Sir John Conroy was by no means a friendly personality, even he would never dare manhandle the future monarch of the United Kingdom.
In James Cameron's Titanic, pretty much every crew member other than Captain Smith is depicted as, at best, incompetant or easily duped and evil at worst. Harold Lowe might be an exception, seeing as he is the one crew member who tries to make space in his lifeboat and rescue the people in the water. The ship's first officer, William Murdoch, is portrayed shooting two innocent men to prevent them from boarding a lifeboat, and subsequently putting a bullet through his own brain out of guilt. This portrayal was so at odds with the historical record that a studio executive travelled to Murdoch's hometown, apologized, and made a donation to boost the local high school's William Murdoch Memorial Prize, and Cameron himself later apologized in the DVD commentary. This was still nothing compared to his portrayal in the famously horrid animated feature Titanic: The Legend Goes On, in which he's a Stupid EvilJerk Ass who at times seems as though he's trying to get as many people killed as possible.
The HBO TV film Conspiracy about the Wannsee Conference gives one of these to Gerhard Klopfer. Whilst undoubtedly a foul racist and war criminal in Real Life, Conspiracy turns it Up to Eleven: The film-Klopfer is morbidly obese, lecherous, ugly (hint: he's portrayed by Ian McNeice, who also played Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in the Dune miniseries), does unpleasant impressions of gassed Jews, is so disgusting as to make the other Nazis uncomfortable and is even hinted to be a pedophile.
Octavian was a Magnificent Bastard in Antony and Cleopatra - a scarily competent Chessmaster, a reasonably proficient strategist and the only man in Asia Minor who can resist Cleopatra. It is pretty much stated that Octy will rule the world better than Antony would have. It is his portrayal as totally inept that is objected to, especially when he was one of the more (possibly the most) competent Emperors.
Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, receives a big one in the 1938 film Marie Antoinette. The real Orléans was a genuine believer in the principles of Rousseau and Montesquieu, who used his position to foster support for liberalism and democratic reform. He was initially supportive of The French Revolution, but eventually turned against its excesses, saved several people from being executed, and was eventually guillotined himself. In the movie, however, Orléans is, in fact, the primary orchestrator of the entire Revolution, which he cooked up as part of an insidious plot to seize the throne, after failing to seduce Marie Antoinette. During the so-called "Affair of the Diamond Necklace," he becomes a full-blown Diabolical Mastermind, using forgery and impersonation to frame the Queen for fraud. Eventually, he maliciously casts the deciding vote in favor of executing Louis XVI, before being executed offscreen by the rabble (he did vote in favor of it, but was hardly the decider, though some people did take that as an attempt by him to get rid of the king and seize the crown for himself).
This may relate to a conspiracy theory published in a 1798 book that claimed the French Revolution was a plot by the Freemasons, who Louis Philippe was Grand Master of in France. While many of the French Revolutionaries were members, there is no evidence this was a purely Mason plot. Moreover, if it were, that backfired spectacularly on him.
In a truly bizarre example, the 2004 version of Around the World in 80 Days has as its Big Bad Lord Kelvin, a physicist responsible for formulating the first and second laws of thermodynamics, discovering the concept of absolute zero temperature (and getting the resulting scale named after him to boot), and many other worthy scientific achievements. He received his knighthood for his work on the Transatlantic Telegraph Cable, including several inventions used in the project. The film turns him into a sniveling, conniving backstabber who attempts to stop Phineas Fogg out of little more than professional jealousy.
The 1996 made-for-cable TV movie Norma Jean And Marilyn gives this treatment to Marilyn Monroe, of all people. Biographers generally agree that, despite her many flaws, Marilyn was one of the most kind-hearted and generous people in Hollywood. Less commonly acknowledged is that she was unbelievably courageous at times, establishing herself as an independent producer at a time when movie actors (especially female ones) were considered human property and taking stands for civil rights and against McCarthyism in an era when it was not considered proper for celebrities to voice their opinions on political issues. But you see none of this in Norma Jean And Marilyn, which instead has Mira Sorvino portray the icon as a whiny, neurotic, borderline sociopathic bitch, with too many Jerkass moments to mention. While it's true that Marilyn could have a fiery temper, for instance, it's unlikely she ever screamed anti-Semitic slurs at Arthur Miller (her third husband), since she converted to Judaism as well and considered herself culturally Jewish. In another scene, Marilyn all but crosses the Moral Event Horizon when she tries to convince her sometime boyfriend, Frank Sinatra, to have his "acquaintances" assassinate someone she doesn't like!
The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. While the details of Sellers' unhappy marriages (including Domestic Abuse), overbearing and indulgent mother, professional and private tantrums, and prickly relationships with filmmakers are largely drawn from Real Life, the film also downplays/eliminates more positive relationships such as his lifelong friendships with his fellow castmembers from The Goon Show and his frequent supporting players David Lodge and Graham Stark. His mother also receives this treatment, hitting a low point with a completely fabricated take on her husband's/his father's death in which she doesn't inform Peter that he's dying until it's almost too late. (Curiously, the biopic is presented as a film-within-a-film Sellers himself is making and playing all the characters in; a Deleted Scene has "him" as both the producer and director discussing how it's impossible to make him sympathetic.)
While Frost/Nixon avoids casting Nixon in an overly negative light, his chief of staff Jack Brennan is not so lucky. In the film, he comes across as a humorless military man who has no problem bullying and outright threatening people in order to protect the image of the president. At one point, he even shuts down production to stop Nixon saying something bad and threatens to ruin Frost if he makes him look bad. The real Brennan, a former Marine, is known to friends and colleagues for his friendly, good-natured personality, with Diane Sawyer describing him as "The funniest man you'll ever meet." Frost described him as a "wonderful man" and even said Brennan and his colleagues could have talked Nixon out of Watergate in the first place had they been his staff.
Any Filipino movie will portray explorer Ferdinand Magellan as some kind of mustachio twirling bad guy.
This was the major complaint about Moneyball, given that it wasn't all that "historical" and all of the guys being portrayed as villains were still around and able to come to their own defense. Perhaps no one got it worse than the team's scouting director, Grady Fuson, who was portrayed being fired for insubordination after almost physically assaulting Billy Beane over his disagreement with Beane's sabermetrics strategies. In reality, Fuson voluntarily left the A's for another job with the Texas Rangers (in fact, the A's forced the Rangers to compensate them for losing him).
Throughout the movie, and particularly in the intro, Argo portrays the deposed Shah of Iran as practically The Caligula, a cruel, decadent despot living in uncaring luxury while the country went down the toilet. The truth is a bit more subtle. Whatever his personal faults may have been, Iran under the Shah was a much more open and tolerant place than it has been since the revolution, a place where women had equal rights to education and where foreigners and Christians could live and work and worship openly and without fear. Literacy, education and women's rights reached their highest points in the nation's history under the Shah, and have fallen steeply since. There are still people alive today who lived there and remember that time, who know that it was a far better place to live than it is now, and the film does a great disservice to the truth to completely neglect to mention any of this.
All of the film adaptations of The Three Musketeers portray Cardinal Richelieu as one of the most evil and slimy French politicians ever, with him constantly trying to undermine King Louis and taking France for himself. However, in real life, Richelieu is considered a national hero in France since his actions were responsible for not only helping turn the nation into a 17th century superpower, but also saving it from being encircled and destroyed by the rival Habsburgs.
The film Dangerous Beauty depicts Veronica Franco as being accused of witchcraft and being tried by the Roman Catholic Inquisition. That really did happen. The film, however, also depicts the Inquisition as frothing-at-the-mouth witch-hunters determined in advance not only to convict Franco, but prepared to believe that Venetian society was rife with witchcraft, and eager to conduct mass burnings of witches. This portrayal of the Inquisition, as lunatic witch-hunters, is quite common and appears in many works. It is also totally false. In reality, the official position of the Roman Church was that accusations of witchcraft were almost invariably superstitious nonsense; the Church generally tried to suppress witch-hunts. When the Catholic Inquisition did investigate charges of witchcraft and put suspected witches on trial, it was almost always because public hysteria had broken out, and some person, such as Veronica Franco, had been accused, and the Church wanted to put a stop to the nonsense before things got out of hand. By conducting an official investigation and clearing the accused, the Church could usually calm the situation and end the panic. The real witch-burning hysteria in Europe occurred in predominantly Protestant northern Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. So while Dangerous Beauty correctly portrays the Inquisition as dismissing the charges against Franco, it also portrays this as an incredible occurrence resulting from the heroic intervention of the entire Venetian senate. In reality, it was almost a foregone conclusion that the Inquisition would dismiss the charges, or acquit her, because that's what the Inquisition normally did with witchcraft charges. Heresy charges definitely were another story, however.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms does this for Cao Cao. A very capable ruler, well-versed in matters military (he annotated Sun Tzu's The Art of War) and literary (he was also an accomplished poet), simultaneously upgraded to the Big Bad of the tale (despite there being three kingdoms, remember?) and downgraded to a chump whose schemes to take over the whole of China get persistently foiled by Zhuge Liang.
As well as Lu Bu who in real life was a brilliant adminstrator as well a good shot with the bow, treated as a blood knight who is only out for himself while he can't run an empire worth a damn, the reason why the story turns him to dumb villain is because he was the antithesis of Confucian ethics and the unpleasant fact he was easily manipulated by Diao Chan.
As well, minor warlord Zhang Lu. In the novel he's greedy and craves power/territory as a means of playing up the righteousness of Shu and Ma Chao (who's a definite case of Historical Hero Upgrade). In real life Zhang Lu was one of the more fair rulers of the time building roads with free rest stops and food and using taxes collected to support commoners instead of indulging for himself. In fact when he was forced to retreat during Cao Cao's invasion of his territory he explicitly left behind his wealth proclaiming that it belonged to the country and not him, an act which greatly impressed Cao Cao into allowing Zhang Lu to peacefully surrender.
In a particularly weird literature example, the villain of The Wild Road, who performs cruel experiments on cats to learn their magic, turns out to be Isaac Newton. He tries to ascend to godhood by trying to surgically add cat body parts to himself and wields an evil magical staff powered by cat skulls.
Cardinal Richelieu is something of an Anti-Villain and Well-Intentioned Extremist. Although he hires the main villain of the first book, Milady de Winter, uses underhanded methods, and stands in opposition to the heroes, Dumas takes some time out to note that he's still a loyal and skilled servant of France (and very grateful to D'Artagnan for disposing of Milady when she went rogue.) His overt villainization is reserved for condensed and simplified adaptations—especially the movies.
Eventually, Dumas had to write another novel (The Red Sphinx) portraying Richelieu in a sympathetic light just to reassure people he really wasn't trying to demonize him. To this day, Richelieu is considered one of the greatest statesmen of France who helped make France a superpower later in the 17th century.
Richelieu's successor Mazarin is portrayed as greedy, vain and cowardly, but he's also very shrewd. The stories emphasize how unfairly he's judged by the French for his Italian heritage.
Several of the RedSwords in Paladins. Gray's sword is implied to be Genghis Khan and believes in solving every problemwithslaughter, and though we don't have any specifics on the Sandoval the time period and the name suggest Emil Sandoval may have been an alternate history version of a famous Conquistador with the rest of his achievements left in the dust in favor of playing up speculated abuses of the natives.
In 1632, Richelieu is one of the larger villains of the series. Series creator Eric Flint himself said that he would've liked to make Richelieu one of the good guys, but he needed someone intelligent to oppose the heroes.
In Gone with the Wind, the "Yankees" (Northerners) are a faceless mass of soldiers and later politicians (the infamous "carpetbaggers") invading happy Southern land. The one Yankee soldier to appear onscreen was a deserter shot by Scarlett before he could rob and (it is implied) rape her. As you might expect, the film kind of glosses over the whole slavery thing (unlike the book).
In Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood His Odyssey (as in the film based thereon), the British King James II has the title character and his rebellious fellows sold into slavery for a profit. As such with the story being from their point of view, they see that King as foul tyrant and treat the news of his deposing in favor of William of Orange as a moment of celebration, especially since the new King is eager to emancipate them and recruit them for his navy.
Count-Duke of Olivares became a Manipulative Bastard and/or a Chessmaster (although not a Magnificent Bastard) in Alatriste. In real life, he was the power behind a weak king, and of course not exactly a fan favorite of the peasants; however the author provides Olivares with realistic opportunities to be a villain.
William Makepeace Thackeray's historical novel Henry Esmond has an extremely negative presentation of John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, presenting him as an amoral Magnificent Bastard willing to betray anyone to advance himself. His wife, Sarah, is presented as a social climbing bitch. Worth noting is that John's descendant, Winston Churchill was prompted to write about his ancestors in part to address the portrayal in the novel
It's hard to upgrade history's most famous serial killer, but Jack the Ripper gets a lot of the treatment anyway. In the short story "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper", his murders prove to be an occult means of extending his lifespan and he's still alive today to kill the narrator.
Not all of the Jury Of The Damned in The Devil and Daniel Webster were really that evil in reality. In particular, Thomas Morton was only evil in the sense of being an enemy of Puritans and was an early proponent of treating Native Americans decently.
A lot in The Royal Diaries book series, which are fictional diaries about real princesses. An example is Mary I in Red Rose of the House of Tudor, who is portrayed as devious, cunning, and hateful towards her younger siblings. While her relationships with Elizabeth and Edward certainly cooled later in life, during their childhoods, the much-older Mary acted as a mother figure, and was on record as being hopelessly naive and guileless. The enmity between her and Elizabeth didn't really kick into gear until after Mary became queen; it's not until she starts burning Protestants that she really deserves this.
Gregory Maguire's Mirror, Mirror combines history with the tale of Snow White and casts Lucrezia Borgia in the role of the wicked queen. Though the Borgias were not a nice family, there's little evidence Lucrezia had the expertise in poisoning she was later accused of (in fact, the attributes of the poison she was most famous for don't even exist in any real substance). And, obviously, the Snow-White-like events of the novel don't have much basis in real history either.
Bernard Cornwell does this on occasion in his historical fiction, but at least he's polite about it. In the Author's Notes for the books of his series The Saxon Chronicles, Cornwell apologizes to Æthelred of Mercia for depicting him as a weak and devious snake and terrible husband, a characterization with no support in the historic record, but which makes for a better story.
Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu in the Sano Ichiro series. He indeed ruined the currency system of the time, and instituted policies that did nothing to alleviate suffering under the shogun's rule, but nothing indicates he was as scheming, vicious and relentless as he is in the books. He was little more than a yes man to the shogun.
Nikola Tesla gets this treatment in Goliath. To elaborate, his real-world eccentricities are ratcheted up severallevels.
It is unlikely that General José de Urrea was anywhere near as black as J.T. Edson paints him in Get Urrea!. In particular, historians now believe that the Goliad Massacre was perpetrated at the orders of Santa Anna and not Urrea.
While public opinion varies greatly on where Wyatt Earp lies on the scale of heroism and villainy, Edson always portrays him as a petty and vindictive thug with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
In the Divine Comedy, Brutus and Cassius are depicted as the ultimate traitors, being gnawed upon by Satan for eternity.
In Kim Newman's Anno Dracula short story "Vampire Romance", the villain turns out to be a vampirised Richard III, who is worse than Shakespeare portrayed him. He resents Will for saying he sent someone to kill the Princes in the Tower; he dealt with them personally.
A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes novel, includes a mild case with Brigham Young. He doesn't serve as an antagonist for Holmes, but he's portrayed as a crazed religious zealot with zero sympathy for anyone outside his devoted group of followers, and he turns out to be directly responsible for the events motivating the sympathetic vigilante who commits the murders.
In Musashi, the titular character's Foil and Worthy OpponentSasaki Kojiro is given this. Although not without noble qualities, he is for the most part arrogant, sadistic, and only interested in his innate talent so much as it can make him rich and famous. In Real Life, the main thing against him is that he was killed by Folk HeroMiyamoto Musashi. Debate still rages as to whether or not Musashi cheated or if he had been ambushed and murdered by a group, with or without Musashi's knowledge.
Live Action TV
It is fair to say that Adolf Hitler was, by all descriptions, a deplorable human being. However, CBS docu-drama Hitler: The Rise of Evil somehow manages to take this overboard. As a child, Hitler manages to kill his father simply by giving him an evil stare. Apparently deciding that this wasn't enough, the writers also twisted the incident of Hitler being awarded the Iron Cross — in real life, for several cases of genuine bravery — into a political farce. Furthermore, the film takes the relationship between Hitler and his niece, Geli Raubal, and presents it as being one of sexual abuse — despite the fact that there is no historical documented evidence which confirms this. In general, Hitler's every action is accompanied by ominous background music, and when he isn't violently stamping on a dog's head before emptying bullets into its face, he's behaving like the villain from a Saturday morning cartoon show. In addition, the only rhetoric he is ever shown as presenting is anti-Semitism, with anti-Communism having a brief mention. This carriers rather Unfortunate Implications, as it implies that Germans supported the Nazi Party purely because it was anti-Semitic, without taking into account all the other factors. Also, given that Hitler's war with the Soviet Union is often thought of as the climax (or at least a highpoint) of his destructive warmongering (with at least 12 million civilian deaths), skimming over his anti-Communist intentions isn't just bad history, it might be an unintentional brush aside. In general, it is Hollywood History at its very worst.
Double The Fist presents to us the man who discovered Australia, Captain James Cook, as an egotistical Space Pirate who barely flinches at the sight of the ballistic Fist Team. Cook is not generally regarded as a villain, but he fits the bill to some, having essentially taken over an already inhabited land (as with many explorers of the era).
Inverted in I Claudius which essentially single-handedly rehabilitated the reputation of the Emperor Claudius, who while thought of a villain in the past is now positively viewed in the popular imagination. On the other hand, Evil Matriarch Livia would be a good example of this trope.
And also to Caligula, well it is true his father was indeed murdered but Caligula didn't do it, in fact his father was murdered by Tiberius whom viewed Caligula's dad as a political rival(also Caligula was just a child when his father died.)Many other actions that Caligula did was not true, or there are no historical prove(such as his incest with his sisters.)
Yet another Roman example: seductive, manipulative Atia of the Juli in Rome who is essentially unrecognizable from the prim and proper and rather boring historical woman.
Although, as noted above, Prince John often gets this treatment in Robin Hood stories, The New Adventures Of Robin Hood deserves special mention. In it Prince John, rather than merely being an evil king, gleefully sacrifices peasants to Celtic goddesses.
Common on "expose" made-for-TV movies about popular TV shows: the most controversial cast member will inevitably be depicted as evil incarnate, or very close to it. In a few cases, this has been at the direction of another cast member, indicating some bad blood there:
The Gilligan's Island TV movie turned Tina Louise (Ginger) into a selfish, primadonna diva who was furious that this broad slapstick comedy named for another actor's character was not all about her and how glamorous she really, truly was. Who was behind this portrayal? None other than Mary Ann herself, Dawn Wells.
The Three's Company TV movie likewise depicted Suzanne Sommers (Chrissy) as a stupid and self-centered diva with no regard for anyone. This one was even more blatant in its intentions, for who was always the biggest victim of Sommers' schemes? Why, Joyce DeWitt, who played Janet. And who co-produced the movie, as it happens. Even John Ritter was depicted as having spurned DeWitt (by passing her over for the short-lived spinoff, Three's A Crowd, as if that was his decision) and being 100% in the wrong for it.
Piero de' Medici is the Big Bad of Leonardo, leading The Conspiracy to use Leo's inventions to overthrow the Duke of Florence. In Real Life Piero was a fairly typical Renaissance nobleman, and the Medicis had been the de facto rulers of Florence since 1434 (since there wasn't a Duke until 1532, when the title was granted to ... the Medicis).
CBC's miniseries Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story met with criticism in Saskatchewan (the province where Douglas used to be premier) for its potrayal of his political opponent James Gardiner. They kicked up so much of a fuss that CBC stopped airing it on CBC. The other wiki has more on it .
Helena might count as well, if it wasn't for the Heel Face Revolving Door. Although arguably she's sufficiently detached from the real H. G. Wells to count as an original character.
In Warhammer 40000, Khorne's greatest champion, Doombreed is heavily implied to be Genghis Kahn after his death. In fairness, a bloodthirsty warlord is exactly the kinda guy Khorne would take to.
In Knickerbocker Holiday, Peter Stuyvesant seizes power in New Amsterdam and becomes a corrupt, warmongering dictator with obvious Fascist leanings. This glaring historical inaccuracy is lampshaded in the final scene where Washington Irving steps in to prevent Stuyvesant from killing everyone else, saying that's not how posterity would want to remember him.
In 1776 John Dickinson gets something of an historical villain upgrade. While opposed to the Declaration of Independence, it was more a case of he thought it should not be done at that time, because the structure of government was too uncertain and the Americans had no European allies at that point. Rather than being John Adams' antagonist, he avoided attending the Continental Congress, while independence was being debated and voted upon. He went on to fight the British, in the militia — as a private and a brigadier general, on different occasions. He had a moderately successful political career afterward, including being a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. A little of this is hinted at in the film in the character's last speech, but up to then, the musical presents him as a nascent Benedict Arnold.
Alexander Pushkin's Mozart and Salieri was the first work to portray Salieri as a villain, written less than 50 years after Mozart's death. The film Amadeus is based on it. In Real Life, their relationship was at worst a respectful rivalry, and some sources claim they were even friends.
William Shakespeare was a major purveyor of this trope out of necessity, writing histories to support the royal family's prejudices. (Not that he might not have agreed with them — but who knows?)
The Real LifeMacbeth was one of Scotland's better early kings, and was especially known for his charity toward the poor. He defeated Duncan, a young tyrant invader, in a fair fight in battle, reigning successfully for 17 years before being defeated and killed in battle himself; he was succeeded first by his stepson, then by Malcolm III, the thane who had defeated him. Shakespeare's Macbeth is nothing like the original, partly because his source got a lot of things wrong, but also because Shakespeare was writing the play to appeal to King James I, who was thought by historians to be a descendant of Banquo (who actually never existed, but neither James nor Shakespeare could have known that). The play echoes James's belief that kings were chosen by God and that God's will, no matter how thwarted in the short term by tyrants, could not fail in the end. Lady Macbeth's characterization is pure fabrication, as almost nothing is known about her beyond her name, Gruoch (?!).
Similarly, Richard III in the eponymous play is written as having his two nephews murdered, for which there's little evidence (they simply disappeared, their fate unknown to this day). And while he likely committed some atrocities and heinous crimes, it can certainly be argued that he wasn't any more or less ruthless than kings who had preceded or followed him. But Shakespeare was writing in the time of Elizabeth I, whose grandfather Henry VII overthrew Richard at the end of the War of the Roses. Thus, the official party line was that Richard was a monster and not a legitimate king of England.
Unsurpisingly, Joan of Arc is portrayed as a whore and a witch in Henry VI Part 1, which was very much popular opinion at the time among her sworn enemies, the English. This is an expecially ridiculous example when you consider the fact that what we known from her trial suggests Joan of Arc was a Badass Pacifist, and that it was proven she remained a virgin all her life.
There are actually a number of historians who believe that Shakespeare's later tragedies were set in more esoteric times so he could criticize the mores of his own time under the radar (at least occasionally; his play Richard II, about the overthrow of a childless king, was set late in the reign of Elizabeth I when the succession was much in doubt). In particular, Macbeth nowadays isn't seen as a political story (rightful king is overthrown by usurper; son restores rightful line), but rather a personal story (Macbeth and his wife's ambition overrides their own sense of right and wrong to the point that they are haunted by it).
Pope Pius XII got this treatment in Rolf Hochhuth's highly tendentious play The Deputy, a Christian tragedy (German: Der Stellvertreter. Ein christliches Trauerspiel) (1963), which was produced to undermine the influence of the Catholic Church, perhaps particularly in the Soviet bloc. Some revisionist modern historians, ignoring the testimony of former Soviet spies like the Romanian Ion Mihai Pacepa who say that the play was a deliberate (and successful) attempt to cast Pius and the Church in the worst possible light, ran with it and produced the idea of "Hitler's Pope." Pius' actions regarding the Holocaust remain a source of controversy, but most likely it was a case of, if anything, not doing enough to help Jews.
Boris Godunov, in reality, was a somewhat opportunistic, but generally fair and even generous regent and tsar of Russia, but the play of his name by Alexander Pushkin, made into an opera by Modest Moussgorsky, depicts him as an Evil Chancellor consumed by a lust for power.
Cyrano de Bergerac: The play inverts this trope with a popular villain (see the Literature folder): CardenalRichelieu offers his help to the protagonist instead of opposing him. In fact, it's Cyranowho coldly rejects his patronage. Edmond Rostand gives Dumas a metaphorical "What the hell, dude?" by including a scene where Richelieu can be observed patronizing a play written by Dumas, that depicts him as a villain.
For example, Rodrigo Borgia was certainly a murderous, conniving asshole in real life and as Alexander VI, generally considered to be the worst pope in the history of the Catholic Church; it turns out he was secretly the cacklingleader of the Templars during the Renaissance. Oh, and he thought Christianity was bunk, but became Pope anyway just for the power.
Savonarola in the Bonfire of the Vanities DLC, although in fairness AC was hardly the first to come up with this portrayal. Granted he was definitely extreme by modern standards, but people forget that the reason Savonarola was able to carry out his famous Bonfire was because the people of Florence were sick and tired of watching wealthy Italian families flaunt their vast fortunes by commissioning ludicrously expensive sculptures and paintings while the rest of society was beset by plague and poverty. By the standards of the time he was practically a popular revolutionary. Hell, in the 1990s he was even nominated as a candidate for sainthood (he didn't win though).
In a more modern context: Antonin Scalia, long-serving conservative Supreme Court Justice, has, apparently, was instrumental in manipulating the Supreme Court's decisions since at least 2000, when he got the Templar-aligned puppet George W. Bush into the White House. In addition, since then he's had Templar-allied appointees filling up the court system. That's...yeah.
Assassins Creed III has "The Tyranny of King Washington" DLC, which is an Alternate History that postulates a What If? storyline where George Washington accepted the offer to become King instead of President, and the United Kingdom of America becomes an even worse tyrannical power than England ever was at the time.
Oda Nobunaga tends to get this treatment in many modern things, especially Onimusha, where he kicks out the Devil himself and tries to take over the world as an undead demon lord; the Samurai Warriors series plays it far more subtly (by mostly only hinting, except for his Samurai Warriors 2 ending, at him being anything but a Badass Normal); Sengoku Basara makes him into an Evil Overlord which probably can compete for the title of the most Obviously Evil character ever; but Kessen III outright subverts it by making him a protagonist. He may have been a ruthless badass during his lifetime even among the already vicious Lords of Japan, but modern works tend to take this to ridiculous (and often evil) extremes.
Many of his positive actions include tolerating Christians, open borders, projects to rebuild Japan (he was basically trying to kick start a Japanese Renaissance) and modernizing the military.
Warriors Orochi does make Oda Nobunaga one the other group aside from Shu as one of those who fight to resist Orochi's army and he is the only major leader present in the game, most of the other major leaders were missing in action.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi gets it even worse. Even though he's usually portrayed as evil, Oda Nobunaga is at least handled with a sort of respect. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, when he appears, is generally portrayed as a Smug Snake type — an incompetent would-be manipulator, and often a pervert to boot. May be class-based, considering that he was born a commoner (and couldn't become shogun for that reason). Even Samurai Warriors 2, which mostly portrayed him as sympathetic and basically a nice guy, had him as an only vaguely competent, concubine-loving goofball who was outclassed by his wife in intelligence and skill. Sengoku Basara attempts to partway avert this by turning the "mountain monkey" into an eight-foot tall Well-Intentioned Extremist and an Expy of Raoh from Fist of the North Star; he's certainly competent and quite awe-inspiring, but also very clearly a villain.
Well, starting a war with Korea right after you're done with a civil war isn't going to make you popular.
Hell, the Sengoku Jidai period was chock full of this. Even Tokugawa Ieyasu is not safe from this. He comes off sympathetic in Samurai Warriors, but everyone else wants a piece of him, since there are more Western people than Eastern people, and Koei made them to be the ones 'fighting for honor'. And similar to Hideyoshi, he mostly won the battle through sheer luck or the help of other people. And Koei seems to take favoritism to the Western side, and in the upcoming DS game Saihai no Yukue (An Ace Attorney like game featuring Sengoku Jidai), Ieyasu becomes a full-blown smoking fat villain whereas his rival Ishida Mitsunari becomes the Bishōnen hero. And if anything... He's probably the next in line of the villains for the Onimusha series. At least Sengoku Basara presents him as sympathetic (if extremely ineffectual).
And seemingly reversed in the third game when he has grown some balls, gets aged up and Took a Level in Badass. And when compared with the other new main character Ishida Mitsunari, Ieyasu seems to be the more virtuous guy. Then Capcom subverts it in that while he looks virtuous, Ieyasu has taken some levels in hypocrisy and even Mitsunari's anger towards him seems justified.
But you gotta admit: who are you gonna trust more at face-value? Prettyboy Ieyasu Altair, or Screaming Emo Iori Yagami Ishida Mitsunari?
Perhaps worth noting that this is largely averted in the original Kessen. While the enemy are generally depicted in a negative light, it depends entirely on which campaign your playing; as the East, Toyotomi is an ineffectual puppet, Ishida is a ruthless tyrant and Tokugawa is nobly attempting to fulfil Oda's ambition of a unified Japan, while as the West, Ishida is the noble protector of Toyotomi, the inexperience-but-willing true heir, and Tokugawa and the Easterners are dishonourable usurpers.
Also to note, while the Tokugawa seemed safe enough, villainizing Tokugawa and Ieyasu became rather standard practice once the Tokugawa Shogunate started to decline and they took liking to the oppositions of Tokugawa, the most prominent being Sanada Yukimura (and occasionally the aforementioned Mitsunari). Some serieshas followed this suite.
Except in his upcoming debut in Samurai Warriors Chronicles 2nd, where Munenori is instead being that 'virtuous badass swordsman'.
Fuuma Kotarou was, by all accounts, not a very nice man... but Samurai Warriors 2 exaggerates him from merely a ninja who turned to petty banditry after the fall of the Late Hojo to a chaos-worshiping madman who actively tries to extend the Sengoku period for his own amusement.
World Heroes portrays Fuuma as a cocky, arrogant and quite active sort of fellow, if that counts for anything.
City of Heroes has Romulus Augustus, who is 8 feet tall, can wear what looks like hundreds of pounds of armor, can stand up to multiple super-powered punches, blasts, mental assaults, etc... and that's BEFORE he gets bonded with an evil alien parasite which makes him even stronger!
Medi Evil 2 does this to infamous serial killer Jack The Ripper. Like in real life, he's a serial killer, but unlike in real life, he's a giant, green skinned demon with absurdly long claws, and he doesn't mutilate his victims here, he devours their souls. Oh, and just like the real Jack, he completely gets away with his crimes. The first time you meet him, anyway.
The arcade version of Double Dragon 3 (as well as the Famicom version) features a revived Cleopatra as the final boss.
The game Martian Dreams, the premise of which is pretty much "famous historical personages of the late 19th/early 20th century, colonizing Mars!", has a few historical villains, including the ever-popular Rasputin and anarchist activist Emma Goldman. To be fair, though, Rasputin turned out to be possessed by an evil Martian and Goldman didn't know what his plans truly were.
Some interesting cases in Shikkoku No Sharnoth. Any time you meet a historical figure, there's about a fifty/fifty chance that they're an antagonist, though not necessarily evil. The first is Josef Capek, oddly enough.
In an extremely strange version of this trope, Grover Cleveland, U.S. President, in Casey And Andy. Even though the two main characters are set in current time, the story arcs have now coalesced in a situation where Grover Cleveland has hired a supervillain as his advisor, and is about to marry Satan (it's complicated).
Happens to Thomas Edison and others in the legendary Peter Chimaera's Book of Hsitorical Faffiction.
Guttersnipe portrays Stanford-educated president Herbert Hoover as a bumbling manchild — literally, with an oval office full of baby toys.
Played with in Hark! A Vagrant's Genghis Khan comic. An amiable Genghis Khan reassures a terrified man that he's more than a "scary warlord." In the last panel:
Genghis: We still kill all our enemies though.
Man: Oh no doubt.
Genghis: I'm not gonna lie, it's pretty brutal.
The internet gives this treatment to Lewis Carroll. In real life, he was a kind, innocent and cheerful man, and Alice Lidell was one of his most fondest friends. But, as far as the internet is concerned, Carroll was a drug-addicted pedophile, and Lidell was his number-one victim.
The three Thomas More stories at this site, being James Bond parodies set in an Alternate History version of 16th century Europe, inevitably rely on this as well, giving several prominent historical figures of the Reformation and the thereabouts a Historical Bond Villain Upgrade. Here's a quote to demonstrate:
The biggest victim is Duchess Helene of Wittelsbach. Oh GOD, poor Helene. In Real Life, Nene actually got over Franz and was Happily Married to Prince Maximillian of Thurn und Taxis, and not to mention she and Sisi got along well enough to have Sisi as the recipient of Nene's Famous Last Words. In the series, she's an ungrateful and clingy Gold Digger who wants to ruin Sisi and Franz's happiness at any costs.
Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle. Princess Emeraude of the Country of Jade is remembered as a fiend who kidnapped children by luring them away to her castle with the power of one of Sakura's feathers, and the townsfolk believe her ghost is at it again when local children start going missing. In reality, Emeraude was a Friend to All Children who had used the feather's power to set up her castle as a safe haven for them during a time of plague. When Syaoran and the others set off to continue their journey, they leave behind proof of their discovery and ask the townsfolk to start spreading the real story of Princess Emeraude.
How I Met Your Mother. In season 4, Ted's fiancée, Stella, leaves him at the altar to get back together with her ex, Tony. Then, at the end of season 5, Tony, who has become a successful screenwriter, makes a movie called "The Wedding Bride", which is the same basic story, but it takes Ted's douche qualities Up to Eleven with the catchphrase "No can do's-ville, baby doll"
Used in the episode "Living Witness" of Star Trek: Voyager. The Voyager crew and an alien species they were trading with are depicted as a conquering and merciless group of sadistic monsters by the historians of another civilization, even engaging in massive genocide against their ancestors.
In Once Upon a Time, after the Curse was broken and everyone in Storybrooke got their real memories back, Doctor Whale increasingly begins to show up for work drunk, acting depressed and even contemplates suicide at one point. He reveals that the reason for his depression is because in our world, the name "Frankenstein" has become synonymous with Mad Scientist, or those who perform unethical experiments; when his sole intention was to prevent death and save lives. His "monster" was actually his own brother, who was accidentally killed whilst saving his life.
Klaus Wulfenbach. Stories featuring him with the Heterodynes have depicted him as both a cowardly sidekick and a outright villain.
This is also an in-universe example of Characterization Marches On. Before Klaus made himself hugely unpopular by... you know... blowing stuff up and invading places no-one could spell, he was portrayed as a more classic Side Kick, slightly naive and clueless and very accident-prone, but competent and unfailingly loyal.
Nightmare Moon of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Word Of God is that Princess Luna's transformation into her was due to some form of Demonic Possession or similar outside influence, but this didn't make it into the legends we see in the show. On top of that, Equestria's equivalent of Halloween is based around a Historical Villain Upgrade which suggests she flies around one night every year looking for ponies to eat.
In one episode of The Fairly Oddparents, Cosmo has to learn to be evil for a day, so Timmy asks Wanda to introduce him to the most evil person in history; she ultimately comes back with... Genghis Khan. Played for Laughs and blatantly due to the fact that anyone worse than him would be un-PC for a kids' show, but he's still not the usual figure most would apply that lofty label to.