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Historical Villain Upgrade / Live-Action TV

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Historical Villain Upgrades in live-action TV.


Examples with real people

General examples:

  • Common on "exposé" 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, prima donna 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.
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    • 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's 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.

Specific series:

  • American Horror Story, through its use of Historical Domain Characters, has occasionally done this.
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  • Played for laughs in Blackadder II, where Queen Elizabeth (called "Queenie" by fans) is a ludicrously exaggerated version of Elizabeth I, using the extremes of anti-Elizabethan propaganda to produce a Psychopathic Womanchild who orders executions on a whim and never does any actual governing.
  • In The Borgias, Giovanni Sforza is depicted as an abusive husband who rapes Lucrezia on their wedding night. The real Giovanni Sforza didn't touch Lucrezia for months after they married due to how young and childlike she was.
  • Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey occasionally does this in the animated segments when dealing with a case of science rivals:
    • The second episode is about Halley and Isaac Newton squaring off against Robert Hooke at the Royal Society. Although Tyson summarizes Hooke's genuine accomplishments, the episode is about the conflict between the three men, in which Hooke can't back up his claims and accuses Newton of plagiarizing his work.
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    • Humphry Davy in "The Electric Boy" is portrayed as giving Faraday a futile project to replicate Josef Fraunhofer's perfect optical glass solely to keep Faraday from showing him up again. While Davy was not happy about his lab assistant inventing an electric motor (and indeed falsely accused Faraday of plagiarism), the British government was backing the glass project and it wasn't until a couple of years after Davy's death that Faraday ultimately quit the effort. On the other hand, the episode leaves out the time when Davy invited Faraday on a tour of Europe as a servant, during which time Mrs. Davy frequently mistreated and belittled him.
  • Deadwood:
    • Con Stapleton. In real life, Stapleton was a popular, tall Boisterous Bruiser Irish Sheriff in his 20s who did his best to keep order in the growing camp for a year, until he was replaced by Seth Bullock and fell into obscurity. The TV show paints him instead as a pathetic, 50-something fat Butt-Monkey and Dirty Coward, that is in Al Swearengen's pocket before becoming the Bumbling Sidekick of the even worse Cy Tolliver. Con is even handpicked as Sheriff by Swearengen because he will suck at it (his first plan was to leave the position vacant) and renounces the job less than a week later after being confronted by Bullock.
    • George Hearst is changed from a successful mining magnate to a brutal tyrant who crushes all opposition, kills whomever stands in his way, and demands total obedience from everyone in sight.
  • Doctor Who: Although Queen Elizabeth I had her faults, ordering her soldiers to murder a man on sight in her presence without a trial, as she does in "The Shakespeare Code", was not among them. Interestingly enough, in the episode where it's revealed exactly why she was so angry at the Doctor, she receives something of a Historical Hero Upgrade instead.
  • 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).
  • The Frankenstein Chronicles: Sir Robert Peel is portrayed as blackmailing an opponent into withdrawing his motion against the Anatomy Act so it can be passed, and being pretty ruthless in general for his reforms. Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley participate in an experiment to resurrect the dead, after one of their friends volunteers. However he has to be smothered by Percy and Chester, while the apparatus cannot revive him. Chester then makes it appear to be a suicide. This inspires Mary's novel.
  • It is fair to say that Adolf Hitler was, by all measurements, 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-Hitler's political opponent once threw out such an accusation, but there is no historical documented evidence which supports it. 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 antisemitism, with anti-Communism having a brief mention.
  • I, Claudius shows Livia, wife of Augustus, as a manipulative, scheming Evil Matriarch who carefully eliminates all of Augustus's potential successors, and finally, Augustus himself, so that her son Tiberius would become Emperor. While it is true that Livia did lobby for Augustus to name Tiberius as his successor, even Suetonius note  admits that there is no real proof that she was behind any of the deaths of Augustus's adopted heirs. The circumstances of Gaius and Lucius's deaths, while quite sudden and shocking given their age, are also much less suspicious than most let on note . The accusation that she was behind Augustus's death seems especially flimsy when taking into account that he was seventy-five when he died, and had a history of sickliness that made his contemporaries wonder how he could even live to that age.
  • John Adams in its treatment of Alexander Hamilton, Flanderizing him from a big government Federalist into a power-mad, would-be dictator agitating for war with France. Understandable considering that Hamilton and the title character were bitter enemies.
  • 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).
  • The Masters of Horror episode "The Washingtonians" depicts George Washington, of all people, as a monstrous cannibal.
  • Mystery Hunters: Discussed as a possibility in the episode looking at the disappearance of Richard III's nephews, Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury. The Yeoman Warder that Araya interviews at the start of the investigation suggests that Richard had them murdered so that he could claim the throne of England for himself. The writing on the Prince's tomb also suggests that the princes were killed on Richard's orders. However, one of other people Araya's interviews though claims that Richard was a good family man who was framed for crimes he didn't commit and that his current reputation is the result of the Tudor dynasty attempts to discredit Richard to make up for their weak claim to the throne.
  • 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.
  • The People v. O.J. Simpson makes Mark Fuhrman out to be a good deal worse than he was in reality, as well as much less complex. He indeed had a history of racism, which he himself even admitted to when he checked himself in for rehabilitation, and past acquaintances had complained that he had made racist remarks in the past. However, independent investigations discovered that, after said rehabilitation, he had a dearth of civilian complaints against him; he had successfully partnered with nonwhite cops (including a black female officer intentionally partnered with him to test to see if his racism continued) who considered him a friend and never felt uncomfortable with him; he had been called to Simpson's residence to answer a domestic disturbance call from Nicole and nevertheless did nothing to Simpson, and he had personally taken it upon himself to protect a black female witness who felt endangered (and befriended her as well; she would go on to defend his post-trial character). Even the infamous tapes were a product of him being paid to exaggerate a "police" style of speech. In the series, he's depicted as little more than a remorseless, two-faced racist who outright lied on the stand and owned Nazi memorabilia.
  • CBC's miniseries Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story met with criticism in Saskatchewan (the province where Douglas used to be premier) for its portrayal 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 [1].
  • 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.
  • Sanctuary has Jack the Ripper as a time travelling teleporter, and Nikola Tesla as a electrokinetic vampire.
  • Spartacus: Blood and Sand:
    • The pilot episode portrays the Getae people as inhuman savages, in comparison to the noble Thracians. In reality, the Getae were so similar to the Thracians that historians are still a little unsure what the difference was.
    • Given the perspective, this is done to several real Romans such as Batiatus and Glaber. The reality is that there is relatively little information about either outside of the former being the lanista of the ludus Spartacus escaped from and the latter being one of the first commanders trying to put down the rebellion.
  • In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Spectre of the Gun", this Trope was applied in the complete opposite way as it was in the movie Tombstone. Here, the infamous Cowboys - whom Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, and Chekov are forced to portray-are regarded as simply Lovable Rogues, while the Earp Brothers and Doc Holiday are depicted as corrupt and tyrannical lawmen intent on murdering them. Of course, the whole setup is an illusion created by a group of Sufficiently Advanced Aliens called the Melkotians, used to punish the crew for trespassing by forcing them to reenact the famous gunfight at the OK-Corral on the losing side, but it is taken from Kirk's memory (and thus interpretation) of the event. (And Spock realizes that the whole thing is flawed when Chekov - who portrays Billy Claiborne - is apparently killed prematurely, remembering that the actual Billy Claiborne survived the gunfight.)
  • In Timeless, the Nebulous Evil Organization Rittenhouse turns out to be named after and founded by David Rittenhouse a scientifically-minded American "Founding Father", who was the first head of the U.S. Mint. While the historic Rittenhouse was by all accounts a normal/likable scholar, the fictional one is presented as a detestable Politically Incorrect Villain. According to Word of God, the creators were fully aware that the historical Rittenhouse was totally innocuous, but chose to make him a villain, because they needed a scientifically-minded Founder for that character role and the only other option was Benjamin Franklin, and they weren't going to present him as a scheming villain.
  • Alice Liddell, of all people, in Warehouse 13. From a perfectly ordinary Victorian woman whose only claim to fame was that Lewis Carroll named a character after her when she was a girl, to an Ax-Crazy mirror-spirit.
    • 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.
    • Season 4 gives us Paracelsus as the Big Bad. Granted, the real Paracelsus was not the most pleasant person to be around, but here he's not only evil enough to merit getting bronzed, but he's so evil that that the Regents expunged the records of what he did to merit getting bronzed.
  • When We Rise: Though Charles Socarides indeed championed the idea homosexuality is a mental illness that can be cured, he never threatened to kill himself when his son came out. Richard said that, although angry at first, he wrote to him that if he was happy being gay, then embrace it.
  • The White Queen:
    • The show gives this treatment to both Margaret of Anjou and her son, Edward of Westminster. Margaret is repeatedly described as having ordered the brutal murder of Richard of York by means of having him torn to pieces. In fact, Richard died in battle at Wakefield. It is true that his severed head was put on display. More generally, the show more or less accepts uncritically the view of Margaret of Anjou as a monstrous tyrant. It is true that she was a bad ruler, but that was more because she was a foreigner who did not really understand English politics and customs, and who trusted the wrong people. (The Lady of the Rivers, a prequel to the books which inspired the show, actually depicts her as such.) She was not actively trying to cause harm. Of course, the only reason she had to run the country in the first place was that her husband, King Henry VI, suffered from some sort of mental disease that made him incapable of ruling. As for Henry and Margaret's son, Edward of Westminster, he is depicted as raping his wife, Anne Neville, on their wedding night. There is no evidence for this whatsoever.
    • Interestingly, the show gives a very positive portrayal of the Woodvilles, while at the same time portraying both Jacquetta Woodville, and her daughter Queen Elizabeth, as literal witches.
  • Wolf Hall gives a rare one to Sir Thomas More to go along with its rare depiction of Thomas Cromwell as not mindlessly evil. Specifically it brings to light More's treatment of heretics, depicting him as torturing them in his own house (the real More denied that he tortured them) and burning at the stake people who read aloud from Tyndale's English translation of the Bible, such as James Bainham (which is true). Cromwell even implies that More's famous Defiant to the End self-sacrifice had more to do with More's holier-than-thou ego than an honest stand for his principles.

In-Universe examples

  • CSI: In the episode "It Was a Very Good Year", Tommy Grazetti is known for being a club owner and former ruthless gangster who murdered up and coming piano player Ledo Wright way back in the day. At the end of the episode the team learns that Grazetti and Wright were actually friends and Grazetti was the one who died, choking on a chicken bone listening to Wright and their friends. The Grazetti that was being investigated is actually Wright, whose friends convinced him to take Grazetti's identity in order to dodge the draft. The rumor was spread to dodge suspicion.
  • In Game of Thrones Ned Stark's attempt to expose that King Joffrey is not the legitimate heir is stopped. Stark is forced to "confess" that he was a liar and trying to usurp the throne. He is forever known as a traitor by all but a few.
  • 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 takes Ted's douche qualities Up to Eleven with the catchphrase "No can do's-ville, baby doll."
    • May also have been an In-Universe example of Executive Meddling as Tony had previously shown genuine remorse at hurting Ted, considered leaving Stella to atone, and got Ted his teaching job.
  • In Once Upon a Time, after the Curse is broken and everyone in Storybrooke get 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.
  • The Outer Limits (1995): Played with in "Abaddon". Virgil Nygard was a religious fanatic who had a commune above the Columbia River in 2142. The official history of the North American Corporation, otherwise known as the Company, states that Nygard started a war against it and butchered one million people in the process. When he is found in stasis by the crew of the interplanetary hauling vehicle Pequod in 2298, he claims that the Company turned people against him as they wanted access to the mineral deposits on the commune's property. Nygard admits that he and his followers did kill people but only to defend themselves. The death count was allegedly closer to 10,000 and most of the dead were Nygard's own followers. However, the possibility is raised that Nygard is lying and that the Company's version of history is the correct one. No definite answers are given, other than the fact that the Company lied about having him executed.
  • 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.


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