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Historical Downgrade

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Sometimes a historical figure is twisted from their original roots into something more grand or vile, as a Historical Hero Upgrade or Historical Villain Upgrade.

But sometimes a story isn't interested in either of these. It neither wants them to be lionized or necessarily vilified, but at the same time it can't resist taking some of the shine off of them. While this could easily be just an attempt to humanize these figures and try to be more historically accurate, it's often far too easy to go that extra step and stuff a bit of Straw Loser in there. The result is a Historical Downgrade: while either a heroic or villainous shift could be said to be an increase in status, this take is definitely a lessening of stature no matter where the figure started out.

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Those who have been lauded by history are most often made the target of this, but those who got the short end of the stick aren't immune... especially when their villainous portrayal is more pathetic than intimidating.

Extinct animals have been hit with this trope too; see Dumb Dinos and Doofy Dodo for two of the most common targets.

Compare Historical Villain Downgrade. Contrast Historical Badass Upgrade.


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Examples:

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    Films — Animation 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Braveheart: For all the real Edward II of England's faults, he was certainly no coward. At the Battle of Bannockburn, he had to be dragged away because he wanted to keep fighting even after it became clear the day was lost. Here, however, he's notably craven.
  • The Death of Stalin:
    • While Georgy Malenkov was pretty weak-willed in reality, he wasn't quite as incompetent as he's portrayed. He was a charming conversationalist and knew about Beria's attempts to make him into a Puppet King, though he couldn't do much about them.
    • Anastas Mikoyan is portrayed as a cowardly Yes-Man like the rest of the Presidium. By contrast, the real Mikoyan was not only respected by both the American and Soviet political elites, he was something of an Honest Advisor who was actually ballsy enough to argue with Stalin.
  • Dick depicts Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as a couple of egotistical buffoons.
  • The 2010 Robin Hood movie was quite fond of this, the most obvious example being King Richard the Lionheart, who wobbles around the battlefield drunk and winds up being killed by a French cook taking a potshot. Prince (and then King) John meanders between this and the villainous version. The Sheriff definitely gets this, being rendered so laughably incompetent that even if he had been given a chance for villainy, he probably couldn't have managed it.
  • Time Bandits does this to every historical figure the heroes meet. Napoléon Bonaparte is obsessed with his height and barely pays attention to his conquests. Robin Hood is a clueless idealist who cannot control his thuggish followers. Even King Agamemnon, a nice guy and a brave warrior, would have died if Kevin hadn't saved him, and he allows Kevin to get kidnapped right under his nose.
  • Wonder Woman does this to Field Marshal Douglas Haig. In wartime and shortly thereafter Haig was considered as very capable strategist who was practically inventing modern warfare on the fly. Only after his death he became criticized as ineffective "Butcher of the Somme". In the film he is further reduced to the status of Ares' puppet.

    Literature 
  • The Masters of Rome series of novels does this to Brutus, who is portrayed as a basically decent person (at least compared to most of the other characters), but with the flaws of greed, timidity, pedantry and cowardice.
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    Live-Action TV 
  • Blackadder thrives on this trope.
    • Blackadder Goes Forth depicts Field Marshal Haig as a callous butcher in an office of tactical maps set up with soldier figures, and he casually sweeps them off and chucks them over his shoulder when Blackadder calls about that battle Haig is "planning." Haig does not respond well to being asked to return the favornote  and tells him to feign insanity (which has already failed), then hangs up.
    • Prior to this, the second Blackadder series portrays Queen Elizabeth I as a total nutjob.
    • Prince George IV (a.k.a. Prince Minibrain) of the third series would also count. Prince George may have been a glutton and profligate spender, but there's no indication he was an idiot. Then again, considering who he was replaced by in the end... In a case of Inverted Trope however, he was described as very fat in real-life (and several times in the series) but Hugh Laurie can hardly be described in this way.
  • The Crown (2016): The series ignored Princess Margaret's life-long passion for Childrens Care and her patronage for the arts and instead focused on her role as the Screw Up Partying Sister to HM The Queen (ironic, given that early in the series Margaret pointed out the media's tendency to play "good sister, wicked sister" regardless of the truth).
  • I, Claudius: History remembers Augustus Caesar as a brilliant statesman, one of the most powerful and successful monarchs in human history, who laid the foundation for an Empire that would last 1,500 years. In the series, however, he's depicted as an emotional and gullible Manchild who is also an incompetent statesman. His wife Livia easily manipulates him and states that she's been the one holding Rome together in the face of Augustus's foolish policies.

    Theatre 
  • 1776:
    • Richard Henry Lee did not behave so ridiculous-Lee in real life. Adams actually wrote of Lee as one of the people he liked the best in the Second Continental Congress and Lee had already done a great deal of work drumming up support for independence. His behavior in the show is by way of explaining why Lee, not Adams, introduces the measure, exposition for the political dynamics in play at the time, they needed a bombastic Show Stopper to make it through the lack of music for the next 30 minutes, and it was funny.
    • There was precious little scholarship on James Wilson at the time 1776 was written and with no information to go on, Stone and Edwards had to invent a reason for his last-minute switch to the Independence faction. The play's weak-willed Wilson is put on the spot and realizes that he can either vote "yes" in obscurity or vote "no" and be remembered forever for killing independence. Later research revealed that Wilson was a well-respected Congressman and a strong proponent of independence. He'd only withheld his "yes" that long because he insisted on polling his district to make sure he wasn't overriding their wishes.
    • This is an in-universe discussion between Adams and Franklin. Adams morosely speculates that he won't end up in the history books at all—instead, Franklin and Washington will have done it all. (And this was true for many years. 1776 did a lot to raise Adams from obscurity.)
      Adams: Franklin smote the ground and out sprang George Washington, fully-grown and on his horse. Franklin then electrified him with his miraculous lightning rod and the three of them—Franklin, Washington, and the horse—conducted the entire revolution by themselves.
      [Beat]
      Franklin: I like it.

    Video Games 
  • The Great Ace Attorney: Soseki Natsume was, and still is, considered a strong contender for the greatest author in the history of Japanese literature. While the Soseki of GAA is a talented literary scholar and writer (and has already achieved national acclaim by the time of GAA 2-1), he's also an insanely paranoid Nervous Wreck who is mainly used as comic relief due to his overblown mannerisms and Large Ham tendencies.

    Web Original 
  • Hitler Rants generally turns Adolf Hitler into a Butt-Monkey who holds negligible influence outside the Führerbunker and is a constant victim of antics generally (but not always) committed by Fegelein. It also makes a mockery of the vast majority of his inner circle as well.

    Western Animation 
  • Robot Chicken does this to Adolf Hitler.
  • Time Squad played with this. The usual mission of the eponymous squad was to correct an individual who had, by the cause of whatever temporal anomaly, been on the receiving end of a Historical Downgrade, and it was their job to fix them and save history.

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