Thursday, May 10, 2018

Legend...or History?

Recently, the trailer for a new Robin Hood retelling was released.  The movie will be directed by Otto Bathurst and produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Davisson.  If you haven’t seen it, go check it out.  It’s chock-full of dramatic, hilarious action and adventure.

For the last week, I’ve seen and heard a lot of hate—or at the very least, mild disapproval—for this trailer and upcoming movie.  The main objection from people seems to rest on one fact.

It’s not historically accurate.

Ironically, the favorite Robin Hood retelling for a lot of people is the anthropomorphic Disney Robin Hood, and I haven’t heard many people complaining about the unrealism of THAT one.  Its whimsically memorable representations of King John as a sniveling brat, Robin as a bold fox, and Little John as a lovable bear have enthralled hundreds of thousands since its release.

So, to be honest, I’m not really sure why this new Robin Hood is getting so much hate. 

This new spate of trailer-bashing reminds me of the negative reaction the BBC’s 2006 Robin Hood show received from a lot of people—mostly, I believe, historical purists or historicity snobs.

(Side note: can we bring back the BBC's totally fun medieval-style re-tellings of legends from that decade?)

This cracks me up, for two reasons.

Argue all you want to and cite as much evidence as you like for Robin Hood being a historical figure.  I will heartily endorse anything that supports that.
There’s a reason it’s called a LEGEND.

Currently, (correct me if I’m wrong) I don’t think it can be incontrovertibly proven that Robin Hood was a historical person.  And even if it can, you’ll never find historical documents describing the band we all know so well from the legends: towering, faithful Little John, minstrel Alan-a-Dale, beautiful and feisty Maid Marian, brash Will Scarlett, loyal Much the Miller’s son.

Which begs the question... does historical accuracy matter every time a legend is retold?  Every time Robin Hood or King Arthur is re-adapted for the page or the screen, should writers make an effort to stick to historical accuracy?

I don't personally think so, no.

I think that the most important thing to remember in retelling a legend or fairy tale is that the spirit of the story matters more than the 'letter'—any supposed historical basis or fact.  The theme of the story is what looms larger than life and keeps successive generations coming back for more or giving the story their own interpretations to reflect the changing times while preserving the heart of the story.

Sure, there are some things you probably shouldn't mess with too much—like setting a King Arthur 'resurrection' story in America, since he’s essentially a British hero and the legendary prophecy says he’ll rise ‘when Britain’s need is greatest’ and newsflash: America isn't part of Britain anymore, see: Revolutionary War—but in general, the field for retelling a legend is as wide open as is that for retelling a fairy tale.

The spirit of a story is the core theme underlying it, not the strict facts that comprise it.  With Robin Hood, this is a band of rebels fighting the 'establishment' or government, waging a sort of guerrilla war on the greedy oppressors of the common people.  It’s the idea that good still exists and that there will always be found those who are willing to fight for it and fight for a better way of life.  It also contains the reminder that even in the darkest times, humor can still be found: Robin Hood tales abound in pranks being played on powerful people.

The theme underlying Arthurian legends overlaps this in the realm of hope, illustrating that when a group of people cares deeply about something and are determined, they can not only drive oppressors out, but also create a wonderful society in its place.  (Okay, so, it at least TRIES, though we all know how that turned out.)  It follows with a warning theme: beware greed, ambition, and betrayal because they can tear even the best things apart from the inside out.

And semi-sidetracking into classics, the Three Musketeers is all about brotherhood and loyalty above all else.  They’re maybe not always the most morally admirable guys, but the point of the story is that awesome things happen—including saving the country—when you are incredibly, almost fanatically, devoted to friendship.

The Scarlet Pimpernel showcases the idea that even if something is not your trouble or your problem, you can still help, and there’s little that a loyal band of people can’t do.

(Yes, it has not escaped my notice how similar the themes are in these stories.  There’s a reason they’re classics or classic legends, people.)

Incidentally, when retellings or adaptations of these stories have not been restricted to historical accuracy or the exact structure of the original tale, they've tended to pull in a lot of new fans, broadening the exposure to the original stories.

For example:
Robin Hood = BBC’s 2006 show + the Disney movie
King Arthur = BBC’s Merlin + the musical Camelot
The Three Musketeers = the imaginative, steampunkish, 2011 version + the new TV show
The Scarlet Pimpernel = the 1982 movie, which was mostly correct historically, but which jumbled together details from three different books in the series.
Pride and Prejudice = dislike zombies all you want to, but as far as story structure is concerned, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies did a great job of maintaining the spirit of Austen's classic while giving it a new spin.

I'm not bashing all historical representations of the legends.  I have thoroughly enjoyed some historical or pseudo-historical adaptations of Robin Hood and King Arthur.  I'm also personally writing at least one historical fantasy Arthurian retelling.

I simply suggest that historicity all the time is unnecessary, else we'd never have any new imaginings of the tale.  I think staying true to the underlying theme in a legend, classic, or fairy tale is more important than strict historical accuracy.

I’m planning to give the new Robin Hood a chance.  It might be great.  It might stink.  But I’ll wait to bash it until after it’s had a fair trial.

(+ if I wasn’t already planning to give it a chance, my best friend would make my life miserable.  So, y'know, there’s THAT.)