Essay: On remixing history
From Apple TV’s Dickinson to Netflix’s Persuasion and Hulu’s The Great, period accuracy is out and creative anachronisms are in. While this might upset the purist, it is an interesting approach that injects freshness into classic material
The poet Emily Dickinson, as revamped by the Apple TV+ series Dickinson, is a spirited horny teen who throws ragers when the parents are away, hooks up with her sister-in-law, speaks in 21st-century slang and twerks to Carnage’s “I Like Tuh.” The Russian empress Catherine the Great, as revamped by the Hulu series The Great, can drop F-bombs just as easily as wax poetic. She likens one particularly intense orgasm to “being shot from a cannon into the darkest sky and watching stars blink on in their thousands around you.” The Austen heroine Anne Elliot, as (unfortunately) revamped by Netflix’s Persuasion, claims to be “single and thriving,” describes sheet music as “a playlist,” and subscribes to the universal one-to-10 hotness scale.
Period accuracy is out. Creative anachronism is in. History is being remixed and literature retooled to situate beloved figures within our current moment and breathe new life into the past with it. The past is now merely a canvas to paint a figurative present. Any attempt to reconstruct history is intrinsically anachronistic. So why bother retelling stories as they were? Rather than let authenticity and chronology hamstring the way stories are told, writers are challenging the staid conservatism of period pieces and embracing a more freewheeling approach.
Once streaming platforms began making their own films and shows, the landscape changed in a way where more niche content for more niche subscribers could be accommodated. Pastiche has been formalized by algorithms dictating content creation and thus allowed for more temporal commingling. Purists may understandably worry about new generations discovering Dickinson’s poetry this way. But which show has a better chance of working as a gateway drug and compelling viewers to pick up a book? One which depicts Dickinson as a relatable angsty teen hoping for more than a hemmed-in life, or one where she sits by a candle and writes poetry?
Taking the former approach is what makes all the difference in Dickinson. Instead of working from the outside in, from the historical context of coming of age in 19th-century Massachusetts to the inner world of a poet, creator Alena Smith works from the inside out. Episodes tap into the aching, longing and inward struggles that permeated her poetry with magical realist flourishes. Em (played by a charming Hailee Steinfeld) sneaks out after midnight to take carriage rides with Death, gets period-appropriate writing advice from Louisa May Alcott (write what sells, keep tabs on the marketplace and never get married), and magically transports to New York City for a date with Walt Whitman.
As its subtitle “An Almost Entirely Untrue Story” suggests, The Great is similarly ahistorical but far more sharp-tongued in its treatment. We first meet an idealistic but naive daughter of a German aristocrat who arrives at the Russian court with reform in her mind: Catherine (Elle Fanning) wishes to educate women, invite Voltaire, liberate the serfs, vaccinate her subjects, and cease the war with Sweden. She also imagines her marriage with Peter III (Nicholas Hoult) to be a fairy tale. What she finds instead is a frat house of drunks, misogynists and reprobates. The rude awakening prompts Catherine to mount a coup with trusted allies and claim the tsardom for herself.
By bringing these distant historical figures closer to our temporal context, anachronisms also offer an opportunity to re-examine our perception of them, especially women whose legacies have been tainted by lies, hearsay and myth. In Catherine’s case, the discrediting rumour of her sleeping with a horse has stuck like crap on a shoe. The Great confronts this head-on by having her laugh it off with a joke: “I wanted to, but the horse said no, and neigh means neigh.” But as the Swedish Queen Agnes reminds her of the harsh truth about how gossip can become gospel, “Doesn’t matter if you did. Now people think you did. The first lie wins.” For three seasons, Dickinson attempted to offer a corrective to the idea of the poet as a depressed shut-in. The final season transports Em to 1955 Massachusetts for a one-on-one with Sylvia Plath, who calls her antecedent “an obscure, strange female poet who lived a sad, miserable life... never got married, never found love (and) hardly even left her room.” An affronted Em objects. “Emily Dickinson is not depressed. She does not want to die,” she insists. “She wants to live and connect with the world through her words.” The show busts open the myth of a lonely spinster to spotlight a quick-witted rebel who defied gendered orthodoxies and societal expectations to pursue her passion for poetry.
Though anachronism may be energising period pieces, it is hardly a new idea. Not too long ago, Sofia Coppola gave us a Marie Antoinette rocking to The Cure, pairing pastel gowns with towering poufs, and sporting purple sneakers. What most remember about the 18th century French queen is how she lost her head and a misattributed quote (“Let them eat cake”). But Coppola reminded us she was just a young Austrian woman, unprepared for the spotlight she would be thrust into as a royal, in a foreign country at a time of revolutionary upheaval.
Go further back: we had Clueless reimagining Emma. But modernizing a literary classic isn’t always a good idea. As the new Persuasion proved, sometimes the clash in sensibilities can create a dissonance, pulling us out of the story, instead of drawing us in. Austen’s most wistful novel about deep regrets, missed opportunities and renewed hopes is reduced to a dorky romcom. The quiet, solemn, introverted Anne Elliot is recast as a proto-Fleabag, complete with zingers and asides. If Austen used the detached objectivity of a third-person narrator to mediate Anne’s voice, the film renders this by having the character wink or speak to the camera. Not only do the anachronisms undermine Austen’s text, they end up working against the film.
If 27 was too old to get married for Regency standards, 14 wasn’t too young for medieval times. Much like the Karen Cushman from which it is adapted, Lena Dunham’s Catherine Called Birdy follows a nonconformist teen stepping over the patina of 13th century history with her mud-spattered feet. Birdy’s father, hell bent to get his family out of the debt he put them in, wishes to marry her off and cash in on the dowry. But she is not going to make it easy for him. The thoughts and opinions Birdy registers as diary entries in the novel are translated via a cheeky voiceover in the film. Dunham homes in on her inner life but not at the expense of the larger historical context: getting locked in a room or being struck on the hand with a rod as punishment is getting off easy; Birdy’s mother is forced to endure a string of agonizing miscarriages and pick herself right back up again. The film tweaks the book’s ending to delay Birdy’s inevitable betrothal, but it is more hopeful because the delay may just give her the extra time she needs to find a suitor of her own choice. Greta Gerwig did something similar with her adaptation of Little Women, giving us an ending Louisa May Alcott herself intended (where Jo March lives happily as a “literary spinster”) and the one she wrote (where Jo marries Bhaer) for matters of commerce. This open-ended choice frees the text from the demands imposed on Alcott by her publisher, and reinforces what made us fall in love with Jo in the first place.
Given the focus on young women defying patriarchal authority or at least trying to, no better joke captures the ethos of these ahistorical comedies than Fleabag calling Carrie her favourite period film. Anachronisms play on the humour of incongruity. A mechanism The Great uses well is the call-forward, where a character makes an offhand comment about something audiences know will happen in the future. Standing in front of a glass display case holding the corpse of his disapproving mother, Peter suggests, “Someone should work out what goes on between a chap and his mother; there’d be money in that.” Speaking of Freud, if Peter is all id, Catherine acts as ego, scheming around his worst impulses to refashion Russia based on her progressive ideas. Peter lives in a political echo chamber, surrounded by an eager-to-please boys club who “huzzah” his tantrums and laugh at his crude jokes on cue. He dismisses any reports of growing unrest as fake news and downplays the severity of a viral outbreak. Remind you of anyone? The ruling class indulges in detached excesses while ignoring the basic needs of the masses — not too hard to connect the dots between their world and ours, is it? We can’t help but root for Catherine as she bursts their bubble. Anachronism in such cases reverses the distancing effect. Acting as a bridge between centuries, it brings the bygone within sight, renders clear the unclear, and suggests the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Prahlad Srihari is a film and pop culture writer. He lives in Bangalore
The views expressed are personal