Historical Biographies and the Movies Adapted From Them

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I’m a big fan of historical biographies, and inevitably, there are films and TV series that more or less use these biographies as a roadmap for their plots. Some are better than others, but it’s always evident when a show or movie follows a biography closely. You seem to get a better caliber of flick all the way around, than when there’s very obvious disregard for “boring history” as the groundwork of a historical film (something I’ve never understood).

So, here’s a brief list of biographies and their corresponding films that I’ve read and watched.

 

The Biography: Lady Worsley’s Whim by Hallie Rubenhold (U.S. title: The Lady in Red)

The Film: The Scandalous Lady W (2015)

Scandalous Lady W Reynolds riding habit

How does the film compare to the book? Pretty close, all things considered. Probably because Hallie Rubenhold acted as an historical consultant on the film. Also worth noting is the attention to detail in reproducing Lady Worsely’s iconic red military suit worn in her portrait by Joshua Reynolds. There’s some issues with scale in the costume, but overall it’s clear costume designer James Keast did his homework. It’s also worth noting that the book is one of my favorite historical biographies. Definitely read it if you get the chance!

 

The Biography: Marie-Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser

The Film: Marie Antoinette (2008)

How does the film compare to the book? Surprisingly close, 1980s New Wave soundtrack notwithstanding. As with The Scandalous Lady W, Sophia Coppola went out of her way to bring in historians as consultants, including Lady Antonia Fraser, whose book served one of the stronger influences in terms of the narrative. Fraser’s biography of Marie-Antoinette is one of the best modern bios of the queen currently on the market, and the film follows the book’s relaxing flow without attempting to stuff the plot full of extraneous words.

 

The Biography: Georgiana: The Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman (re-titled The Duchess, after the film came out)

The Film: The Duchess (2008)

best costume oscar

How does the film compare to the book? The film really plays up the ménage à trois between Georgiana, the Duke of Devonshire, and Lady Bess Foster, while the biography doesn’t so much downplay it, but makes the situation seem less fraught than the film portrays it. Also, the film gives the impression that G’s married life was miserable, but the book makes it seem like the Duke and Duchess were as happy as any couple could be given the circumstances. The costumes by Michael O’Connor are fabulous, though.

 

The Biography: Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies by Hallie Rubenhold (re-titled: The Harlots’ Handbook: Harris’ List)

The Film: Harlots (2017-)

Harlots (2017), Lesley Manville

How does the film compare to the book? Yep, another Hallie Rubenhold book makes the list! What can I say, she not only charmed me when we met up in London recently, but she writes fantastically engaging biographies that keep getting turned into films and shows. Harlots owes a lot to Rubenhold’s influence as she was once again brought on as the historical consultant and worked closely with the show runners and the cast to keep the plot as believable as possible. While I had a few issues with the costuming (and Kendra had some concerns over the hair), overall the plot and characters read true to the period.

 

 

What other historical biographies have made successful transitions to the screen?

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

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Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. Her undergraduate degree is in Clothing & Textile Design, and she has a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, Sarah enjoys reading true crime books, writing fiction, and sewing historical clothing from the Middle Ages through the 20th-century. One of these days, she might even start updating her old costuming blog again.

12 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    What about Antonia Fraser’s bio of Mary Queen of Scotland and the Vanessa Redgrave film? Costumes, if my memory is correct were good and they got Mary’s height correct by casting Redgrave as MQoS and even Glenda Jackson cameo of Elizabeth I was nice. The film did suffer from 1970s Bobby Pin War as lots of hair was down. Tried to find it recently to re-watch, but was unsuccessful.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Fraser wasn’t as big into the Boswell love story as that (& most) movies is — her bio makes it seem more like MQoS was kidnapped & raped by Boswell, which hasn’t been portrayed on screen. Probably bec. it’s not a pretty romance that fits w/the romantic fantasy of the tragic queen. Also, that movie shows MQoS & Queen Elizabeth meeting twice, which NEVER happened. I’m still waiting for an accurate MQoS movie — & looking at the advance pix from the 2018 one starring Saoirse Ronan, I’ll be waiting a long while.

      Reply
      • Susan Pola Staples

        I know MQoS & ERI never met, but I was trying to make a case for casting: excellent actress who was tall and although MS Redgrave didn’t wear a wig of the appropriate hair colour, she had the height.

        It’s been years since I read the bio and movie. But I remember liking it bc Mary was portrayed as a person with brains.
        I also want a historically accurate MQoS miniseries along lines of The Crown, Wolf Hall. They could use two or three actresses for Mary. Helen McCrory might make a good Mary from 1580-death.

        Reply
  2. Joyce

    I agree and disagree about The Duchess. I think the filmmakers did a really good job of portraying how she might have felt after learning her best friend and husband were carrying on together, as anything containing her initial reaction to learning of the affair was destroyed by Bess after Georgiana’s death, so all we can do is speculate. That being said, they softened Bess’ character to the point where she was unrecognizable compared to the real accounts of Bess Hervey-Foster-Cavendish, and while I understand why, for example, they condensed the story so it would be easier to follow, it’s really a shame they only alluded to her extreme gambling and substance abuse. I think they could have done a better job at portraying the world Georgiana lived in, that the Duke’s behavior was in few ways out of the ordinary for an 18th century Aristo, and included some pretty damn interesting characters, like Lady Jersey. The costumes are incredible, though, and the reason why I can watch the film over and over again.

    Reply
    • Andrew Schroeder

      I only recently read Amanda Foreman’s book and I was actually shocked at how much was altered/omitted, especially in regards to the duke’s characterization. My impression based on the book was that he and Georgiana simply weren’t emotionally compatible but nevertheless cared for one another, which I suppose was common for aristocratic marriages in that time. But he wasn’t the creepy, psychologically stunted rapist who was old enough to be her father as they made him out to be in the movie. And I really didn’t care for how much they sanitized Bess’s character as you said, nor for them all but eliminating her gambling addiction as well as her political career, both of which were such huge facets of her life, in favor of portraying the distorted depiction of her personal life. I think it’s a story that would be much better suited to a miniseries format where they could really delve into the personalities and politics of the era.

      Reply
      • Joyce

        Same here, as far as finally reading the book goes (It had been on my list since 2008!). I think it was sanitized to appeal to a wider audience-those who don’t really know or might not believe the more lurid aspects of the 18th century. It seems it was similar, but achieved in the opposite way, with Ralph Fiennes-they made his character more malicious to try and make it more compelling, rather than that they were just a very ill-suited couple and he was a rather dull person. On one hand I would love to see it remade, but (potentially unpopular opinion here) I thought Keira was perfect for the description given of Georgiana (tall, not considered an ideal beauty for the late 18th century but attractive and arresting), and I don’t know who else would suit it.

        Reply
  3. picasso Manu

    I read, I don’t remember where, that the film script and PR drew heavily on the Georgiana/ lady Di “similitude”, probably to draw in the Diana fans.
    And well, between historical accuracy and the potential for mucho dinero, I guess it was not really a contest.
    And something we seem to forget all the time: People didn’t marry for love. Like, ever. It was not even the bourgeois thing to do.
    Love was known as a fleeting, and not important. Certainly NOT the basis for something as permanent as mariage! What was important was making alliances, gain money and/or prestige.
    The important thing was having and heir, and for the lucky ones, to make a good team.
    But I also guess that frame of mind is not very palatable to our Romance brainwashed minds, so….

    Reply
  4. M.E. Lawrece

    “Aristocrats” by Stella Tillyard about the 18th-century (well, 19th as well) Lennox sisters, based on their letters to one another, is very entertaining, and I thought the 1999 telly series a good job as well.

    http://www.stellatillyard.com/books/aristocrats/

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aristocrats_(TV_series)

    You can find it on youtube and some libraries and perhaps Netflix. Lovely costumes (am not sure how accurate), sets, and performances. Geraldine Somervllle’s Emily, who married the richest peer and foot fetishist in Ireland, is especially fun.

    Reply
  5. Ida

    Didn’t know where else to ask but I’m wondering if you’re going to make post about the costumes in Godless (2017)? Its mostly simple Western clothing and nothing fancy but I really liked the show and would love to see it here :D

    Reply
      • Ida

        I disliked that they made it out to be this show about a women-only town in the trailers, only to basically have it be about three guys instead, but overall I really liked it and the acting was A++ :)

        Reply

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