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Monday, March 29, 2010

How to Train your Historically Minded Movie Goer

Don't you hate going to the movies with those people who pick at the movie until it is dead? There are the people who read the book and then saw the movie, and then complain about how much the movie is unlike the book, even if it was a really good movie. Then, of course, there is taking an historian to any movie. It is there mission to find the flaws in the history, and even if the story is really good and really moving dismiss the whole thing as a-historical.

I am one of these people. Well, not really. Actually sometimes I am alarmed as an historian how many historical inaccuracies I miss. But I think it sort of depends how you approach your criticisms. If you are out to be disappointed, you might be. If you are willing to dismiss the whole because of some details, then the movie probably wasn't going to appeal to you anyway. But sometimes its fun. It's like the people who sit down to their favourite films to find all the continuity errors. It's fun to know things. For many historians, it can be fun to find the historical flaws. My colleague Catherine Caughell has recently put up several blog posts about historical fiction novels. I take much the same approach to historically minded films; they were always some of my favourites, and by getting me interested, they prompted me to learn more. I grew up on Westerns, period pieces, and war movies, and always watched any version of Robin Hood I could get my hands on.

So, as a student of the Medieval Norse and Public History I turn now to the recent Dreamworks picture How to Train your Dragon, not because I expected it to be historical, nor because I would have wanted it to be, but because it is interesting to think about the reasons the filmmakers chose to utilize certain aspects of the history. Don't worry, I know it has dragons in it, I know it is fantasy for children. Still ...

Also, slight spoiler alert for people who read on.

It is easy to see why all the Vikings in the village wear horned hats. That is the clearest identifier of Viking. I mean, even Hagar the Horrible wears a horned hat. In the film Hiccup's father gives him a horned helmet, which essentially means he has achieved 'Vikingness.' The trouble is, despite its clear identification with Vikings, there is no evidence that 'Vikings' ever wore anything like it. That being said, we would no doubt be disappointed if the Vikings did not have horned helmets. The filmmakers chose that symbol because it conveys a lot of information about who we imagine these people are, tapping into a popular conception we already have, without the film having to explain it.

The use of runes was a nice touch. And because the characters were speaking English you could actually sort of see the characters making the correct English sounds. Look at 'Night Fury' especially when it is written down. The thing about runes though is that they are characters that have a lot of straight lines for the specific reason that that makes them easier to carve. There is not much evidence of writing in books the way we understand it. There are a few codexes written in runes, though the concept of writing in this way really comes after the introduction of Christianity, not during the time of Thor or Odin, which it is suggested is the time of this movie. The sagas are written down using Latin letters, and not until Christianity has been established in Scandinavia for a century or two. But you can see why the filmmakers chose to do it this way. The idea of a secret and personal knowledge that Hiccup discovers for himself would be conveyed through a book. We understand the nature of a manual, or textbook, and that is easy to relate to, especially for children who are supposed to learn things this way. It is understandable that the students who are trying to learn about dragons would learn in this way. The use of runes makes the book other, and kind of exciting, communicating again that idea of 'Vikingness.'

The whole movie is peppered with some Scandinavian-isms. When Hiccup brings his dragon some fish he mentions that amongst them there is some Icelandic cod. Why not, as they way that they speak is modern, so their frame of reference for fish names may as well be modern. Stoick, Hiccups father, routinely uses THor and Odin as an expletive, just like one would say oh God. This certainly adds to the character, though the film shies away from any statement about religion, as you would expect of a children's film. The village itself is composed of a combination of individual houses, and great halls, representing many Scandinavian villages and none at the same time. But a house is understandable to a modern audience, a place to come home after school. And a great hall can be rather magnificent looking, and might as well be used as a gathering place, so even if it is not a place that after spending the day they fold up the tables and chairs at night and sleep, it is an important part of this larger concept of village.

But of course, there are dragons ... and an arena, and a great number of other monsters. So don't worry, I don't take myself overly seriously. But what we do have here is a selective use of poplar conceptions of an historical period that have been used strategically to create a foreign yet familiar aesthetic in which this fantastic story can take place. I feel that the filmmakers have done this well. It also really helps that it is a really good story with very interesting characters and a very visually pleasing movie.

All in all, I really liked it. And of course, any excuse I can get to 'geek out' and annoy people with my knowledge in a movie theatre, all the better.

And of course, the movie is based on a book.

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