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Emphasis on story lessens merit of historical fiction

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Most of the performing arts that we watch in our free time are founded on compelling stories that writers invent. This extends to movies and plays that narrate the lives of historical figures or famous events, which producers often advertise as “based on a true story.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda, writer of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, has admitted that when creating the play, he changed certain aspects of the history of Alexander Hamilton to better suit the story Miranda had in mind. I believe that he should not have taken so many liberties with history. Alexander Hamilton is not a fictional character, and his life is not a made-up story that Miranda invented, but a well-known series of historical events that deserve to be respected through the creation of an accurate portrayal.

As a history-buff, I feel that altering historical narratives is disrespectful, especially in the case of Hamilton. This play is supposed to portray some of the most important people and events in our nation’s history. We cannot arbitrarily rewrite history just because it does not make for a compelling and dramatic story. One example of this in Hamilton is the fact that Angelica Schuyler, Alexander Hamilton’s sister-in-law, comes from a family only consisting of daughters, which makes her the one to have to go out and be the breadwinner for the family. In actuality, Schuyler was one of 15 children and had many brothers. Her character in the play is shaped by that inaccuracy and becomes inconsistent with the actual history.

The musical would have turned out differently if Miranda had decided to be more concerned with historical accuracy regarding the life of Schuyler. The story might not have been as good, but it should be based on true accounts and not a made-up story. As a result, the audience would leave the theater knowing nothing but factual details of Alexander Hamilton’s life, meeting one of the aims of the play to increase awareness of Hamilton’s life and the revolution he took part in.

We also see historical accounts being rewritten in many Hollywood movies. Film producers do that for the same reason Miranda changed the story for his play; it makes for a much better narrative. A good example is the recent movie The Danish Girl, which is about the first openly transgender woman in Europe. The filmmakers altered the narrative of thisgroundbreaking moment in LGBTQ history. The movie shows how the wife chooses to stay married to the main character all throughout the Danish girl’s journey toward becoming a woman. The movie does not explain that the marriage was eventually declared null and void by the king of Denmark after the transition.

Everyone has a right and a duty to familiarize themselves with our world’s past. If people want to use film and the stage as a way to learn, then it is the producer’s job to make sure that their audience gets all the facts instead of fabricated versions that serve as compelling narratives.

However, I do believe in the value of creativity and artistic expression. We all have a unique creative spirit and it is up to us to find a constructive outlet, whether it be acting, singing, writing, painting, drawing. Without art and imaginative ideas, our world would be quite dull. But I find that problems begin to form when creativity and artistry conflict with historical accuracy – an equally important consideration.

Conor Devlin ’17 (devlin@stolaf.edu) is from New York, N.Y. He majors in English.