**Warning: Contains Spoilers**
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the 9th feature film from director Quentin Tarantino, is the latest in a trend of historical period pieces to flip the script on the genre known as historical fiction. As I sat in the theater and watched the climax of the film – a violent fight scene that ended with members of the Mason family dead and their real-life victims safe and unharmed – I couldn’t help but feel fascinated by the recent trend of historical fiction re-imagining not just what did happen in the past, but what should have happened.
Historical fiction has traditionally presented their audiences with fake characters and their stories, set against a (usually) accurate backdrop of historical events. As audiences have become more savvy, more critical, and more demanding of historical accuracy, it’s interesting to see content that switches those expectations and presents completely accurate details, but a total rewrite of the historical events as we know them.
Tarantino’s World War II action/drama film Inglorious Bastards pulled the same switch, ending with the deaths of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbles. The Amazon series Man in the High Castle also presents a revised version of World War II, this time pondering what would have happened to the United States had they lost the war, rather than won.
Historical fiction is always influenced by modern standards – modern gender roles, modern speech patterns, even modern fashion. This is addressed in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, when the film’s main character, Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor who primarily works in Westerns, is given a costume that, per the director’s request, must work as both a historically realistic cowboy get-up and a stylish outfit he can wear to a club on the Sunset Strip. In this scene, Tarantino is telling the audience that he is well aware of the balance all historical fiction must strike between authenticity and modern relevance. The entire storyline of Rick Dalton, as an actor working in Hollywood in the 1960s, consistently gives us a period piece within a period piece. When we consider that balance being ever-present in period pieces, it’s not a big leap for creators to explore what should have happened – or simply what could have happened – according to what we know now.
After all, artists have never necessarily had to take on the responsibility of being historians. Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette didn’t rewrite history for the sake of the film, but it glossed right over the entire French Revolution until it literally crashed through the walls of our protagonist’s home. The historical events weren’t the point of the story; Marie herself, with her limited world view of her wealth, her friends, and her marriage, was the point of the story.
Dan Brown’s now infamous book The Da Vinci Code, later turned into a 2006 film by director Ron Howard, frequently came under fire for twisting many historical facts as we know them. And yes, it’s a dangerous game to play, when creators present alternative worldviews that can quickly devolve into lies.
But is it really a bad thing to question what we think we know about the past? Could a re-imaging of great wars or the Mason family murders serve the same kind of purpose as a fictional prediction of the future? Entertainment mediums often present visions of the future that call upon their audiences to ponder “what if…” Historical fiction exploring that same potential is a fascinating approach to storytelling.