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Why They’re Here to Stay

Dec 17, 2022


There is now no lack of television and film content wherein historical figures prance about it in elaborate period costumes to the beat of today’s Hot #100, or delivering lines entirely in 21st century English and slang. Here is why this rising subgenre is here to stay.

Projects That Pioneered the Subgenre
One of the first films to meld the historical with trendy tunes and dialogues was Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, a film that greatly sympathized with the ill-fated queen. The modern colloquialisms and music served to further humanize the monarch, making her persona and essence more palpable to the modern audience, stirring sympathy in viewers that heretofore may have never imagined they could relate to the emotions and decisions of a figure like Marie Antoinette. Coppola establishes the tone of the film from the outset, with the title splashed in hot pink to the sound of “Natural’s Not In It” by Gang of Four. Right away we see that this will be no ordinary historical drama. The soundtrack, coupled with the minimalist and modern dialogue, encapsulates the essence of adolescence. Coppola told Vogue magazine:
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“Marie was just 14 when she got sent over from Austria to become the Queen of France. I felt compelled to portray how her story had been misrepresented over time. I had this idea of how to interpret her life in a way that felt youthful and girly instead of academic.” It is made plain that Marie Antoinette was just a teenage girl with teenage perceptions and desires, pulled away from her home and thrust into a world of constraint where indulgences were her only respite. Now a well-respected film, Marie Antoinette was actually booed at Cannes Film Festival and rather torn to shreds by critics in 2006. Like many such projects that pioneer new subgenres or distinct new styles of film, Coppola’s vision aged rather well, with her formula growing into an increasingly popular adaptation style. One such example of a successor to the film is the popular Hulu series The Great, the success of which is a far cry from the way Marie Antoinette was received.

Related: Explained: Why Are Period Dramas About Rich People So Popular?

Expansion of the Subgenre
Marie Antoinette effectively opened the doors for a new style of film-making, and Hollywood indeed followed suit. The Great marked a new era for modern takes on historical figures, following in Coppola’s footsteps in incorporating witty modern dialogue and trending music into the somewhat true story of Catherine the Great. The series, which enjoyed immediate success, was closely followed by the premier of Bridgerton, a series that used less distinctly modern language but heavily employs subtle nods to popular culture. At first glance, nothing may seem amiss as we watch Daphne grace the debutant scene in era-appropriate garments, with her brother dismissing unworthy potential suitors. A closer listen, however, will reveal that the scene is in fact set to a classical rendition of Ariana Grande’s hit song, “thank u next”. The show’s employment of classical covers of recognizable hit music quickly became a talking point about the series, though fans of The CW’s Reign will recall that they did do it first (check out the emotional dance sequence between Mary and a dying Francis, set to a classical cover of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me”).

These shows, however, have added another layer of modernity to the formula, featuring increasingly diverse casting choices. Termed “colorblind” casting, these series establish that if one may suspend disbelief to enjoy a historical character dancing to Taylor Swift, then one may also do the same in seeing people of color playing British royalty. These casting decisions have caused some backlash from critics that argue that racial diversity sacrifices authenticity for political correctness. This view is largely dismissed as racist, and favorable ratings seem to indicate acceptance is the larger consensus. In this way, shows like Bridgerton are set apart by their dedication to promoting modern values in the context of historical drama and glamor.

Apple TV also launched their own quirky and modern series about Emily Dickinson. This series serves as an example of how the modernization of history can help to contextualize figures that were vastly ahead of their time. Having never married and writing under her own name, Emily Dickinson is a fitting figure to portray in a setting as beyond her time as she was herself.

Of course, not all of these adaptations hit the mark. One such example is the recent release of Blood, Sex, & Royalty, an anthology series following the lives and scandals of famous European royals. So far they have only released three episodes on Anne Boleyn; the series doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. The modern, hip-hop-heavy score and interview-style narrative are also interrupted by academic perspectives, giving the show the elements of a docuseries. Overall, it proves to be a bit much, not quite nailing down a distinct voice to the program. The series opened to generally mediocre reviews, with many critics citing a notable lack of blood and sex, as per the title. Despite this, the series can boast a strong performance from Amy James-Kelly, and a touching final invocation of Boleyn’s legacy glimmering in the eyes of her young daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I. Likewise, the Netflix movie Rosaline, opened to generally unimpressive reviews. The Shakespearean spoof failed to deliver a captivating storyline, notable performances, or memorable dialogues.

Related: The Decameron: Netflix Announces Period Drama Series from Kathleen Jordan & Jenji Kohan

Why These Projects Are Here to Stay

Netflix

Ultimately, the modernized period piece is here to stay. Modern audiences don’t seem to engage with flowery dialogues and uptight worlds. Bringing elements of familiarity to characters set in distant times helps to present the content in a more palatable and often far more fast-paced fashion for the modern audience, which perhaps doesn’t have the same taste for slow-moving and wordy pieces as it did before the rise of TikToks and Instagram Reels. The general attention span of audiences would seem to be at an all-time low, with many films and television shows relying on larger-than-life effects to draw in their audiences. If a show cannot provide this larger-than-life element, it must find another way to pique interest.

This does not mean that the subgenre will necessarily dominate in the future. It remains to be seen how large of an appetite viewers have for these types of productions. The relative failure of attempts such as Blood, Sex, & Royalty and Rosaline would indicate that audiences do not indiscriminately consume this material. Simply inserting modern jokes and music does not necessarily make a great show or movie, proving that the modern audience values quality despite its taste for attention-grabbing elements.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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