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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Is it dishonest for filmmakers to distort history and historical figures to make a point about our world today?

Reader bluejay wonders, with reference to Agora:

How important is historical veracity is to a film like this? Is a film that distorts history intellectually dishonest, even if it does so to make a valid point?

And bluejay refers us to a post at Armarium Magnus, where Tim O’Neill complains that

Hypatia has long been pressed into service as a martyr for science by those with agendas that have nothing to do with the accurate presentation of history

and that Agora is yet another example of such. Because while

Hypatia was a genuine scientist and, as a woman, was certainly remarkable for her time. But she was no martyr for science and science had absolutely zero to do with her murder. Exactly how much of the genuine, purely political background to her death Amenabar puts in his movie remains to be seen. It’s hoped that, unlike Sagan and many others, the whole political background to the murder won’t simply be ignored and her killing won’t be painted as a purely anti-intellectual act of ignorant rage against her science and scholarship. But what is clear from his interviews and the film’s pre-publicity is that he has chosen to frame the story in Gibbonian terms straight from the “conflict thesis” textbook – the destruction of the “Great Library”, Hypatia victimised for her learning and her death as a grim harbinger of the beginning of the “Dark Ages”.

O’Neill’s was writing before the film was released, and it does not, in huge part, conform to his fears — the political angle is very much in play in the film, for instance, and another surprising moment of her life that one of his commenters wonders will appear in the film does indeed actually appear. And yet, as O’Neill’s post goes on to explain, we actually don’t know all that much about Hypatia, and so her life seems to be eminently open to interpretation and adaptation. So the question is:

Is it dishonest for filmmakers to distort history and historical figures to make a point about our world today? What if the distortion springs from a lack of factual, historical knowledge? Is such distortion more okay the less we know about the history in question?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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