I was asked to contribute a short article to The Conversation, an online newsletter written by academics, on the importance of accuracy in the film Pompeii, which is released in the UK today. My original text can be found below, and the published article is available here.
It seems that every time a new film based on historical events is released, there is a rush to discuss the accuracy of the portrayal, how realistically the past is recreated, and what value the film might have for learning anything about the past. This is as true for films about antiquity as it is for films set fifty or one hundred years ago. Perhaps though, these are not the right questions to ask, but we should instead wonder if accuracy even matters.
The purpose of a film is to tell a story – whether entirely fictional or not – and is not meant to be an educational tool. That’s why documentaries exist. As much as the makers of the newest film set in the ancient world, Pompeii, claim attention to detail and historical accuracy, that seems an impossibility, and is probably an unfair burden to place on what is, in essence, an heroic action film. Much discussion has already filled the internet regarding the manner in which the eruption takes place (there was no fire raining down on escaping Pompeians) or the location of the amphitheatre (it should be in the southeast corner of the city instead of the north), but these are details that can easily be attributed to artistic license. Fire is much more dramatic than a lot of pumice and ash, and the foreboding view of Vesuvius looming over the arena must add an element of expectant dread for the viewer. And isn’t that the point? The elements of antiquity that are altered are likely done so in order to better tell the story, to enhance the experience of the moviegoer. If the average person in the cinema learns a little something in the process…great! If that spurns someone on to read more, or take a trip to Italy to see it for themselves…even better! If it is just a fun two hours watching some sword fighting and volcanic drama (with undoubtedly a bit of romance thrown in), well that’s good too. History won’t suffer because the film isn’t quite right on every detail.
This is not to say that particularly egregious historical inaccuracies don’t set my teeth on edge – they often do. But films like this aren’t made for scholars who have been working in Pompeii (or Rome, or Greece) for more than a decade – they are for the general public. For the average person sitting in the cinema (expert or not), what it comes down to really is how compelling the story is – the flaws in accuracy can be overlooked if the story and the characters capture the viewer’s attention. This was the case with Gladiator, the HBO/BBC series Rome, but not so much with some other recent sword and sandal films (I’m looking at you, Alexander and Troy). Until I get a chance to see it for myself, whether or not Pompeii tells a good story is something I cannot judge.
Regardless of what might be historically wrong with the film, I have no doubt that many will see it and enjoy it. For the city of Pompeii, there has always been an huge attraction for the general public – the ruins wouldn’t get 2.5 million visitors per year otherwise. This is not entirely about viewing antiquity, but about the horrific destruction of nature. Walking around the city gives a sense of average people, living their lives, until one day everything stopped. It is the suddenness of that end that engenders a kind of empathy and fascination. As macabre as that may sound, it is an element of a visit to Pompeii that can be found even amongst the earliest visitors, when writers such as Goethe, Mary Shelley, and Mark Twain wrote about the spectre-like aspect of the city and its unfortunate inhabitants, frozen in time at the worst possible moment.
There is something immensely compelling about the tragedy that befell the people living in this city that draws people to its story. This is equally true for those of us in academia as it is for the general public. These filmmakers have just found another way to tell that story, and in doing so, will reach far more people than any scholar ever could. For that reason, how accurately they have done it isn’t really that important.