sealPurdue News

March 6, 1998

Historical movies put a new spin on old tales

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- The public's infatuation with historical movies such as "Titanic" and "Amistad" supports the idea behind a Purdue University professor's new book, that historical facts are not as important as the way they are spun.

"What we're seeing is a new 'historicism,' with new voices telling their versions of history," says William J. Palmer, professor of English and expert on contemporary movies, novels and social history.

Palmer contends in his book "Dickens and New Historicism" that Charles Dickens was a forerunner in presenting history from the perspective of the poor and working class. "Dickens was able in the 19th century to give the disenfranchised a voice, redefining the times," he says.

History traditionally has been written by the victors from one perspective, he says: "Those in power have dictated history's composition even to the point of controlling what texts were read and suppressing other voices."

He says this new way of telling history isn't an attempt to recast the past. "The new historicism with its many voices is meant to 'thicken' our knowledge of events and fill in previous omissions," he says.

In "Titanic," the story is told in flashbacks through the eyes of a 90-year-old survivor, so both the past and the present emphasize the historical significance of the event. "'Amistad' is also very 'New Historicist' in pointing out that the slaves had no voice and needed a young lawyer and a politician to speak for them," Palmer argues.

He says putting classic works in present-day settings is also part of the new trend in writing history. "The new movie version of 'Great Expectations' set in present-day Miami is -- aside from the love scenes -- very true to Dickens' Victorian style of relating events," Palmer says. "Last year's rock-and-roll version of Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' was very popular among teens who could relate to the young lovers."

Palmer says retelling history through popular movies is a trend that has been going on for years. "Today's kids know about the Vietnam War because of movies," he points out.

Palmer says some topics brought out in today's movies address issues that were not considered in the old way of writing history. "Economics, philosophy and class antagonism were rarely taken into account by traditional historians and historical novelists," he says. "Dickens led the way in democratizing the process of writing history."

Source: Willaim Palmer, (765) 494-3758; e-mail,
Writer: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723; e-mail,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: Review copies of William J. Palmer's book "Dickens and New Historicism" are available from Palmer at (765) 494-3758.

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