Sons of Liberty: Accuracy and Story

Last night I finished watching the third and final part of the History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty” series.  I know I’m a bit late to the game since the episode aired Tuesday night, but I’m still hearing mixed reviews about the show that portrayed the American Revolution’s early days. “Sam Adams was NOT a gymnast!” “I can’t believe they used modern English in the speech!” “Dr. Warren and Mrs. Gage having an affair was just speculation!” “Some of these men are a little young to be portraying older men.” “Wow…Ben Barnes looks good!” Okay, I admit that last comment was from me (admit it-he does look good in 18th century costume!)  Regardless, though many viewers watched the show with a positive reaction-enjoying the drama and learning about people or events-many others were unhappy.  To them, there were too many inaccuracies for it to be worthy of the History Channel’s line up and the show was more fiction than fact. Whether one group was wrong or one group was right isn’t the subject of this post, however.  (I’ll leave that up to the people who are currently debating that on Twitter and entertainment forums.)  Rather, the dialogue between fans got me wondering about historical fiction and story.  Can a lack of accuracy take away from what really happened?   Does historical fiction distort from fact and create a false sense of events in the minds of the viewer or reader if everything isn’t exactly as it happened? I’ll admit when I first started watching “Sons of Liberty”, I was a little uneasy at the inaccuracies.  Though Ben Barnes is a fabulous actor, I knew that the real Sam Adams was older than what he was portrayed as in the series.  But I continued through and watched it just to give it the benefit of the doubt.  By the end of the series, I noticed that I learned a few things:

  1. Even though there were inaccuracies, the show made me research what really happened.  I was a huge American Revolution nerd in college.  My trip to Monticello/Yorktown/Williamsburg is still the highlight of my life.  But after a few years of being out of school and working, there were a few things I’d forgotten about, and after watching a scene in “Sons of Liberty”, I’d look up what really happened on the internet or in my books.  Though the show didn’t educate me, it allowed me to educate myself.
  2. Words are important…depending on who you talk to.  I admit I felt a tinge of familiarity when I read the many comments online about people being upset about the show’s lack of 18th century dialogue.  My next book (“Captain Patty and the Nameless Navigator”) is set in the mid 18th century, but I’m not putting it into the historical fiction category simply because I used more modern dialogue in the story (and because it’s not 100% historical fiction).  To be honest, I didn’t want the hate mail.  But if I’m being more frank, I put modern dialogue in my story because I wanted it to be more understandable.  I’ve stopped reading a few historical fiction novels simply because the dialogue was so ancient that I had to stop and decipher every sentence and look up more words in the encyclopedia than I had time for.  Were the authors wrong in using historically accurate dialect?  Absolutely not.  I can only imagine the amount of research they had to do to write something so well.  But readers are also different from each other.  Some readers will rejoice at the idea of accurate dialect and enjoy learning about life back in time.  Others, like me, just want to enjoy the story and the drama that unfolds.
  3. Sometimes you just have to enjoy the story.  I may be wrong on this, but to my knowledge I didn’t see the History Channel advertise “Sons of Liberty” as the gospel truth of what really happened back then.  I did, however, see a lot of commercials stating for viewers to check out their website “for the real story”.  Did “Sons of Liberty” have inaccuracy?  Absolutely.  But it was also a story filled with drama, action, adventure, and even splashes of comedy and romance.  And like any other story out there, it had the ability to be enjoyed (or disliked) by others.

As a student of history, I understand the needs for accuracy in historical fiction (I still can’t watch “National Treasure” thanks to all that learning about the American Revolution I did in college).  But as a student of writing, I also understand that sometimes a story is simply a story, and it doesn’t always support fact over fiction.   What is important, however, is that fiction does not take away from the facts.  Yes, Sam Adams was portrayed as a younger and probably more acrobatic rebel than what he actually was.  But many of his ideas still came through in the end.  He was a supporter of freedom and liberty.  He loved his nation and the people that inhabited it.  He was a passionate individual who would do practically anything to make the world a better place.  He was a true son of liberty, and no story will ever be able to change that fact.

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