Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Time-shifted narratives

The Ian McKellan production of Richard III is beautiful. (Well, beautiful aside from the scenes of gratuitous violence, but when you're talking about the Wars of the Roses, that's kind of hard to escape.)

What I love about it is that it takes a story written about a specific period of history and, without explanation or even acknowledgement, drops it seamlessly into the 1930s. And it works. For me, it works because:
  • Who cares if cigarettes weren't invented until centuries after Richard III was around? McKellan makes the cigarette (and Richard's difficulties in handling it) as much a part of the character as the hunchback.
  • Oswald Mosley and co. never got their hands on any real power in pre-WWII England, but the idea of a pro-fascist England is both plausible and intriguing (see Jo Walton's Small Change series, for one), and you can't help seeing overtones of it in the movie. This is the 1930s, but the biggest threat to England isn't from Germany, it's from within. Think of it as the dark side of The King's Speech.
  • Did I mention that it's beautiful? The 1930s were a great time for fashion, and the costumes a big part of what makes the movie work. (They were Oscar-nominated, but lost out to Restoration.)

So go, watch it. (Fair warning: I picked this out because I needed a break from Downton Abbey overload -- and then realized that both Maggie Smith and Jim Carter are in it. If you find yourself wondering why Bates is plotting against the king, don't blame me.)

But here's my question: Is there any way this kind of time-shifting could work in a book?

There's a long tradition of moving Shakespeare's works to other eras, even in books. There is no shortage of Romeo and Juliet retellings, or Hamlet-set-in-high-school. And biblical retellings can work in the present day -- Queen of Secrets is one that comes to mind.

But none of those are tied to specific parts of history the way Richard III is. Would it be possible to write the book equivalent of this production, just plopping historical characters down in a different era? Or would it get too caught up in logic, the need to explain away the monarchy's impotence in the 1930s and the simple fact that this wasn't the way it happened?

I haven't been able to think of an example that shows this kind of time-shifting can work in prose, but I'd love to be proven wrong.

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