Why Historical Fiction Works Better on Television Than in Literature


James McBride is having a great year, especially since taking home the National Book Award for his novel The Good Lord Bird last month. Up against heavyweights like Thomas Pynchon and critical darlings such as Rachel Kushner and George Saunders, the book, whose plot follows a 12-year-old slave after John Brown kills his master, was hailed as a surprise winner (although we weren’t that shocked). But many of the award’s past recipients (E.L. Doctrow’s 1986 novel World’s Fair, Charles Frazier’s 1997 winner Cold Mountain, Lily Tuck’s 2004 winner The News From Paraguay) are novels rooted in history, some of which fictionalize real-life characters and events.

Yet if you were to do a poll of fiction readers how many of them would list a work of historical fiction among their favorite novels to come out in the last decade? Save for Hillary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy (which includes the Man Booker winners Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies), the historical novel remains an under-appreciated subgenre in literary circles.

Song Yet Sung, McBride’s 2008 historical novel about a runaway slave who experiences prophetic visions, hardly received the acclaim it deserved upon publication. That book had to wait a few years until the right conditions existed for people to come around to it: the combination of McBride’s well-deserved recent success and television networks scrambling to deliver the next great period drama.

The popularity of shows like Boardwalk Empire, The Tudors, and especially Mad Men and Downtown Abbey has proven that stories set in the past make for great TV — the British have known for decades and still excel at to this day; along with Downton, historical shows such as Mr. Selfridge, Call the Midwife, and The Hour have crossed the ocean into American homes, to great acclaim. Now American producers are starting to catch on that this is a formula that works — and McBride’s oeuvre is the latest beneficiary of the trend, with the announcement of FX’s forthcoming The Code, a miniseries based on Song Yet Sung.

Why are we so much more enthusiastic about historical fiction when we see it on TV (or in film)? It’s rare for a book to evoke a bygone time and place as fully as visual media can. The all-time greatest work of historical fiction, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, did it; Mantel does it; and McBride, too, has shown his strength in crafting an intriguing and engrossing story with history as the fabric that ties it all together. But, without the visual aids of costumes, sets, and actors to rely on, the average historical novel is at a disadvantage compared to the average historical TV show: Would Don Draper be such an iconic character if we couldn’t see the figure he cuts in a suit and hat? Could any author write the Dowager Countess better than Dame Maggie Smith plays her?