Monday, March 15, 2010

On Historical Fiction

I spent almost 2 weeks watching a great Korean drama serial online called 善德女王. I will be using a few posts to talk about my reflections. Although I really enjoyed watching it, I have a major issue with it: Too much artistic deviations from history! I totally understand how some of this is necessary to provide plot lines and drama. But a good historical fiction should balance history and fiction well. Too much history and you lose a good exciting story. Too much fiction and you lose the purpose of providing a historical setting. The right balance allows the audience to enjoy the show while learning how to reinterpret history in a new way. I find that the drama serials from China does this best, and the ones from HK fail badly in this.

善德女王 is based on the the history of Queen Seondeok of Silla. It dramatizes the political difficulties of Seondeok from her childhood where the lack of a male heir slowly becomes an issue, til her reign where acceptance of the first female king is the problem. Important historical elements includes all the political characters (and resulting political intrigue), the building of the oldest observatory Cheomseongdae, the military campaigns to unify the 3 ancient kingdoms, the relationship with the Sui-Tang dynasties of China. I had much joy researching on all these details as I watched the show. But despite its best efforts to give the show proper historical grounding, I am unhappy with the following deviations (meaning that I could accept the rest, including all the romances).

1. The exclusion of the character Jindeok who is the next queen to take over from Seondoek. Much of the storyline seem to indicate that his nephew ChunChu will take over her throne. But any quick historical check would reveal that Jindeok is next, and ChunChu (who is featured) follows only after Jindeok. Including the character Jindeok will certainly be more exciting because there will be another aspiring queen, and certainly one that is competing with ChunChu for the throne.

2. The absence of Eulje (乙祭 을제) after Seondeok reigned as king. This character is a major one before her reign because he is well respected and an important supporter of king Jinpyeong. The drama showed his departure after he failed tried to assassinate Seondoek. That's fine with me. But this guy is noted as one of her regents when she reigned. His absence is unnecessary and lamentable. A tribute to his earlier contributions and a display of his changed attitude (towards female monarchy) would have been touching. Based on some online comments from fans of the show, I think many expected this guy to return in style later in the show. That's the same for me too.

3. The lack of use of the 3 legends. The use of the first legend is difficult is because in the drama Seondeok did not grow up in the palace. The use of the third legend is difficult because the prophecy is only fulfilled many years after her death. But why is the second legend about the white frogs not used? That would have been a good story!

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