Creative Liberties in Historical Depictions in Art
Last week, an Egyptian-made historical TV series titled "El Malek" (or "The King" in Arabic) was scheduled to air on Egyptian television among a slew of other highly anticipated new shows that usually debut every year in the Ramadan season. "The King" follows the ancient Egyptians' revolt against the foreign Hyksos colonizers, and the title character is Egyptian King Ahmose I who triumphantly repelled the Hyksos back to Canaan and recovered a liberated united Egypt under his rule in the 16th century. The show is based on Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz's novel, The Struggle of Thebes, the most significant work of historical fiction that covers that era. This series would be equally significant as the first dramatic work of this scale and production made by Egyptians about Pharaonic Egypt. But in rare public awareness, the trailer for the series (shown at the end of this page) met with backlash from critics, historians, and general audiences alike for its excessive creative liberties, which many went as far as to call inaccuracies. And in rare responsiveness, the production company suspended filming the series to reassess its historical accuracy and to address the public's concerns. These criticisms and this self-assessment force the question: What is the extent of creative liberty allowed in art when it comes to depicting history?
Most critics of artistic depictions, in painting, literature, film, etc., point out inaccuracies without much nuanced distinction between what is impossible and what is unlikely. Simply because an event was not recorded or acknowledged by its contemporaries, or even simply because it likely did not happen based on the known factors, does not eradicate the possibly of it having happened. For instance, in one scene of the HBO series "Rome," the protagonist, fictional Roman soldier Titus Pullo, is asked by Cleopatra and her servants to impregnate her so she could convince Julius Caesar later it is his child, and he obliged. Years later, after the defeat of Cleopatra and Mark Antony in the Battle of Actium, a victorious and newly crowned Octavian Caesar Augustus charged Pullo with killing that child Caesarion, but instead Pullo lies to Octavian and hides Caesarion while telling him the true identity of his father, a conversation that ends the series finale. These details are clearly fictional and inserted among real history by the creators of the show. According to real history, Caesarion was indeed the son of Julius Caesar and was killed by Octavian's order. That aside, is it likely that the Egyptian deified queen conceived Caesarion with an unknown Roman soldier instead of Caesar? No. Is it impossible? Also no. We know Cleopatra seduced powerful men to achieve her political ambitions, but we only know of the powerful men, so it would not be unfair to conjecture she would do the same with less powerful men to achieve those same ambitions.
Another metric to judge a particular historical inaccuracy in a work of art is whether or not it improves the visual or the narrative of the work. A most notable example of such deviation is Jacques-Louis David's "Napoleon Crossing the Alps." The painting shows Napoleon mounted on a horse, leading the troops across treacherous weather, his cape and the horse's hair blowing in the wind. A different more realistic painting by Paul Delaroche depicted the scene more accurately matching that event: Napoleon riding a mule, led by a guide through calm yet gloomy weather. Realism is a valid style of artistic depiction, but so is Romanticism. Delaroche's accuracy depicts reality, but David's inaccuracy improves upon reality by illustrating a heroic mythical idealism. This does not work in reverse. Since the purpose of art is to be admired, a piece of work that is neither true nor beautiful does its audience a disservice. In the same Napoleon example, if the reality was closer to David's idealist painting, it would not be sensible to produce a painting in Delaroche's style to be less attractive than reality.
Other works of art change key aspects of history in their depiction either to express a deliberate statement or to follow a different genre, all while making clear the deviations and their purpose. "Hamilton," the Grammy-winning musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, is one such work that used history as a vehicle to express a social message. Miranda based his musical on Ron Chernow's biographical work Alexander Hamilton and adapted it faithfully in its plot, costumes, and other aspects but one. The cast portraying the WASP American founding fathers including the titular character are black and Hispanic, and they would perform the songs in rap and hip-hop. The intent was to create an America in its formation that looks like America today, not to stay true to history. Another example is Mel Brooks' parody movie "History of the World Part I," which covers several eras of history and graces each era with anachronisms, absurdisms, and fictional characters for comedic value. In one scene, Jesus and the Apostles commission painter Leonardo da Vinci to paint them at supper, a "Last Supper." In another scene, Roman Emperor Nero drives his chariots home to Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. In yet another scene, Jacques, a piss-boy mistaken by French revolutionaries for King Louis, requests the modern anesthetic Novacaine in preparation for the guillotine, to no avail, saying he would wait until it's invented, and shortly after he is rescued by ancient Romans on a chariot. In none of these scenes is there any pretense of depicting history, but the comedy of the parody genre is the main intent.
Having established a fair rubric for judging historical inaccuracies in art, the Egyptian series "The King" should be subjected to that same rubric based on some of the criticisms:
Criticism #1 - Ahmose is depicted with a full beard and a full head of hair, but ancient Egyptians did not grow either. Was this depiction impossible or just unlikely? Impossible. Ancient Egyptians viewed hair as an impurity and unattractive, so they shaved all their body hair and donned wigs instead and fake beards for certain occasions. Most of the trailer shows Ahmose as a fugitive, training in hiding, where abandoning rigorous shaving habits is plausible, but he is also shown sporting that same beard as a general and even as an enthroned king on some promotional material. Does it improve the visual or the narrative? Yes, the actor Amr Youssef looks good with the beard, and beards are in style at the moment, so if anything this will serve as a time capsule of a historical series made in 2021, much like how "The 300 Spartans" of 1962 and "300" of 2006 look very different.
Criticism #2 - Ahmose and the daughter of the enemy were shown having a romance, which never happened. Is this depiction impossible or just unlikely? Just unlikely. No such affair is recorded in history, nor would Ahmose have wanted it to be recorded if it happened. It is possible for Ahmose and the Hyksos royal family to have crossed paths. Does it improve upon the narrative? Yes. Many criticized both the show and the novel for making Ahmose look like a traitor, but this argument does not have much standing given Ahmose ultimately puts his country first and defeats the Hyksos. To the contrary, this relationship can both humanize Ahmose and add another layer to his struggle, in addition to his external battle with the Hyksos, a battle between his love for a woman and his love for his country. Does the genre allow this? Yes, the series is based on a novel, a historical fiction, so it is not bound by the limited information that was recorded and survived of that era.
Criticism #3 - The Egyptian royal couple, Ahmose's parents, are shown wearing the wrong crowns. Is this depiction impossible or just unlikely? Impossible. Queen Ahhotep is shown wearing Nefertiti's crown which is just unlikely but not impossible. Nefertiti is the only queen depicted in history wearing the cylindrical crown, but it is not known whether she was the first or the last to wear it. However, King Seqenenre is shown wearing the red crown of the North. As ruler of Thebes, he could have worn the white crown of the South, or as king of Egypt, he could have worn the double crown of the North and the South, but never just the crown of the North. Does it improve the visual or the narrative? No, it would not have impacted the story or the look to replace the wrong crown with the right one. This was a mistake, plain and simple.
Criticism #4 - Ahmose is seen riding the horse instead of the chariots. Is this depiction impossible or just unlikely? Just unlikely, in his domestication of horses to use for the Egyptian army, he almost certainly rode them as well. Does it improve the visual or the narrative? No, the chariot scene depicted on the ancient walls and papyri is an iconic legendary scene. Not depicting that scene in action is a missed opportunity.
The TV show "The King" is flawed with unnecessary inaccuracies but is also punctuated with compelling creative liberties, even if some find them controversial. I hope after some adjustment it ultimately airs to serve as an example of good balance between historical accuracy and creative liberty, but also as a pioneer in Egyptian-made film and TV centered around the ancient Egyptian Golden Age.