Analysis of Murder at Harvard

In analyzing the movie, Murder at Harvard, I’m not sure the average viewer (even the average PBS viewer) is interested in the innerworkings of how Schama arrived at his conclusions. Yet the movie presents this complicated story in a dramatic format that is helpful to the viewer. History is filled with unpredictable people and events that are very hard to analyze. To that end, I don’t think this film should be faulted by introducing dramatic components that evoke emotion since history is filled with people making irrational emotional decisions. Yet, Schama has so much angst about his subject! If I were to change anything, I would make it smoother and less about Schama. I believe that storytellers need to stay out of the story unless their presence is relevant.

Compared to the book, Dead Certainties, Murder at Harvard had broken out elements of the story for the viewer to analyze. This is in contrast to the book, which is told as a murder-mystery type book, and the reader is taken along for the ride. For example, Schama does not shy away from commentaries such as: “the wonderful strangeness” of the Doctor. Additionally, Schama brings out the personalities of the trial by adding his own narrative commentaries. In contrast, the movie breaks out Schama’s thoughts and posits alternative theories based on the evidence. While this method is awkward, the viewer gets a better idea of what is fact and what is opinion. It’s a device that probably works better with multimedia.

When history is told in nontraditional formats, it can provide more tools for the viewer. It may be a further step in unraveling the scientific method as applied to history, or it may build it up. It may break it down by adding dramatic elements such as sound and acting, obscuring “objective” history. However, the website is helpful for analysis– providing a window to analyzing documents which, if became more popular, could really educate the public to the skill of analyzing primary sources. For example, in the special features of the PBS website, the poll on the level guilt American courts should apply is something that engages the viewer and helps them to think about the trial in a new way. They can also apply this knowledge to modern analysis of trials, which strengthens their citizenship.  Furthermore, the multimedia cuts against scientific analysis in the commentary and explanation of why the producers made choices they did. This is very helpful because we can account for these elements before buying into them, as the book is more likely to have the reader do.

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3 Responses
  1. mbergman says:

    Great post Carrie. I completely agree with you about the movie being more about Schama’s process than the actual event. I’ve never really been a fan of the detective genre largely because determining the guilt or innocence of a character depends not on the detective work of the reader but rather the information provided by the author. Perhaps because of that, I found the story of Schama’s creative process interesting. It added another layer to the murder/mystery aspect of the plot.

    I also thought you were right on about the move being clearer about which elements were historic fact and which were conjecture.

  2. Chris King says:

    “When history is told in nontraditional formats, it can provide more tools for the viewer.” I think you hit the nail square on the head with this comment, Carrie. Along the lines of Jenkins’ discussion of the transmedia nature of The Matrix, the PBS film and the supporting website extends the story and the readers’ involvement with it by offering more details than are possible with one media channel. By expanding the readers’ ability to engage with the story and the evidence, Schama and the producers of the film let each medium do what it does best — the book gives the narrative, the film explains the decisions made by the historian, and the website provides the details and sources. If we can get past Schama’s self-aggrandizing, I think this is a good example of transmedia in action that (as you so eloquently put it) provides more tools for the viewer/reader!

  3. tgoodwin says:

    While I do agree that transmedia is a terrifc means to provide more access to further engage the reader, or audience, I think this particular example highlights the problems that can exist as well. I think that the self-aggrandizing is the reason this is a problematic example. As much as I would like to play nice in the sandbox here, I’m not willing to let Schama off the hook.

    As much as I think the book and film show how to present history in fun an interesting ways that create publciity I think there is a thin margin of error in being successful. To me, Schama is the reason the film fails to make this transmedia experiment a somewhat frustrating experience.