Murder at Harvard

In an interview with Schama, he was asked what he found most compelling about Parkman’s story.  He replied that, like history, it had so many loose ends, and little of a conclusion. In the film, Murder at Harvard, this perception is magnified through the interplay between the dramatic content and narrative speculation regarding Parkman’s disappearance.  In the absence of the narrative interludes, the story portrays a typical murder mystery plot with enough twists and turns to keep the viewer’s interest.  However, the narrative speculations of historians and scholars add another layer of intrigue that extends beyond temporary interest to a genuine inquisitiveness on the viewer’s part.  The additional context of the testimonials creates an atmosphere of historical incongruence that is more intriguing than a standard mystery plot because of the lingering questions and questionable assumptions. 

This intellectual engagement is what makes this film quite different from the book.  It encourages the viewer to regard the components of the story, the history within the story, and the impact of the story contextually for a more complete account of the events that took place.  Furthermore, it requires the viewer to become an active participant in the process of history and of storytelling.  One thought is that history is a series of stories that come together through the voices and perspectives of many people, both involved with and removed from the actual events.  If viewed in this way, Schama speaks to the very essence of history, which like a murder mystery, is filled with holes, inconclusive evidence, and much left to the imagination.

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One Response
  1. cjames says:

    I agree that the film version raised many interesting questions, elevating the discussion to a heightened level of intellectual engagement. I think maybe there were too many questions, however. As you’ve said, there is a strong emphasis on holes and inconclusiveness. Yet Schama himself comes to a conclusion – that Webster most likely killed Parkman. In spite of all the uncertainties, the historian must weigh the evidence and make a judgment.

    If historians are really going to use a murder trial as a metaphor for history, we need to emphasize that even though we can’t prove things with absolute certainty, we can still prove things beyond a reasonable doubt.